“I FEEL, THEREFORE I AM”
DYNAMICS OF THE METAMORPHOSIS OF SELFHOOD. NEUROBIOLOGY OF CONSCIOUSNESS.
Although the title of this article may seem a philosophical statement, it is in fact a neurological one. The scientific conclusions that sustain this statement and at the same time change completely the accepted Cartesian ontological view of ”I think therefore I am”, come from a particular type of research on patients with neurological damage. This type of research is called “lesion method” and is a way to observe consciousness in its absence, by going backwards from the breakdown of behaviour of the individual and the alteration of the process of cognition (mental states), to the initial focal brain lesion that originates them. When the neural architecture which supports consciousness is seriously disrupted, the human being suffering this will develop impairments of mind and behaviour, as happens in neurological lesions that occur as a consequence of disease or accident and cause brain damage and selective brain dysfunction.
The intent here is to look at the anatomy of the self and its construction, as the paramount function to be developed in the human being. Without a knowing self, there is no possibility of a singular and independent life. Therefore the construction of the self, the knowledge of the locus of existence, is overall the fundamental goal of human development, which should be called the metamorphosis of selfhood, and in it lies the secret of man’s existence, which is the meaning of what he was created for.
In our phenomenological approach to selfhood, this type of research becomes relevant because it permits us to observe and understand the relationship between the regulatory life supporting mechanisms and the capacity of achieving consciousness. From this research we can see that the process of consciousness is an extension of the innate basic regulatory plan known as Homeostasis.
The main defining characteristic, by which this life-regulating mechanism operates, is that it needs to have a complete and constant knowledge of the state of the organism and its surroundings. And it is from this inherent “need to know” of the ongoing homeostatic process, that eventually unfolds, in an ultimate effort of Intensification, a sense of a knower in the process of knowing, a sense of a Self.
The immediate substrate of this process of knowing are neural mappings located in particular sensory regions of the brain reflecting states of the organism and translated into mental patterns which constitute the content of the perceptions we know as feelings. The feeling of a feeling brings consciousness and with it singularity to the owner of the feeling by allowing him to feel himself, from himself, as himself. Intrinsically, consciousness is a process of reflection, neurologically and existentially.
In neurological terms it is a reflection because one part of the mind represents another part of the mind through a meta-representation of our own mental process, as we will see later.
Existentially it is also a process of a reflective nature because it is when I feel therefore I am. And I can only feel myself when I acknowledge a change from my previous state. The feeling reflecting that change brings with it a sense of ownership: it is happening to me, it is my feeling and it is me who is feeling it. The feeling becomes the mirror in which I can see my reflection and recognize myself as being other than the other, giving me knowledge of a singular individuality. The ultimate goal of this reflecting process is to acquire knowledge of oneself (one’s Self).
When I say that consciousness is eventually a process of homeostatic intensification (Steigerung in German), I mean it in the pure Goethean sense, as a metamorphosis of a single form, increasing progressively in “quality and specialisation, delicacy and beauty”.
HOMEOSTASIS. THE ORGANIC IDENTITY PRECURSOR OF THE SELF.
Any life form has an inherent, self-evident characteristic which is the urge to stay alive. The attribute of life is embedded in every living form with the knowledge of how to maintain that form alive.
It all begins with a boundary.
All independent life begins with the establishment of boundaries, in order to separate what is IN from what is OUT. Homeostasis is the mechanism set up in charge of maintaining those boundaries and keeping what is inside those boundaries alive.
In itself the organism is a “locus of existence”, literally a place from which we experience and engage life. As a physical place, it has a boundary – the skin – a selectively permeable wall, which marks the limits of the organic form and separates the in from the out, the internal environment from the external environment.
The internal milieu is where our cells live immersed in the fluids of the body, the blood and the lymph. The blood-stream and lymph-stream (tissue fluid) work together to carry food, water and oxygen to any cell from any tissue of any organ, and discharge the debris of cellular activity through the lungs and the kidneys. The life of the organism is determined by maintaining the constancy of the internal medium inside the boundary. That medium has a very narrow range of variability of internal states, and striking instances of danger arise when the internal environment is markedly altered. Constancy is the requirement for free and independent life. We are free from the limitations imposed by internal or external conditions that could disturb us, because the dispositional arrangement available to the body’s own structure can modify the inner workings of the organism in order to keep stable the internal milieu, meaning within the limits of what is physiologic. This arrangement ensures that no variation in the environment causes too much change in the internal activity of the organism.
In order to understand how vital homeostasis is, we have to consider the extreme instability of our bodily structure, which in itself is not permanent but is being continuously deconstructed, broken down by the wear and tear of action (catabolism), and continuously reconstructed again (anabolism) by mechanisms of repair. The organism is composed of material which is characterized by its utmost inconstancy; nevertheless it has its methods of maintaining steadiness in the presence of deeply adverse conditions. Therefore it maintains its stability only if it is able to be excitable and capable of modifying itself according to external stimuli and adjusting its response to those stimuli. In that sense it is stable because it is modifiable. The homeostasis design possesses in itself a remarkable degree of structural invariance capable of dispensing a continuity of reference across long periods of time. This singular and stable reference is a fundamental requirement for what we call self.
Homeostasis only operates by constantly having full knowledge of the state of the organism in its most intricate detail. The homeostatic process does not end at the regulation of cells or organ profiles but it extends its regulatory mechanisms through the sensory system.
Consciousness is a fundamental human function required to live a free and independent life. As a function it goes through a process of development before it reaches its full completion. That development goes alongside the body development. In fact both are part of the same transformation which in itself implies a continuous intensification of an original form until it reaches its own maturity.
Homeostasis becomes the first expression of organic individuality, a pre-conscious one, a proto-self as it were, because it indicates that it has the knowledge of the design of that living form. The proto-self is a coherent collection of neural patterns which map, moment by moment, the state of the physical structure of the organism in its many dimensions. These neural patterns occur at a multiplicity of levels, from the brain stem to the cerebral cortex, in structures interconnected by neural pathways.
The body reconstructs the sense-of-self moment by moment: a continuity of structure and function that constitutes identity. Our sense-of-self is a state of the organism. The proto-self would be the pre-conscious biological precedent of the sense-of-self. At this stage that sense of self is brought about by needs and appetites, creating the experience of a state of ease when fulfilled, and unease when waiting to be fulfilled.
If we look at child development, it exposes in a chronological way the unfolding of the self through progressive and intensifying phases. In rhythmic and alternating steps, the child grows in breadth then in length, expanding and contracting again and again in a set chronological patterns, with each step being a progressive amplification of the locus of selfhood (Heidegger would call it Da-Sein, the physical place, the thereness-Da allocated to the self-Sein). What this process does is to enlarge in each phase the consciousness of the child’s presence in the world in a particular way, being defined through his experiencing of feelings.
The metamorphosis of the primordial proto-self leads to the creation of a more developed core self, a self with consciousness of the core, of here and now only, being in the world in present time, no past no future, as is the toddler’s way of being in the world: he lives in awe of creation, engaged with the world with complete openness and trust, sensing with his emoting mechanisms the fleeting sense of self in the events. When memories begin to collect in the emotional past of experiences that can then be recollected as a source for the anticipation of the future, consciousness has extended again into the next step of the metamorphic process, the autobiographical self, a self with an extended consciousness beyond the borders of the individuality, a social self with a sense of belonging to a group or community to which he has responsibilities – for its care, for its goodness and its justice. The final step in this process of metamorphosis would be the submitting self, the self that through reflection has realised that his existence is completely dependent on his Creator – and the one who knows himself knows his Lord; that self is not the plotter, he is himself plotted, in an intertwined destiny in which he is free and the same time utterly dependent, as he is of his basic homeostatic regulation. As we can see the entire phenomenon is permeated by the original feature of homeostasis in its ultimate intensification.
EMOTIONS. THE RESPONSE TO STIMULI. SENSORS OF THE SURROUNDINGS.
Emotions are one of the bio-regulatory devices with which we come equipped to survive. Emotions are an extension of the process of sensing by the brain under its homeostasis mode, rooted in the brain-representation of the body. As such they are aimed at the organism’s survival.
We can define emotions as a collection of responses outwardly directed and public. Feelings are the private mental experiences of the emotions and are inwardly directed. What this means is that one can observe an emotion in another person but not a feeling. On the other hand you can observe your own feeling but others cannot, while some of the emotions that had given rise to that feeling will be observable to others. The impact of emotions on the human being depends on the feelings engendered by those emotions. Therefore emotions can impact on the mind through feelings, but to have a full and lasting impact, feelings require consciousness. This means that feelings have to be known to the individual having them, and that demands the presence of a sense-of-self.
Emotions cannot be controlled by will. The innate set of brain devices which produce emotions may engage automatically. They are part of the sensing of the engagement with life. They can be caused by an emotionally competent stimulus that comes from an outward-event (such as something you see), or they may come from an inward-image (i.e. a memory) or from the chemical profile of an internal medium (e.g. the level of your blood sugar). In that sense emotions are “responses” to stimuli – emotion: in motion, it moves the organism to action – a complicated collection of chemical and neural responses with a regulatory role to assist the organism in maintaining life, by leading to the creation of circumstances advantageous to the organism. We have for every stimulus coming from the internal or external environment of the body a matching answer in the form of emotions. Emotions can most of the time can be predicted when induced by a particular stimulus. The universality of emotional expression, facial, body posture and gestures, makes them so easily recognizable due to the stereotypical nature of the emotional reaction, in spite of the cultural variations among humans, indicating with it the automatic response, and a regulatory purpose of the emotions. The biological machinery for emotions is largely pre-set, whereas the range of stimuli that can be competent to induce emotions is infinite. Emotions and the biological machinery underlying them are the obligate accompaniment of behaviour, conscious or not.
Types of Emotions.
Background emotions: calm or tense, at ease or uneasy, pain or pleasure, well-being or malaise. Inducers of background emotions are usually internal (pain is a sensation-consequence of a local dysfunction in a living tissue). Profiles of the internal milieu and viscera play the most important role as inducers of an emotional background response, as coming from the innermost core of life. They will reflect in subtle musculoskeletal changes expressed in the body posture.
In my view, since emotion is a reaction to an inducer (an emotionally competent stimulus or ECS) it should be noted that chronologically, anxiety is the first emotion to be experienced. It begins right after birth when the child encounters for the first time the sensation of coldness and a hungry empty stomach. The automatic response from the autonomic nervous system triggers the release of the chemicals that constitute anxiety, although there is no sense of self yet to acknowledge it, except for the bare homeostatic proto-self who visibly expresses distress at the uncomfortable experience. Anxiety thus becomes the first emotional imprint of threat from hostile conditions, and is therefore the one that always will be there, either present or in the background, even when we do not feel it, but it will never leave you. In fact we spend most of our life trying not to feel it, to avoid it, not to let anxiety take hold. We keep ourselves occupied, we indulge ourselves with all sorts of activities to be entertained, meaning being taken out of the sphere of anxiety, at least for a while. When anxiety is focused on an object, it becomes fear. When fear takes control of you, then it becomes panic and terror.
We can classify emotions as primary or universal emotions, such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, anxiety and disgust, and secondary emotions or social emotions, like embarrassment, shame, jealousy, envy, guilt, pride, gratitude, compassion, contempt, indignation, and so on.
Because emotions at their most basic level are part of the homeostatic regulatory mechanism, and therefore a means to avoid loss of organic integrity and death, the biological function of emotions is to produce a reaction to a specific inducer, and at the same time to regulate the internal state of the organism in order to be prepared for that reaction. In that sense emotions are a high-level component of the mechanisms of life-regulation because they are integral to the most basic homeostatic life-regulation with all its organic machinery and the devices of high reason that can be expressed as behaviour-actions.
The neural aspects of the mechanics of emotion explain why different emotions are produced by different brain systems. The number of sites in the brain at which emotions are induced is quite small. Most of them are located below the cerebral cortex, the hypothalamus, the basal forebrain, and the brain stem. The induction sites in the cerebral cortex are located in the anterior cingulate region pre-frontal region (ventromedial). During emotions, neurons located in these cortical or subcortical sites release neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine (monoamines) in several regions of the brain, temporarily changing the workings of neural systems and with them our sense of being in the world.
For each emotion there is a different pattern of involvement of different brain sites: sadness activates the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex, hypothalamus and brain stem, whereas fear or anger do not. The emotion of fear has an even more specific subcortical site called the amygdala, which is located in the depth of each temporal lobe and which is fundamental for its perception and recognition.
The consequence of these emotions (a particular content of a mental process) that have activated these neural sites will be a set of neural commands, send out via chemical molecules in the bloodstream and electrochemical signals via neural pathways, and these in turn provoke a global change in the organism. The brain and the body proper will be greatly modified, expressing an adaptation to the neural commands by means of endocrine-visceral (hormonal changes inducing functional organ variations) and muscle-skeletal (body posture, reflexes, movements, etc.) modifications.
In synthesis, in their mechanics, emotions are a collection of induced responses coming from the activation of certain regions of the brain, these regions being part of a pre-set neural system related to emotions. These regions then send commands to other parts of the brain and to the rest of the body. The commands are sent via two routes. One route is the bloodstream, in which orders are sent in the form of chemical molecules that act on receptors in the cells of organ tissues. The other route is through neuron pathways, in which the commands are sent in the form of electrochemical signals which act on others neurons, on muscular fibres and on organs. These organs in turn can release chemicals of their own into the bloodstream. The result is a generalized change of the body state, although the source of these commands that so profoundly alter it is limited to a very small area of the brain which responds to a particular content of the mental process.
FEELINGS. THE PERCEPTIONS FROM THE INWARD.
A feeling of an emotion is a perception of the body when it is altered by the emoting process. In the case of emotions the object which comes to be known and is reacted to, is from outside world. In the case of feelings the object comes from inside, from the body state. Feelings arise from any set of homeostatic reactions, not just from emotions-proper. They translate the ongoing life-state into the language of the mind. The perception of this life-state as mental images is accompanied by a certain state of mind or thinking-style with particular thought themes.
Emotion is an exteroceptive sense, a perception of the exterior. Feeling is an interoceptive sense, a perception of the interior, the privy.
The brain regions related to feelings are also the same regions that receive signals related to pain states, body temperature, states of tension of the smooth muscles in blood vessels and other organs, pH, glucose, osmolality (the amount of salt inside cells), inflammatory markers, and so on. In other words, these signals represent the content of feelings. The somatosensing regions of the brain, the ones sensing the body, in particular the insular cortex, appear to be paramount for the substrate of feelings.
First, in order to feel a feeling we need the presence of a nervous system that is able to map body structures and body states and transform the neural patterns in those maps into mental patterns or images. Second, in the real sense of the term, feeling requires its contents to be known to the organism, meaning we need consciousness. Without the creation of a self, the knower, nothing can be known. At the same time, the sense of self-consciousness only comes through feeling. Third, the brain-maps that constitute the basic substrate of feelings have been executed under the command of other parts of the very same brain. This means that the brain of an organism that feels creates the very body states that evoke feelings as it reacts to objects and events with emotions and appetites (drives). In a double action, the brain needs to provide the body mappings, but also needs to construct the particular emotional body state that ends up being mapped as feeling. Maps of a certain configuration are the basis for the mental state we call joy and its variants, in a pleasure pattern, other maps are the basis for the mental state called sorrow, encompassing anguish, fear, guilt, despair, in a pain pattern. Feelings let our fleeting and narrow conscious self know about the current state of life in the organism for a brief period.
All feelings contain some aspect of pain or pleasure as a necessary ingredient. Empathy or antipathy, joy or sorrow, are mental revelations of the state of the life process, ideas of the body as depicted in the brain’s body-maps configured in a certain pattern, with the overall purpose of the organism’s manoeuvring itself into states of optimal survival. Positive and negative feelings are determined by the state of life regulation. The life governance processes are either fluid or strained, it expands or it contracts.
The neural maps associated with joy signify states of equilibrium for the organism, optimal physiological coordination, greater ease in the capacity to act, conducive to survival with well-being. There is greater perfection in the sense of greater functional harmony, increasing the power and freedom to act (see Goethe’s essay on Beauty as perfection with freedom).
The neural maps related to sorrow are reflective of states of functional disequilibrium, there is a pain of some kind, signs of some physiological discord indicating a less than optimal coordination of life functions. Sorrow is associated with the transition of the organism to a state of lesser perfection. Ease of action is restricted. Power and freedom to act are diminished. The tendency for self-preservation is reduced.
There is no doubt that integrity of emotion and feelings is necessary for human social behaviour that conforms to rules and laws. When normal human beings sustain damage to those brain regions (in particular prefrontal cortex) necessary for the development of certain classes of emotions, like social emotion and feelings, their ability to run their lives in society is extremely disrupted. The reasoning defect that these patients show – a defect in the governance of life – is not due to a primarily cognitive problem, but rather to a defect in emotion and feeling. It is an impairment of the emotion-related signal failing to activate the emotion-related memory that would help them to choose more advantageous options. Emotion and feeling are indispensable players in the process or reasoning.
FEELING THE FEELING. CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE CREATION A SENSE OF SELF.
As a biological process, a state of emotion can be triggered and executed non-consciously and a state of feeling can be represented non-consciously. Emotion through feeling can influence the thought process and enhance the organism’s ability to respond in order to adapt. Consciousness must be present if feelings are to influence the subject beyond the immediate here and now. Emotions automatically provide organisms with survival-orientated behaviour, but consciousness, by allowing feelings to be known, brings a higher level of regulation. Emotion and consciousness are part of homeostatic regulation, both devoted to the survival of the organism.
In order for something to be known we need a knower, a self. To develop a self requires a process that leads to consciousness. A sense of self only comes when the content of the feeling of what is happening to us is made to known to the organism. Consciousness is a requirement for a feeling to occur. We are not able to feel if we are not conscious. At the same time, without the mechanisms of feelings we cannot develop a conscious self.
Since a feeling is a perception of a certain state of the body, to be perceived it requires a set of mental patterns or images that can reflect the body’s state. The nervous system is fundamental in mapping the body’s structure and states and its modifications, and as mentioned above, it does so in the form of neural patterns, induced by emotions and internal body input. Those neural patterns are translated into mental patterns or images, which make the substrate for the feeling. Those brain maps that constitute the substrate of feelings reflecting patterns of the body state, are created under the command of other parts of the very same brain. It is the brain that creates the very body states that evoke feelings as it reacts to objects and events with emotions and appetites. When the feeling is felt, consciousness and a sense of self are present.
It is one thing to have a feeling, but it is another thing to know that you have that feeling. Feelings cannot be known to the subject having them without the appearance of consciousness. We sense that we are having an emotion because a sense of a feeling-self is created in our mind. Emotion is then perceived as an object to be known by feeling it, and knowing that you are the one who is feeling it is the consciousness of it. Feelings are the next homeostatic step (mediators) in the development of the sense of self necessary to achieve consciousness.
Summarising, the neural substrate for the representation of the emotion is a collection of inherent neural dispositions that exist as potential patterns of neural activity located in a number of brain regions. These dispositions can be activated by stimuli. The pattern of activation at the induction sites represents emotion in the brain as a neural object. This neural object generates explicit responses that modify the function of the brain and body-proper. These responses create an emotional state that can be appreciated by an external observer, and a feeling, which is when internally, the sensing of the consequences of activation becomes images in the mind. The neural process allows the organism to undergo an emotion, exhibit it, and image it; meaning to feel it; but consciousness is needed to know that you are having it, to feel the feeling and know that it is you who is the owner of it. Therefore consciousness consist of constructing knowledge about two facts: that the organism is involved in relating to some object, and that the object in this relation is causing a change in the organism. The images we have in our mind are the result of the interaction between ourselves and the object that engaged our organism, mapped in neural patterns and constructed according to the organism’s design. The object is real, but the images are real too. Therefore the images we experience are brain constructions induced by an object, rather than being a simple mirror reflection of the object. A picture of the object is not transferred optically from the retina to the visual cortex as it is when seeing the object; optics stop at the retina. Beyond that, what they are is physical transformations that occur in continuity from the retina to the cerebral cortex. This is because there are a set of correlations between the physical characteristics of the object independent of us, and the menu of possible responses that our organism has in store. The neural patterns are “a priori” components selected and assembled by the brain to construct a representation of the object. In essence what happens is that a specialised part of the body is modified and the result of the modification is transferred to the central nervous system, creating a neural pattern that becomes a mental image.
Consciousness is knowing the feeling of what is happening to us when we encounter the world. When consciousness is available, feelings have their maximum impact and individuals are able to reflect and plan. We have a means to control the pervasive tyranny of emotion with reason, but the engines of reason still require emotion.
In the absence of consciousness, even a temporary absence, we know for certain that life cannot be properly managed. The mere suspension of the self-component of consciousness entails a disruption of life management and returns the human being to a state of dependence comparable to that of a toddler. Fundamentally, the sense of self brings orientation. The sense of self introduces, within the mental level of processing, the notion that all the current activities represented in the brain and mind pertain to a single organism whose auto-preservation needs are the basic cause of most of the events currently represented. The sense of self orients the mental planning process toward the satisfaction of those needs. Orientation is only possible because feelings are integral to the group of operations that constitute the sense of self, and because feelings are continuously generating, within the mind, a concern for the organism. Without a sense of self and without feelings that integrate it, there is no possibility of becoming a singular and independent being that can know it.
In any case, to be precise, all the phenomena described are in themselves only the structural organic machinery required for consciousness to occur by bringing about a sense of self. It is this sense that creates an area in-between, as a locus, an existential platform from which to look at the world and recognise it; we called it persona – mask in Greek – an existential zone of encounter between an organism with a set of machinery sophisticated enough to produce these sensory perceptions, and the main inhabitant of it, the spiritual being endowed with reflective capacity, called “Ruh”. The Ruh has the organism as its dwelling; it is on loan from its Creator for a fixed period of time, created to match the specifications of the gnomos, of the place of existence and its conditions, in this case the planet Earth. But the Ruh needs to master the tool that its Creator has given to it; it needs to know how that tool works, to realise its functions, needs and capacities.
When it comes to mastering the organism, then clearly it is useful if the dwelling itself comes already prepared with an innate sense of individuality, of being one: even though it is made up of an extraordinary number of parts, it has from the start a sense of single operational unity. The self is a construction necessary for our creative engagement with life. The attributes come from the Spirit (Ruh), but the Spirit needs the dynamic construction called the self in order to express them.
The self can be in the world as a Self inciting to evil, as a reproachful Self, as an inspired Self, as a contented Self, as a pleasing Self, as a pleased Self, and as the perfect Self.
There cannot be two selves in one organism, two owners giving orders; that only occurs in insanity. In Schizophrenia, for example, there is a crack in the self and two senses of self are structured, two wills engage life, and the result is disorientation. There is somehow a malfunction regarding the machinery of perception. The translation of reality is distorted because “he feels he is another”.
We know from quantum physics that the organic structure is sustained by the invisible dynamics of energetic patterns in the subatomic realm. The rules of that world are opposite to the rules of the visible world. The source of what we call reality is the dynamic world of pre-set energy patterns ordered in forms by the One who knows the ordering of all forms. “…Allah is the creator of you and all the worlds.”
The capacity for grasping this is called Intellect.
I want to end with a quote from a scientist with intellect, from long before quantum mechanics were formulated, Dr. S. Hahnemann (1755 to 1843) who discovered Homeopathy and was a contemporary of Goethe:
“… the immaterial vital force maintains the sensations and activities of all the parts of the living organism in a harmony that obliges wonderment. The spiritual being endowed with reason that inhabits the organism can thus freely use this healthy living instrument to achieve the highest possibilities of his existence”.
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