We are Feeling Machines that Think

Neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio famously stated: “We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.”

In his book, Self Comes to Mind, Damasio proposes that every memory is encoded and stored in the brain with emotional content. His theory proposes that the memories recalled first, are those with the strongest emotional content. Furthermore, these emotional associations help to improve our ability to make decisions. After all, the purpose of memory is not only to remember the past, but to better predict the future.

We all have some stress in our lives. Stress, frustration, anger, fear–all can overwhelm the brain depriving it of oxygen, which totally shuts down your ability to think. When this emotional flooding occurs, you literally cannot think straight.

When we suffer an intensely painful feeling, the body releases hormones into the bloodstream as part of the fight or flight response. These hormones turn our experience of an intensely painful emotional event into a strong memory. These memories are powerful to ensure we do not forget a threatening an event, which could jeopardize our survival.

These hormones tell our body something potentially painful just occurred, so don’t forget it or let it happen again. This makes sense for our hunter gatherer ancestors who had to remember the constant threats to their survival. However in our modern world, threats to our physical safety are rare, but threats to our emotional safety are pervasive.

Even in an ambiguous or unpredictable situation, the brain is going to look for clues in the environment. The mind is constantly comparing the present with past experiences that could be associated with a threat to our safety. If this is unsuccessful, and the brain can’t tell what is dangerous and what isn’t, then everything could seem like a threat.

Emotional memories become emotional reflexes as we age. We no longer even think of the historical event that shaped us, we just react. Yet, below the surface our fears of pain lead us to defend ourselves to avoid the pain we once were exposed to.

This pain may be from our own direct experience or it may be vicariously through witnessing another’s pain. Still these emotional memories were so strong and even traumatic that we have spent a great deal of our lives acting in ways to avoid reliving them.

The longer we act to avoid these experiences, the more these emotional memories turn into strong emotional reflexes. Eventually we reach the point where we no longer question where these reactions come from, but feel obliged to act in accordance with them out of internal discomfort.

As we grow, these emotional memories play a disproportionate role in shaping our personality, and make us think, act and feel in certain ways. The problem is that we have lost sight of the original provoking event that stimulated the secretion of these hormones in the first place. In counseling, our task is to restore the connection between the past and the present so that the emotion will be relieved properly, and the “pumping” can stop.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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