Cultural and Neuroscientific Perspectives on Emotion

Monday, October 31, 2011

Jocelyne Bachevalier and Dierdra Reber

The CMBC’s second lunch seminar of the fall semester brought together Dr. Jocelyne Bachevalier (Psychology) and Dr. Dierdra Reber (Spanish and Portuguese), Emory scholars from markedly different disciplines who share common interests in the study of emotion. Despite their differing approaches, the presentations by the two speakers – who represent the fields of affective neuroscience and cultural criticism, respectively – converged on a number of unifying themes, many of which came up in audience members’ subsequent questions. In this commentary, I’ll highlight these points of convergence and offer some additional food for thought (or food for feeling, if you will).

In her opening remarks, Bachevalier stressed the adaptive role of emotion for survival, but noted that only recently has empirical research on affective processes become widespread. Advances in operationalizing such processes, previously regarded as too subjective to be studied systematically, have led to a dramatic increase in neuroscientific research on emotion, including the use of nonhuman primate models. As described by Bachevalier, early research on emotion in nonhuman primates relied primarily on the lesion method to gain insight into the functional neuroanatomy of emotion. Focusing on the region of the brain known as the amygdala, researchers found that lesions to this area in rhesus monkeys produced drastic changes in affective behavior. Among the resulting symptoms, collectively referred to as Klüver-Bucy syndrome, are visual agnosia (the inability to recognize familiar objects) and hypoemotionality (diminished affect, with aggression replaced by docility). Bachevalier observed that a key problem with lesion experiments is that they necessarily involve damage not just to the amygdala, but also to connective fibers from the visual cortex (which may explain the recognition deficits). Avoiding this confound, Bachevalier’s research isolates functions specific to the amygdala by injecting drugs that selectively kill amygdala cells, leaving other fibers intact. Using this method, Bachevalier has shown, contrary to earlier findings, that amygdala damage results not in an overall dampening of emotional responses, but rather in an inability to modulateemotion, whether positive or negative. For example, animals with amygdala damage may show both excessive hostility and a heightened tendency to seek out positive stimuli. Thus, Bachevalier’s research has clarified the critical role of the amygdala in adequately and appropriately triggering emotional responses.

In contrast to Bachevalier’s empirical approach to investigating emotional experience, Reber focuses on the cultural meaning assigned to emotion. In her opening remarks, Reber suggested that there has been an epistemic shift in recent years toward the privileging of body over mind in characterizing how we experience and interact with the world. According to Reber, the current cultural landscape – as evidenced through various forms of media – promotes the apprehension of experience via feelings rather than via the tools of reason. For example, in illustrating Christ’s life primarily through vivid depictions of brutality, the film The Passion of the Christ relies on eliciting emotional responses in viewers rather than engaging their analytical capacities. Indeed, several viewers reportedly suffered heart attacks in the movie theater as a result of their strong emotional reactions to the film. Reber described several other examples of this use of emotion to rouse public sentiment, including George W. Bush’s politics of fear and the McDonald’s “i’m lovin’ it” advertising campaign. These and other observations led Reber to conduct an interdisciplinary examination of emotion’s rise in cultural prominence. Evidence for this trend comes from advances in understanding the neural bases of emotion, greater focus on the role of emotion in politics and decision-making, and the development of alternative ways of characterizing cultural experience that do not rely exclusively on verbal language. Reber suggested that a key factor in the shift toward a more affectively driven culture was capitalism. The notion of the invisible hand, originally coined by the economist Adam Smith to describe the self-regulating nature of the marketplace, stands in contrast to the more hierarchical, taxonomic qualities associated with reason and rationality. The fall of the Soviet Union and the triumph of capitalism, Reber asserted, opened the door to valuing affective experience, and the notion of thinking through feeling, at a broad cultural level.

Perhaps the most obvious connection between the two speakers’ presentations was the emergence of interest in affect across different fields. Bachevalier noted that early research in neuroscience privileged “cold” cognitive processes, and that it was not until much later that the role of affect in continually (and often unwittingly) modulating such processes (“hot” cognition) was appreciated. Similarly, one of Reber’s main points was that capitalism enabled a redefinition of emotion, previously regarded as chaotic or uncultivated, into positive terms. This change in characterization led to the valorization of emotion as a primary way of conveying meaning across a wide range of cultural forms. For example, as suggested by an audience member, social movements were once regarded as driven by reason, but when people no longer saw themselves as fundamentally rational beings (as in the movements of the 1960s), emotion became the catalyst. Reber cited the characterization of current popular protests across the world as movements of “indignation” as evidence that we are perceiving and analyzing social action in emotional terms.

One interesting issue raised in discussion was the idea that the study of emotion may inevitably, and perhaps paradoxically, require the tools of reason. For example, neuroscientists use systematic, quantitative methods to break down affective processes into specific components, and literary critics often describe emotion with language far removed from the vividness of affective experience. While Bachevalier pointed to the difficulty of separating emotion from cognition in scientific research, Reber suggested that the humanities may allow for greater variation in the language used to describe emotion, including the approach of purposefully avoiding conclusions and causal links as an alternative to rational discourse. Nevertheless, the methods primarily used to study emotion may serve the essential purpose of distancing researchers from their own emotions. Given that emotional signals can influence behavior even outside of awareness, it may be necessary for all disciplines to have precautions in place to avoid bias. As someone interested in the evocative power of language, I find it particularly noteworthy that language’s inability to capture our rich affective experience may be precisely what facilitates progress in the scholarly understanding of emotion.

About Kevin Holmes

Kevin Holmes earned B.A. and M.A. degrees from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Psychology (Cognition & Development) from Emory University. He subsequently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Cognitive Science at UC Berkeley. Since 2014, he has served as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Colorado College. Kevin's research investigates the structure of human thought, exploring how the mental categories we rely on to think, perceive, and act upon the world are related to the languages we speak, as well as how people think and reason about concepts of space, time, and number.
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