The reflex and the feeling

Stephen T. Asma and Rami Gabriel have an interesting article at Aeon on emotions.  Their main thesis is that many emotions are biological, universal, and rooted in evolution.  And that they arise through “the strata of consciousness”: the physiological, the experential, and the conceptual.

They start off casting aspersions on computationalism, evolutionary psychology, and artificial intelligence research, but their main guns are focused on the ideas of Lisa Feldmann Barrett and her constructionist view of emotions, that emotions are high level conceptual constructs, concepts that we socially learn.  In Barrett’s view, emotions are best thought of as predictions or interpretations of interoceptive sensations and of low level valences.

Asma and Gabriel’s view is closer to their mentor, the late Jaak Panksepp, that emotions arise in layers from sub-cortical regions.  They resist the idea that emotions are conceptually constructed, but insist that they’re built on primal physiological phenomena.  They discuss Panksepp’s seven primary emotions: FEAR, LUST, CARE, PLAY, RAGE, SEEKING and PANIC/GRIEF.

Similar to Panksepp, Asma and Gabriel do allow that there are differences between the low level “physiological” emotions and the higher level cognitive ones.  They don’t deny the more elaborate ones have a social aspect.

It’s worth noting that constructionists like Barrett admit primal drives like the Four Fs (fighting, fleeing, feeding, mating).  That puts her about halfway to Panksepp’s seven primary emotions.  We can equate mating with LUST, fighting with RAGE, fleeing with FEAR, and feeding with SEEKING.  It’s not hard to imagine mammals and birds having additional primal impulses to protect their young (CARE and PANIC/GRIEF) and an urge to prepare for complex activity (PLAY).

So a good part of this difference could be seen as definitional.  There is a difference in which components are seen as conscious, although even this could be seen in terms of how “consciousness” is defined.

Asma and Gabriel see the lower level sub-cortical impulses as conscious ones.  They draw on Ned Block’s distinction between access and phenomenal consciousness.  To them the lower level impulses are part of phenomenal consciousness, but not access consciousness, in other words, they’re not available for introspection or use in reasoning.  Barrett, on the other hand, sees these lower level impulses as survival circuits, unconscious reflexes.

My view is closer to Barrett’s.  A distinction has to be made between the reflex and the feeling generated by that reflex.  The reflex generally happens sub-cortically, being the primary impulses described above (and probably others).  But the feeling happens in the cortex.

I see the reflexes as unconscious and the feelings (affect, emotion, etc) as at least potentially conscious.  Asma and Gabriel’s use of the phenomenal consciousness concept here strikes me as unfortunate, showing the problems with Block’s distinction.  In this view, are any perceptions unconscious ones?

But I also think Barrett is a bit too absolutist in seeing emotions as only high level constructions.  Asma and Rami are right that emotions need to be viewed as multilevel phenomena, just not in a way that sees every level as conscious.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

17 thoughts on “The reflex and the feeling

  1. Questions:
    1. Aren’t reflexes a level of consciousness in your view?
    2. Do you accept the possibility of multiple agents within the brain, a la Minsky, and/or Damasio? Such that “unconscious” processing may be conscious processing relative to a different sub-Agent.
    3. What is the intentional object of a conscious emotional feeling?

    [0kay, actually reading the paper now]


    1. 1. In my view, reflexes are part of the hierarchy of capabilities that trigger our intuition of consciousness.
      A. Reflexes
      B. Perception
      C. Attention
      D. Imagination / Sentience
      E. Metacognition, self awareness, symbolic thought, etc.

      Human consciousness has A-E. I can’t see that there’s an objective standard by which we decide which of these layers are necessary to affix the label “consciousness”. I personally think D is the minimum, but like everyone else, my intuitions on this aren’t necessarily consistent.

      2. It depends on what above you require to affix the label “agent”. I can’t see multiple A-E entities in the brain. I do think there is a limited subterranean A-B in the midbrain. And of course we have other As along the spinal cord.

      3. The intentional object of an emotional feeling? I’d say the in-progress reflex.


      1. Fair enough. Follow-up questions:

        1. What does it mean to have level C but not D or E?

        2. How would you have an intentional object (representation) of an ongoing reflex? How would that work? Example?

        As for objective standard for affixing label of “consciousness”, I’m going with representation, which goes all the way down to reflex.



        1. 1. Having C without D means your attention is all of the bottom up variety. In other words, it’s reflexive prioritization of reflexes, such as when you realize a spider is crawling up your arm. You don’t have the top down form of attention, such as deciding to read this comment.

          I read something recently which argued that bottom up attention and top down attention should be regarded as completely different capabilities. I have some sympathy with this view, but it seems like for it to be true, your bottom up attention would need to be able to be different than your top down attention, and that doesn’t seem right, except for when you’re daydreaming, but then we say you’re not “paying attention”.

          2. You’re in the woods and suddenly you see a bear charging at you. You have an intense reflexive reaction to run. The fact of that reaction propagates up to your prefrontal cortex, which has inhibitory connections that, if it chooses to fire them, will inhibit the action part of the reflex. (Although not other physiological aspects such as heart rate, blood pressure, etc, which adds to the communication of the reflex.)

          So the representation of the flight reflex, such as it is, needs to have enough information to understand what might happen if it’s allowed. A number of predictive sensory-action scenarios ensue, each of which trigger their own reflexive reactions (although whether these go all the way down to the actual reflex circuitry, I’m not sure). One of these scenarios “wins”, and if allowing the reflex to continue is compatible, the inhibitory impulse is not fired. If it isn’t (say you decide to play dead instead) then it does fire and the reflex is inhibited.

          “As for objective standard for affixing label of “consciousness”, I’m going with representation, which goes all the way down to reflex.”

          You’re probably getting sick of this response from me, but it depends on what we mean by “representation”. In the knee jerk reflex, I don’t think the synapse between the afferent sensory signal coming in from the patellar tendon to the spinal cord, which immediately triggers an efferent motor neuron signal to the quadriceps muscle, has anything I’d be tempted to label a representation.

          To me, a mental representation requires some form of perception. Of course, the dividing line between a sensory signal (such as registering a light source) and a sensory image of some kind (a predator or food) doesn’t itself have any sharp distinction. How many photoreceptors are necessary before light registering turns to directional light registering to actual imagery? I don’t know that there’s any bright line. But I know an image of an apple is different than a signal indicating light.


  2. I am not immersed in this topic, but I have done some reading. Clearly the water has been muddied by the simple fact that parent’s teach children to label and explain their emotional feelings. And I am always suspicious when an scientist starts or even includes critiques of others works. This seems more ego driven than just making a strong case for how your conjectures explain the data available.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean. I actually had some verbiage in the post about how much they were strawmanning others, but it was threatening to take over the whole thing so it got jettisoned. Summarizing the views of others is a tricky thing, which is why I usually try to link to their own writing whenever I criticize them.


  3. “They discuss Panksepp’s seven primary emotions: FEAR, LUST, CARE, PLAY, RAGE, SEEKING and PANIC/GRIEF.”

    I quite agree. Anyone who has been around animals knows they can express these emotions. They’re clearly not socially programmed.

    Dogs take joy in running, and I’ve long thought cetaceans breach as a form of play. I just read an article today about an experiment suggesting that crows are happier (“more optimistic”) when they use tools.

    These feelings may be necessary consequences of higher intelligence (plus biology).

    I don’t have any opinion on a breakdown between what parts of all this are unconscious versus conscious. It’s all part of the mind (whatever that is) and I’m not sure there really is a clear-cut dividing line.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “These feelings may be necessary consequences of higher intelligence (plus biology).”

      I think they’re an integrated part of the functionality. FEAR for getting away from predators, LUST for reproduction, CARE and PANIC/GRIEF for investing the resources to take care of offspring, PLAY for practicing life skills, and SEEKING for finding food.

      In essence, they’re the base programming of a mammalian or avian animal. (The base programming of fish and many invertebrates are more restricted to the four Fs.)

      “and I’m not sure there really is a clear-cut dividing line.”

      That’s pretty much why I think it’s a definitional matter. There seems little doubt that these primal circuits exist. Or that the lower levels are outside the scope of introspection. The only issue is whether it makes sense to apply the label “conscious” to those lower or intermediate levels.


      1. “FEAR for getting away from predators,…”

        The root, perhaps, but we (and many animals) take it much further than those simple roots. My dog, for instance, because a wind gust slammed a door really hard in her face one time, developed a several-weeks-long utter fear about going through that door. (It eventually passed and she forgot all about it.)

        Or consider the very human fear of public speaking. The human fear palette is as rich as our experience can make it. Think of roller coasters and fright movies.

        The basic roots are like our ability to process vision or walk — built in aspects of how we operate. We agree on that, I think. I’m just saying we take it way beyond that.

        [FWIW, as an aside: I replace “LUST” with “DESIRE” because the former has a little too much emotional baggage that comes with it.]

        “The only issue is whether it makes sense to apply the label “conscious” to those lower or intermediate levels.”

        As ever, it depends on what we mean by “conscious” — frankly I’m fine either way.

        I’ve decided I’m entirely down with the ontological anti-realist position that there simply isn’t a correct answer to some ontological questions. The answer is whatever makes the most sense to you (and fits the known facts, obviously).

        I think when a point turns on mutually exclusive arguments that both make sense and both fit facts and both carry roughly the same logical weight, then very often the “correct” answer is which ever one you pick.

        The reason some arguments go on without end is that they have no end!


        1. “I’m just saying we take it way beyond that.”

          This gets back to our functional vs non-functional debate. I do agree that at times these impulses fire too intensely, or even misfire in ways that aren’t adaptive, particularly given the mismatch between modern environments vs the ones we (and dogs) evolved in. Evolution is a messy engineer.

          “FWIW, as an aside: I replace “LUST” with “DESIRE” because the former has a little too much emotional baggage that comes with it”

          LOLS! You might also notice that most lists of the four Fs use “mating” instead of the word that actually makes it the fourth F.

          “The reason some arguments go on without end is that they have no end!”

          Definitely. I think many of these are definitional disputes in disguise, and definitions are utterly relativist things. As I noted in the post, I think that’s most of the difference between Barrett and the article authors.

          There are also metaphysical issues where there may be an actual fact of the matter, but one that we may never be able to know the answer to, even in principle.


  4. FYI: This post hasn’t shown up in the Reader feed. (Yet?) I see it in the RSS feed, so the delay I usually see there isn’t the same thing that’s hiding your posts.


    1. Weird. It’s showing up for me, both when I pull up my blog directly and when I pull it up using tags. But the last one showed up for me too.

      Thanks for letting me know. Just emailed WP support again.


    2. Wyrd,
      WP support said it’s coming up for them, both in the main feed and for multiple tags. They seem to think it might be your account:

      So it appears to be working from everything I can see. Do they have any details on where it might not be showing up on their end? If they’ll contact us from their account with some screenshots of where it’s not appearing (where it’s supposed to be), we could investigate this a little bit further from there:

      Only if you think it’s worth your time.


      1. So,… the last time this happened, they did something and it fixed it, but this time it’s something in my system? Sounds like helpline BS to me.

        Today (with no special action on my part), this post now shows up in the feed as does your most recent one today.

        Go figure.


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