[xmca] Emotion and Cognition

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Mon Jul 23 2007 - 13:59:44 PDT

I¡¯ve been trying to make some sense out of the article on the integration of emotion and cognition in the lateral prefrontal cortex of the brain which Mike sent around (¡°Integration of Emotion and Cognition in the Lateral Prefrontal Cortex¡±).
  In particular, I was struck by the fact that on the three-back task used, performance was much stronger in emotionally pleasant word associations and unemotionally unpleasant face associations and much weaker in emotionally unpleasant word associations and emotionally pleasant face associations.
  What¡¯s going on here? Damasio would argue that unpleasant non-verbal associations have evolutionary priority. Mental feelings, for Damasio, are a cognitive exaptation of bodily emotions that evolved as a mechanism of homeostasis: we sense bodily states as part of routine body management, and cognition of these sensations is what creates our emotional life. Since staying alive is the priority, our brains might evolve to prioritize unpleasant visual imagery (physical threats). They might even similarly prioritize pleasant verbal stimuli (offers of cooperation?).
  But this is, as Damasio acknowledges, a version of the James-Lange theory that Vygotsky slated in ¡°The Teaching Concerning the Emotions.¡± In James¡¯s version, we feel sad because we feel ourselves crying. In Damasio¡¯s version, we meet a stimulus. We evaluate it for emotional content more or less without any feelings at all. We undergo some change in bodily state as a result. We sense that change in bodily state. As we contemplate that change in bodily state, our feelings kick in.
  It seems to me that this kind of downward reductionism is pretty useless when we consider Michael-Wolff Roth¡¯s data. A high school graduate discovers through verbal interaction that his attempts to get funding for research to streamline the production of salmon hatchlings do not receive the appreciation or support of his superiors; frustrated, he decides to invest his surplus energy in leisure activities instead. A college graduate discovers via her computer that her attempts to achieve better fish growth by changing the feeding schedule have been successful, and she cannot control the excitement in her voice.
  It does not seem reasonable (to me) to assume that the high school graduate is really associating the fate of his research program with his ability to feed and clothe himself, not least because the evaluation of the emotional consequences of his rejection seems to precede his consideration of the physical consequences. The same goes for the college graduate. Everytime I try to assume this I end up with a long and vulgarly associationist chain.
  It seems more reasonable to assume that language and socio-cultural evolution has once more allowed the first to come last and the last to come first, an exaptation of the exaptation. The emotional consequences of a verbal interaction are what strike the mind first, with the actual physical consequences pertaining to bodily states (such as hunger and cold) following later if at all. This kind of reversal would be more understandable if, as Mike¡¯s article suggested, linguistic and non-linguistic stimuli are processed in different ways.
  Damasio DOES defend the unity of body and mind. The problem is that the does it through downward reductionism, without assimilating body and mind to a higher level unit, namely social man. As a grouchy philosophical materialist, I understand and sympathize; it¡¯s very hard for ME to see an abstraction like ¡°social man¡± as actually causative of physical sensations.
  But merely because it has no physical embodiment other than the body, social man is not an abstraction (any more than a website on the internet is a mere hallucination). The social roles (fish breeder, sport fisherman, college graduate, nerd) are every bit as concrete at the feelings they produce.
  (Mike, there¡¯s a relevant article in the current (13 July) issue of Science: ¡°Prefrontal Regions Ochestrate Suppression of Emotional Memories via a Two-Phase Process¡±. It offers some interesting empirical evidence for Spinoza and Vygotsky¡¯s belief that ¡°a passion can only be controlled by a stronger passion¡±. Also a very interesting but not entirely convincing article pointing to a genetic etiology for autism at least in a very small number of cases, which causes a lack of interconnectivity that characterizes autism generally.)
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Mon Jul 23 20:00 PDT 2007

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