Thursday, March 09, 2017

A higher-order theory of emotional consciousness

LeDoux and Brown offer an integrated view of emotional and cognitive brain function, in an open source PNAS paper that is a must-read for those interested in first order and higher order theories of consciousness. There is no way I am going to attempt a summary in this blog post, but the simple graphics they provide make it relatively straightforward to step through their arguments. Here are their significance and abstract statements:

Although emotions, or feelings, are the most significant events in our lives, there has been relatively little contact between theories of emotion and emerging theories of consciousness in cognitive science. In this paper we challenge the conventional view, which argues that emotions are innately programmed in subcortical circuits, and propose instead that emotions are higher-order states instantiated in cortical circuits. What differs in emotional and nonemotional experiences, we argue, is not that one originates subcortically and the other cortically, but instead the kinds of inputs processed by the cortical network. We offer modifications of higher-order theory, a leading theory of consciousness, to allow higher-order theory to account for self-awareness, and then extend this model to account for conscious emotional experiences.
Emotional states of consciousness, or what are typically called emotional feelings, are traditionally viewed as being innately programmed in subcortical areas of the brain, and are often treated as different from cognitive states of consciousness, such as those related to the perception of external stimuli. We argue that conscious experiences, regardless of their content, arise from one system in the brain. In this view, what differs in emotional and nonemotional states are the kinds of inputs that are processed by a general cortical network of cognition, a network essential for conscious experiences. Although subcortical circuits are not directly responsible for conscious feelings, they provide nonconscious inputs that coalesce with other kinds of neural signals in the cognitive assembly of conscious emotional experiences. In building the case for this proposal, we defend a modified version of what is known as the higher-order theory of consciousness.

When I passed on the above I was still plowing through the article, the abbreviations and jargon are mind-numbing and a bit of a challenge to my working memory. I thought I would also pass on this comparison of their theory of emotion with other theories,  just before the conclusion to their article, and translate the abbreviations (go to the open source link to pull up references cited in the following clip, which I deleted for this post):

Relation of HOTEC (Higher Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness) to Other Theories of Emotion
A key aspect of our HOTEC is the HOR (Higher Order Representation) of the self; simply put, no self, no emotion. HOROR (Higher Order Representation of a Representation), and especially self-HOROR, make possible a HOT (Higher Order Theory) of emotion in which self-awareness is a key part of the experience. In the case of fear, the awareness that it is you that is in danger is key to the experience of fear. You may also fear that harm will come to others in such a situation but, as argued above, such an experience is only an emotional experience because of your direct or empathic relation to these people.
One advantage of our theory is that the conscious experience of all emotions (basic and secondary), and emotional and nonemotional states of consciousness, are all accounted for by one system (the GNC, General Networks of Cognition). As such, elements of cognitive theories of consciousness by necessity contribute to HOTEC. Included implicitly or explicitly are cognitive processes that are key to other theories of consciousness, such as working memory, attention amplification, and reentrant processing.
Our theory of emotion, which has been in the making since the 1970s, shares some elements with other cognitive theories of emotion, such as those that emphasize processes that give rise to syntactic thoughts, or that appraise, interpret, attribute, and construct emotional experiences. Because these cognitive theories of emotion depend on the rerepresentation of lower-order information, they are higher-order in nature.

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