How Do I Know What I Feel?
The music sounded “soulful”. I’m feeling “melancholy”. That is really “irritating” me. I feel “hopeful”. I really “wish”. I am “lonely”. I feel “grateful”. I am in “awe”.
How do I know what I feel? How did a particular feeling get its name, its label? How do words describing invisible, subjective states, arise in a linguistic system? How can a feeling-state be verbally shared? Are we truly sharing experience just because we agree on the word?
Reader! Look inside! Think about and picture a few situations where you had strong feelings, both negative as well as positive. What feelings describe each of these experiences? Now, how do you know to call these sensations or emotions by specific names? What exactly do you experience before you put this label on it?
There seem to be two different qualities of experience that are both called “feelings”, or “emotions”, in our ordinary language. The origins of one category are somewhat understood while the other category is an overlooked mystery of deepest implication.
The sensations we experience as a result of hormonal molecular changes in our physiology are well understood. It is these sensations of physical arousal that represent one of the categories we call feeling or emotion. Our flight or fight instinctive response system, when noticing perceived threats to safety or invitations to pleasure, triggers subjective changes in biochemical balances. A sense of danger triggers the release of stress hormones, i.e. cortisone, adrenaline, norepinephrine, which alter heart rate, breathing, shifts of blood volume from interior organs to muscles and brain, muscular tension, among other effects, so that we can respond aggressively or defensively to the perceived threat. The threat can be real or imagined, directed towards my body’s integrity, or my image of myself or my safety in a relationship. These sensations tend to be uncomfortable and promote a search for paths of escape. When escape is achieved, the body relaxes its tension and reduction in discomfort is the reward. This is the work of our so-called “sympathetic nervous system”.
So-called “pleasure hormones”, dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin, make us feel safe, comfortable, euphoric, and give an experience of ‘pleasure’ and attraction towards the apparent source of stimulation. This is the work of the para-sympathetic nervous system. To re-experience the pleasant sensations, behaviors develop to stimulate them repeatedly. This built-in mechanism promotes movement towards safety and continuation of the life of the individual and species.
Both these mechanisms together make up the Autonomic Nervous System, a hard-wired, instinctive program, totally mechanical and functioning at an unconscious level. They work by facilitating the release of different combinations of hormones which control reactions in the body in response to stimuli interpreted by the body or feelings or mind, as dangerous or attractive.
Hormones are arrangements of molecules. The body seems so designed that continual fluctuations in the release and balance of different molecules correlate to these subjective experiences and objective reactions. How and why they should do so is mystery sufficient to cause stunned amazement, if we can overcome a sense of familiarity with these everyday experiences such that we are habituated to seeing the wonder of this process built into the basic operating system of all animal life, including ourselves. All species are programed for pain and pleasure to facilitate movement towards and away from situations that either threaten or increase survival chances for the individual and the species. All mammals and birds, (and perhaps some cephalopods and even Manta Rays) to varying degrees, share an emotional world of play, nurturing, affection, cooperation and affinity for members of their group or species and in many cases, between species. As mammals, we share this emotional world with many of our companions on the planet.
Flight or fight experiences tend to produce observable outer manifestations from the body, muscular or vocal expression, tone of voice, movement towards or away from the perceived stimulus. We humans can talk about these experiences with each other with some considerable degree of agreement as we all have the same basic physiological responses.
When I say I feel “angry”, “afraid”, “excited”, I can pinpoint specific sensations in particular parts of my body. Although individuals experience variations in how, and maybe where, these hormonal changes are ‘felt’, there is a discernable change in subjective inner experience. If asked, I say I know I am angry because my jaw is clenched, my fists are balled tight, I feel flushed, my voice is faltering etc. I may describe ‘anxiety’ as a rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, shaking limbs, a sense of ‘doom” (another interesting word). When excited I may feel some of these same changes but interpret them differently because the situation seems positive rather than negative. There is research suggesting that how we interpret the meaning of these subjective experiences depends on how we interpret the meaning of the situation. For example, if called to the boss’s office, I may interpret the “butterflies in my stomach” as apprehension, but if these same sensations are experienced at the beginning of a situation promising something potentially pleasant, like meeting a prospective love interest, I may label the sensations as ‘excitement’.
The second quality of ‘feeling’ or ‘emotion’ is far more subtle and individualized. These are experiences of ‘quality’ relating to the world of values, not physical survival. What am I subjectively experiencing that, by association, brings to mind words like “soulful”, “hopeful”, “longing”, ‘remorse’, “appreciation”? What am I experiencing to cue for me a label describing different qualities? How do I know I am experiencing gratitude, awe, inspiration? How do I know the taste of conscience? What is the subjective experience of being touched by the Divine? How does the thought of a spiritual life create, if I am that type of person, a feeling of wishing for contact with something greater than myself? Is there a biological underpinning for the taste of a wish?
Known from the beginning of humankind, certain chemicals and plants contain molecules that clearly stimulate experiences of “expanded consciousness” and altered perceptions. These experiences often lead to alterations in values and beliefs. Do the molecules pre-determine what is altered in the user’s perspective or do they create changes in perception that then lead to change in understanding and valuation? Why would we have receptors in our nervous system to receive these mind-altering molecules? Why would these molecules have such a profound effect on us, changing the direction of a life and sometimes a society?
The Autonomic Nervous System has a clear reason for existing. It facilitates organic survival in the most basic Darwinian manner. Does this other system of ‘feeling’ also have a built-in reason for existing in us? Are we also programmed not only to survive physically, but also to develop higher sensitivities and reasoning? And what of the unexpected moments of altered consciousness not associated with the ingestion of these stimulating molecules? Does our body produce them at random intervals, or in emotionally charged situations? The vast majority of these experiences of value and meaning are not associated with any outside stimulant.
The world of value and meaning may overlap the pain-pleasure survival mechanism at an instinctive level. But its larger field of action extends into the realm of philosophy, belief, concepts, principles, even when the roots of the feeling cannot be pinpointed. Meaning and value can be talked about because they involve an intellectual, symbolic component. Thus, these components appear to limit this higher level of subjective experience to humans due to the addition to our brain of the frontal lobes as the arena of conceptual thinking and perceiving.
So, how do I know what I value? Why would I go against my flight or fight response and face danger or discomfort for a matter of ‘principle’? Why would an mystic intentionally undergo discomfort and deprivation in the search for an invisible, theorized connection with a ‘higher’ power? Why would I risk, or even knowingly sacrifice my life, for “something I believe in”? Such responses go against “Nature” and in a sense are “unnatural.”
In the case of survival enhancing reactions of attraction and repulsion, the shift in hormonal balances are programmed into the organism to involuntarily produce the behavioral response that will increase the likelihood of living another day. The sensations of comfort or discomfort will automatically create the urge to move towards or away. No ‘thought’ process is required. The fact that this protective system has been in place since life appeared, clearly indicates that life forms have built-in receptors sensitive to these hormonal fluctuations. They come with the development of the creature in utero, or egg, and are ready to function at birth.
Are there built-in receptors for the experience of value and meaning, waiting for certain types of situations to trigger their awakening? We know from studies in developmental psychology, that some value-appearing reactions occur in young children, such as empathy or sharing, although they may appear at different ages for different individuals and may not appear at all in some. With many children, they seem to need to be taught or modeled. The discovery of “mirror neurons” would seem to suggest a built-in mechanism for reciprocal sharing of basic emotional states relating to comfort and discomfort in others. They are a likely candidate for a biological basis for empathy.
The question of value and meaning requires a degree of understanding of, or intuitive feeling for, underlying principles, or laws, in order to become generalized to situations far removed from the initial incidents that originally stimulated them. Learning the “letter of the law” would seem to be based on reward and punishment which is the basis of the survival principle. It can be learned and practiced without deeper understanding of the underlying reasons for the law. The “spirit of the law requires an understanding of the meaning and larger principles which give birth to the law as their practical expression.
Material science has confirmed that certain molecular formations, which are themselves temporary combinations of certain atoms, which themselves are temporary combinations of sub-atomic particles, which themselves are fluctuating mixtures of the underlying energies which shape and direct the structure and functions of the universe, interact with built-in receptors that trigger sensitive responses in life forms, which are designed to facilitate their survival and procreation. It appears clear that the material of biological life is intimately connected and responsive to certain universal energies which seem designed to support the activities of that life. Organic life is connected to the underlying structure of the universe. Is our emotional/psychological existence also connected to the underlying structure of the universe? If not, what is it connected to?
What can we reason about non-mass-based subjective psychological phenomena like valuation, meaning, conscience, spiritual aspiration? If there are, so far, undiscovered molecules associated with these qualities, they also, logically, would be built into the fabric of universal energies. As the survival mechanism serves the greater purpose of Nature, the existence of these more subtle, inspirational ‘feelings’ must also serve something, perhaps something higher than the biological needs of the Earth. However, our thinking, reasoning capacities, although influenced by underlying bio-chemical imbalances, appear not to be primarily hormonal in nature. Our psychological functions appear to represent the functioning of electromagnetic field phenomena. Our nervous system runs on electricity as its foundational energy. Electricity in motion creates magnetic fields. Electromagnetism is currently understood to be one of the four ‘Forces’ which hold the universe together. It has recently become increasingly acceptable for researchers exploring the nature and origins of subjective ‘consciousness’, to speculate that our psychological life is an aspect of the quantum realm rather than the biological level.
How then do I know, so that I can label it, what I am experiencing when I refer to questions of value and meaning? Am I ‘sensing’ fluctuations in the sub-atomic world inside myself that correspond to and stimulate an awareness of these ‘higher’ feelings that can function separately from, and at times at odds with, the biological program for survival of my material body? This logically implies that “I” have mechanisms, some built-in and perhaps others that require further development, for experiencing both biological and quantum fluctuations.
What then does this imply about the nature of “I”? The ‘place’ of experiencing the subjective world of psychological and ‘higher’ emotional experiences appears to lie beyond biology. Following the logical progression, the home of “I” must lie either within or beyond the quantum realm, its sensitivity stretching from the world of matter to non-material dimensions not measurable by material science.
How I know what I am feeling now seems intimately connected with the mystery of what I am at the deepest level.
The Mystery of Talking About Feelings
Humans have built-in mechanisms for verbal, symbolic speech that are lacking in other life forms. To be sure, other life forms have ‘language’, but not the ability to conceptualize and vocalize those concepts beyond modeling behavior for the young of their species. Clearly some creatures use tools and problem solving, but they don’t write books or produce teaching videos for later generations. They have the beginnings of culture but are limited by the structure of their programmed brain and nervous system. There is a great range of conceptual and verbal capacities among humans, just as some animal species appear ‘smarter’ than others and individual animals within a species seem more intelligent than others. Some of these capacities can be developed by education and practice, if the underlying potential exists in the person, but not beyond the ceiling determined by the health and structure of the brain of the individual. Just as we all have different potential physical functioning depending on health and genetics, this appears to hold true with emotional, intellectual and conceptual potential functioning as well.
Given our special capacity for inventing sounds and symbols to represent things and experiences, another question arises. It seems logical that sounds assigned to material objects and observable behavioral manifestations could be shared and agreed upon. At some point in time, an ancestor picked up a solid object and made a sound. A companion, hearing the sound, mimicked it. For example, in English, the guttural sound, “r-o-c-k”, became the agreed upon sound denoting this object. As time went by and the development of the hominid brain continued, more and more sounds could be assigned to and agreed to represent the material world and observable activities of fellow hominids. What we would later call ‘verbs’ rather than initial ‘nouns’, could appear to represent movement. “Go”, “come”, “leave”, probably initially accompanied by arm gestures, would expand communication possibilities.
The human brain is wired for language. The capacity is built in. Infants begin to learn language from within the womb, listening to the vibration of the mother’s voice, and perhaps voices around the mother. After birth, the child will learn whatever language is spoken in its presence. It is taught to use labels for things. Later, it is taught words for feelings and emotions. Grammar is a built-in process. The child will mimic what it hears until the neural pathways associated with the particular language have become myelinated, (hard-wired) so the language can flow automatically without thinking. We can see this process halt when we have to “search” for the right word.
How then could we explain the expansion of language for non-observable, non-material reactions? Experiencing the biologically based sensation from the pleasure-pain system, the autonomic nervous system with its parasympathetic (“it’s safe, come closer”) and sympathetic (“danger, run away”), how could we understand the development of sounds to indicate what is being experienced inside at the sensory level? An early man feels a surge of adrenaline at the sight of a mammoth or relief that he has returned to the cave with enough food for the clan. How, and why, would he search for a sound denoting this state of inner experience? Where is the external agreed upon object to which to attach the sound? There is nothing to point to.
Much more mysterious, is the question concerning how labels could have appeared, and find agreement for, subtle feeling states such as those relating to value, belief, meaning. I suspect we all know the confusion of trying to find a word to describe a novel experience. “How can I say this?” “I don’t have words”. “I can ‘see’ it in my mind’s eye, but I can’t talk about it”. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” These kinds of unusual experiences, perceptions, insights, epiphanies, require a poet or mystic or storyteller to try to find a way of combining words so that they point to the experience, even while knowing that the pointing is not the experience.
The listener, if the description does not evoke in them a resonant association from their own experiential library, will respond, “I don’t understand what you are talking about. I don’t resonate with what you are saying.” If the listener has had a related experience for which the speakers’ words do resonate, the reply can confirm a potential experiential overlap that could lead to the perception of mutual understanding. We can understand another person’s inner world of thoughts and feelings only to the degree to which those experiences resonate with our own. We can feel their experience inside ourselves because we have that experience in us already. It is our experience we are tasting, only having been stimulated by sounds from the speaker’s mouth, sounds we call words.
Since the development of this linguistic capacity has developed over time with homo sapiens, it logically must be part of the built-in programming which we find ourselves living within. Since traits and capacities that have utility survive, and those that do not tend to atrophy and eventually disappear over time, reason suggests that our capacity for language has served to facilitate our physical survival in a world of stronger creatures and biological hazards. By extension, the mysterious capacity to develop a language for subjective experiences must have arisen to help us learn to explore, learn from and become knowledgeable about, our other ‘home’ in the invisible, non-mass based ‘world’ of our hearts and minds. In this world, we do not need language for our experiences. We ‘feel’ our way. We ‘sense’ our way. See images in our “mind’s eye” that produce non-verbal understanding. If we are present as an observing Awareness, then we may search for ‘words’ to describe to ourselves and others what we have experienced. Why the drive to communicate? Are we not searching for confirmation? “Have you had a similar experience or am I alone? Am I crazy or are there really other ‘realities’ behind or interpenetrating the outer world of my senses? What in the world am I? How can any of this be happening? What is really going on here? What does all this mean?”
In the end it comes down to meaning. Perhaps the search for meaning is what our linguistic and conceptual capacities are designed to serve. Who, or what, is using us to search for meaning?