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Why We Feel

Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions

by Victor S. Johnston

Perseus Books, April 1999

210 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

I have long thought that understanding how humans and animals feel remains one of the greatest mysteries of science. The computational models of mind (see D. C. Dennett's Consciousness Explained and Stephen Pinker's How the Mind Works) revolve around the thinking part of consciousness, and virtually ignore the importance of feelings when applied to consciousness. Scientists have a pretty good idea about how we think, but virtually nothing on how we feel. Although I claim no scientific authority on the subject of consciousness, it appears to me that the foundation of consciousness must lie in feelings rather than thought. I base this on the fact that I can feel without thinking (as in during biofeedback meditation, easier said than done), at least for a few minutes. From experience, I know that I can have awareness of sensations without a single thought in my head. Ask yourself this: If you had to choose to eliminate either your feelings or your thoughts, which would you choose? I think I'd choose to keep my feelings. I'd rather live as a blithering feeling idiot rather than a thinking zombie. I can't imagine how consciousness can exist without feelings.

So the questions remain: how does lifeless matter organize itself into a feeling? How do thoughts trigger emotions? How does external stimulation and its influence on our internal brain produce sensations like color, hearing taste, etc.? Can one eventually design a computer to simulate feelings to the point of actually feeling them? Other than imitation of our own feelings, how can we scientifically tell whether another human (or a computer) actually feels a sensation?

Although I hoped this book would answer these questions, Professor Johnston admits that we do not yet understand the mechanism of feelings (drat!). However, he does illuminate many of the reasons of why we feel based on an evolutionary approach (after all the title of the book addresses "why," not "how"). Johnston utilizes the results of brain research and describes the physiology of the limbic system (the feeling part of the brain), which appears consistent with a precursor to consciousness before higher thinking systems evolved in humans.

Johnston provides several insights. First, that feelings develop as emergent properties of the neural processes of the brain. External matter has no taste, odor, or color. These properties describe sensations, a virtual world, an illusion built by the brain. We create all that we sense: the color of a sunset, the sweetness of sugar, the odor of rotten eggs. All of our sensual abilities, indeed our ability to feel any emotion, comes as an emergent property from the neural processes in our brain. The second insight-- that consciousness has developed and refined itself over time. All of our sensations and emotions got developed through the engine of natural selection, through millions of years of evolution.

Johnston's theory of mind, evolutionary functionalism, asserts that natural selection, by favoring functional mental characteristics, had dictated the structure and organization of brains. If the attributes of mind , like sensations and feelings occur as malleable emergent properties of brains, rather than rigid properties of the environment, then they can freely evolve and become increasingly refined over generations. Feelings, according to Johnston, give meaning to the thinking part of our brain and serve as the foundation of all semantic networks. "Life without feelings would be the life of an automatic robot, a life without meaning, not too far removed from the existence of your desktop computer!"

This book provides great insights for anyone interested in how the brain works, with the all important inclusion of sensations and emotions.

A few quotes from the book:

You may wonder how such a computational theory of mind accounts for our internal subjective experience, such as the "redness" we experience when we look at an apple. It doesn't! Indeed, it is difficult to explain internal conscious experiences using any computational theory of mind, because computers don't have such experiences.

Every aspect of conscious experience can occur in the absence of environmental input. It appears that the conscious properties of our mind, like our sensations and feelings, are firmly tied to the physical structure and chemistry of our brain, and they can arise without any input from the outside world.

Over the long course of evolution, the functional attributes of the mind have been responsible for shaping the physical and chemical structure of brains. From this viewpoint, functional consequences dictate structural design.

We talk about the world around us as if it is full of light and sounds and tastes and smells. The physical world certainly contains electromagnetic radiation, air pressure waves, and chemicals dissolved in air or water, but not a single light or sound or smell or taste exists without the emergent properties of a conscious brain. Our conscious world is a grand illusion!

When conscious experiences are viewed as properties of biological tissue and not rigid properties of the "outside" world, then they can be continuously shaped and refined by natural selection.

What we do detect elicits vivid conscious experiences that are gross distortions of what exists "out there." Consciousness amplifies those attributes of the physical world.

This amplification is clearly evident in real animals. In biological organisms the tissue damage and reproductive consequences of a pinprick are, on average, very small. The immediate pain, however, is an evolved conscious experience that exaggerates the biological threat, because such instant amplification is required for learning to avoid such events.

Our feelings act like active filters, or what I call discriminate hedonic amplifiers, that define and exaggerate the reproductive consequences of environmental or social events associated with relatively minor fluctuations in reproductive potential. Each qualitatively different feeling appears to monitor a different aspect of reproductive success.

The release of dopamine onto the nucleus accumbens... appears to underlie all of our rewarding feelings.

It is likely that consciousness is not an attribute that is exclusively possessed by any one single region but is a property that exists within many areas of the brain.

We are probably the only creatures who know that we are going to die, and our fear of death certainly influences our reasoned decisions. If we have to decide between two alternative world views, a natural science view of life and a supernatural alternative that offers eternal life, it is almost certain that the latter will be the more appealing alternative based on our proximate feelings.

It is not surprising that supernatural accounts are still the most prevalent views of the origins of human nature and the meaning of life.

I expect that beliefs in the supernatural will persist until human beings see themselves as moral animals, fully understand the innovative process of evolution, and come to appreciate the beauty and creative potential of their own minds.

ONE: The Grand Illusion
TWO: The Mother of All Codes
THREE: Searching FaceSpace
FOUR: Russian Dolls
FIVE: The Omens of Fitness
SIX: The Pathways of Passion
SEVEN: Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall...
EIGHT: Legacy or Logic?
NINE: Passions and Illusions

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Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions