Feelings Are the Source of Consciousness

Neural Comput. 2023 Feb 17;35(3):277-286. doi: 10.1162/neco_a_01521.


In this view, we address the problem of consciousness, and although we focus on its human presentation, we note that the phenomenon is present in numerous nonhuman species and use findings from a variety of animal studies to explain our hypothesis for how consciousness is made. Consciousness occurs when mind contents, such as perceptions and thoughts, are spontaneously identified as belonging to a specific organism/owner. Conscious minds are said to have a self that experiences mental events. We hypothesize that the automatic identification that associates minds and organisms is provided by a continuous flow of homeostatic feelings. Those feelings arise from the uninterrupted process of life regulation and correspond to both salient physiological fluctuations such as hunger, pain, well-being, or malaise, as well as to states closer to metabolic equilibrium and best described as feelings of life/existence, such as breathing or body temperature. We also hypothesize that homeostatic feelings were the inaugural phenomena of consciousness in biological evolution and venture that they were selected because the information they provided regarding the current state of life regulation conferred extraordinary advantages to the organisms so endowed. The "knowledge" carried by conscious homeostatic feelings provided "overt" guidance for life regulation, an advance over the covert regulation present in nonconscious organisms. Finally, we outline a mechanism for the generation of feelings based on a two-way interaction between interoceptive components of the nervous system and a particular set of nonneural components of the organism's interior, namely, viscera and circulating chemical molecules involved in their operations. Feelings emerge from this interaction as continuous and hybrid phenomena, related simultaneously to two series of events. The first is best described by the terms neural/representational/and mental and the second by the terms nonneural/visceral/and chemical. We note that this account offers a solution for the mind-body problem: homeostatic feelings constitute the "mental" version of bodily processes.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Consciousness* / physiology
  • Humans