Feelings Motivate the Mind, According to Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio, like other neuroscientists, argues that feelings motivate the mind, which is why artificial intelligence will never equal human intelligence.
Feelings Motivate the Mind, According to Antonio Damasio

Last update: 01 July, 2021

Antonio Damasio is a Portuguese neuroscientist who’s devoted much of his life to the neuroscientific study of how feelings motivate the mind. In his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, he worked in depth on the idea that feelings motivate the human mind.

Damasio finished consolidating his thesis in his book Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious. His long experience and research led him to the conclusion that feelings are indeed the mind’s motivation, instead of knowledge or reason.

What’s the meaning of the statement that feelings motivate the mind? It refers to the fact that behavior isn’t so much about what people think rationally. Instead, it comes from the proverbial heart. Damasio says that human civilization is basically the result of feelings.

“We all woke up this morning and we had with it the amazing return of our conscious mind. We recovered minds with a complete sense of self and a complete sense of our own existence — yet we hardly ever pause to consider this wonder.”

-Antonio Damasio-

A person carrying a heart.

Feelings motivate the mind

It’s easy to find the relationship between emotions and certain actions, such as writing a poem. However, Antonio Damasio says that even the exploration of outer space, microscopic research, and business decisions are the result of how one or several people feel.

This neuroscientist affirms that some modern means to explore the brain allowed him to corroborate his thesis. One can take detailed images of the entire brain and study them in-depth through magnetic resonance imaging, for example.

It’s precisely from these scans that the world knows many things about the brain today and not only through observable behavior, as was previously the case. What does this have to do with the statement that feelings motivate the mind? Continue reading to find out.

Mind, emotions, and feelings

Antonio Damasio points out that emotions are one of those automated devices humans come into the world with. It operates on its own and doesn’t require thinking to activate. There are some primary or basic emotions, such as fear, anger, satisfaction, sadness, etc. Other emotions are social and, therefore, more complex.

Although emotions are innate, people learn to associate them with certain objects or events as they grow up. For example, it’s possible to relate the object “dog” with the emotion “happiness” or to associate the event “gathering of people” with the emotion “fear”. That connection between an object or event with an emotion is what configures feelings.

Furthermore, emotions are evident in the body. For instance, fear causes an increase in heart and respiratory rate and paleness. However, feelings are a symbolic reality. Likewise, the emotion creates a sequence of actions, while the feeling is the result of that chain.

Thus, you may feel happy when you see a dog and that feeling of well-being leads you to pet them. Perhaps you see a group of people and the emotion “fear” activates, so you flee from that place. The emotion is what arises in the first instance and the feeling corresponds to the decision to act in a certain way.

A head with a heart.

Motivation

You arrive at both emotions and complex feelings based on this basic functioning. On this basis, Antonio Damasio argued that feelings motivate the mind. However, feelings are what provide “homeostatic regulation” from a biological standpoint.

Such regulation refers to the state of balance of an organism. Damasio says that these operate as informants. Thus, a person feels cheerful upon waking up and is eager to start the day, so their homeostatic balance is good. In contrast, feeling blue or angry are signs that this balance is disrupted.

In one case, people will be more willing to take action and face challenges, even if these are complex. The opposite will happen in the other. This illustrates how, in the end, feelings motivate the mind.

In both cases, there’ll be an inclination towards certain types of actions. All this merges into concrete developments, according to knowledge and experience.

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  • Damasio, A. (1997). El error de Descartes. Revista de Filosofía, ág-129.