Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Georg Northoff - From Emotions to Consciousness – A neuro-phenomenal and neuro-relational approach


This excellent article comes from the always open access Frontiers in Emotion Science (part of the "Frontiers" series of journals). In this article, Northoff extends the James-Lange theory of emotions, which posits that the environment has an indirect but modulating role on emotional feelings "via the body and its sensorimotor and vegetative functions." In his extension, the environment has a direct and "constitutional role in emotional feelings." Northoff calls his model the relational concept of emotional feeling, and he suggests that the "environment itself is constitutive of emotional feeling rather than the bodily representation of the environment."

This is a little geeky, but it represents the shift that is occurring in neuroscience toward a more embedded and embodied view of human experience.

From emotions to consciousness – a neuro-phenomenal and neuro-relational approach

  • Mind, Brain Imaging and Neuroethics Research Unit, Institute of Mental Health Research, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada
The James–Lange theory considers emotional feelings as perceptions of physiological body changes. This approach has recently resurfaced and modified in both neuroscientific and philosophical concepts of embodiment of emotional feelings. In addition to the body, the role of the environment in emotional feeling needs to be considered. I here claim that the environment has not merely an indirect and instrumental, i.e., modulatory role on emotional feelings via the body and its sensorimotor and vegetative functions. Instead, the environment may have a direct and non-instrumental, i.e., constitutional role in emotional feelings. This implies that the environment itself is constitutive of emotional feeling rather than the bodily representation of the environment. I call this the relational concept of emotional feeling. The present paper discusses recent data from neuroimaging that investigate emotions in relation to interoceptive processing and the brain’s intrinsic activity. These data show the intrinsic linkage of interoceptive stimulus processing to both exteroceptive stimuli and the brain’s intrinsic activity. This is possible only if the differences between intrinsic activity and intero- and exteroceptive stimuli is encoded into neural activity. Such relational coding makes possible the assignment of subjective and affective features to the otherwise objective and non-affective stimulus. I therefore consider emotions to be intrinsically affective and subjective as it is manifest in emotional feelings. The relational approach thus goes together with what may be described as neuro-phenomenal approach. Such neuro-phenomenal approach does not only inform emotions and emotional feeling but is also highly relevant to better understand the neuronal mechanisms underlying consciousness in general.

Full Citation: 
Northoff, G. (2012, Aug 31). From emotions to consciousness – a neuro-phenomenal and neuro-relational approach. Front. Psychology 3:303. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00303

Here is the introduction to the paper, which offers some background on the way emotions have been understood in contemporary neuroscience.

Introduction

The well-known James–Lange theory determined feelings as perceptions of physiological body changes in the autonomic, hormonal, and motor systems. Once we become aware of physiological bodily changes induced by danger, we feel fear and subjectively experience emotional feelings. James (1884, p. 190) consequently considered bodily changes as central to emotional feelings; “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.” Modern empirical versions of this theory resurface in current neuroscientific models of emotion as, for instance, in Damasio and others (Damasio, 1999, 2010; Craig, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2011; Bechara, 2004; Niedenthal, 2007).

Conceptually, the embodied approach to emotion emphasizes the crucial role of the body in emotional feeling. If the body and its vegetative and sensorimotor function play a crucial role in constituting emotional feelings, the body can no longer be considered in a merely objective way but rather as subjective and experienced – the mere Koerper as objective body must be distinguished from the lived body as subjectively experienced body in emotional feeling (Colombetti and Thompson, 2005, 2007; Colombetti, 2008)1.

The emphasis on the body raises the question for the role of the environment in constituting emotional feelings. The body stands in direct contact with the environment via its sensorimotor functions which are emphasized in recent body-based, e.g., embodied concepts of emotional feelings (see Niedenthal et al., 2005; Niedenthal, 2007). The body is supposed to represent the environment in sensorimotor terms and it is these bodily representations that are considered crucial in constituting emotional feelings. The environment may have then an indirect and modulatory role via the body in the constitution of the emotional feelings.

One could also imagine that the environment has a direct and constitutive role in emotional feeling; the environment may then directly constitute emotional feeling independent of the body’s sensorimotor (and vegetative) functions. In this case, emotional feelings should be constituted directly by the respective person’s and its brain’s relation to the social environment (see below for definition) rather than indirectly via bodily representations. Since the person-environment relation is crucial here, I call such approach the relational concept of emotional feeling (see Northoff, 2004 for a general outline of such relational approach and Ben-Ze’ev, 1993 for the characterization of perception as relational).

The general aim of the present paper is to review recent human imaging data on emotional feelings in relation to both interoceptive processing and the brain’s intrinsic activity. This will be accompanied by discussing the empirical and conceptual implications of these data which I assume to favor a relational approach to emotions. Such relational concept characterizes emotions and emotional feeling to be intrinsically affective and subjective. Neuronally I assume this to be related to the interaction of the stimuli with the brain’s intrinsic activity, i.e., rest-stimulus interaction (see below for definition). Finally, the empirical and conceptual implications of such relational approach to emotions for consciousness are pointed out.
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