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The Feeling of What Happens

The Feeling of What Happens

This book was, for me, revolutionary and revelatory as it significantly contributed to helping my quest for something I had been keeping asking myself for a very long period of time – who are we?

Many self-help books out there say that we are our awareness – the ability to observe our body and what happens within it, including our thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions are just products of our minds.

Let’s explain this concept by adopting the opposite approach as these books do: if you are your thoughts and emotions, who’s the one watching? When you are angry and you know it, if you are the anger, i.e. the emotion, who is the one that knows that you’re angry? The part of your brain that knows that you’re experiencing anger is not the anger, it’s something separate from it, it’s the awareness. So, based on these philosophical and psychological schools of thought, you are not the anger, you are the awareness, the one watching.

I appreciate that awareness, especially emotional awareness, is key to our well-being. This is a skill that you can train through meditation or even by just practising mindfulness without any formal meditation (as cleverly explained in A Monk’s Guide to Happiness). So far, so good.

However, one thought that kept hammering in my mind was that to develop the skill of awareness we need a well-functioning cerebral cortex, which is the outermost layer of the brain that is associated with our highest mental capabilities. So awareness depends on a physical functioning brain. It’s something that you have but that you can also not have.

A person with a cognitive disability in the part of the brain where awareness is produced doesn’t have it or might have it impaired. A medically healthy person doesn’t have it if under anaesthesia. If you have ever had surgery, you know what it means to lose consciousness and then gain it again. What happened to us when we were under surgery? Our consciousness was not there, so where were we? Where does consciousness go when it’s not there? It can’t come and go, we don’t stop being us. “Us” should be a stable point of reference. When I say: “I’ve changed my mind about this…” we are indicating that I once held certain opinions that I no longer do. The content of my mind is changed, but my “self” has not.

So, while I perfectly understand that awareness is the tool, which I myself use, to better manage our mental experience and even to evolve ourselves, that we are our awareness, as all these self-help books I read said, didn’t make sense to me and my question remained open – who are we?

Then I read this book and I finally had a scientific confirmation that we are not our awareness. It belongs to us if it’s there, but it is not what makes us “us”, otherwise people with impaired or even absent consciousness are non-existent?

The author of this book, Antonio Damasio, is a neuroscientist and a Professor of Psychology, Philosophy and Neurology at the University of Southern California. He developed a theory about consciousness, which is just another word for awareness.

The book reveals in detail his medical analysis of consciousness, contributing enormously to understanding how our brain processes it.

First things first, Damasio believes that consciousness requires a brain, there’s no consciousness without a brain. His belief is not faith (i.e. a blind belief), it’s science. Let me repeat this – Damasio establishes his opinions following an objective and scientific method. He doesn’t refer just to his personal experience that is “felt”, not understood as a concept, as some very popular writers do (one for all, Eckhart Tolle, “The Power of Now“).

Scientific Revolution and Christianity: an aside

Let me digress for a moment. I’m totally aware that my way of thinking, my culture, and my underlying subconscious are a product of the scientific revolution, and that this has its roots in Christianity.

In fact, according to Christianity, our past is sin, which is the sense of guilt we westerners are all born with. I clearly remember when as a small child I was taught to say in Church “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” and while pronouncing these words, the priest made sure I was striking my chest to better reinforce the concept that it was my fault indeed. Our present is the expiation of our sin. If we do behave as good Christians, the promise is a better future, i.e. heaven.

In the 16th century, would have science ever been born without Christianity? Of course, we don’t know the answer. However, what we do know is that science has been shaped on the same time pattern as Christianity: the past is what we didn’t know, our ignorance (the sin), the present is made of experiments to eliminate our ignorance (expiation), the promise is a better future, i.e. progress (the heaven).

In light of the above, I know that my trust in science subconsciously comes from Christianity first, and from the Scientific revolution later. This is how my mind is shaped – was I born in a different era, I would obviously think differently.

What Is Consciousness (according to Damasio)?

Back to the book in hand, what we experience as our own, as ourselves, as “me”, is what distinguishes being awake from being under anaesthesia. We are conscious when we are awake (if the part of the brain that produces consciousness is not impaired) and not conscious when under anaesthesia (even if the part of our brain that produces consciousness is intact and well functioning).

So, consciousness is a sense of self, of our own existence. To use Damasio’s words, which you can listen to in the video below:

Consciousness is that which we lose when we fall into deep sleep without dreams, or when we go under anaesthesia, and it is what we regain when we recover from sleep or from anaesthesia. […] We have a “me” that is automatically present in our minds right now.

Watch this super interesting video where the author of the book speaks about consciousness

Consciousness is the “feeling of what happens”, we consciously are aware of what is happening to us and, at the most advanced level, we know that we are aware.

More specifically, the development of consciousness for Damasio is based on: emotion, feeling, feeling a feeling. We tend to use the words “emotions” and “feelings” interchangeably, but for the author, there’s the following difference:

  1. An emotion is an unconscious brain response. It’s a reaction to an external or internal stimulus that causes a change in our organism. For example, when you get scared, your heart begins to race and this happens automatically and unconsciously.
    (FEAR)
  2. A feeling happens after – when you are aware that your organism is experiencing a change (that is the result of an external or internal stimulus). So, when you feel, you are conscious that your emotion is happening in your own body – in the example above, you experience the feeling of fear.
    (FEELING FEAR)
  3. Feeling a feeling occurs only after the previous level. It’s when you consciously know that you are experiencing the feeling of fear. Therefore, knowing and feeling are not the same thing.
    (I KNOW THAT I’M FEELING FEAR)

These stages represent the three-layered levels of consciousness, with each level building on top of the previous one: 1) Proto-Self, 2) Core Consciousness and 3) Extended or Autobiographical Consciousness.

  1. Proto-Self (emotion) is the first basic representation of self, although it’s not a proper “sense of self” as it’s a non-conscious state. The organism experiences changes, which are emotions. Damasio believes this is shared by many species.
  2. With Core Consciousness (feeling) the organism is aware that those emotions are its own, it feels them. Core Consciousness lives only in the present, therefore it’s what I’m feeling now and here. This level of consciousness too, like the proto-self, is not exclusive to the human species.
  3. Extended or Autobiografical Consciousness (feeling a feeling) is the most advanced level of sense of self, it requires the presence of the first two levels, and it involves the past and the future as well. This type of consciousness is complex, requires a well-functioning memory and it’s enhanced by language (although this is not necessary). Again, this is not exclusive to the human species, but it’s only the human beings that reach the highest development of it (because we have a cerebral cortex).

These three levels are hierarchical so extended consciousness requires emotions but emotions do not require extended consciousness.

Moreover, according to Damasio, the brain is tightly bound to the body. Emotions are the body’s reactions to the world, both to outer and inner stimuli. One evidence of how the body is important to generate a feeling comes from the “locked-in syndrome” patients. In this condition, the patient has all their body almost completely physically paralyzed, but their conscious mind is maintained. Patients are awake, alert and conscious of their mental activity.

Speaking of which, following the advice of Damasio in his TED talk (see above, at min 12:54), I’ve watched a film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on a true story memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who, while “imprisoned” in his body, “wrote” the book, that gave inspiration to the film and which I can’t wait to read, by dictating just with the movement of his eye. Yes, just by blinking his eye, you read it correctly.

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly – Trailer of the Film

The film explores what happens to our “self” when the brain and body become disconnected from one another. The emotional reactivity is reduced – the sensory experience is taken from stored sensory memory and used to fuel the imagination. So, although the patient has a wide range of feelings, including sadness, anger and joy, he doesn’t experience the acute fear (emotion) that his horrifying situation would lead observers to expect.

Finally, another confirmation that we’re not our consciousness came when I read that we are not able to gain access to each other’s mental experiences, as consciousness is “an entirely private, first-person phenomenon” to use Damasio’s words. This lack of ability to connect to each other is for me inconceivable. I don’t think humans cannot connect to each other, so if we say that we are the consciousness and our consciousnesses cannot get to know each other, then we are not our consciousness.

So, who are we? We’ll probably never have an answer to this question or if we will, one day, I think we’re still far away from that day. However, what I’m convinced now, after having read this book, is that we’re definitely not our awareness because it’s scientifically confirmed that it’s not present in everyone, and the fact that it’s present in the majority of human beings (so, not in every single human being) doesn’t certainly mean it identifies them.

What instead all human beings have is matter, a body… but this is a whole other story.

In Conclusion

Fascinating and brilliantly written, although sometimes a bit too technical in the medical details of neurobiology, this thought-provoking book is a must-read if you’re interested in the mind and brain sciences and specifically in the topic of consciousness.


Some of my favourite quotes from the book:

It is easy to envision how consciousness is likely to have opened the way in human evolution to a new order of creations not possible without it: conscience, religion, social and political organizations, the arts, the sciences, and technology. Perhaps even more compellingly, consciousness is the critical biological function that allows us to know sorrow or know joy, to know suffering or know pleasure, to sense embarrassment or pride, to grieve for lost love or lost life. Whether individually experienced or observed, pathos is a by-product of consciousness and so is desire. None of those personal states would ever be known to each of us without consciousness. Do not blame Eve for knowing; blame consciousness, and thank it too.

I used to think of pain as putting a good lock on the door after a house has been robbed, but Pierre Rainville has suggested a better metaphor to me: putting a body-guard in front of the house while you repair the broken window. After all, pain does not result in preventing yet another injury, at least not immediately, but rather in protecting the injured tissue, facilitating tissue repair, and avoiding infection of the wound.

Emotions and core consciousness tend to go together, in the literal sense, by being present together or absent together.

The influence of unknown factors on the human mind has long been recognized. In antiquity, the unknown factors were called gods and destiny. Earlier in this century, the unknown factors came closer to our beings and were located in the subterranean of the mind.

For example, by the age of three, children make amazing usage of the use of construction of their language, but they are not aware of this “knowledge”, and neither are their parents. A good example comes from the manner in which three-year-olds form the following plurals perfectly:

dog + plural = dog z
cat + plural = cat s
bee + plural = bee z

The children add the voiced z, or the voiceless s, at the end of the right word but the selection does not depend on a conscious survey of that knowledge. The selection is unconscious.

For instance, the knowledge acquired through conditioning remains outside conscious survey and is expressed only indirectly; patients who can no longer consciously recognize faces can detect familiar faces non-consciously; legally blind patients with certain brain lesions are able to point relatively accurately to a source of light that they cannot consciously see.

What is consciousness really good for, considering that so much adequate regulation of life can be achieved without conscious processing, that skills can be automated and preferences enacted without the influence of a knowing self? The simplest answer: consciousness is good for extending the mind’s reach and, in so doing, improving the life of the organism whose mind has that higher reach.

The fact that knowledge of the biology of image processing is irrelevant for the experience of those images is often taken to mean that it is simply not possible to discover the biology behind those images. Of course, the former claim has nothing to do with the latter. We have seen that our knowledge of the biological mechanisms behind the information of images and their experience is one thing and our experience of those images is another. As far as we can fathom, no amount of knowledge about the neurophysiology of the formation and experience of mental images will ever produce the experience of those mental images in those who possess that knowledge, although greater knowledge will give us a more satisfactory explanation of how we come to have such experiences of images.

The experience of a particular stimulus, including colour, depends not just on the formation of an image but also on the sense of self in the act of knowing.

Consciousness is not conscience. The consciousness of most criminals is not impaired. Their conscience may be.

I see no evidence that emotion has become “better” in humans. What has become different is our sense of the role emotions play in our lives, and that difference is a consequence of the greater knowledge we have of the substance of our lives. Memory, language, and intelligence make the difference, not emotion.


Title: The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
Author: Antonio Damasio
Year first published: 1999


From Goodreads:

The publication of this book is an event in the making.


All over the world scientists, psychologists, and philosophers are waiting to read Antonio Damasio’s new theory of the nature of consciousness and the construction of the self.

A renowned and revered scientist and clinician, Damasio has spent decades following amnesiacs down hospital corridors, waiting for comatose patients to awaken, and devising ingenious research using PET scans to piece together the great puzzle of consciousness.

In his bestselling Descartes’ Error, Damasio revealed the critical importance of emotion in the making of reason. Building on this foundation, he now shows how consciousness is created.

Consciousness is the feeling of what happens – our mind noticing the body’s reaction to the world and responding to that experience. Without our bodies there can be no consciousness, which is at heart a mechanism for survival that engages body, emotion, and mind in the glorious spiral of human life.

A hymn to the possibilities of human existence, a magnificent work of ingenious science, a gorgeously written book, The Feeling of What Happens is already being hailed as a classic.

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