Tool module: Can Studying Human Feelings Help Us To Understand Emotions?

Many researchers, including Joseph LeDoux, believe that emotions are specific physical states of the brain associated with specific bodily responses. Consequently, the right level at which to analyze an emotion is the level at which this function is represented in the brain: the unconconscious or sub-symbolic level. In this sense, emotions are like many other cognitive functions that operate in parallel unconsciously in our brains.

The same cannot be said, however, of the subjective feelings which we experience consciously. Feelings are only conscious interpretations of emotions, while emotions are real, unconscious processes. Recognizing that our interpretations of our own emotions are often totally incorrect, we can readily understand why researchers such as LeDoux do not regard them as reliable indicators from a scientific standpoint.

But other authors have great difficulty accepting that our feelings are no help at all in understanding our emotions. One such author is Antonio Damasio, who has written many studies, articles, and books about the emotions. Damasio shares LeDoux’s analysis of emotions and feelings, but does not share his conclusion that only the emotions are worth analyzing. Damasio agrees that emotions can be studied accurately in animals, whereas feelings can be analyzed only with the help of the human beings who experience them, with all the subjectivity that this involves.

But he says that times have changed. The technology now available to the cognitive neurosciences, and brain imaging in particular, allows us to study not only human emotions, but also human feelings. According to Damasio, such studies will eventually reveal the continuity of the process that starts with a stimulus, continues with emotional responses and their representation, and ends with the conscious perceptions that we call feelings.


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