One of the ongoing debates in neuroscience is on the nature of emotions, where they originate, where they are felt, and how innate versus learned they are.
One view, championed by the late Jaak Panksepp and his followers, see emotions as innate, primal, and subcortical. They allow that the more complex social emotions, such as shame, involve social learning, but see states such as fear, anger, and grief as innate and physiological. They generally do not make a distinction between the feeling of the emotion and the underlying reflexive circuitry.
The other view, championed by Lisa Feldmann Barrett and Joseph Ledoux, see emotions as cognitive constructions, something that we learn throughout our lives. Ledoux in particular recently wrapped up a series of blog posts on this subject well worth checking out.
In many ways, this view resembles classical James-Lange theory, which held that a stimulus causes physiological changes, that we then interoceptively feel and interpret, with that interpretation being the felt emotion. But modern constructivists are not adherents of James-Lange. The brain has extensive connections between the regions that initiate the physiological changes and the ones where the feeling of those changes occur. The interoceptive resonance is undoubtedly an important input of the experience, but it’s only a part of it.
In the past, when discussing this debate between basic emotions and constructed ones, I’ve noted that much of it, perhaps all of it, comes down to definition disputes. Ledoux himself seemed to acknowledge this in a podcast interview, where he noted that he and his friend, Antonio Damasio, who is more in the basic emotion camp, agree on all the scientific facts. They just disagree on how to interpret them.
In other words, it may be that there isn’t a fact of the matter answer to this debate. When faced with these scenarios, I think there’s value in laying out the different positions and their relations. Yes, we’re talking layers and hierarchy again. These frameworks are a simplification, perhaps an oversimplification, but they help me keep things straight.
As I noted when discussing the layers of consciousness, this is not any kind of new theory. I fully confess to not having the expertise for that. It’s really just a way of relating the major views.
The hierarchy of emotional feeling:
- Survival circuits: A stimulus comes in and triggers reflexive survival circuits. This causes physiological changes: heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, arousal levels, etc. If not inhibited by higher level circuitry, it may lead to automatic action.
- Communication from the survival circuitry to higher level circuitry: The signals rise up from subcortical regions in the brainstem and limbic system, including the amygdala, to cortical regions. It’s important to note that this communication is two way. The higher level circuitry, particularly the prefrontal cortex, has the ability to inhibit the motor action aspects of the survival circuits.
- Interoception loop: The effects of the physiological changes are interoceptively sensed, adding to and reinforcing the signal in 2. (Note: “interoception” refers to sensing the internal state of the body.)
- Construction of the representation: A mental representation of 2 and 3, along with what they might mean in a broader autobiographical context, is built. Ledoux calls this a “schema”, positing that we have a fear schema, an anger schema, etc. Whatever we call it, it’s a model, or galaxy of models related to the signal from the reflexive survival circuits.
- Utilization of the representation: The representation from 4 is available for cognitive access. In humans, this typically involves using it in action-sensory scenario simulations, although it may be used for much simpler processing: single prediction of cause and effect. The result of this is that some survival circuit actions are inhibited and some allowed to continue. Note that sometimes all of them are inhibited. (The animal freezes.)
- Introspective access to the representation: For a species that has introspection (humans and possibly some great apes and other relatively intelligent species), this allows knowledge that the feeling is being experienced.
Note that this list is in the typical “feed forward” order where a feeling is externally stimulated. It’s possible for someone to initially have 4 and 5 in the absence of 1-3, which can cause a “feed back” signal back down to 1, and then up again through the layers. In other words, thinking about something that makes you angry, can set up the loop that makes you feel angry.
So, where in this is “the emotion”? A basic emotion advocate will see it happening in 1, although whether it is a conscious feeling at this stage depends on which one you ask. Damasio seems to see this stage as pre-conscious. He explicitly defines “emotion” as the survival sequence, the “action program.”
But many in the Panksepp camp do see some form of consciousness as this stage, although they see it as an anoetic form of consciousness, that is, phenomenal consciousness but not access consciousness, a sensation we don’t have introspective access to.
Constructivists like Barrett and Ledoux seem to only see the conscious emotional feeling as existing in layer 6. But this seems to require consciousness in the full autonoetic (meta-aware) fashion that only humans and perhaps a few other species possess. In other words, in their view, only humans and maybe a few other species have emotions.
My own view is that the conscious feeling of the emotion happens in 5, whether or not it’s being introspectively accessed. This substantially widens the number of species who can be regarded as having emotional feelings, inclusive of all mammals and birds, although the complexity of the feeling varies tremendously depending on the intelligence of the species. A mouse’s emotional feelings are far simpler than a chimpanzee’s.
To me, it feels like the Panksepp camp’s attribution of consciousness to layer 1 is stretching the concept of “consciousness” too far. On the other hand, Barrett’s and Ledoux’ requirement for full autonoetic consciousness goes too far in the other restrictive direction. And they seem reluctant to admit that 2 does provide a link between the higher level representations / schema / concept and the lower level impulses.
My view is that consciousness is composed of cognition that, in humans, is within the scope of introspection. Much of that same cognition also exists in other species, with varying levels of sophistication, even if they themselves can’t introspect it. That means that a dog can be angry, although anger doesn’t have the same scope of meaning for them as it does for us.
But the thing to understand is that these are philosophical conclusions, not scientific ones. As far as I know, what I laid out in the layers represents the current scientific consensus of both camps. Consciousness is in the eye of the beholder, and so, it appears, are conscious feelings.
Unless of course I’m missing something? What do you think about the layers? Where in them do you see the emotion, and if separate, the conscious feeling? And what makes you see it that way?