The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from 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. James also speculated that emotion is only a secondary feeling: a situation first generates a primary feeling, which is physiological in nature (for example, shivering) and then this physiological event triggers a corresponding emotion. For example, our eyes are wide open and we stop breathing when we witness a car accident, and then these physiological facts trigger the emotion of anxiety.

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 US 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?


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