Psychology Magazine

A Higher-order Theory of Emotional Consciousness

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
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.

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