To the ancient Greeks, it was a compelling proposition: the separation of reason from passion, thinking from feeling, cognition from emotion. The Homerics also liked to call the mind a contrasting aspect of the soul — one that stretched itself in a battle for the control of our psyche. For Plato, emotions were akin to wild horses reined in by the intellect. The rest is history: a part of reason and/or premeditated transgression.
Well, the idea of what the mind is has changed a number of times, down the ages, too. If René Descartes redefined the mind to include only what we are aware of — making mind and consciousness the same thing — Sigmund Freud formalised the unconscious as the ‘home’ of primitive instincts and emotions.
It is not surprising that a field currently exists to study rationality, or cognition, independent of emotions. You know its identity: cognitive science, or the ‘new science of the mind.’ In reality, however, cognitive science is a science of only a part of the mind — one that is related to thinking, reasoning, and intellect. It leaves emotions out. And, quite amazingly at that.
Maybe, you wouldn’t quite acquiesce to such a supposition. Because, minds without emotions, you’d imply, are not really minds at all. They are, as Joseph LeDoux, a distinguished professor of science, calls, “souls on ice — cold, lifeless creatures devoid of any desires, fears, sorrows, pains, or pleasures.” Hence, his repartee: “Why would anyone want to conceive of minds without emotions? [Or] how could such a field focused on emotionless minds be so successful?”
New research, according to LeDoux, on what emotions are, how they operate in the brain, and why they have such important influences on our lives, at, what he calls the first level, scans the point of proper analyses of psychological functions in the brain. The second, that streams through it, he says, is related to the fact that brain systems that generate emotional behaviours are highly conserved through numerous levels of emotional history. So, when these systems — in other words, the third dimension of the idea — function in an animal that also has the capacity for conscious awareness, then cognisant emotional feelings occur. It is a gradation that clearly happens in human beings, although emotional responses are, for most part, produced unconsciously.
LeDoux’s fourth level follows from the third — the conscious feelings we know, love, or hate. The fifth outlines emotional feelings, and responses, as effects caused by the activity of a common underlying system that is open to objectively measurable emotional responses [of investigation]. While the sixth structure is related to conscious feelings, the seventh looks at emotions as things that happen to us, rather than things we will to occur. LeDoux concludes that once emotions occur, they become powerful motivators of future behaviours.
Human consciousness, says LeDoux, is the way it is because of the way our brain is. He adds: “Emotional feelings result when we become consciously aware that an emotional system of the brain is active. [So] any organism that has consciousness also has feelings.” He elaborates, “Emotions evolved not as conscious feelings, linguistically differentiated or otherwise, but as brain states and body responses.”
His bottom line: “The brain states and bodily responses are the fundamental facts of an emotion, and the conscious feelings are the frills that have added icing to [our] emotional cake.”