Feelings, emotions in narrative nature: gratitude to the thought of Antonio Damasio

Feelings such as pain, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, fever indicate to us that something has cracked in our body, which calls for the restoration of homeostasis, the balance between our cells and the external environment.

Feelings are regulatory, and curiously enough they are two-sided… One side of the feeling phenomenon corresponds to standard physiological operations and includes the chemical and cellular mechanisms by which internal body variables are automatically regulated, for example, the uptake of excess circulating glucose by fat cells under the influence of insulin and the simultaneous suppression of glucose release by cells in which insulin is present. The other side of the feeling phenomenon is the mental side and provides organisms with something evolutionarily new: a direct and explicit experience. It allows the possessor of such experience to perceive the state in which his organism is.

Up to a few years ago, it was believed that homeostasis was only characterized by repairs as a result of chemical and physical agents external or internal to our cellular heritage: but instead, responses are also influenced by a series of phenomena associated with “bonding” processes and their individual tuning up to being the effect of cultural group action. These phenomena play an important role in the construction of possible feeling-related responses. This is particularly true in humans, and the result is the formation of phenomena related to “relations with others” (“affect”) so described by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio:

social cooperation; behaviors related to each organism’s in-group or out-group status; the cultural identity constructed for each individual and groups as a result of factors such as past social experiences and related historical and geographical factors; and the unfolding of a range of social emotions, such as compassion and altruism, gratitude and indignation, which are often enacted in different social contexts.

Sometimes the choices made by the Homo Sapiens – Neanderthal animal are not beneficial to the survival of the species: it will be nature that will attempt to control the damage caused by conscious bad choice, without any deliberate control, for example by sending pandemics into animal systems that are too overpopulated compared to external resources. Knowing that food is limited resource, we as conscious beings can develop deliberate control of our excesses, both at the individual and sociocultural levels. In the individual case there is the personal attempt to curb overconsumption; in the collective case it is the kind of health directives aimed at signaling us how to eat properly at km 0, feed ourselves with seasonal resources, in short in a biomimetic process with nature teaching us homeostasis.

I like to quote an answer that Antonio Damasio gives us in one of his interviews about the possible awareness of feelings of bacteria compared to that of humans: “Bacteria are probably not aware of it, but they are not stupid, they are very smart, but not even aware that they are smart.” And indeed, on a phylogenetic scale, we have a lot to learn from them: their system of homeostasis is incredible.

Thus, human feelings have been an evolutionary and advantageous development, an impulse of creativity to provide answers to the problems of regulating life that could not otherwise have been solved by the basic homeostatic devices for maintaining life. The range of problems addressed by human invention is very wide, and the resulting solutions are numerous. They include both the practical aspect such as the creation of tools, the discovery of fire and the development of agriculture.
In contrast, Yuval Harari states that it was precisely the “agricultural revolution,” that is, the shift from hunter/gatherers to farmers/shepherds, that was the cause of overpopulation, famine, and starvation, and thus the historian Harari considers it a conscious but disadvantageous choice for Sapiens .

But among inventions Damasio brings us art: because they foster, and here both Damasio and Harari agree, through the sense of imagination an extraordinary level of social cohesion.

The neuroscientist calls these advances a “sociocultural homeostasis,” linked, we say, to that system of Culture defined by UNESCO as “the totality of the unique spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional aspects that distinguish a society or social group. It includes not only art and literature, but also ways of life, the fundamental rights of human beings, value systems, traditions and beliefs.”

It is just that we are still at the beginning, Damasio reminds us, with these “attempts” at sociocultural homeostasis of our animal species, which appeared in the late Pleistocene, that is, a few hundred thousand years compared to the set of living species, instead that have been evolving and perfecting basic homeostasis for at least 700 million years.

In his wonderful essay “Descartes’ Error,” Antonio Damasio was among the first to point out the impossibility of separating reason from emotions and feelings. When we talk about “cognitive empathy” “sympathy” and “antipathy” it is appropriate to know that there are and will be for how we are biologically structured areas of overlap, not well-marked boundaries with high walls between Reason and Feeling, but rather homeostasis (the continuous and incessant exchange) between different systems, those parts of the brain that regulate logical thinking and the older parts that regulate feelings and emotions. Emotions are also functional and come before reason, to the survival and evolution of the species: they are feelings more amplified with body language, aimed at attracting the attention of the other.

Is it true that all our awareness and intelligence with respect to these sensations/feelings/emotions lurks inside our brains and central nervous system? Not at all, and this is where Damasio gets really counterintuitive with his latest essay “Feeling and Knowing”, in the new millennium that some philosophers are calling the time of neuroexistentialism, where every single issue is related exclusively to the functioning of the brain.

Recalling the philosopher Spinoza, the neuroscientist puts the nervous system, the brain, in the background to make room for the other cells of the body that belong to nature. For the “exclusive achievements” attained by our species, the “fundamental devices” we have made use of have mainly been transformations and upgrades of mechanisms already used by other life forms, in a long history of individual and social successes, starting with the first cell.

The written, oral narrative of the body is nothing more than a pursuit, reformulation of that form of homeostasis that the human species in its collective and individual desires to recreate: the sick body wants, as long as it is possible to restore an original homeostasis, or follow by homeostasis larger laws of nature “the dying,” the great regulator. The sick self narrates, speaks, expresses itself, sometimes even through the paradox of silence in order to be welcomed and recreate “that socio-cultural homeostasis” made up of bonds, and belonging: the wonder is that some of the “mechanisms” may be rigid and historical, but others may be continually invented, in a system of ceaseless creation of innovative beauty. To move forward, with us or without us, sometimes Sapiens, very often Insapiens with respect to the unconscious wisdom of cells.

Maria Giulia Marini

Epidemiologist and counselor in transactional analysis, thirty years of professional life in health care. I have a classic humanistic background, including the knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, which opened me to study languages and arts, becoming an Art Coach. I followed afterward scientific academic studies, in clinical pharmacology with an academic specialization in Epidemiology (University of Milan and Pavia). Past international experiences at the Harvard Medical School and in a pharma company at Mainz in Germany. Currently Director of Innovation in the Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD a center for educational and social and health care research. I'm serving as president of EUNAMES- European Narrative Medicine Society, on the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, a tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at La Sapienza, Roma, and teaching narrative medicine in other universities and institutions at a national and international level. In 2016 I was a referee for the World Health Organization- Europen for “Narrative Method of Research in Public Health.” Writer of the books; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence-Based care and Medical Humanities,” and "Languages of care in Narrative Medicine" edited with Springer, and since 2021 main editor for Springer of the new series "New Paradigms in Health Care."

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