Separating Emotion From Cognition

fMRI Scan

[Photo by mhuang]

One of the main points I took away from the discussion on unity is that psychology needs to integrate results from different methodologies in order to better understand psychological phenomena. The emotions are a prime example of where this is happening, perhaps because the late blooming of emotion research has coincided with the explosion of brain imaging paradigms. And so the term ‘affective neuroscience’ has come into it’s own. This post asks whether there’s any justification for separating affective neuroscience from cognitive neuroscience.

The term ‘affective neuroscience’ was coined by Jaak Panksepp in the early 1990s to distinguish it from cognitive neuroscience. Panksepp explains his view that affect or feelings are:

“…distinct neurobiological processes in terms of anatomical, neurochemical, and various functional criteria, including peripheral bodily interactions. Emotional and motivational feelings are unique experientially valenced ‘state spaces’ that help organisms make cognitive choices – e.g., to find food when hungry, water when thirsty, warmth when cold, and companionship when lonely or lusty.” (Panksepp, 2003:6)

Panksepp departs from LeDoux who, you’ll recall (if not go here), thinks conscious emotions are too bound up in the problem of consciousness to be currently amenable to sensible investigations. Panksepp, meanwhile, argues that ‘affect’, by definition consciously experienced emotion, is important in the study of emotions.

That aside, one of the most important points that Panksepp (2003) addresses is the question of whether affects and cognitions can be separated in any meaningful way. He argues that while it may not be possible untangle cognitions from affect, there is considerable utility in examining the way in which it is ‘embodied’. And here lies an important role for the neuroimaging of humans and animal brain research.

So what evidence is there, for Panksepp (2003), that emotions and cognitions can be separated?

  1. From a considerable amount of research, there seem to be emotional processes that are completely separate, or independent of, pure cognitions.
  2. Removing the higher parts of animal’s brains (decortication) still leaves them with affective responses. Put crudely: without their cortexes, animals can still feel, but can’t think anymore.
  3. Young children appear to display greater emotionality than adults. This might suggest that higher processes, developed later in life, serve to ‘dampen’ evolutionarily programmed emotional processes.
  4. Cognition is digital and emotion is analogue.
  5. Emotions are broadly similar cross-culturally, cognitions are not.
  6. The right hemisphere of the brain seems more emotionally-skilled whereas the left is more cognitively-skilled.

Even taken together these points do not prove that affects and cognitions are separate entities, but they do suggest some separation between processes. From the opposite perspective, it is clear that affects and cognitions, while their distinctiveness is being argued here, are massively and necessarily interrelated. Thinking evolutionarily, our cognitions need our emotions and vica versa. A head is no use without a heart to go with it. That doesn’t mean there isn’t considerable utility in analysing each separately.

In the reality of everyday research, Panksepp (2003) argues, it is useful to emphasise the distinction between affects and cognitions if only to encourage a greater focus on emotion.

Panksepp, J. (2003). At the interface of the affective, behavioral, and cognitive neurosciences: Decoding the emotional feelings of the brain. Brain and Cognition, 52(1), 4-14. (Abstract)

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: 17 November 2006

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