What emotions are

Is consciousness a bad thing?

In recent articles, the New York Times and NY magazine distinguish activity in the brain, concerned with threat, from the experience of fear.

For NY magazine, consciousness divides humans from all other animals. No others are conscious. Animals have instinctive, defensive behaviours like fleeing or freezing. Human beings have a range of responses diffused through the brain which together go with consciousness of anxiety or fear.

In studies of patients where the link between the hemispheres was severed, as a last chance treatment for epilepsy, Joseph LeDoux saw that consciousness creates explanations or ideas about behaviour. For example, the right hemisphere alone is shown a cartoon, and laughs. The left hemisphere creates an explanation: “You guys are so funny”. Listening to talk radio in the night, I am unaware of the gaps when I doze off: my conscious experience is of a continuous entertainment, which is of course what it should be. Put that way, consciousness is a bad thing, deluding me into false explanations of my experience; yet some of my experience is explicable, and I consciously consider my behaviour through more and more sophisticated explanations.

When a human perceives danger, the brain readies the body for action. The human becomes aware of feeling fear if the brain is conscious of its own activity, and has the ability to conceptualize all of that, to label it linguistically, and to integrate it with thoughts and memories. Having the concept “fear”, the brain sees certain responses as fitting that concept.

The unconscious responses and the conscious feeling are distinct phenomena, in different parts of the brain. Nothing gets in the way of truth as much as language does, says LeDoux, though language is the only way to communicate scientific evidence. Communicating feeling without language is possible, consciously and unconsciously.

Lisa Feldman Barrett is an academic psychologist, rather than a journalist communicating how much of the interview he has (mis)understood. We experience anger and other emotions as clear, identifiable states of being… Every alleged emotion region increased its activity during nonemotional thoughts and perceptions. Well, is any thought truly non-emotional? One may experience fear without an amygdala, so my casual use of words such as “hypothalamus” or “limbic system” is inaccurate. Perhaps I am best to stick to the words “heart” or “gut”. I read of reptile brain, mammal brain, human frontal lobe- then read that even simple vertebrate brains have a similar hind-brain/ mid-brain/ fore-brain structure.

A single brain area like the amygdala participates in many different mental events, and many different brain areas are capable of producing the same outcome. Emotions like fear and anger, my lab has found, are constructed by multipurpose brain networks that work together….emotion words like “anger,” “happiness” and “fear” each name a population of diverse biological states that vary depending on the contextYou might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.

Types of “Anger” might be distinguished, and wordsmiths have made a start: cold or hot, for example. So my conscious understanding increases.

Ingres, Venus Anadyomène

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