So, how are you feeling? Joyful, sad, angry, anxious, indifferent, curious?
Whatever your current emotion is, it is more than a philosophical and abstract notion. It happens within our bodies, in a way we understand and recognize within both ourselves and others. Sure enough, it must have a biological background.
Then, is it the skip in our heartbeat, the thrill down the spine, the laughs or the tears? In our common understanding, these are secondary effects. Recurrent corollaries of a different process which we commonly term emotion.
For a long time, neuroscience did not concern itself with this. Such an intangible notion, and yet one that is intertwined so closely with our daily lives, it was accepted to be abstract and left to be dealt with by philosophy and psychology.
Even when a neuroscientific approach was proposed, the theme seemed yet so foreign, so unnatural to the established scientific method, that it received a field of its own: affective neuroscience, to distinguish it from cognitive neuroscience - the study of other higher brain functions.
More recent studies, however, argue differently: emotions may not be innate standardized responses to a situation, but, indeed, cognitive functions.
Emotions are ways of thinking
Argues Marvin Minsky in his 2006 book, The Emotion Machine, a sequel to his more popular Society of Mind.
Society of Mind, both a book and a theory according to which natural intelligence emerges as a consequence of interactions between simpler parts termed agents, tackles issues such as learning, consciousness, language and even the concept of thought and self.
Minsky views The Emotion Machine as a natural continuation of that work. According to him, emotions are more than just innate responses, or reflexes of the mind. Instead, they are complex ways of thought that reallocate the resources our brain has available at any point in time.
Examples include anger, which would guide our behaviour towards aggressiveness, strength and a train of thought that focuses on deficits and mistakes. Love, on the other hand, may make us focus on a person’s qualities, disregard his/her defects and reshape our behaviour and perspective to match what we think is desired of us.
To understand these phenomena, Minsky argues, we ought not simplify them, or try to bring them to one unifying principle. Instead, we should accept their complexity and aim to regard them as results of multiple reallocations of interacting resources, much like any other way of thought.
Emotions are cognitive
“In this paper we challenge the conventional view, which argues that emotions are innately programmed in subcortical circuits, and propose instead that emotions are higher-order states instantiated in cortical circuits.”
J.E. LeDoux and Richard Brown, PNAS 2017
A recent paper reiterates similar principles: emotions are more than some subconscious “reflexes”. They require thought and processing similar to all other superior brain functions - therefore, their location in the cortex, a rather higher-order structure we usually deem responsible for analytical thinking.
In an article that bridges neuroscience with philosophy, authors argue that the brain processes emotions much in the way it does other stimuli or problems, via a general network of cognition. What sets emotions apart is not, then, the way they arise, but the kind of inputs that generate them in the first place. And while lower structures, such as the limbic system or the amygdala, are famously involved in emotional states, that may not be the full story.
According to the authors, a primordial emotion, such as fear, arises as a complex, highly processed representation of both what is perceived through lower-grade structures (a threat, be it external or personal) and relevant memories of similar experiences. Then, we perceive a stimulus as dangerous. True fear goes beyond this, though. It also brings ourselves, our self-consciousness in the range of this dangerous stimulus. This often goes beyond a fundamental function, an instinct of preservation. Sure, we fear obvious threats such as a snake or a high place. But we also fear intangible notions - such as death, or the meaning of our own life. In our minds, the feeling we experience in all these situations is not overtly distinct. And while some can be explained by primordial functions, others require deep perception and cognition in order to be felt - suggesting that fear itself, and in the same fashion all emotions, may be integrated at a higher level than we give them credit for.
Where do we feel our emotions?
Disappointingly, not ‘in our gut’.
Although, interestingly enough, the gut feeling is also considered to be cognitive at its core. Despite our habit of prizing analytical decisions over intuition or impulses, research suggests that our intuition itself may stem from the brain perpetually analyzing given situations, predicting all possible scenarios and selecting the most favourable one.
With the paradigm slowly shifting from a divised, cognitive vs emotional view, one big question now is: Where, then, are emotions processed as higher functions?
Traditional targets involved in emotional behavior include the amygdala - the center of fear. Here is where a threat gets first processed, and traditional bodily responses are triggered - increased heartbeat, sweating, dilated pupils - all we need to go into fight or flight mode. But this is, as we’ve discussed, not all there is to fear.
On a larger scale, the amygdala is included in a system that gets often associated with emotions: the limbic system. Controversially made up of a set of structures and nuclei at the center of the brain - such as the amygdala and the hippocampus, it’s been often associated with emotional responses, as well as remembering emotions and behavioral adaptations that derive from there.
The fact that emotional states were for a long while considered to reside in these structures outside the cortex played a role in them not being viewed as a higher, cognitive function.
However, the limbic system is not so clearly defined. As researchers argue about what it should or should not include, some areas of the cortex made their way into the mix. Some are the cortex near the hippocampus, the cingulate gyrus or a portion of the insular cortex.
An interesting piece of recent research brings even more areas into light.
In a 2019 Nature paper, researchers from the Molecular Mind Laboratory in Italy asked participants to watch Forrest Gump and report the nature and intensity of their emotions elicited by every scene. Using fMRI, they linked emotions as well as their perceived complexity and intensity to a relatively small area within the temporo-parietal region.
As we gain more information about how we ‘feel’ and process our feelings, they become less and less of abstract, intangible notions. We ought to gain a better understanding of these personal, yet cohesive and ubiquitous and immensely diverse experiences - emotions.