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An Emotion Is...

Deconstructing how conscious emotions arise from non-conscious processes.

This is the fourth in a series of posts related to my book, The Deep History of Ourselves: The Four-Billion-Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains, which explores the mind and behavior in the context of the four-billion-year history of life on earth. Other parts can be found here.

William James once asked a simple question: "What is an emotion?" The field has, ever since, debated what the answer should be. My particular answer, in its simplest form, is this: An emotion is the conscious awareness that something of biological or psychological significance is happening to you. This post is thus specifically about conscious feelings, as opposed to other factors that are sometimes also treated as elements of emotion by emotion theorists.

My definition of emotions as experiences that happen biologically or psychologically significant situations might make you think of the distinction between basic and non-basic emotions. The former are said to be biologically given brain states, and the latter psychologically constructed. With respect to emotional experiences, I don't subscribe to the basic/non-basic distinction, as I don't believe that emotions are biologically wired into our brains.

For me, all emotions arise from non-conscious cognitive processing. As described previously, I acquired this view of emotions in the 1970s in the process of studying conscious/non-conscious dynamics of split-brain patients for my Ph.D. work with Michael Gazzaniga. In particular, these studies suggested conscious content takes the form of a non-consciously generated narrative. Our interpretation was consistent with the prevailing view, attributable to Karl Lashley, that we are not aware of the processes that are antecedent to our conscious experiences.

The implication of Lashley's insight is that if we want to understand conscious experiences, including emotional experiences, we need to do two things: Understand the nature of the non-conscious processes that precede the experience, and figure out what the brain does to convert this non-conscious processing into a conscious experience. I discuss my view of the former here and save the latter for another post.

For illustrative purposes, let's focus on the non-conscious processes that underlie the experience of fear. In the presence of a potential source of bodily harm, sensory representations of threat will have many effects, but two are particularly relevant. First, threat information will be transmitted from the sensory system to subcortical areas, such as the amygdala, activation of which will lead to a variety of consequences, such as behavioral (including facial) responses, and increases in brain and body arousal. But the amygdala and related circuits do not make the conscious experience of fear. The feeling of fear depends on a different effect of the threat in the brain--its activation of your "fear schema."

In my books Anxious and The Deep History of Ourselves, I proposed that mental models, or schema, are the non-conscious basis of emotional experiences. Schema are bundles of conceptually interrelated memories, and "emotion schema" are memories related to particular kinds of situations that you have come to know as involving emotions. Emotion words then serve as conceptual anchors for a network of relevant memories when you find yourself in such a situation.

Your fear schema is your personal repository of memories about danger, based on all the experiences you have had with danger throughout your life. It includes implicit, semantic, episodic, and autobiographical memories, and serves as a resource that you draw upon when in danger. The outputs of subcortical defensive survival circuits affect the schema in at least two ways: one is by triggering brain and body responses that also activate memories that contribute to the schema, and the other is by increasing arousal levels, adding intensity to the budding experience.

The particular subset of memories activated will depend on the momentary situation, and provide you with a foundation for understanding your current situation, the possible consequences that may occur, and your options for coping with what might happen, given who you are. This momentary mental model is the penultimate non-conscious representation that precedes the conscious experience that occurs in the present moment. The conscious experience itself is an introspectively accessible narration of the non-conscious content of the active schema. It is an emotional experience if you narrate it that way.

Non-conscious schematic underpinnings of emotional experience are not always so precise as to lead to a feeling clearly identified with a common emotion label. The latter may only emerge once a particular emotion schema has been activated by the information collected. Before that, you may recognize a situation as unusual in some way, and may, depending on who you are, experience nothing in particular, or you may feel a sense of uncertainty or perhaps mild distress. As more information is collected, or circumstances change, these vague feelings may morph into anxiety or fear, anger, or jealousy, or might simply dissipate.

In scientific research, fear is often talked about in terms of the threat of bodily injury from predators. In life, though, we can fear bodily harm from starvation, dehydration, extreme temperatures, diseases, or old age. Fear can also involve psychological harm from social bullying, economic loss, political messaging, existential challenges, and on and on. Each of these kinds of situations will activate different aspects of your fear schema, and the phenomenal experience that results will differ as well, despite that people sometimes use the same word for the mental state in each situation. But we are sloppy with words, and sometimes variants of the fear family (fear, panic, terror, horror, anxiety, etc.), are indiscriminate when communicating what we are feeling.

Because one's individual life experiences define their schema, two people in the same situation will have a different experience of fear. Fear and other emotions are thus personal—they involve you. Like all organisms that have ever lived, you can react behaviorally to dangerous stimuli. But if you are not aware that you are in danger, you cannot feel fear—"no self, no fear." Whether self-information is built into your fear schema or involves interactions of your fear and self-schema is an interesting question.

What we call our emotional states depends on how our brain interprets and labels the situation happening to the experiencer. When that label is used to talk to others, we link our experience, rightly or wrongly, to the shared meaning of the word. This can sometimes lead observers, who only have access to outward behavior, to question what one felt. But if you felt fear in the moment of the experience, that is what you felt, regardless of what it looks like from the outside. This incorrigibility of emotion is not simply a philosophical conjecture. It is a conclusion based on how behavioral and mental states seem to be organized in the brain.

If emotions like fear are personal, why do they seem so universal? It is danger, not fear, that is universal. Every culture has words for things important in the lives of its members. Through one's emotion schema, an individual can index his or her present experience to experiences that others from the same culture label in a similar way in similar kinds of situations. The actual experience will be unique to each individual but is viewed as common across people because of cultural conventions about emotion language. Thus, although your emotion schema, and the narratives they engender, are shaped by your experiences, your culture and its narratives are also significant factors in your emotional life. The fact that many of our emotion words can be translated into other languages does not mean that the people in other cultures have the same experiences we do when they use their word for fear, anger, joy, envy, or pride.

An important question is how the brain cognitively assembles emotional experiences. I will discuss the neural basis of conscious emotion in a later post. But here's a teaser. Research is starting to accumulate showing that subcortical areas like the amygdala contribute more to the control of behavioral and physiological responses than to subjective experiences when in danger, while subjective experiences are more related to cognitive processes involving prefrontal circuits. One implication of such results is that when scientists measure behavioral and physiological responses elicited by threats in humans or other animals, they are not probing the neural circuits that make fearful feelings. Similar caution applies to other emotions.

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