Piero Scaruffi(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
(These are excerpts from, or extensions to, the material published in my book "The Nature of Consciousness")
Feeling and Thinking
Emotion appears to be a key component in the behavior of conscious beings. To some extent, consciousness "is" emotion. There is probably no recollection, no thinking and no planning that occurs without feeling emotions. As we think, we are either happy or sad or afraid or something else. There is hardly a moment in our conscious life when we are not feeling an emotion. William James conceived mental life as a "stream of consciousness", each state of consciousness possessing both a cognitive aspect and a feeling aspect.
Whether all of consciousness is just emotion or whether emotion is a parallel, complementary facility of the mind, is debatable. But it can be argued that we would not consider conscious a being that cannot feel emotions, no matter how intelligent it is and no matter how much its body resembles ours.
On the other hand, we ascribe emotions to beings that we do not consider as "conscious": dogs, birds, even fish and tarantulas. Are the intensities of their emotions (of fear, for example) as strong as ours, regardless of whether their level of self-awareness is comparable to ours? Is emotion a more primitive form of consciousness, that in humans developed into full-fledged self-awareness? Is emotion an organ, just like feet and tails, that a species may or may not have, but which has no direct impact on consciousness?
Emotions were traditionally neglected by scientists researching the mind, as if they were a secondary aspect (or simply a malfunction) of the brain activity. The fact is surprising because emotions have so much to do with our being "aware", with differentiating intelligent life from dead matter and non-intelligent life. While the relationship between "feeling" and "thinking" is still unclear, it is generally agreed that all beings who think also feel. That makes feelings central to an understanding of thinking.
The relationship between emotion and cognition, in particular, was first thoroughly explored in 1980 by the USA psychologist Robert Zajonc, who emphasized how they are largely independent, and, contrary to popular belief, emotion tend to prevail over cognition in decision making.
That emotions may not be so peripheral a notion as the scant literature on them would imply is a fact suspected since ancient times, but only recently science has focused on their function, their evolution and their behavior. In other words: how did the ability to feel emotions originate, why did it originate and how does it influence our mind's overall functioning?
Emotions as Survival Instinct
The answers can be summarized, once again, as: emotions are a product of evolution, they exist because they favor our species in natural selection. What emotions seem to do is help us make fast decisions in crucial situations. Emotions are inferential short-cuts. If I am afraid of a situation, it means that it is dangerous: the emotion of fear has already helped me make up my mind about how to approach that situation. If I were not capable of fear, my brain would have to analyze the situation, infer logically what is good and what is bad about it for me, and finally draw a conclusion. By that time, it may be too late. Fear helps us to act faster than if we used our logical faculties.
This is reflected in the way emotions are generated. The central processor for emotions is the brain structure called "amygdala" The thalamus normally connects senses to cortex and cortex to muscles. But the amygdala provides a much faster shortcut for decision making: the route from senses to amygdala to thalamus to muscles is much faster than going through the cortex.
The Emotional Brain
The USA neurophysiologist Joseph Ledoux believes that there exist specialized brain circuits (neural maps) for each emotion. Such circuits create as many "shortcuts" to decision making.
His fundamental tenet is that the region of the brain called "amygdala" stores emotional memories. More precisely, the amygdala is the place where the brain decides whether to react or act. When we find ourselves in danger, first we "react" (we unconsciously apply one of the patterns of behavior that evolution has added to our repertory of survival strategies) and then we "act" (we make a conscious decision). Unconscious reaction occurs when information flows from the lateral amygdala to the central amygdala (and results in the typical behavior of fear, such as blood pumping, heart thumping, frantic breathing, sweating, pupil dilation). Conscious action occurs when information flows from the lateral amygdala to the basal amygdala (and results in retrieving memories from the neocortex). The transition from unconscious reacting to conscious acting is therefore a "switching" of the flow of information from the lateral amygdala to either the central amygdala or the basal amygdala. The pathway of conscious action is fundamentally unique to humans, whereas the pathway of unconscious reaction is largely shared by all mammals. There is continuity between the emotional brain system of ancient mammals and humans.
Even before birth, the amygdala of a baby memorizes fear states (first of the mother, then of itself). At the same time, the amygdala retrieves and reenacts a fear state whenever a known context reoccurs. The amygdala stops performing the memory task when the child is about five years old, but continues to work as a template for fear states for the rest of the adult life. Unconscious fear memories are forever.
A critical finding was that information reaches the amygdala before the cortex. In fact, some stimuli may never reach the cortex at all. That is why we may react to a situation without even realizing what we are doing until well after we have done it.
Ledoux believes that emotion (the unconscious reaction) and cognition (the conscious action) are separate but interacting mental functions mediated by separate but interacting brain systems.
Ledoux believes that emotions are a prerequisite to consciousness, but consciousness requires more. It is in the working short-term memory that one becomes aware of one's own emotions. This area is localized in the lateral prefrontal cortex, which only exists in primates and is particularly large in humans.
The weakness of Ledoux's argument on emotion is that he studies only one kind of emotion (fear) but draws conclusions about all emotions. This is, to say the least, a wild assumption: that all emotions use the same circuitry and the same processing as the emotion of fear. One would expect exactly the opposite, given that fear and, say, joy produce completely different "feelings" and behavior.
Emotions as Communication
Emotions are also the fastest way that we can communicate with members of our group, another activity that is critical to survival. The USA psychiatrist Allan Hobson thinks that emotions are signals between animals of the same species that communicate one's brain state to another.
Emotions may predate language itself as a form of communication. Gregory Bateson coined a term, "kinesics", for paralinguistic body communication, such as facial expression. Kinesics is about emotions. It may well be that body communication existed before language was invented, and that it was the main form of communication.
Facial expression is inevitable like language and universal like language.
Emotion as Rationality
Zimbabwe-born mathematician Aaron Sloman reduced the argument about emotions to simple mathematical terms. Let us look at an "agent" (whether a human, an animal, a robot or a piece of software), which is limited and intelligent and must act in a complex environment. A "complex" environment may well include a very large number of factors. In fact, it may be made of an "infinite" number of factors, if one counts every little detail that may have an influence. Our cognitive agent, which is limited, would never reach a conclusion on what to do if it blindly analyzed all factors. Therefore, in order to survive (to move at all, actually) it must be endowed with mechanisms that cause emotions. In other words, emotions are the result of constraints by the environment on the action of the intelligent being.
An emotional state is created by a situation, through some chemical reaction in the nervous system. A cognitive state is created by a number of situations and by a thinking process that relates those situations and draws some kind of conclusion. The relationship between emotional states and cognitive states is reduced by Sloman to the need to draw conclusions when cognition would face a combinatorial explosion of possible reasoning threads. Emotions emerge when a cognitive agent needs to make survival decisions in a complex environment.
The Canadian philosopher Ronald DeSousa expresses this fact in a different way: emotions play the same role as perceptions, i.e. they contribute to create beliefs and desires. Beliefs and desires are necessary elements of any logical system: one attempts to satisfy desires by acting in the environment according to one's beliefs.
DeSousa believes that emotions are learned like a language. And, like any language, they have their own grammar, i.e. their syntax and semantics (an idea also advanced by Sloman). Just like the meaning of words ultimately derives from the sentences in which they can be used, the semantics of emotions derives from the scenarios in terms of which they have been learned. Emotions can therefore be studied in a formal way just like any other language. The complementarity between reason and emotion becomes what he calls "axiological rationality", yet another way to express the fact that emotions determine what is salient, i.e. can restrict the combinatorial possibilities that reason has to face in the real world.
Emotion as Homeostasis
The USA psychologist Ross Buck studied the advantage of emotions in communication between humans. Communication of emotions turns out to be a biologically shared signal system. It was created over millions of years through the evolutionary process and it is part of every human being. It means that it is very easy to communicate an emotion: we immediately recognize the meaning of another human's emotion. On the contrary, communicating a theorem is not easy at all, and often requires special skills.
Emotions have the important function of speeding up communication of crucial information among members of the same species.
If emotion is, ultimately, a reaction to a situation in the environment, it can be assumed to be a "measure" relative to that situation, and what is communicated is precisely that measure. But a measure of what? Buck thinks that emotions always originate from motives that must be satisfied: the emotion is a measure of how far they have been satisfied. For example, fear is a measure of safety.
A more appropriate way of referring to adaptation is "homeostasis", which is the process of searching for a balance. If something changes in the environment, all organisms that depend on that environment will somehow react to recreate the equilibrium they need to survive. This process of continuous search for equilibrium is called "homeostasis". Buck argues that the ultimate function of emotions is homeostasis.
Emotion as Heterostasis
A different view is held by the USA computer scientist Harry Klopf: organisms are not hiding in the environment, trying to minimize action and change; they actively seek stimulation. If homeostasis is the seeking of a steady-state condition, "heterostasis" is the seeking of maximum stimulation. According to Klopf, all parts of the brain are independently seeking positive stimulation (or "pleasure") and avoiding negative stimulation (or "pain"). Klopf also thinks that cognition and emotion coexist and complement each other, but their relative roles are significantly different: emotion provides the sense of what the organism needs, while cognition provides the means for achieving those needs.
Emotion as Cognition
The common theme underlying all of these studies is that emotions are not as irrational as they seem to be; quite the opposite, actually.
The USA psychologist George Mandler views emotion as a cognitive summary of sorts. Let's assume that, of all the information available in the environment, the mind is mainly interested in environmental regularities. Then most of its processing can be reduced to: there is a goal (e.g.: "eat"), there is a need (e.g.: "food") and there is a situation (e.g.: "a plantation of bananas"). Based on known regularities of the environment, the mind can determine what it needs to do in order to achieve its goal in the current situation. The emotion (e.g.: "to desire bananas") simplifies this process. The function of emotions is to provide the individual with the most general view of the world that is consistent with current needs, goals and situations.
The USA psychologist Richard Lazarus agrees that the ultimate goal of our emotions must be to help the organism survive in the environment. Emotions arise from the relationship between the individual and its environment, or, better, the regularities of its environment. Emotion requires an appraisal of the situation and its consequences. For example, such an appraisal may lead to fear if the situation turns out to be dangerous. Emotions are genetically determined, but they can change during a lifetime: both biological and social variables may alter our set of emotions, and this explains why emotions change through the various stages of life.
Ultimately, emotions express the personal meaning of an individual's experience. The meaning of each emotion is about the significance of the triggering event (the situation) for the well-being of the individual.
Each emotion is defined by a set of benefits and harms in the relationship between individual and environment, and that set is constructed by a process of appraisal. Appraisal is key to emotion. Each type of emotion is distinguished by a pattern of appraisal factors.
Since appraisal is the fundamental process for the occurrence of emotion, Lazarus believes that cognition is a prerequisite for emotion: a cognitive process (an appraisal) must occur before one can have an emotion.
Emotion as Communication Between the Brain and the Self
A synthesis that also brings consciousness and the body into the picture has been proposed by the Spanish anthropologist José Jauregui. Jauregui, like Edward-Osborne Wilson, views sociology as a branch of biology. In his opinion, the same emotional system controls social, sexual and individual behavior. Such emotional system originates from the neural organization of the brain: emotions are rational and predictable events. Jauregui believes that the brain is basically a computer, and emotions represent the output of that computer's processing activity. It is emotion, not reason, that directs and informs the daily actions of individuals.
Jauregui begins by separating the brain and the self: the brain is aware of what is going on in the digestive system of the body, but will inform the self only when some correction/action is necessary. Normally, an individual is not aware of her digestive processes. Her brain is always informed, though. When her awareness is also required, an emotion is generated. The communication channel between the brain and the self is made of emotions. The brain can tune the importance of the message by controlling the intensity of the emotions. The more urgent the message, the stronger the emotion. Far from being an irrational process, the emotional life of an individual is mathematically calculated to achieve exactly the kind and degree of response needed for the well-being of the individual. Feelings are subjective and inaccessible, but they also are objective and precise.
When it receives a message in the form of an emotion, the self has no idea of the detailed process that was going on in the body and of the reason why that process must be corrected. The emotion makes detailed information redundant because the emotion basically contains its own correction mechanism. The brain's emotional system is a sophisticated and complex information-processing system. The brain is a computer programmed to inform the self (through emotions) of what must be done to preserve her body and her society. It is through emotions that the brain informs the self of bodily situations that are relevant for survival.
"For human beings the reality that ultimately matters is the reality of their feelings".
The self maintains a degree of freedom: while it cannot suppress the (emotional) messages it receives from the brain, it can disobey them. The brain may increase the intensity of the message as the self disobeys it, and a painful conflict may arise. The brain and the self are not only separate: they may even fight each other.
In conclusion, only the self can be conscious and feel, but the brain has control over both consciousness and feelings.
If we one views the brain as a computer, the hardware is made of the neural organization. There are two types of software, though: "bionatural" (knowledge about the natural world) and "biocultural" (such as a language or a religion). A program has three main components: the sensory, the mental and the emotional systems. Any sensory input can be translated automatically by the brain into a mental (idea) or emotional (feeling) message; and viceversa. Both biocultural and bionatural programs exert emotional control over the body.
Jauregi distinguishes five systems of communication: the natural system (in which the sender is a natural thing, such as a tree), the cultural system (the sender is culture, something created by humans), the somatic system (the sender is the individual's own body), the imaginary system (the sender is imagination) and the social system (the sender is another individual). The human brain is genetically equipped to receive and understand all five kinds of messages. What ultimately matters is the emotional translation of sensory inputs arriving via these communication channels.
Emotion as Body Representation
The Portuguese biologist Antonio Damasio focused on the relation between memory, emotions and consciousness. He made a distinction between emotions and "feelings". A feeling is the private experience of an emotion, that cannot be observed by anybody else. An emotion is the brain process that we perceive as a feeling. An emotion can be observed by others because it yields visible effects (whether the facial expression or a movement) and because it arises from a brain process that can be observed and measured.
The difference is crucial. Emotions are fixed genetically, to a large extent: evolution has endowed us with a basic repertory of emotions that help us survive. My personality (which is mostly shaped by my interaction with the environment) may determine how I express and react to those emotions, but the emotions that occur in me are the same of my whole species. Emotion is a genetically-driven response to a stimulus: when that stimulus occurs (for example, a situation of danger), a region of the brain generates an emotion (fear) that is spread through the brain and the body via the nervous system and therefore causes a change in the state of both the brain and the rest of the body. This change of state is meant to somehow cope with the stimulus. Some emotions are acquired during development (e.g., through social interaction) but they too are grounded in the universal, primary emotional repertory of the species.
Therefore the relationship between the individual and the environment that has been posited by many thinkers as the cause of emotions is reduced by Damasio to the interaction between the body and the brain, which is only indirectly related to the interaction between the organism and the environment. Emotion is, indeed, about homeostatic regulation, is indeed about maintaining equilibrium, but the equilibrium is, more specifically, between external stimuli and internal representations.
Feelings, on the contrary, are "perceptions", except that they are a special kind of perceptions. Damasio argues that feelings are views of the body's internal organs. This follows from his theory of what the function of the mind is: the mind is about the body. The neural processes that I experience as "my mind" are about the representation of my body in the brain. Mental life requires the existence of a body, and not only because it has to be contained in something: mental life "is" about the body.
Feelings express this function of the mind. This also explains why we cannot control the feelings of emotions: we cannot because we cannot change the state of our body, or, better, we can control emotions to the extent that we can change the state of our body that caused that emotion.
Of course, that representation of the body is always present in the brain, but it is mostly dormant. It takes a specific stimulus to trigger it and generate an emotion, which in turn yields a feeling.
William James had already argued that feelings are a reflection of a change in the state of the body. Damasio gave Jamesí intuition a detailed model: first an external stimulus triggers certain regions of the brain, then those regions cause an emotion, then the emotion spreads around the body and causes a change in the state of the body, and finally the "mind" perceives that change of state as a feeling.
Since feelings are percepts, they must be considered as cognitive as any other percept, as cognitive as an image or as a word.
Damasio's intuitive argument is that the emotional system is spread throughout the body: emotions react to states of all sorts of organs (a huge number of events can trigger an emotion, say, of pain) and operate in turn on all sorts of action, from facial expression to limb movement. Emotions are not only about the brain: they are about the whole body.
An emotion is registered by the brain when a stimulus is recognized as useful for survival or for well-being or damaging for survival and well-being. This appraisal results in bodily changes, such as quickening heart-beat, tensing muscles, etc. These bodily changes also imply that a map changes in the brain, and this change is the physical implementation of the "feeling". Damasio finds an analogy between the emotional system and the immune system. The immune system produces antibodies to fight invading viruses; or, better, the invading virus selects the appropriate antibody. An emotional response is basically the antibody that reacts to an invading stimulus, that is selected by that stimulus.
According to Damasio, the only thing that truly matters for an individualís emotional life is what goes on in the brain. The brain maintains a representation of what is going on in the body. A change in the environment may result in a change in the body. This is immediately reflected in the brain's representation of the body state. The brain also creates associations between body states and emotions. Finally, the brain makes decisions by using these associations, whether in conjunction or not with reasoning.
The brain evolved over millions of years for a purpose: it was advantageous to have an organ that could monitor, integrate and regulate all the other organs of the organism. The brain's original purpose was, therefore, to manage the wealth of signals that represent the state of the body (the "soma"), signals that come mainly from the inner organs and from muscles and skin. That function is still there, although the brain has evolved many other functions (in particular, for reasoning). Damasio identified a region of the brain (in the right, "non-dominant" hemisphere) that could be the place where the representation of the body state is maintained. Damasio's experiments showed how, when that region is severely damaged (usually after a stroke), the person loses awareness of the left side of the body. The German neurologist Kurt Goldstein had already noticed in the 1930s that the consequence of right-hemisphere lesions is indifference.
The brain links a body change with the emotion that accompanies it. For example, the image of a tiger with the emotion of fear. By using both inputs, the brain constructs new representations that encode perceptual information and the body state that occurred soon afterwards. Eventually, the image of a tiger and the emotion of fear, as they keep occurring together, get linked in one brain event. The brain stores the association between the body state and the emotional reaction. That association is a "somatic marker".
Somatic markers are the repertory of emotional learning that we have acquired throughout our lives and that we use for our daily decisions. The somatic marker records emotional reactions to situations. Former emotional reactions to similar past situations is just what the brain uses to reduce the number of possible choices and rapidly select one course of action. There is an internal preference system in the brain that is inherently biased to seek pleasure and avoid pain. When a similar situation occurs again, an "automatic reaction" is triggered by the associated emotion: if the emotion is positive, like pleasure, then the reaction is to favor the situation; if the emotion is negative, like pain or fear, then the reaction is to avoid the situation. The somatic marker works as an alarm bell, either steering us away from choices that experience warns us against or steering us towards choices that experience makes us long for. When the decision is made, we do not necessarily recall the specific experiences that contributed to form the positive or negative feeling.
In philosophical terms, a somatic marker plays the role of both belief and desire. In biological terms, somatic markers help rank "qualitatively" a perception.
In other words, the brain is subject to a sort of "emotional conditioning". Once the brain has "learned" the emotion associated to a situation, that emotion will influence any future decision related to that situation. The brain areas that monitor body changes begin to respond automatically whenever a similar situation arises.
It is a popular belief that emotion must be constrained because it is irrational: too much emotion leads to "irrational" behavior. Instead, Damasio found that a number of brain-damage cases in which a reduction in emotionality was the cause for "irrational" behavior.
Somatic markers help to make "rational" decisions, and help to make them quickly. Emotion, far from being a biological oddity, is actually an integral part of cognition. Reasoning and emotions are not separate: in fact, they cooperate.
Damasio believes that the brain structures responsible for emotion and the ones responsible for reason partially. Those brain structures also communicate directly with the rest of the body, and this suggests the importance of their operations for the organism's survival.
Emotion as Change Of Body State
The lessons of William James and Antonio Damasio provide a new framework for the study of emotions.
There is evidence that specific circuits in the brain are devoted to handling emotions. These regions communicate the "emotion" to the rest of the body via the bloodstream and the nervous system. The effect is to cause a change in the state of the body. So the emotion is really an "amplifier" of a signal that came from either the body itself or from the external world (itself mediated by the senses, which are part of the body). Ultimately, the emotion looks like a loop: a change of state in the body causes an emotion that causes a change of state in the body.
The state change caused by the emotion is, somehow, a direct response to the state change that caused the emotion. The emotion is trying to maintain the "status quo" in the face of destabilizing news. The emotion is a mechanism to regulate the body, and the regulation is "homeostatic" in nature, i.e. it aims at maintaining a stable state.
That "stable" state has to do, ultimately, with survival of the organism. All emotions can be reduced to the basic emotions of "pain" and "pleasure", of negative and positive reward. Both pain and pleasure guide the organism towards the actions that maximize its chances of survival.
The brain is endowed with another mechanism for survival, the one that we call "cognition". The brain analyzes the world and makes decisions about it. Emotion and cognition work towards the same goal on parallel tracks. The advantage of emotion over cognition is that it provides a short-cut: instead of analyzing every single stimulus separately, it allows the organism to react to different stimuli with the same action. Fear is the reaction to any kind of danger, even if they are completely different events. Emotion enables similar response to different stimuli, without any need to "think" about it.
The disadvantage of emotion is that sometimes the short-cut is not perfect: it may lead us to "over-react".
Where does this "short-cut" mechanism come from? If its purpose is survival of the organism, it was probably selected by evolution. Emotion encodes a logic of survival that was developed over the course of the evolution of species.
The USA psychologist Peter Lang believes that it all started with simple emotions related to brain circuits; that two separate "motivational" systems coexist in the brain, one ("appetitive" system) leading us towards stimuli that cause pleasure, and one ("defensive" system) steering us away from stimuli that cause pain. From these elementary emotions of pleasure and pain, that corresponded to motivations for approach and avoidance, evolved into the varied repertory of emotions of today's humans as the brain's circuitry grew larger and more complex.
It is a fact that, evolutionarily speaking, the brain components that preside over emotions are older. First brains started feeling emotions, then they started thinking.
Of Representation Systems
The British philosopher Keith Stenning not only thinks that emotion and cognition cooperate (not interfere) but even that emotions are the foundation of our mental life (not just an accident of nature of an evolutionary leftover). Emotions are a way to abstract situations. Similar emotions are used to classify situations and objects into concepts and categories. Semantically speaking, emotions are the ultimate meaning.. The solution to Wittgenstein's famous paradox (we all know what a "game" is, but there is no simple definition of what a "game" is) is simple: we know what a "game" is because we know what the emotion related to a game is. Anything that elicits the same kind of emotion is a "game". We don't need to find a definition for the word "game".
By the same token, communication is but the articulation of emotions through the development of adequate representations.
By the same token, the reason it is so easy for us to learn something so difficult as language (with all its idiosyncrasies) is that language is structured according to our emotional systems. It reflects the way our emotions work.
Stenning rediscovers an obvious truth: we are not only weird systems that build representations but also weird systems that have emotions about them. His explanation for this oddity is simple: emotions "are" the implementations of those representations in our minds.
Emotion as Memory
The closer we look, the more apparent it is that emotion is not a separate subsystem of the mind, but a pervasive feature of it. It makes evolutionary sense and it plays a crucial role in our daily actions.
Emotions are key to learning and behavior, because fear conditioning imprints emotional memories that are quite permanent. The relationship between emotion and memory goes beyond fear, but fear is the emotion that has been studied more extensively. As a matter of fact, fear seems to be a common ground for (at least) all vertebrates. The effects of fear on memory are powerful.
The British psychologist John Aggleton offered a model of how memories about fearful experiences are created in the brain by interactions among the amygdala, the thalamus and the cortex. Emotional memory (stored in the amygdala) differs from declarative memory (which is mediated by the hippocampus and the cortex). Emotional memory is relatively primitive, in the sense that it only contains simple links between cues and responses. A noise in the middle of the night is enough to create a state of anxiety, without necessarily bringing back to mind full consciousness of what the origin of that noise can be. This actually increases the efficiency (at least the speed) of the emotional response.
Emotional and declarative memories are stored and retrieved in parallel. Adults cannot recall childhood traumas because in children the hippocampus has not yet matured to the point of forming conscious memories, but the emotional memory is there.
Emotions are the brain's interpretation of reactions to changes in the world. Emotional memories involving fear can never be erased. The prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and the right cerebral cortex form a system for reasoning that gives rise to emotions and feelings. The prefrontal cortex and the amygdala process a visual stimulus by comparing it with previous experience and generate a response that is transmitted both to the body and to the back of the brain.
Therefore the brain contains a reasoning system for the emotional memory and one for the declarative memory that perform in different manners and use different circuits. In a sense, we have not one but two brains, that operate in parallel on the same input but may generate completely different output.
Reward and Punishment
The theory of emotion advanced by the British psychologist Edmund Rolls is based on the assumption that the brain was designed to deal with reward and punishment.
First, Rolls argues that the brain determines which actions to carry out based on a reward and punishment mechanism. The brain is capable of computing the "value" (in terms of reward and punishment) of a sensory input. That capability comes from millennia of natural selection. For example, when the body needs food (translation: such and such a state of energy balance is insufficient), the brain generates the emotion of hunger. That motivates the body to eat. When the body has eaten enough (i.e. a proper state of energy balance has been recreated), the brain generates the emotion of satiety.
The whole brain (not just one region) is designed around the reward and punishment mechanism. The brain plans behavior that helps obtain rewards and avoid punishments, i.e. "motivated" behavior.
Rolls deals with emotions as "states produced by reinforcing stimuli" (a purely physical, neural approach).
The special role of "reinforcing" stimuli explains why only "some" stimuli elicit emotions. The ones that are "reinforcing" need to be decoded by special regions of the brain, which generate the neural processes that we call "emotions".
Rolls argues that there are different circuits for primary reinforcers (pain, touch and the smell of food) and secondary, or learned, reinforcers (the ones that become reinforced by association with a primary reinforcer, such as the sight of favorite food). The amygdala and regions of the cortex are involved in learning reinforcers and in decoding the known reinforcers.
Emotions have several functions, including: the production of an autonomic response (i.e., a faster heartbeat); the production of an endocrine response (i.e., adrenaline); the production of motivated behavior (not only specific to the event at hand but even a direction of behavior that will last a lifetime); a re-evaluation of the stimuli themselves for future use; communication to other members of the group; the storage of "important" memories.
The representation of a "reinforcer" (i.e., of an event that causes an emotion) contains information about how to calculate reward/punishment. Not surprisingly, the representation lends itself to generalization (if one tiger causes fear, all tigers should) and association.
The emotional aspect of a perception is basically due to the activation of its representation.
Patterns of neural activity in the brain correspond to patterns of stimuli in the world, i.e. to "objects". Therefore there exists a representation of an object in the brain, and such representation is the corresponding firing of neurons. Such a mental representation obtains its meaning in two ways: from the associated reward (or punishment) "value" and from its sensory-motor correspondence in the world. First, some actions are but the means to activate such representations, because living beings are programmed to achieve reward and avoid punishment, and their search for rewards (and away from punishments) is basically a quest for "activation" of those representations. A brain will work to make those representations become active. Secondly, each "object" is associated with the kind of actions that are possible and not possible with it. The same arguments apply to language: the word "banana" has meaning both because its taste has a reward value and because it is associated to the action of peeling.
The brain is designed around the mechanisms of reward and punishment. Whatever system is in charge of "action", that system must be taking the output of reward/punishment assessment as its goal: the brain as a whole wants to maximize rewards and minimize punishments, i.e. to maximize the activation of representations relative to "rewarders" and minimize activation of the representations relative to "punishers". The specific behavior is not genetically fixed: what is fixed genetically is the goal, which is to maximize reward and minimize punishment.
There are two routes to action that can be followed in relation to reward. One route is shared by humans and other primates, so it is probably the most primitive one, and is centered on the amygdala. This route is a "shortcut" that sends stimuli directly to the motor system of the body. A second route involves "planning" the action, and therefore "thinking" about it, and centers on the language system. The second route is what allows us to make "long-term" decisions rather than only short-term decisions. It is also the one that Rolls presumes is causing consciousness. Consciousness is therefore a property of the brain processing rewards, a side effect of high-level planning.
Rolls implies that consciousness arises from the capability of thinking about one's thoughts, or higher-level thinking. He goes on to suggest that this feature could have an evolutionary value, as it allows to correct mistakes of first-order thinking (in other words, to learn). Language is therefore necessary but not enough for consciousness: consciousness also requires the ability to think about thought, or higher-level thought.
Some sensory input becomes conscious (become "feelings") precisely because in this way it can be analyzed by higher-level thought. In a sense, the mechanism of higher-level thought would be useless if it could not use the feelings associated with sensory input.
The amygdala is a major center for the creation of emotions. Animals whose amygdala was removed showed no emotions. It turns out, though, that the neurons of the amygdala are continuously generating what appear to be emotional states, just like the heart beats all the time. This goes against our belief that emotions are due to our reaction to external stimuli. Instead we seem to be producing emotions all the time, regardless of the external stimuli.
Are emotions just like phenotypic variations, antibodies and neural connections? Are they produced randomly all the time and then the environment (the situation) "selects" which ones have to survive?
Could emotions be yet another Darwinian system?
Emotions are useful for my survival in the world. But do "I" also have to "feel" the emotion? Couldn't the brain just send a signal to the organs without bothering "me"? Why am I aware of it?
A possibility is that being aware of an emotion means that the self can preempt the mechanic activation of a response in cases in which it would be counterproductive. Sometimes fear or hunger can lead us to actions that we may regret. If we were not aware of our emotions, we would not be able to stop the consequent actions.
Do emotions need a brain to occur? Presumably they don't need a brain as complex as ours. I feel pain in my foot. I feel anguish in my heart. There really isn't any need for an additional piece of body. If the brain is the place where emotions communicate with the "I", then that would explain why emotions also need a brain.
How did we come to build such complex emotions as, say, love? Love for a child is relatively easy to explain. But love for a woman is often a rather convoluted and turbulent affair. Most of the emotions that we feel during a day would be hard to be categorized as simple "fear" or "love" or "pain". Are they "evolutionary" consequences of primitive emotions (just like a human brain is the evolutionary consequence of primitive nervous systems), which are now part of our genetic program, or are they "social" consequences of interaction with other emotional beings: are they innate or acquired? How is a complex emotion formed from more elementary emotions?
What is the advantage of building more and more complex emotions? Could it be that more complex emotions express a better balance of reason and instinct?
For A Theory Of Emotions
I have an inner life, which is not a bodily life. Within this inner life (which it is customary to call "mind") different types of things occur. I think. I feel emotions. I dream.
There appear to be a difference between emotions and thinking. Emotions are often not desired: they occur because of external stimuli. I don't have much control over them, but they are not spontaneous: I can always relate them to an external event. Emotions have no logical construct, no flow, no time dimension. They simply happen and slowly fade away or change into other emotions: their only dimension is their intensity.
The main difference between emotions and thought is that thoughts do have a time dimension and can evolve over time. Thoughts can be controlled: I can decide if I want to think or not, and what I want to think. But they can also be spontaneous, just like emotions. Both emotions and thought result in behavior. Therefore, my behavior is driven by both emotions and thought, by both controlled and non controlled inner behavior. Thought also results in emotions, albeit of a different type (like depression or anxiety).
Cognition basically mediates between emotions and thought. Emotions help organize the world in the mind, and that is what thought operates upon. Each emotion changes the mind and how deeply the emotion changes the mind depends on how intense the emotion is. That "change" is a change in cognition.
Thought can also generate a change in cognition, but we can fairly assume that even thought needs to generate an emotion before a meaningful, lasting change is performed on cognition. Basically, we can assume that nothing changes in our mind unless an emotion is created. The emotion is what causes the mind to reorganize itself.
Emotion, cognition and thought seem to repeat themselves virtually ad infinitum. Senses cause sensations, which cause cognitive events, which cause thought, which cause higher-level emotions, which cause higher-level cognitive events, which cause thought, which cause even higher-level emotions, etc. The process gets weaker and weaker as it moves higher and higher, and in most cases it actually never reaches the second level (in a significant way, at least). This process is a process similar to resonance that continues virtually forever, although it rapidly stops being meaningful, especially if new sensations start another chain of events.
Some emotions are localized and some emotions are not localized. The pain in my foot is localized, but my fear of death, my career ambitions and my desire of learning are not localized. Most emotions correspond to bodily needs, but some correspond to more abstract entities that have to do with thought itself. You need to be a thinking subject to desire to learn. Career ambitions refer to a vast complex system of values that has been built with thought. Even my fear of death is really a fear of "inner" death, not of bodily death, and therefore refers to thought.
Some emotions (the "bodily emotions") are localized and refer to the life of body parts. Some emotions ("inner" emotions) are not localized and refer to the inner life of thought. If thought is an evolution of emotions, then the latter are emotions about emotions.
Emotions play the key role of being preconditions to cognition and therefore to thought.
If thought and emotion are different processes, what is their evolutionary relationship? Have they always been different and separate processes, or is thought simply an evolution of emotions that happened when language enabled us to control emotion and to develop something equivalent to emotion but more subtle?
Note that the free will of the self is almost the opposite of emotions: emotions are beyond "our" control.
The machinery of "mind", or "cognition" (memory, learning, reasoning, language), is at the service of our primary inner life: thoughts and emotions (and even dreams). The machinery of "mind" is really a mediator between our primary inner life and our bodily life. I can remember an event, and then feel an emotion or think about that event. Viceversa, I may be thinking of something and recall an event. My inner life needs a physical support to be stored and retrieved. My current inner life needs a physical support to communicate with my previous inner life. The time dimension of thinking is implemented in the physical support. That physical support is the brain.
Mind As An Evolution Of Emotions
If emotions are the basic constituent of consciousness and they have "evolved" over the millennia, a possible and plausible explanation of where our mind comes from goes like this.
The earliest unicellular organisms were capable of irritability and excitability. That is the basic survival tool: look for what is good and avoid what is bad. The basic sensors of those organisms may have evolved into more sophisticated sensors, capable of more than just binary "good/bad" discrimination: a range of "emotions" was born. If consciousness (to some degree) is ubiquitous in nature, then one can assume that those "emotions" were associated with feelings, even if they were very limited.
Emotions existed from the very beginnings of life, and then they evolved with life. They became more and more complex as organisms became more and more complex.
Emotion detects and identifies meaning in the outside world and directs attention to that meaning. That represented a great evolutionary advantage.
Early hominids had feelings, although their feelings, while much more sophisticated than the ones of bacteria, were still rather basic, probably limited to fear, pain, pleasure, etc. In mammals and birds emotions were related to sounds (i.e., fear to screaming). Early hominids had a way to express through sounds their emotions of fear and pain and pleasure and so forth.
Emotions were a skill that helped in natural selection. Minds were always busy thinking in very basic terms about survival, about how to avoid danger and how to create opportunities for food.
What set hominids apart from other mammals was the ability to manufacture tools. We can walk and we can use our hands in ways that no other animal can. The use of tools (weapons, clothes, houses, fire) relieved us from a lot of the daily processing that animals use their minds for. Our minds could afford to be "lazy". Instead of constantly monitoring the environment for preys and predators, our minds could afford to "relax". Out of that laziness modern consciousness was born. As mind had fewer and fewer practical chores, it could afford to do its own "gymnastics", rehearsing emotions and constructing more and more complex ones. As more complex emotions helped cope with life, individuals who could generate and deal with them were rewarded by natural selection. Emotions followed a Darwinian evolution of their own. That process is still occurring today.
Most animals cannot afford to spend much time philosophizing: their minds are constantly working to help them survive in their environment. Since tools were doing most of the job for us, our minds could afford the luxury of philosophizing, which is really mental gymnastics (to keep the mind in good shape).
In turn, this led to more and more efficient tools, to more and more mental gymnastics. As emotions grew more complex, sounds to express them grew more complex. It is not true that other animals cannot produce complex sounds. They cannot produce "our" set of complex sounds, but they could potentially develop sound systems based on their sounds. They don't need sound systems because they don't produce complex emotions. They have the sounds that express the emotions they feel. Human language developed to express more and more complex emotions. The quantity and quality of sounds kept increasing. Language trailed consciousness.
This process continues today, and will continue for as long as better tools allow more time for our minds to think. The software engineer who is the daughter of a miner is "more" conscious than her father. And his father was more conscious than his ancestor who was a medieval slave.
Consciousness is a product of having nothing better to do with our brain.
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