Rediscovering The Emotional Unconscious

Man Cries

[Photo by Ali K]

In the last post I started the discussion of emotions with a few general points made by the philosopher Robert Solomon. In this post I’m moving onto a psychologist whose study of the emotions has been extremely influential: Joseph LeDoux. In his book, The Emotional Brain, LeDoux (1996) examines and explains the automatic nature of many emotional processes. But these won’t concern us just yet. First we need to consider an important criticism LeDoux makes of much previous research into emotions.

LeDoux (1996) looks back to the cognitive revolution to explain why emotion research has been lacking. The beauty of the cognitive revolution was that it reintroduced the idea that examining unconscious processes was a legitimate target of scientific interest. The behaviourists before had shunned all unconscious processes, arguing that an organism’s overt behaviour was the only measure you could trust. Cognitivists, however, said we can make inferences about unconscious processes from the way humans (and indeed other animals) react to particular situations.

Emotions, for LeDoux, have not had the advantage of this revolution. Instead, the focus in emotion research has been on the conscious experience of emotions. For example, after some experimental manipulation, the subject is asked:

  • “How do you feel?”
  • The subject introspects and returns the answer: “Err… I feel fine.”

This is often considered a valid method of investigation. But, now imagine using this technique to model basic cognitive processes like memory, the subject is asked:

  • “How many digits can you retain in short-term memory?”
  • The subject introspects and returns the answer: “Err… Probably about 7.”

Valid? “Err… Probably not.” Obviously I’m taking (considerable) liberties with this example, but the underlying point is valid. Why should anyone be able to properly comprehend their own emotions if they can’t properly comprehend their cognitions? After all, it is a well-known phenomenon that other people can sometimes judge our emotional state better than we can ourselves. How is that possible if we have complete access to ‘how we feel’?

LeDoux (1996) expands this idea by pointing out that emotion researchers have accidentally bitten off much more than they can chew. Instead of ‘just’ examining the problem of unconscious emotional processes, they are also attempting to unpick the problem of ‘consciousness’ at the same time. In other words, not only are they trying to examine unconscious emotional processes, but also to understand how these move into consciousness.

Two crucial ideas have emerged from the first two posts in this series. Firstly, Solomon argues emotions can be thought of as strategies, not just simply as processes out of our conscious control. The second crucial idea, which LeDoux argues, is that emotions don’t seem to have benefited from the cognitive revolution in the same way that cognitions have. Enormous research efforts have been made to understand unconscious cognitive processes, but rather less effort has been made to understand unconscious emotional processes.

Are these viewpoints compatible? On one hand a philosopher is telling us that, in some sense, we actually have control over our emotions. At the other, a psychologist is telling us that, because emotional processes are largely unconscious, we don’t have access to them. How can we have control over something we can’t gain access to? Actually these points of view are perfectly compatible, for the same reason that I can will my hand to move, but I don’t have direct access to the complex series of physiological interactions that are required to achieve this feat.

So, now that we’ve somewhat devalued the importance of research into conscious emotional processes, what does the research tell us about unconscious emotional processes? Stay tuned…

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. London: Simon & Schuster.
Joseph LeDoux’s website

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 13 November 2006

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License