Monday, 5 June 2017

executive function or appeal to emotion

The outstanding NPR podcast Invisibilia (previously here and here and here) is back for a third season and opens with a rather arrestingly provocative two part episode that has too much on offer to effectively summarise blow-by-blow but really delivers a wallop in the form of an alternate way to view the nature of human emotions. Rather than an unconditioned reaction to outside stimuli, feelings might be the product of one’s brain continually assessing the body’s internal functions to make sure everything is working as it should be.
Instead of some finely calibrated and detailed status report on our various systems, the brain only makes a few distinctions spread out over all the organs—hunger, satisfaction, arousal and repulsion. Anything more, on a conscious level at least, would prove overwhelming and might even be beyond our mental capacities. These internal senses and their input are called interoceptions. Consider how one’s sense of sight is compartmentalised and far different than the illusion of continuous perception that we’re presented or how our brain directs the body to adjust the blood-pressure with one’s intention to stand. There’s quite a bit of housekeeping going on behind the scenes. These internal, primitive emotions become—following the somatic theory of evolutionary psychology, which was en vogue in the nineteenth century but has fallen out of favour, dismissed as being not far removed from the idea of bodily humours ruling our moods only to enjoy a very recent resurgence—magnified and informed by our experience and upbringing. Surely it would be hard to divorce oneself from the notion that fear and anxiety—and by extension, the positive experiences too—are not something intrinsically connected to the encounter or experience (and the dread or excitement of anticipating it) but rather the product of strongly cultural and idiomatic enforcement. Of course too that mode of thinking manifests itself extrinsically by framing situations with their culturally endorsed, emotional window-dressing. Regardless of the completeness of explanation for one’s temperament, it is a comfort to keep in the back of one’s mind that one’s emotional response is provisional and very much subject to change.