Tool Module: Cognition and Emotion: Two Distinct Concepts for Two Distinct Realities
Many researchers consider it preferable to regard emotions and cognition as two mental functions that are separate but that interact continuously. Several facts support this conceptual distinction.
First of all, we know that injuries in certain parts of the brain can prevent someone from assessing a stimulus emotionally but not impair their ability to perceive it cognitively.
We also know that the human brain can recognize a stimulus as good or bad even before the perceptual system has finished analyzing it.
The brain mechanisms that encode, store, and retrieve the emotional memory associated with a stimulus are different from the ones that process the cognitive memory of that same stimulus.
The systems that evaluate the emotional content of a stimulus are linked to the emotional response to that stimulus very directly, while the cognitive systems are much more flexible in their responses.
Consequently, most of our emotions automatically entail physiological changes in our bodies, from which the conscious experience of a feeling arises. Thus, the emotions seem to have more need for the rest of the body for their immediate expression.
The fact that emotions are so hard to verbalize also supports the idea that they are not merely particular thoughts about a situation, but rather a set of processes that have evolved since the earliest times to meet specific needs of the human organism, different needs from those that gave rise to cognition.
Take fear, for example. Like most emotions, fear originates from an adaptive response to a given situation. In this case, that situation is the presence of a danger. The system in the brain that detects this danger generates the initial emotion unconsciously. The conscious feeling of experiencing an emotion is only the tip of the iceberg, beneath which lies everything else that has taken place by then within the nervous system.
Intriguingly, the conscious feeling of being afraid and the conscious feeling of perceiving the colour red both depend on the same process that leads to a conscious representation. What distinguishes these feelings is the different systems that bring the input to consciousness. In other words, there seems to be only one mechanism of consciousness, which can be occupied by an ordinary fact at one moment or by an intense emotion the next.
Both emotions and thoughts can thus be said to involve unconscious, sub-symbolic processes, both of which can reach our consciousness. However, the sub-symbolic systems that generate emotions and thoughts are not the same. The systems behind feelings involve many more areas of the brain, in addition to the peripheral nervous system and the hormonal system.
Consequently, the emotions that underlie our conscious feelings create a multitude of phenomena, all directed at the same goal: to mobilize the organism to cope with something important, often related to our survival. Thoughts, unless they trigger something in our emotional system, generally do not cause such an internal upheaval.