Highlights: The Strange Order of Things, by Damasio, Antonio


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This book is about one interest and one idea. I have long been intrigued in human affect—the world of emotions and feelings—and have spent many years investigating it: why and how we emote, feel, use feelings to construct our selves; how feelings assist or undermine our best intentions; why and how brains interact with the body to support such functions. I have new facts and interpretations to share on these matters.

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Humans have distinguished themselves from all other beings by creating a spectacular collection of objects, practices, and ideas, collectively known as cultures.

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The idea is that something else was required to jump-start the saga of human cultures. That something else was a motive. I am referring specifically to feelings, from pain and suffering to well-being and pleasure.

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The idea, in essence, is that cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling. The favorable and unfavorable interplay of feeling and reason must be acknowledged if we are to understand the conflicts and contradictions of the human condition.

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The actual order of appearance of biological structures and faculties that I uncovered violates traditional expectations and is as strange as the book title implies. In the history of life, events did not comply with the conventional notions that we humans have formed for how to build the beautiful instrument I like to call a cultural mind.

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Feelings are the mental expressions of homeostasis, while homeostasis, acting under the cover of feeling, is the functional thread that links early life-forms to the extraordinary partnership of bodies and nervous systems. That partnership is responsible for the emergence of conscious, feeling minds that are, in turn, responsible for what is most distinctive about humanity: cultures and civilizations. Feelings are at the center of the book, but they draw their powers from homeostasis.

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The exceptional status of each human being derives from the unique significance of suffering and flourishing in the context of our remembrances of the past and of the memories we have constructed of the future we incessantly anticipate.

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Memory helps project the situation into the imagined future and lets us envision the consequences.

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By doing so, feelings naturally qualify the life process as conducive or not to well-being and flourishing.

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conducive or not to well-being and flourishing.1

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Feelings are not an independent fabrication of the brain. They are the result of a cooperative partnership of body and brain, interacting by way of free-ranging chemical molecules and nerve pathways.

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The simple idea, then, is that feelings of pain and feelings of pleasure, from degrees of well-being to malaise and sickness, would have been the catalysts for the processes of questioning, understanding, and problem solving that most profoundly distinguish human minds from the minds of other living species.

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When the pain and the suffering were caused by others—by how they felt about others, by how they perceived others to feel about them—or when the pain was caused by considering their own conditions, such as confronting the inevitability of death, humans would have drawn on their expanding individual and collective resources and invented a variety of responses that ranged from moral prescriptions and principles of justice to modes of social organization and governance, artistic manifestations, and religious beliefs.

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We can thank Cicero and ancient Rome for the word “culture” applied to the universe of ideas. Cicero used the term to describe the cultivation of the soul—cultura animi—and he must have been thinking of the tilling of the land and its result, the perfecting and improvement of plant growth. What applied to the land might as well apply to the mind.

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It is also as if the continuation and monitoring of the process of cultural invention would have been possible by cognitive means alone, without the actual felt value

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It is also as if the continuation and monitoring of the process of cultural invention would have been possible by cognitive means alone, without the actual felt value of life outcomes, good or bad, having a say in the proceedings.

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ultimately and practically, not just for a more survivable future but for a better lived one.

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But is it not the case that such human constructions were assisted by older biological strategies and instruments that preceded them?

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To deny mammals the feelings related to their emotionality is no longer a tenable position. Feelings could also have played a motivating role to account for the “cultural” manifestations of nonhumans.

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One would be equally foolish, however, not to recognize that simple bacteria have governed their lives for billions of years according to an automatic schema that foreshadows several behaviors and ideas that humans have used in the construction of cultures.

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Our natural behavioral tendencies have guided us toward a conscious elaboration of basic and nonconscious principles of cooperation and struggle that have been present in the behavior of numerous forms of life.

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cultural instruments that serve the needs of our lives. If that is indeed the case, the human unconscious literally goes back to early life-forms, deeper and further than Freud or Jung ever dreamed.

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If that is indeed the case, the human unconscious literally goes back to early life-forms, deeper and further than Freud or Jung ever dreamed.

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Their zeal and discipline put to shame, any day, the governments of our leading democracies.

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But in spite of having come by these astounding abilities as early as 100 million years ago, ants and bees, individually or as colonies, do not grieve for the loss of their mates when they disappear and do not ask themselves about their place in the universe.

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The general schema of their elaborate sociality does resemble that of human cultures, but it is a fixed schema. E. O. Wilson calls social insects “robotic” and for good reason.

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The part of homeostasis that concerns “prevailing” is more subtle and rarely acknowledged. It ensures that life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival but also conducive to flourishing, to a projection of life into the future of an organism or a species. Feelings are the very revelation to each individual mind of the status of life within the respective organism, a status expressed along a range that runs from positive to negative.

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The part of homeostasis that concerns “prevailing” is more subtle and rarely acknowledged. It ensures that life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival but also conducive to flourishing, to a projection of life into the future of an organism or a species.

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Feelings are the subjective experiences of the state of life—that is, of homeostasis—in all creatures endowed with a mind and a conscious point of view. We can think of feelings as mental deputies of homeostasis.

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This conception of homeostasis, which conforms most closely to the physical, chemical, and biological evidence, is remarkably different from the conventional and impoverished conception of homeostasis that confines itself to the “balanced” regulation of life’s operations.

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Nervous systems gradually enabled a process of multidimensional mapping of the world around them, a world that begins in the organism’s interior, so that minds

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Nervous systems make minds not by themselves but in cooperation with the rest of their own organisms. This is a departure from the traditional view of brains as the sole source of minds.

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Once feelings were added to the mental mix, the homeostatic process was enriched by direct knowledge of the state of life and, of necessity, that knowledge was conscious. Eventually, each feeling-driven, conscious mind could mentally represent, with an explicit reference to the experiencer subject, two critical sets of facts and events: (1) the conditions in the inner world of its own organism; and (2) the conditions of its organism’s environment. The

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Natural selection had just conquered yet another theater of operations, that of the ideas behind certain actions, practices, and artifacts. Cultural evolution could now join genetic evolution.

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Why, then, are the results of these extraordinary developments so inconsistent, not to say erratic? Why so much derailed homeostasis and so much suffering over human history? A preliminary answer, which we will address later in the book, is that cultural instruments first developed in relation to the homeostatic needs of individuals and of groups as small as nuclear families and tribes. The extension to wider human circles was not and could not have been contemplated.

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This is why the calm desperation of F. Scott Fitzgerald—“so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”—remains a prescient and appropriate way of describing the human condition.

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“Metabolism” is the single name for the chemical pathways that accomplished this feat, a process that required the cell to extract, as efficiently as possible, the necessary energy from sources in its environment, use the energy, equally efficiently, for the purpose of rebuilding the broken machinery, and throw away the waste products.

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Metabolism covers the processes of catabolism—a breakdown of molecules that results in the release of energy—and anabolism, a process of construction that consumes energy.

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Homeostasis refers to the process by which the tendency of matter to drift into disorder is countered so as to maintain order but at a new level, the one allowed by the most efficient steady state. This countering takes advantage of the principle of least action—enunciated by the French mathematician Pierre Maupertuis—whereby free energy will be consumed most efficiently and as fast as possible.

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A blend of striving, endeavor, and tendency comes close to rendering the Latin conatus, as used by Spinoza in propositions 6, 7, and 8 of the Ethics, part 3.

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And William Faulkner wrote of the human desire to “endure and prevail.” He, too, was referring, with remarkable intuition, to the projection of the conatus in the human mind.

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At first blush, in the wake of the discovery of the structure of DNA, the elucidation of the role of RNA, and the breaking of the genetic code, it must have appeared that life had to come from the genetic material, but that idea was up against a major difficulty: the likelihood of such complex molecules assembling themselves spontaneously as the first step in the construction of life was low to nil.

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This process achieved two feats: a centrally organized mode of internal life regulation and a mode of genetic transmission of life that superseded simple cell division. The perfecting of the double-tasked genetic machinery would not have stopped since.

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This is the same exhortation that genes are supposed to make to the living cell in the replicator account, except that the goal of genes is their own persistence, not the cell’s life.

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In a simple way, the region of unlikeness called life, at the level of humble cells—without and with a nucleus—or of large multicellular organisms such as we humans are, can be defined by these two traits: the ability to regulate its life by maintaining internal structures and operations for as long as possible, and the possibility of reproducing itself and taking a stab at perpetuity. It is as if, in an extraordinary way, each of us, each cell in us, and every other cell were part of one single, gigantic, supertentacular organism, the one and only organism that began 3.8 billion years ago and

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In a simple way, the region of unlikeness called life, at the level of humble cells—without and with a nucleus—or of large multicellular organisms such as we humans are, can be defined by these two traits: the ability to regulate its life by maintaining internal structures and operations for as long as possible, and the possibility of reproducing itself and taking a stab at perpetuity. It is as if, in an extraordinary way, each of us, each cell in us, and every other cell were part of one single, gigantic, supertentacular organism, the one and only organism that began 3.8 billion years ago and still keeps going.

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In a simple way, the region of unlikeness called life, at the level of humble cells—without and with a nucleus—or of large multicellular organisms such as we humans are, can be defined by these two traits: the ability to regulate its life by maintaining internal structures and operations for as long as possible, and the possibility of reproducing itself and taking a stab at perpetuity. It is as if, in an extraordinary way, each of us, each cell in us, and every other cell were part of one single, gigantic, supertentacular organism, the one and only organism that began 3.8 billion years ago and still keeps going.

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“What is the characteristic feature of life? When is a piece of matter said to be alive?” asks Schrödinger. His answer: When it goes on ‘doing something,’ moving, exchanging material with its environment, and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect in an inanimate piece of matter to ‘keep going’ under similar circumstances.

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A permanent state is reached, in which no observable events occur. The physicist calls this the state of thermodynamical equilibrium, or of “maximum entropy.”

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Whether life exists elsewhere in space remains an open question to be decided by the appropriate exploration. There might even be other kinds of life with a different chemical base. We simply do not know.

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But creating life from scratch, clean, pre-gene chemical life as it might once have been in that first-ever region of unlikeness, still eludes us.

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The latter are the devices on the basis of which, for better and worse, humans end up questioning their condition, in all its dimensions, and potentially support or counter the very homeostatic mandate that permitted the questioning in the first place. Once again, the importance, efficiency, and even relative tyranny of genes are not in question. Their position in the order of things is.

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First, the homeostatic process strives for more than a mere steady state. Considered in retrospect, it is as if single cells or multicellular organisms were striving for a particular class of steady state conducive to flourishing. This is a natural upregulation that can be described as aiming at the future of the organism, an inclination to project itself in time by means of optimized life regulation and possible progeny. One might say that organisms want their health and then some.

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There is no reason why we should rely on feelings alone to take good care of ourselves. But it is important to point out the fundamental role of feelings and their practical value, no doubt the reason why they have been preserved in evolution.

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must include the application of the concept to systems in which conscious and deliberative minds, individually and in social groups, can both interfere with automatic regulatory mechanisms and create new forms of life regulation that have the very same goal of basic automated homeostasis,

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viable, upregulated life states that tend to produce flourishing. I see the effort of constructing human cultures as a manifestation of this variety

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I see the effort of constructing human

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So large is the scale of the enterprise that its effects can begin at a low level of the physiology and manifest themselves at the higher levels of function, namely, cognition. For example, it is known that as ambient temperatures rise, not only do we need to adjust our internal physiology to losses of water and electrolytes, but we also function less well cognitively.

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But we do not want equilibrium at all when we are dealing with life, because thermodynamically speaking equilibrium means zero thermal difference and death.

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The terms “allostasis” and “heterostasis,” which are synonymous with “homeostasis,” were introduced later with the valid purpose of calling attention to the issue of ranges, the fact that life regulation operates relative to ranges of values rather than set points.

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The kingdoms of plants and of animals have been traditionally conceived by their respective students as being far apart. But Claude Bernard understood that plants and animals have similar basic requirements.

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There are more bacterial cells inside each human organism than there are human cells in that same organism. The difference is staggering, by a factor of 10.

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The functional operations that support all this “intelligence without a brain or mind” rely on chemical and electrical networks of the sort nervous systems eventually came to possess, advance, and explore later in evolution.

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The principle is always the same: organisms give up something in exchange for something that other organisms can offer them; in the long run, this will make their lives more efficient and survival more likely. What bacteria, or nucleated cells, or tissues, or organs give up, in general, is independence; what they get in return is access to the “commons,” the goods that come from a cooperative arrangement in terms of indispensable nutrients or favorable general conditions, such as access to oxygen or advantages of climate.

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Seen in the perspective of today, as nervous systems entered the scene, they allowed complex, multicellular organisms to cope better with organism-wide homeostasis and thus permitted physical and functional expansions for such organisms.

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Few other types of cells in the body manage a comparable feat, that is, combine an electrochemical process to make another cell spring into action. Neurons, muscle cells, and some sensory cells are the typical examples.4 We can see this feat as a glorification of the bioelectrical signaling first accomplished modestly, in simple celled organisms such as bacteria.

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Meanwhile, the fibers traveling in the opposite direction, from the organism’s interior toward the brain, perform an operation known as interoception (or visceroception because their job has so much to do with what is going on in the viscera). What is the purpose of such an operation? Surveillance over the state of life, that is what it is for, in a nutshell, a massive snooping and reporting job whose goal is to let the brain know what is going on elsewhere in the body so that it can intervene when needed and appropriate

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from the organism’s interior toward the brain, perform an operation known as interoception (or visceroception because their job has so much to do with what is going on in the

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Third, massive surveillance of organism functions, an advantageous development for adequate homeostasis in complex multicellular organisms, is the natural precursor to the “Big Data” surveillance technologies humans are so shamelessly proud of inventing. The surveillance is useful on two counts: straightforward information on the state of the body and, relatedly, anticipation and prediction of future states.7 Here is another example of the strange order in which biological phenomena emerged in the history of life.

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How intriguing, in this context, that the enteric nervous system—the complicated mesh of nerves that is present in our gastrointestinal tracts—so resembles old nerve net structures. This is one of the reasons why I suspect the enteric nervous system was really the “first” brain, not the “second” as it is popularly known.

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The neurons that actually sense and act are modified by their activity and thus learn something regarding the events in which they are involved, but little knowledge is retained from the day-to-day existence of the respective organisms, a way of saying that their memory is limited.

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organism. The structure of nerve nets would not allow them to represent the configurational pattern of an object touched.

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Why was having images so important? What did having images really accomplish? The presence of images meant that each organism could create internal representations based on its ongoing sensory descriptions of both external and internal events.

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In brief, images were advantageous even if an organism were not conscious of the images formed within it. The organism would not yet be capable of subjectivity and would be unable to inspect the images in its own mind, but still the images could automatically guide the execution of a movement; the movement would be more precise in terms of its target and succeed rather than

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Equipped with language, organisms can generate continuous translations of nonverbal to verbal items and build dual-track narratives of such items.

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But microcircuit neural operations reveal unexpected complexities that undermine that simple view. For example, under certain circumstances, neurons can communicate to other neurons directly without using synapses, and neurons and the supporting glia also interact abundantly.12 The result of these atypical contacts is a modulation of the neuron circuits.

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Moreover, the relation between brain tissue and the body that the brain is inserted in has not been fully understood. Yet that relation is key to providing a full account of how we feel, of how consciousness is constructed, and of how our minds engage in intelligent creations, the aspects of brain function that are most significant to explain our humanity.

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  1. that the nervous system is part of the organism it serves, specifically a part of its body, and that it holds close interactions with that body; that these interactions are of an entirely different nature from those that the nervous system holds with the environment that surrounds the organism; the particularity of this privileged relationship also tends to be overlooked; I will say more on this critical issue in part II;

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opened the way for neurally mediated homeostasis—an addition to the chemical/visceral variety; later, after the development of conscious minds capable of feeling and creative intelligence, the way was open for the creation, in the social and cultural space, of complex responses whose existence began as homeostatically inspired but later transcended homeostatic needs and gained considerable autonomy

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  1. that several complex functions of the higher nervous system have their functional roots in simpler operations of the lower devices of the system itself;

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That the nervous system is the enabler of our mental life is not in doubt. What is missing from the traditional neuro-centric, brain-centric, and even cerebral-cortex-centric accounts is the fact that nervous systems began their existence as assistants to the body, as coordinators of the life process in bodies complex and diversified enough that the functional articulation of tissues, organs, and systems as well as their relation to the environment required a dedicated system to accomplish the coordination.

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There is more to organism life than the sum total of the lives of each participating cell. There is an overall life of the organism, a global life, as it were, resulting from the high-dimension integration of the contributing lives within it.

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That integration of real “lives” is what makes a whole organism alive in precisely the same sense that a current complex computer network is not.

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There is an order to the emergence of things, and it is strange or not that strange depending on one’s perspective.

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We need to note that a partnership of nervous systems and bodies was required to generate human minds and that minds occurred not to isolated organisms but to organisms that were part of a social setting.

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The representation does not need to be “photographic,” although it can be. It is essential, however, that it preserve the internal relations among the parts of an entity such as angles between components, superpositions, and so forth.

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But the arrival of mapmaking and images provided a novel possibility: organisms could now produce a private representation of the universe surrounding their nervous systems.

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But the “surround” of the nervous system also includes the world within the organism in question, and this part of the surround is commonly ignored to the peril of realistic conceptions of general physiology and of

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But the “surround” of the nervous system also includes the world within the organism in question, and this part of the surround is commonly ignored to the peril of realistic conceptions of general physiology and of cognition in particular.

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Advanced nervous systems such as ours fabricate, and abundantly so, images of the outside world and images of the world inside the respective organisms. In turn, the images of the world inside are of two very distinct sorts, relative to their source and contents: the old and the not so old internal worlds.

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Curiously, there are taste receptors in the gut, no doubt a remnant from the days when the gut and its nervous systems were the only game in town.

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The images of the internal world are the ones that we describe with such terms as “well-being,” “fatigue,” or “malaise”; “pain” and “pleasure”; “palpitations,” “heartburn,” or “colics.” They are of a special kind because we do not “picture” the old interior world in quite the same way that we picture objects out in the world.

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Side by side with the old internal world there is also a newer internal world. This one is dominated by our bony skeleton and by the muscles attached to it, the skeletal muscles. The skeletal muscles are also known as “striated” or “voluntary”; this helps distinguish them from the “smooth” or “autonomic” variety, which is purely visceral and not under our willful control. We use skeletal muscles to move about, manipulate objects, speak, write, dance, play music, and operate machinery.

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But to produce vision, we also need to engage in the acts of looking and seeing, and those acts are accomplished by other structures of the body (varied muscular groups) and of the nervous system (motor control regions), separate from the visual system stations. Those other structures are located at the visual sensory portal.

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Everything in this old internal world is qualified, good, bad, or in between. This is a world of valence.

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They clearly indicate to the organism’s mind the locations, within the organism, of the sources of images currently being generated. This is necessary for the construction of an overall organism image, which, as we shall see, is a critical step in the generation of subjectivity.

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The new internal world also generates valence because its living flesh does not escape the vagaries of homeostasis. But the vulnerabilities of the new internal world are smaller than those of the old. The skeleton and the skeletal musculature form a protective carapace. It sturdily envelops the tender old world of chemistries and viscera. The new internal world stands in relation to the old internal world as an engineered exoskeleton stands in relation to our real skeleton.

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The poet Fernando Pessoa saw his soul as a hidden orchestra. “I do not know which instruments grind and play away inside of me, strings and harps, timbales and drums,” he wrote in The Book of Disquiet.1 He could only recognize himself as a symphony. His is an especially apt intuition, because the constructions that inhabit our minds can well be imagined as ephemeral musical performances, played by several hidden orchestras, inside the organisms to which they belong.

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And here is the answer: the objects and events in the world around our organisms, actually present or recalled from memory, and the objects and events in the world inside.

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Second, the devices that continuously respond emotively to the mental presence of any object or event. The emotive response consists of altering the course of life within the old interior of organisms. The devices are known as drives, motivations, and emotions.

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The signals with which images are constructed originate from three sources: the world around the organism, from where data are collected by specific organs located in the skin and some mucosae; and two distinct components of the world inside the organism, the old chemical/visceral compartment and the not so old musculoskeletal frame and its sensory portals.

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First, the three sources indicated above contribute very different material to the nervous system. Second, the “wiring” from the three sources is usually seen as comparable, but it simply is not so.

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Third, in addition to electrochemical signaling, the old interior world communicates to the central nervous system directly via even more ancient, purely chemical signals. Fourth, the central nervous system can respond directly to signals from the interior, especially in regard to the old interior world, thus acting on the source of the signals.

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The “interior” and the nervous system form an interactive complex; the “exterior” and the nervous system do not.

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The old interior is the main contributor of the images we otherwise know as feelings. The new interior brings to the mind images of the overall, more or less global structure of the organism and contributes additional feelings. Accounts of mental life that fail to take these facts into consideration are likely to fall short of the mark.

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The distribution of maps and corresponding images is not even. The images related to the interior world are first integrated in brain-stem nuclei, although they are re-represented and expanded in a few key regions of the cerebral cortex such as the insular cortices and the cingulate cortices. The images related to the exterior world are integrated mostly in the cerebral cortex, although the superior colliculi have an integrative role as well.

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They do so by means of an intricate network of hierarchical neuronal interconnections. Thanks to this integrative operation, we can, for example, see a person whose lips are moving and simultaneously hear sounds that are synchronized to the movements of the lips.

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The integration occurs as a result of activating varied separate regions simultaneously and in sequence. It is something equivalent to editing a film by selecting visual images and bits of soundtrack, ordering them as needed, but never printing the final result. The final result happens in “mind” and on the fly; it vanishes as time moves on except for the memory residue that may stay behind, in coded form. All images of the outside world are processed in nearly parallel fashion with the affective responses that these same images produce by acting elsewhere in the brain—in specific nuclei of the brain stem and of the cerebral cortices that are related to body state representation, such as the insular region. Which means that our brains are busy not only mapping and integrating varied external sensory sources but simultaneously mapping and integrating internal states, a process whose result is none other than feelings.

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Ideas—concepts and their meanings—can be translated into the idiom of symbols and enable symbolic thought. They can also be rendered into a special class of complex symbols, the verbal idiom. Words and sentences, the latter governed by grammatical rules, execute the translation, but the translations are image based as well. All mind is made of images, from the representation of objects and events to their corresponding concepts and verbal translations. Images are the universal token of mind.4

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But independently of their contribution to consciousness, it is apparent that once images are made and processed even at an elementary level, they can guide actions directly and automatically. They do so by depicting targets for actions and thus enabling the image-guided muscular system to reach the target more accurately.

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Once image making became possible, nature could not have failed to select them.

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Life is made of an infinity of stories, simple and complex, banal and distinct, that describe all the sound and the fury and the quiet of existences and

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Life is made of an infinity of stories, simple and complex, banal and distinct, that describe all the sound and the fury and the quiet of existences and that do signify a lot.

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By having different sensory regions contribute the requisite part, at the right moment, so that a time train can be formed; by having associative structures that coordinate the timing of the components and the composition and movement of the train. Any primary sensory region can be called on to contribute, as needed; all association cortices need to participate in the timing and dispatch functions. One particular collection of association cortices that has recently been investigated in detail constitutes the so-called default mode network. This network appears to play a disproportionate role in the process of assembling narratives.

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In the course of a narrative, for example, a related visual or auditory image can be placed instead of the most predictable one, thus giving rise to a visual or auditory metaphor, a means to symbolize objects or events, in visual or auditory terms.