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Assembling the Emotions

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 36 (2006) Supplement [vol. 32]
pp. 185-212 | 10.1353/cjp.2007.0039

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Endogenous depression is highly correlated with low levels of serotonin in the central nervous system. Does this imply or suggest that this sort of depression just is this neurochemical deficit? Scorning such an inference, Antonio Damasio writes:

If feeling happy or sad … corresponds in part to the cognitive modes under which your thoughts are operating, then the explanation also requires that the chemical acts on the circuits which generate and manipulate [such thoughts]. Which means that reducing depression to a statement about the availability of serotonin or norepinephrine in general – a popular statement in the days and age of Prozac – is unacceptably rude.

(1995, 161)

Damasio's thought is that depression is essentially a modification of how we perceive the world, reason about it, and make decisions about how to act in it – in other words, that it is essentially cognitive. A reduced level of serotonin might cause the said modification, but no adequate account of depression would identify the malady with its cause. A proper account would minimally need to say how cognitive processing is affected by a reduced level of serotonin. (On this, see also Castrén 2005.) Damasio's broader point is that the emotions must receive cognitive or intentional – as opposed to merely affective or behavioural – characterizations.

In this paper, we identify (section I) a problem with cognitive characterizations of the emotions, facts which suggest that they must be non-cognitive affective states. We suggest (section II) that this problem is an instance of certain obstacles that make it difficult to come up with cognitive characterizations in neuropsychological theorizing. This leads us to the constructive part of the paper (sections III–IV), in which we suggest how the problem might be solved.

I. Cognitive Accounts of the Emotions: A Puzzle

The following puzzle arises from certain recent discoveries about the localization of emotion in the brain reported by Damasio himself.

Damasio reports that emotional response is destroyed in patients who suffer lesions of the ventromedial portion of the prefrontal cortex; these patients seem not to care about themselves as normal people do. Patients whose brain is thus damaged also suffer from a strange decline in decisiveness – they seem unable to formulate a plan of action and carry it through to execution. However, when only this portion of the brain is damaged, it appears that many forms of rational processing are spared, including those which lead to the social and moral assessment of hypothetical scenarios. Thus, it appears, the lack of decisiveness is associated not with the inability to assess a situation, but from a disengagement of emotion. Conversely, there are many lesions of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that result in deficits of rational processing but not necessarily in flatness or lack of emotional response (Milner 1964). In summary:

  Emotional Affect/ Decisiveness Rational Assessment of Social/Moral Scenarios
(Some) ventromedial lesions Impaired Spared (also memory and "frontal lobe" cognition)
(Some) dorsolateral lesions Spared Impaired

This pattern of impairments seems to show that emotional affect is separate from social cognition. But if this is so, what cognitive function is left over for emotion, over and above the rational assessment of social and moral scenarios? This is a puzzle because the cognitive role that the best recent philosophical accounts have assigned to emotion is precisely the assessment of such scenarios (cf. de Sousa 1987). Nor can one hold that emotion is a parallel or independent system for such assessment, since emotional arousal normally requires prior assessment. That is, you have to figure out by rational assessment that you have been slighted, or wronged, or helped before you can feel mortified, or indignant, or grateful – patients with ventromedial lesions retain at least a reduced capacity to figure such things out, but they do not get emotionally aroused by them. What exactly are they missing then, other than affect or mood?

Traditionally, affect is not thought to have cognitive content – considered as affect, sadness may accompany the belief that things are bad, but qua affect it has no propositional content. So the evidence just cited seems to show that Damasio is simply wrong to insist that emotion must be cognitively characterized. And this flies in the face of the most convincing philosophical...



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