Information Age Education
   Issue Number 61
March, 2011   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

David Moursund and his colleague Robert Albrecht have just published a 222-page book, Using math games and word problems to increase the math maturity of K-8 students. It is available as a PDF file for $10. See details at

Emotion and Feelings

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion. (Dale Carnegie; 1888–1955.)

The renowned cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio attracted a lot of attention in 1994 with his ground-breaking book on the underlying neurobiology of emotion and feelings, Descarte's Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994). Other related acclaimed books that shortly followed include Joseph LeDoux’s, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (1996), and Daniel Golman’s widely read popularization of emotion theory and research, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1997). The result was widespread interest in emotion/feelings and their handmaiden, consciousness.

This is the first of series of three articles that focus on advances since then in our understanding of (1) emotion/feelings, (2) consciousness, and (3) the human maladies that emerge out of these systems.

Emotion and Feelings

Our body and brain are obviously highly interconnected. Our brain has to know how our body is built and the extent of its normal behavioral capabilities. An abnormal challenge requires rapid awareness and an abnormal-level response. Such rapid response begins with emotion.

Emotion is an innate, unconscious, automatic, subcortical arousal system that alerts us to potential dangers and opportunities. It manifests itself internally through visceral and muscular changes, and externally through facial/vocal expressions and body posture. It’s probably a good thing that emotions are genetically driven rather than culturally learned. An innate system gives humans a common set of fundamental preferences related to pleasure/pain, good/bad, etc—plus the ability to recognize the universal body signals in others who are emotionally aroused.

Feelings are basically our conscious perception of what’s occurring in our body during emotional arousal. Sufficiently aroused, emotion can activate conscious feelings about the challenge, and bias the direction of its resolution. Since feelings are basically our conscious perception of what’s occurring in our body during emotional arousal, they allow us to override the automaticity of emotion.

A thermostat is a useful metaphor for explaining this general system. A room thermostat is set at a specific thermal point, and if the temperature suddenly drops, the thermostat will activate the release of more heat into the room, but the thermostat does not determine the reason for the temperature drop. If the cause is an open outside door, the response (to heat the neighborhood) is counterproductive. Mere awareness of an environmental shift followed by an automatic response is thus not sufficient, and so our brain adds additional systems.

Think of emotion as a biological thermostat that monitors and reports variations from normality. If we don’t have an innate appropriate reflexive response for an imminent challenge, the emotional arousal will activate our attention system, which identifies and then focuses on the location and dynamics of the challenge. This activates relevant memory and problem-solving systems that consciously and rationally respond to the challenge.

Emotional arousal thus drives attention, and focused attention drives memory, feelings, problem solving, and response. Almost everything that we do thus begins with emotion, a key cognitive process that was poorly understood for most of human history.

Antonio Damasio’s Latest Book: Self Comes to Mind

What’s especially intriguing for those who are interested in the underlying theory and research about emotion/feelings and consciousness is that during the past 16 years, Antonio Damasio has updated and extended Descarte’s Error with three additional books as new developments occurred. The subsequent books are: The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999), Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (2003), and his latest, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (Pantheon, 2010). This set of four books thus provides a sort of history of the recent development of our understanding of unconscious and conscious arousal.

I (Bob) recently read Self Comes to Mind and then also skimmed through Descarte's Error to see how our understanding of emotion, feelings, and consciousness has changed during the 16 intervening years. Wow! What seemed so new, exciting, and “far out” to me in 1994 seems today like things I've always known. Damasio is upfront about how some of the things he wrote in Descarte's Error were speculative. Neuroimaging technology can now report with a level of precision that couldn't even be imagined 16 years ago—and the potential of neuroimaging is mind-boggling.

Descartes' Error focused mostly on case studies, observed behaviors, and cognitive speculations because we were then pretty much at the beginning of the neuroimaging era. Self Comes to Mind is full of neuroimaging research discoveries—increasingly precise mapping of the brain regions involved in the systems and processes Damasio explored in his earlier books.

What I found most interesting is that Damasio and other cognitive neuroscientists can now get down into the cellular level in ways that were unimaginable 16 years ago. Organisms composed of a single cell (such as an amoeba or paramecium) demonstrate a will to live in that they move towards food and away from danger. Fast forward over evolutionary time (well, maybe evolution wasn't all that fast) and the aggregate of cells that we call a human has the same collective will to live. So something sensate and regulatory obviously exists within a cell, but does an amoeba have a brain?

Not really, but as multi-cell organisms evolved, the complexities of challenge and response led at one point to the introduction and subsequent development of an increasingly complex conscious brain—the localized specialization of affect and response, as it were.

The human brain has specific highly integrated systems. EMOTION informs our body/brain of the existence of an environmental challenge. ATTENTION identifies and focuses our body/brain on the nature and location of the specific challenge. MEMORY/PROBLEM-SOLVING/FEELINGS/EXECUTION determine if the challenge is novel or familiar, toss reason/logic/preferences into the problem solving mix, chose among (typically several) possible responses, and then move us towards the opportunity or away from the danger (or decide to just hang around for a while to see what happens). This is the essence of emotion, feelings, and consciousness that define the book's focus.

The new Damasio book makes demands on readers, but those who have a basic understanding of brain systems and functions should have no real problem with it, and it's as good a book on brain organization and systems as I've read in some time. An excellent 18 page appendix on our brain's cellular and systems architecture provides very useful non-technical information for anyone who is teaching, writing, doing workshops, and/or making conference presentations in Educational Neuroscience. The book unfortunately doesn't have a glossary, and a glossary would certainly be useful to many readers. It's thus a good idea to develop your own glossary of unfamiliar terms/definitions when they first appear in the book because they'll probably come up again later.


Antonio Damasio (1994) Descarte's Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam.

Antonio Damasio (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt.

Antonio Damasio (2003) Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. New York: Harcourt

Antonio Damasio (2010) Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Pantheon, 2010. The set of publication and reader reviews:

Daniel Golman, (1997) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam.

Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (1996). New York: Simon and Schuster.

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