The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

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. William James explained emotions as bodily upsets, but the variety of emotional responses makes it difficult to devise a common theory of emotions (and why only some bodily upsets result in emotions). If emotions have a “cognitive life”, on the other hand, that would explain their complexity.

The US 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 US 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.  An emotion arises 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 given set of emotions, and this explains why emotions change through the various stages of life. 

The meaning of each emotion is about the significance of the triggering event (the situation) for the well-being of the individual. Ultimately, emotions express the personal meaning of an individual's experience. 

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.

Similarly, the Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda viewed emotions as awareness of “action tendencies”, tendencies to act based on the situation.

The US psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer (“Emotional intelligence”, 1990) introduced the term "emotional intelligence" and identified  four kinds of emotional intelligence: recognizing emotions, using emotions to facilitate reasoning, understanding the meaning of one's emotions, managing one's emotions. Several scholars associated emotional intelligence with the development of empathy  from the US pediatrician Martin Hoffman (“Development of Prosocial Motivation”, 1982) to the US psychologist Nancy Eisenberg (“Empathy and Sympathy”, 2000). In fact, the French neurologist Jean Decety  and the US neurologist Philip Jackson have shown that in most cases empathy employs the same neural structures of emotional intelligence (“A Social-Neuroscience Perspective on Empathy”, 2006).

Following Heidegger (who thought that emotions tune us to the world) and Sartre (who thought that emotions have a purpose and we are responsible for them), the US philosopher Robert Solomon argued that we are responsible for our emotions, and, in fact, we "are" our emotions (as well as our thoughts). Emotions are an essential part of our existence: without them, we would not be able to make rational decisions. It is our emotions that guide us in this world. Anger, for example, is a strategy for engaging with the world. People enjoy dramatic films and even horror films because they evoke unpleasant emotions. People even enjoy (and pay for) experiencing extreme danger (whether on rollercoasters or paragliding). We wouldn't get pleasure out of a "negative" emotion unless that emotion was not negative at all. Pleasure and pain are not opposites: they are complementary. Emotions help us conceptualize and evaluate, and therefore shape our lives.  Emotions are not inside our mind but are outside, in the world, and more precisely in the social space. "Introspecting is looking in the wrong place". Emotions, therefore, help us "reason". People whose emotional life has been damaged (e.g. by a stroke) are no longer capable of making rational decisions despite the fact that the rest of their brain is functioning like before. They do not "care" for the consequences of the decision and therefore are incapable of making a rational one.  Solomon also argued that spirituality is a meta-emotion that transcends the personal and relates to a larger self.


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