The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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

Emotion as Change Of Body State

The lessons of William James and Antonio Damasio provided a new framework for the study of emotions.

The US philosopher Jesse Prinz and the US psychologist James Laird even equated emotions to higher cognitive faculties such as vision or touch, which represent the relation between the subject and the environment.

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 US psychologist Peter Lang (“The Cognitive Psychophysiology Of Emotion”, 1985) 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. As the brain's circuitry grew larger and more complex, 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.

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.


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