Feelings vs Emotions, Part I: Loud Bodies

The language of psychology can be confusing. But the use of precise language is critically important to the process of counselling, because we cannot attend to the parts of the world that we cannot name. Or, even more problematically, we cannot attend to parts of the world that we confuse with others. The word we usually use to describe this manner of confusion is “conflation.” Conflation is the process by which we merge two or more sets of information into one, thus creating a category of understanding that is appropriate to neither. So it is with “emotions” and “feelings.”

Given our day-to-day use of these words (at least in English), it is no wonder this is so. You might be commonly asked, “how are you feeling?” And you might answer in some of the following ways: good, bad, meh, blue, depressed, excited, or sleepy. When we answer the question about the way we are feeling, and we respond as easily with “good” as with “excited,” we are conflating feelings with emotions.

Neuroscience offers us granular boundaries to help us with some precision around these definitions. Here, I will refer to the work of one of the grand old men of contemporary neuroscience, Antonio Damasio. It was Damasio’s discussion with Sean Carroll on his podcast, Sean Carroll’s Mindscape: Science, Society, Philosophy, Culture, Arts, and Ideas, that I began to understand both the distinction being examined here and the ultimate purpose of emotions. Needless to say, this episode was a transformative experience.

Here is the transcript of their discussion around feeling vs emotion, an audio file so you can listen to their specific exchange, and a link to the entire podcast. This discussion is so wildly good! I recommend listening to the entire show. The bold passages are my way of highlighting particularly important ideas for the writing that follows,

A.D. …but the essence of feeling is a positivity or negativity, something that we can describe with the term valence, and that has to do with how the feeling state is conducive or not to the continuation of life into the quality of that life. Valence designates that quality.

SC: So if it’s not just emotions… so are emotions a subset of feelings or a kind of feeling?

AD: No. Emotions are, as the name indicates, actions. And that’s one of the big problems that has been so badly served by the confusion of emotion and feeling that is part of the culture, of any culture, actually, this is quite widespread, is that emotions are in fact something that must have preceded feelings and that consists of certain actions that result in a better or worse adaptation of a living creature to the environment. So, when you have a response by some very simple organism that consists of withdrawing, you could say that that response is at heart an emotive response. So there is a movement and that’s…

SC: The word motion is in there.

AD: Exactly, the word motion is in there and emotions such as we commonly know, for example, fear or the emotion of anger, or of compassion are collections of actions that produce a certain effect. And that result in a certain effect for the individual that is undergoing the emotion, and that produce a certain effect outside in other creatures or in the environment. But I like to talk about emotions as concerts of actions, that the best technical way of describing it is action programs.


Feeling, Damasio notes, is simple, perhaps even binary. You feel good, or you feel bad. Feeling, then, is a gross heuristic that crystallizes how we are doing as an organism: I feel good, or I feel bad. That is it! Lisa Feldman Barrett, another giant in the field of contemporary neuroscience and a personal scholarly hero of mine, tells us that feeling, in the way I have been describing it here, is dependent on interoception.1 Interoception is the name neuroscience gives to the senses that come from and offer us a way of understanding the state of our body. This is distinct from the senses we learned about in school as kids, i.e. taste, smell, sound, hear, touch and our sense of ourselves in space (proprioception), which are technically called exteroception. Interoception originates from inside our bodies, exteroception from outside.

So… the way we “feel” in this more precise definition is a function of the signals we are getting from our bodies. No post of mine would ever be complete without the adhd perspective, and this one is no different. This perspective on feeling offers something to those of us with, and those of us who work with people with, adhd. If it is true that my hypothesis about adhd is correct, namely that it is condition marked by differences in the regularity and amplitude of both interoception and exteroception—or in more colloquial language that the volume on particular parts of the world are turned up very loudly very often—then a discussion about our experience of sensory signals coming from both inside our bodies and without is critical to understanding the way a person with adhd experiences their world.

In previous posts—The “No” of ADHD, Confidence as an Intervention, and Kill the Meaning, Keep the Name—I discussed the experience of living as person with adhd through the lens of openness/undefendedness to my world. In those earlier essays, I wrote primarily about this sense of undefendedness from the perspective of exteroception, with special emphasis placed on auditory phenomena. The world for me is exceedingly loud, and that loudness produces certain ways of experiencing the world, certain ways of behaving-in-the-world.

What if one of the ways in which people with adhd are undefended is with respect to the experience of their own bodies? What if the way some of us with adhd move through the world is with the volume on our interoceptive senses turned up by… 50%? 100%? How would an organism that experiences interoception in this way act? Remember, as our neuroscientific guides Damasio and Feldman Barrett tell us, the way we feel—in the precise neurological sense, i.e good or bad—is a direct and causal function of the messages we get from our bodies. It would then follow that those of us who have adhd have what I will call “loud bodies.” It would further follow that we respond in kind, i.e. loudly. In other words, loud bodies predict responses of a similar regularity and amplitude.

Loud bodies predict loud futures and so produce loud responses.

Does any of this fit with the experience of being a person with adhd or what you observe in the people you know with adhd? In a certain light, these are responses that we might call “dysregulated.” But that is only true if we accept a kind of standard definition of interoceptive volume and the loudness of the prediction/response. This presumption is what we call neurotypicality.

But what if we use a different benchmark? That rather than starting with behaviour that is produced in a system that we term “typical,” we measure the loudness of a body’s response to the loudness of the sensory input. If we follow the volume of the sensory input, then a loud prediction and response to a loud input is not a sign of dysregulation but a mark of a body that is responding properly, even well(!), to its sensory environment.

Imagine the following: as a person with adhd that rather than excoriating yourself—or having others do it with you or for you or to you—for having an “outsized” or “overblown” reaction to some internal or external stimuli, you could rest assured that your behaviour precisely fits the regularity and amplitude of the sensory input. The descriptors “overly sensitive” or “dramatic” would no longer be applicable, because those are only applicable if you work on the assumption that all people’s interoceptive and exteroceptive experiences are the same.

Let me be clear: THEY ARE NOT.

This point cannot be overstated, and as I look back on all the posts I have written over the past months, they all come to the same conclusion, and the conclusion is this: the manner in which people act or behave in the world is very rarely aberrant. You might see a behaviour in another person or be mindful of your own way of being-in-the-world and think that it is “crazy” or “self-sabotaging” or any other descriptor that means somehow being against oneself or against one’s community. But honestly… it is vanishingly unusual, maybe even completely illusory. Even in the case of grave illnesses such as schizophrenia, when people threaten to or do violence against themselves or another, it is an act of defensiveness. The messages a person with schizophrenia might receive from interoception, exteroception, or straight auditory hallucinations is that they are in immediate and serious physical harm. If that is true, then picking up the nearest thing that might serve as a weapon and wave it around is not a crazy thing to do but flows reasonably from the loudness of sensory input.

In the post that follows, I will focus on emotions as actions and discuss the ways in which people with adhd differ from a neurotypical population in their relationship to emotions.


1 Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions are Made, p 72.