The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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

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 to 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.


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