Neurology of Emotions

What are emotions? As Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett describes them: guesses, created by billions of neurons. In the featured image of the mannequins, your brain may have had conflicting emotions about it. Happiness, community, laughter, excitement, attraction, weird and kooky may have all found an emotional outlet. Yet, a repulsion to the fakeness in its effort to create an emotion within you may have ultimately dominated your emotions.

Neurology shows us that emotions are not inherent, they are processes trying to match an experience with what has been experienced in the past. In other words, predictions. The simple signals we perceive are combined with predictions created by our brains to produce an emotion. For example, walking into a bakery and encountering the smells results in a feeling of hunger.

This understanding of emotions has profound ramifications for how we perceive the world. The jury system within the justice system, business relationships and personal relationships are largely based on historical experiences, allowing our own biases to flood into these societal structures. The good news? We have control over our emotions. Training your emotions today changes how you predict emotions in the future.

Your Personal Six Dimensional Emotional Style

Emotions Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D.Currently, I am reading The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard J Davidson. In the book, Dr. Davidson argues we have six dimensions to our Emotional Style: Resilience, Outlook, Social, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context and Attention. Each of these dimensions are associated with the neurology of our brain:

  • Resilience is determined by the activity level between the left prefrontal cortex (cognitive control) and the amygdala (associated with negative emotion and distress, like anxiety, afraid or threatened). The more axons between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the greater the resilience.
  • Social intuition is determined by the balance of activity between the amygdala and the fusiform gyrus (recognition of color, face, words, among others). Lack of social intuition associated with high levels of activity within the amygdala and low levels within the fusiform. Oxytocin quiets the amygdala, improving feelings of commitment.
  • Context, the ability to differentiate the familiar from the unfamiliar, is associated with the hippocampus. The hippocampus communicates with the executive brain function in the prefrontal cortex, as well as long-term memory storage. PTSD is associated with this dimension of the brain.
  • Self-Awareness, or the ability to perceive one’s internal state, is associated with activity in the insula. The insula receives signals from the visceral organs (heart, liver, stomach, etc.). Higher insula activity means a higher self-awareness.
  • Outlook is determined by activity from the prefrontal cortex to the nucleus accumbens, a region associated with motivation and generating a sense of reward. The greater the activity of the nucleus accumbens, driven by the prefrontal cortex, the greater the will of the person to feel rewarded and thus persevere.
  • Attentiveness incorporates two mechanism, enhancing the strength of the signals of the attended channel and inhibiting the signals from the ignored channels. The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in moderating these enhancements. In fact, Dr. Davidson found that the prefrontal regions became synchronized with the arrival of external stimuli with practiced focus.

By mapping the Emotional Style of the individual to their brains, Dr. Davidson illustrates how the wiring of our brain largely determines our baseline emotional response to situations. Two important additional points are (1) the neuroplasticity of our brains provides the ability to change our emotional responses, and (2) emotions and thoughts are strongly inter-related.

Emotions in a Superconscious

One can make many predictions from these finding within neurology research. Here are a few:

  1. AI will eventually have emotions, if it hasn’t already. If emotions are simply the result of our brain circuits trying to make predictions based on experience and social survival, then an AI interconnected with both organic and silicon systems will likely develop something similar. If human rights are based on suffrage, then AI rights may become equal in importance. In Evolved, it is assumed silicon life has equal “life rights” to organic human life.
  2. Our Justice System will change. The judge/ jury system incorporates a healthy amount of subjective opinions about the defendant’s state of mind and remorse, subjective opinions that may not relate to the life experiences of the defendant. Furthermore, the neuroplasticity of the brain implies a convict can be rehabilitated, returning them to a more harmonious relationship with society and avoiding simply punitive sentences. Is there any logic to sentencing an autonomous AI form to a punitive jail term when we could simply rewire them? A sea of ethical issues surround these issues.
  3. We will be able to share emotions through a Superconscious. If emotions are simply brain functions, and we eventually connect our brains to a larger neural network/ Superconscious, then we will be able to intimately share our emotions and thoughts with each other. This means we will be able to push emotions on another through the Superconscious, a topic of deep ethical and morale ramifications.
  4. Spiritual practices based on dualism will be challenged. If consciousness falls purely into the metaphysical category of Physicalism, then religions preaching dualism (eg. God is separate, “up there”) will find a growing void between the two worlds, possibly resulting in further fracturing of belief systems into more moralistic testing frameworks. Religions preaching a unitary structure (eg. God is everywhere, including within us), may confront doubtful followers who choose the more objective views of science.

Shifting Focus towards Rehabilitation

In my post on the Red God, I note a key difference between the western justice system and native American tribal systems. Our justice system is based on confrontation (plaintiff vs. defendant) and the punitive jail system. In native American tribal culture the focus is on restoring harmony, rehabilitation. In a superconscious world, which has extreme neuro/circuit plasticity within our linked brains, punitive measures may make little sense. Instead, we would need to focus on active re-wiring of neural networks to restore balance and harmony. In the words of Dr. Barrett:

“Sometimes, we are responsible for something not because we’re to blame, but because we’re the only ones who can change it.” – Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett