24 April 2012

On Emotion and Feeling

A friend of mine says she ‘feels sad,’ and so I’ve been thinking about her sadness, trying to understand what it feels like and what it means. How is she? Of course, the same would be true were she to say that she felt happy, another word that for me lacks definition. Sadness (and happiness) is not a word I frequently use, though it is certainly part of my working vocabulary. When people inquire after me I usually respond that I am ‘good,’ but neither have I the foggiest idea what I mean when I describe myself in those terms, though this response satisfies whomever it was who made inquiry.  These words are empty vessels I set out and into which someone pours whatever they will. “Words, words, words,” says Hamlet. Empty signifiers ready to be packed. In fact, I cannot immediately recall an instance when last I referred to myself as ‘sad et al.,’ and so immediately I wonder what words I have used to describe myself when I might have meant feeling sad, or happy etc. But I do know others who refer to themselves as ‘sad, etc.,’ and to attempt to better understand them I examine now the word they use to describe themselves. In this case, to understand another’s sadness would be also to define my own.
I do not want to discuss the continuum on which the word sad holds a place, that continuum along which run such markers as melancholia, depression, unhappiness and suicide, though I suspect that the suicide might act not on that sadness continuum but plays himself out on some other scale completely. One may define sad through the use of other adjectives: hopeless, unhappy, forlorn, and the numerous other linguistic markers that map the gradation of feeling. Desolate. Miserable. Despondent. Wretched. Blue. The list continues. Perhaps these separate words designating ‘sad, etc.,’ are all of a piece the way a dish in a restaurant can be prepared with varying intensities of spiciness ranging from mild to fiery. The meal consists of the same ingredients but offers different and distinctive flavors. Thus, depression is a marker on the sadness continuum; the intensity of the particular emotion may be excessive (or even oppressive) though the bodily responses remain not wholly distinct from those of mere ‘sad.’ I can be sad about the progress of a relationship or I can be depressed about it; the constant is the response of my body though the degree of response in it might vary. The body response that images sadness looks the same whether I have lost my lover or my pocket watch though the feeling in each case might be different. Emotions and feelings are not synonyms, I think.
Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, distinguishes between emotions and feelings. He defines an emotion as “an action or movement, many of them public, visible to others as they occur in the face, in the voice, in specific behaviors.” An emotion, for the most part, is visible on the body, though I suspect that there are bodily responses that are not so readily apparent, as when my heart quickens pace as a loved one approaches. In the cinema there are few actors who show emotion better than Meryl Streep: the movements of her face express emotion in the subtle turn of her mouth, the twist of her head, the delicate movement of her eyes. That is, emotions can be seen but not heard. Great actors express emotion y in the subtle movements of their bodies. But a feeling, Damasio suggests, is the perception of a certain state of the body along with the perception of a certain mode of thinking and of thoughts with certain themes” (86). That is (I think), when an emotion (a repertoire of bodily responses) becomes associated with a pattern of thoughts about the body there is feeling. I can name my feeling by defining my understanding of my bodily responses. Emotions are bodily responses and feelings identify those responses with a particular pattern of thought and theme; one can then articulate that theme so as to understand it. Hence, when I say that I feel sad, the feeling derives from the idea of a certain confluence of responses in my body, but unless I can identify that bodily response with some theme or way of thought then I am incomprehensible to myself and to others. When I see my daughter walk across the stage my eyes open wide, I feel my body fill like a balloon with air, I flush with warmth, and my skin feels stretched to barely hold my insides in. I experience emotion and I say I feel pride: and at this early hour, were my vocabulary more sophisticated I might feel something more. Or else.
There is a sense where all of this neurophysiology exceeds my capacity to understand it. I am a curriculum theorist (mea culpa) and not a neuroscientist. And I think I’ve written about this before: that certain sights and smells and images produce a certain bodily response, an emotion, and then I associate that body feeling with a certain mode of thinking and thoughts. At a certain bend of the road my body responds in certain ways, and then as I perceive my body response I recognize in it a mode of thinking­a way of thought that I associate with another time that my body responded similarly and in a certain specific environment and event. That is, I can’t eat the damn peach because the last time I ate it my body was sick and nauseous.
And so this feeling of sadness to which we refer must be a response to a body configurationan emotionand the question I might pose must be not about one feels sad, but what does feeling sad feel like in the body, and what thoughts are associated with that body state?
It all seems so clinical, but it is in fact, quite Spinozist. Sadness et al. and their families are inadequate descriptions that demand far more specificity than we now express. What do these states feel like physically? What exactly is the pattern of thought that accompanies that repertoire of physical responses?
I think in this sense cognitive therapy shouldn’t work: to change the feeling one would have to change the response of the body rather than vice versa. “For the mind does not know itself, except in so far as it perceived the ideas of the modifications of body.” (Prop XXIXCorollary). Spinoza says that I cannot change my mind without changing my body, and that I cannot know my mind except through a change in my body. 


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