My experience of post-concussive syndrome was characterised by an obsessive preoccupation with atrocity that had little to do with my life. The syndrome resulted from a mechanical injury, tissue damage, and disruption to the endocrine system. I consider the visual landscape of my subjective experience — that loosely became the content of the film — as a post-hoc embellishment arising from trauma. This is compatible with both the psychoanalytic notion of accessing the unconscious and neuroscientific opinion. Damasio’s account of the as-if body loop describes a complex network that he terms ‘somatic markers’: the cognitive representations of the body’s interaction between the internal and external worlds, and of previous experiences of similar situations. These neural events often occur below the threshold of consciousness, or enter consciousness as ‘feelings’, in the form of thought images. Psychoanalysis is the only field to consider the content and quality of these images, but that is not to say that their existence is denied in the field of neuroscience.
Damasio describes how the stimulation of brainstem nuclei can produce an experience of sadness. This was accidentally discovered by his colleague, who was using electrodes to treat a patient with Parkinson’s symptoms. These introduced an electrical current to a region of the brainstem called the mesencephalon. His colleague, however, misplaced an electrode by a couple of millimetres and caused the patient to rapidly fall into a state of suicidal hopelessness. The patient had no history of depression and seconds after the abortion of the treatment, the patient’s mood returned to normal. Damasio concludes that emotions, defined as the physiological events from which feelings arise, produce emotion-related thoughts, rather than the other way round.
‘When the emotion sadness is deployed, feelings of sadness instantly follow. In short order, the brain also brings forth the kind of thoughts that normally cause the emotion sadness and feelings of sadness. This is because associative learning has linked emotions with thoughts in a rich two-way network’.
He comments that this is an approximation of William James’ hypothesis from over a century ago: that felt emotions are perceived body states.