Friday, March 08, 2013


At the end of this piece I’m posting the formal abstract for a paper called “The Nature of Feelings: Evolutionary and Neurobiological Origins” by Damasio and Carvalho.  The concept from their work I’m using is that:

“Feelings are mental experiences of body states that guide the responses to:
tissue injury
optimal function
threats to the organism
specific social interactions”
“Feelings constitute a crucial component of the mechanisms of life regulation, from simple to complex.  Their neural substrates can be found at all levels of the nervous system, from individual neurons to subcortical nuclei and cortical regions.”

The task I set myself in “The Bone Chalice” was to develop a theory of liturgy based on “feeling” -- specifically the feeling of the Sacred or Holy as defined by Mircea Eliade.  One central guide is that of Turner’s three parts created by envisioning the state of feeling this Holiness as “liminal” or over a threshold:  going over the limen into the special space, being in that special numinous space, and emerging from that space.  One value of the liminal space seems to be that it is a state that allows one to change or confirm deep meanings that guide one’s life.  Either undergo a conversion or sees more deeply into what was already accepted.  This seems to be somehow related to the necessary survival compromises between the individual and the social context.  They may have intense personal meaning.  While in this state, all humans are perceived as equal in value.  I take this as being the heart of justice.

Parallel to these feelings, which are derived from introspection and experience, is the new study of the neurobiological phenomena of neuron, subcortical nuclei and cortical regions.  Again, there are three parts:  the intake of sensory signals from the outer world, the processing through the subcortical nuclei, and then decisions at the cortical level that are meant to address the short list of four categories above, for the purpose of causing the individual to survive, which is what drives evolution.  Bad processing weeds out the badly adapted, not just the one’s not equipped but those who don’t “get it.”  The ability to grow and change when presented with new meaning is of enormous survival value, not just in terms of length of life but also in quality.

It has been established by now that animals are not different from us except that humans have more powerful and elaborate internal levels of processing, especially those located in the unique human prefrontal cortext behind the forehead.  Though some believe that animals perceive the Holy, it is not proven.  But it IS proven that animals -- even rats -- have a feeling of justice in the sense of sharing resources and providing compassion, based on understanding.  (I’ll have to nail down footnotes for these.)  For them the beginnings of problematic individual versus group quandaries are present mostly in terms of pecking order, turf ownership and sexual competition.  Animals do not appear to have ideas that let them contradict their instincts, but humans seem to affiliate in ways that suppress instincts like compassion and sharing.  Or maybe that’s not unique to humans: it’s well-known that dogs in packs will do things that none of the individual dogs would do separately.  It’s just that they probably don’t reflect on this difference, so have no regret nor plans for the future.

In a previous post I contrasted a god of compassion for the suffering masses against a godless world where events other than those of humans simply happen without purpose.  I asked, what is the missing element that connects a religion constructed around the first and a philosophy constructed around the second.  I think it is in our innate sense of justice:  not so much deserving or punishing as in an equity of moral standing, of dignity and significance.  We have essential feelings of Holiness which are accompanied by feelings of what is Justice to human individuals.  This is not the same as morality or rules laid out by an institution, whether a church or the law or any other cultural construct.  One might say that there is a gut-feeling of what is just.

Wikipedia:  “Studies at  UCLA in 2008 have indicated that reactions to fairness are "wired" into the brain and that, " ‘Fairness is activating the same part of the brain that responds to food in rats... This is consistent with the notion that being treated fairly satisfies a basic need".  Research conducted in 2003 at  Emory University involving Capuchin Monkeys demonstrated that other cooperative animals also possess such a sense and that ‘inequity aversion may not be uniquely human,’ indicating that ideas of fairness and justice may be instinctual in nature.

Perhaps our social embeddedness in institutions is what allows us to ignore and suppress our sense of “inequity aversion” (a fancy term for gut feeling) by saying that others “don’t deserve” whatever.  Or perhaps this is what allows us to force rules to persist long after their usefulness.  (Not many of those admirers of Leviticus note that they ought not to wear “mixed fibers.”)  Certainly group identity that erases “inequity aversion” makes war possible on the modern scale, especially that waged via satellite and predator drone instead of face-to-face where you can smell the garlic or haggis on the other guy’s breath.  But then, in the midst of so much destruction as there is in today’s world, there is so much accidental unjust death that conflict loses its social context.  Existential despair, as in war, erases the gut-feeling of what is just.

It is possible for very young human beings to “feel” justice BEFORE the social context and institutions begin to define and influence what should be done and why.  Is it possible for older human beings to change their minds about something like homosexuality, which varies from one culture to another?  We know it is and that it happens through intense (liminal) experiences that might have been organic to the moment or designed in an effective way, maybe in a movie.  That moment of meaning-shift probably felt “holy” because of its intensity and even purity.  Another element was probably empathy -- not sympathetic pity, but shared second-hand experience -- which gave new information to the brain: not just sensory input but also interpretive information about survival, even something so elementary as needing each other in order to get through an experience.

Nat Rev Neurosci. 2013 Feb;14(2):143-52. doi: 10.1038/nrn3403.
The nature of feelings: evolutionary and neurobiological origins.
Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California, 3620 A McClintock Avenue, Suite 265, Los Angeles, California 90089-2921, USA.
Feelings are mental experiences of body states. They signify physiological need (for example, hunger), tissue injury (for example, pain), optimal function (for example, well-being), threats to the organism (for example, fear or anger) or specific social interactions (for example, compassion, gratitude or love). Feelings constitute a crucial component of the mechanisms of life regulation, from simple to complex. Their neural substrates can be found at all levels of the nervous system, from individual neurons to subcortical nuclei and cortical regions.

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