Emotions Arise Before Consciousness

About two years ago, I had a disastrous series of personal events that left me in a situation where I was regularly out of control of my emotions. This was new for me, as generally I was able to talk myself down from a particular emotional precipice. At the time, I had a mental model of what went on in the brain that more or less put my mind in a conscious arbiter sort of situation; I thought I got to consciously choose what I expressed or how I behaved. In the circumstances above I was not: I was furious and unable to quelch it, jealous and unable to avoid snarky, biting comments, embarrassed and unable to reign in the feeling of utter worthlessness. When I finally managed to extricate myself from that situation, I set myself to discovering what was going on in my brain to allow these things to occur. As part of that research I read The Emotional Brain by Joseph Ledoux and several other books and research papers on the subject of emotional functioning. They led me to some interesting insights. The latest chapter of Looking out, Looking in (LoLi) purports to discuss emotions, their impact on communication, and how to work with them. While the ideas it expresses have merit, it is wrong about emotions in a way that may lead someone following its advice to abandon it.

Emotional responses are not all mediated by the same system in the brain. Moreover, the most studied emotion is fear, and much of what follows in this paper is based on fear experiments. Nevertheless, many emotions seem to be at least coordinated by the amygdala, an almond-shaped smooth structure at roughly the center of our brains. The amygdala has its own, dedicated connections to the sensory centers of the brain, and its own mechanisms for accessing the hippocampus, a structure that is involved in forming and recalling memories.

The amygdala is very fast; it makes a ‘decision’ about whether to respond to stimuli emotionally in about 50msec. The conscious brain, by comparison, is very slow; it takes between 150msec to 200+msec to form a conscious impression of stimuli. What this means is that by the time you become aware of something, you could already be angry about it, or afraid of it.

LoLi proposes an approach to understanding and manipulating one’s emotional state based on the premise that emotions are induced by “self-talk”; that our conscious mind induces an emotional response. While we can induce an emotional response consciously, it is generally not the case that consciousness originates an emotional response.

The book argues that one should not think of an event as causing an emotional reaction, but instead that our interpretative frame for an event causes a particular emotional reaction. Furthermore, it has a whole section dedicated to the “Fallacy of causation”, where they try to debunk the notion that others cause emotional reactions.

It is true that an emotional response isn’t “caused” by a situation, but rather by your amygdala interpreting a particular set of circumstances according to the stimuli and its own memory of the past, it is certainly “caused” in the sense that it arrives in your conscious mind in much the same way as a perception.

Furthermore, rationalizing away your emotional responses does not work in many circumstances. The types of memories that the amygdala forms are extraordinarily robust and not subject to erasure just by rationalizing about it. The only proven ways to deal with extremely strong debilitating emotions are to remove yourself from the triggering stimuli (in the case where the stimuli is rationally associated with the emotion) or to expose yourself repeatedly to related stimuli (in the case where the persistent emotional response isn’t reasonable).

For example, being in an abusive relationship with a male may make a woman leery of all men; dealing with that emotion most likely requires removing herself from the relationship, and once the emotion isn’t as present, expose herself to similar stimuli in known-safe situations until the memory diminishes.

Anxiety appears to be mediated by the dorsal raphe nucleus and thus may not be amenable to this form of treatment. Regardless, the idea that if we could just have the right frame of reference we could not only cope with our emotions but actually control their arising is an incomplete picture that may lead someone to abandon the techniques described in the book when they fail to work.

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