Emotion, Feelings, and All Sorts of Nope

It’s rare that I find myself mostly opposed to a text, but one of this week’s readings provided just such an instance. I wrote in a previous week’s blog about the strange and apparently irresistible call to evolution in cognitive studies, 2787652as though the origins of every cognitive process can be explained with “the Hamburglar (I mean evolution!) did it!” This week’s reading in Damasio’s Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain provides yet another example of this trend, with its seeming reduction of emotion to evolutionary hardwiring. I say seeming reduction here because it’s quite possible that these arguments get fleshed out more elsewhere in the book, but alas they do not here. I’ll try to avoid simply restating the problems with assuming cognitive processes are evolutionary though, and take this post in a different direction with Damasio’s argument.

One of Damasio’s basic claims in Chapter 2 is that emotions and feelings are not the same, which could be the beginning of a really fruitful discussion about how a seemingly singular cognitive/physiological process is operating in a few different ways. However Demasio defines these different concepts in problematic ways in an effort to isolate them for study. He writes: “Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind” (28). On the one hand this conception of emotion and feeling clearly delineates them, making them easily observable and testable. However this comes at the cost of reifying the mind/body distinction that is so endemic and problematic in Western thought. What do we lose when we reduce emotion to simply being a physical or physiological process? And are we merely enforcing an arbitrary distinction here, dividing emotion and feeling when they are always already bound up with one another?

The distinction becomes even more problematic when we encounter Demasio’s description of feelings as “always hidden, like all mental images necessarily are, unseen to anyone other than their rightful owner, the most private property of the organism in whose brain they occur” (28). If feelings truly are hidden in this manner that emotions are not, then we run into a problem of seeing where the hidden and the unhidden interface with each other. In other words, if we cannot see feelings, then how can we make claims about what the content of feelings are in relation to emotions? This problem does not stop Demasio from claiming that feelings “are mostly shadows of the external manner of emotions” (29), indicating that feelings come after emotions. Even taken within his own argument that these processes are bound closely together, this is a shaky assumption at best.

I found myself thinking about these problems with Demasio’s argument throughout my reading of Persepolis (by Marjane Satrapi). When we see Marjane’s mother and grandmother remembering the difficult life of her grandfather (24-26), can we truly say that the emotion is coming first, and the feelings second? The opposite seems to be the case. They are not sad until their feelings surrounding the memory of their loved one make them sad. Demasio would likely attribute this to the example coming from a fictional narrative that places feeling before emotion, but at the very least it seems to demonstrate that the connection he is tracing can work both ways. The anger present in revolution in the graphic novel seems to point to this as well–it isn’t that the revolutionaries are immediately angry and then find their feelings afterward. Rather, they perceive a narrative of a particular feeling, giving rise to emotion in equal measure. If emotion and feeling are truly separable here, they are interwoven in a feedback loop that makes them seem inseparable, and this definitely complicates any effort to locate a beginning and end to the loop. While there are parts of Demasio’s argument that seem to bear weight, as used they play host to a great many problematic assumptions.

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