Tuesday, 9 July 2013

So, where do emotions come from? [updated]

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A new study suggesting some people’s brains are “hard-wired” for panic and anxiety is the dead end of mainstream psychology’s dismissal of the mind, says psychologist Dr Michael Hurd.

[The] new University of Wisconsin-Madison imaging study shows the brains of people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) have weaker connections between a brain structure that controls emotional response, and the amygdala, which plays a key role in the processing of emotions. The study suggests that the brain's "panic button" may stay “on” due to lack of regulation.
    Not so fast! This research asks you to uncritically accept and to take for granted that the physical makeup of the brain determines your emotions. Period. It just isn’t so.

If these researchers were trying to repair a room full of computers damaged by malware, they’d be the sort of numbnut who’d immediately destroy computers, printers, cameras, keyboards, and even mice, while ignoring the malware causing your problems.

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As Hurd says,

Research like this University of Wisconsin study treats the hardware of the brain (i.e., your laptop) as the only relevant factor in emotion (output). It leaves out any notion of programming (i.e., Windows or any operating system) and reduces all mental functioning — thought, emotions, feelings — to sheer mechanics.

So what does determine your emotions then, if not your wiring?  Answer: It’s not your hardware, it’s your software: it’s in the choices we make, and our consequent evaluation of what the facts around us represent, for good and ill.

Emotions come about as a result of how our minds are programmed by ourselves or by others whom we allow (either consciously or by default) to program our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and viewpoints…
    Our emotions … are the result of a complex array of thoughts, beliefs, ideas and (critically understood or not) underlying premises… 
   
We all make choices whether or not to think. And we often choose what (and what not) to think by subjecting ourselves to the will, beliefs, actions and attitudes of others. Either way, it’s a choice. The physical hardware of our brains – the amygdala and all the rest – is certainly not immaterial, but is not the fundamental cause of our emotions, thoughts, ideas and values.
   
I miss the relevance of the mind in what used to be the field of psychology. Knowledge of the brain's functioning is no threat to psychology, but it can’t replace it, either.

Read on for more: Programming the Brain (DE Wave)

UPDATE: There’s an unacknowledged impact that philosophical theories, for good and ill, have on psychological theories—which I’ve touched on in the comments. Philosopher Diana Hsieh’s podcast ‘Philosophy Versus Psychology’ is worth a listen on this one.

13 comments:

  1. is this the same guy you quoted when you said that reduced serotonin had nothing to do with depression?

    I did like this in his article:

    "This research asks you to uncritically accept..."

    Which he follows with his own argument: "It just isn’t so". No citation, no studies. Trust me, I'm a doctor.

    The analogy to a computer is apt. No operating system can fix a motherboard that short circuits. It's broken and no amount of reason(coding) will fix it.

    Don't get me wrong, I think Psychotherapy is the biggest hoax ever, and most psychologists are quacks. But this is not grounds to disregard the entire field of neuropsychology, by far the most scientific of the "soft sciences"

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If he claims I can cure a physical defect with a bit of sound thinking, he needs to prove it.
    Or at least cite his sources.

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  2. @Dolf: I don't recall ever mentioning serotonin and depression.

    And I think you have got him wrong. he is not at all arguing to disregard neuropsychology--indeed, he explicitly says he isn't. And concludes: "The brain “hardware” is indeed the proper province of neurology and biology, but it is psychology and psychiatry that are supposed to be finding solutions for the software malfunctions. The concept of emotions and ideas (software) is never denied or refuted outright; it’s just ignored. This study and others like it take for granted that our mental programming is entirely the result of the physical structure of the brain... The physical hardware of our brains – the amygdala and all the rest – is certainly not immaterial, but is not the fundamental cause of our emotions, thoughts, ideas and values."

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  3. The article I refer to is:
    Monday, May 06, 2013 “I suffer from depression”

    I did not respond to that, because as someone who does actually suffer from a medical condition that causes depression, I found it so offensive that I could make no civil response.

    For twenty years I have been told by preachers of various denominations that once I sort out the root cause of my depression, my premises, beliefs and assumptions , that I would feel better. Not until I started taking a drug that increases my available serotonin levels did my condition improve.

    I stand by one thing in my post above: Where is the science? Show me the data. Show me the study that proves that I can override a biological condition by changing my thinking.

    This guy is asking me to take him at his word. just like every other preacher, witchdoctor, and quack out there.

    Where do you stand PC? Can a weakened or defective connection between structures in the brain, such as the one shown by the quoted study, be overridden by better thinking?

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  4. Emotions come from socialism

    Reason comes from capitalism

    Who'd a thought t?

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  5. I usually agree with Dr Hurd, but think he might be attacking a straw man in this instance. His summary of the study is that it claims "weaker connections...plays a role in the processing of emotions". He then goes on to refute the notion that emotions are determined by our hardware. But "plays a role" is not the same as "determine".

    I agree that free will and choice are the main driver of human emotions. But it's also plausible we're born (to varying degrees) predisposed to certain behaviour and emotions. From what's been quoted, that seems to be all this study is supporting.

    The observation of my children growing up from babies into young boys supports this. The first born is certainly predisposed to hit the "panic button" more so than the other. We've observed this from when they were only a few months old - and that's despite a near identical upbringing, and equally clear thinking from them both on the subject at hand when we discuss it with them.

    I've heard many other parents, in fact almost a majority say a very similar thing - that their first-born is more cautious and more of a worrier than their 2nd - and the 2nd is more of a risk-taker and carefree. I have a theory this might be evolution at work here. There's times where the more cautious approach ensures survival, another times where a bolder approach will. If nature can produce offspring from the same parents with variances in this disposition, the chances of evolutionary success is maximised. Whatever the explanation, it seems too common a phenomena for me to accept it's entirely free will at work.

    To use the computing analogy, yes the software is the most important aspect determining what it can do, but the hardware plays a role too. Different hardware will vary in how effectively some software can operate, and particular hardware might find itself exposed to certain 'bugs' in the same software more than so than others. Now if the software is perfectly 'bug free' (a rarity) it might work fine on all hardware, but if it's not....the limitations of the hardware could become an issue.

    In the issue of nature V nuture V free will and their role in human affairs - free will is certainly the most important. It's what makes us human and led to our separation from other animals. But it doesn't mean the others factors don't play a role either. There's still a bit of "animal" in us left.

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  6. Hi Dolf,

    I think you're reading him wrong.

    What he's arguing against is the idea that the physical makeup of the brain *determines* your emotion--and that the physical makeup of the brain is the *only* thing that detetermines your emotions. In other words, the hardware is all there is, it is the only causal factor, and since one's emotions are wholly determined by your hardware then you have no choice in the matter.

    What he's *not* arguing for is to simply flip this around and say the hardware has *no* importance at all, because clearly if a patient has an organic condition (such as, in your example, a low serotinin level), then this will be one of the causal factors. (This is what I think you're misunderstanding about his approach.)

    What he is arguing *for* is to recognise the role that prior thinking does play in emotions...

    What does that mean? Well, it can be said that (when functioning properly) emotions are a lightning-like evaluation that our emotional mechanism makes about the facts of the world around us. That "lightning-like" evaluation of the facts is not causeless, nor is it *determined*--it is the product of earlier evaluations made as the result of premises chosen (or absorbed); of values chosen (or absorbed); of prior identification and understanding (or not) of the nature of the facts.

    The facts come before our evaluation of them. Our evaluation of them (if our emotional mechanism is working properly) comes from our prior understanding of those facts in relation to us. In other words, of our prior value judgements (or lack thereof).

    Take, for example, the fact of entering a lecture theatre in which the lecturer begins handing out exam scripts, telling the class that there's now a surprise test worth fifty percent of the grade for the year. Everyone in the class will have a different reaction to the news--fear, anxiety, panic, calmness, eagerness to participate--based on their evaluation of their readiness for the exam, or of their reaction to such surprises. "On this one example, even the dullest students grasped with alacrity that emotions do have causes and that their causes are the things men think."

    [continued below]

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  7. [continued] As philosopher Tibor Machan says, "cognition in general seems less potent than feeling, yet there are experiences people have that suggest very strongly that reason is indeed potent and comes before passion, as it were. Take fear. Only once something is recognized as dangerous, hazardous, threatening and such does the emotion of fear arise. Well, one can also imagine danger, hazards and threats but then, too, a kind of warped cognition is at work to which fear is a response. Or take anxiety. It seems clear that something must be recognized as upsetting before anxiety arises in most of us. Indeed, the recognition of such upsetting or worrisome factors seem to underlie anxieties in most cases.
    I have recently been faced with the situation of fires raging through the region where I live and my particular place of residence has been subject to the threat of fire as well as its abatement, day after day, even hour after hour. No sooner did I learn of the fires subsiding, my emotions calmed down; as soon, however, as reports reached me that the fire is coming closer to my area, I became anxious, fearful, upset.
    This emotional roller coaster experience could very clearly be accounted for by reference to the facts I became aware of, facts my reasoning capacity could discern and understand...
    Reason is what we use to recognize the world, to figure out what’s what. Then, based on how we assess the impact of what we recognize on our well being, we respond with our emotions. Of course the situation can get very complicated so that it is difficult to figure out which is first, which next in every case, but generally it is more likely the case that our passions follow reason, not the other way around. When people do something out of a strong emotion, what they do has to be informed by what their reasoning shows them. Passions, desires, feelings, and such do not work as ways of identifying the world since identification presupposes judgment and judgments are made by the mind, by our reason.


    The prior thinking in these examples were the evalation to us of the fact of uncontrolled fires--which previous thinking will have told us is not just *not* a value to us, but a positive hazard.

    Our prior thinking about the facts comes before our evaluation of the facts.

    [continued below]

    As philosopher Tibor Machan says, "cognition in general seems less potent than feeling,

    yet there are experiences people have that suggest very strongly that reason is indeed potent and comes before passion, as it were. Take fear. Only once something is recognized as dangerous, hazardous, threatening and such does the emotion of fear arise. Well, one can also imagine danger, hazards and threats but then, too, a kind of warped cognition is at work to which fear is a response. Or take anxiety. It seems clear that something must be recognized as upsetting before anxiety arises in most of us. Indeed, the recognition of such upsetting or worrisome factors seem to underlie anxieties in most cases.
    I have recently been faced with the situation of fires raging through the region where I live and my particular place of residence has been subject to the threat of fire as well as its abatement, day after day, even hour after hour. No sooner did I learn of the fires subsiding, my emotions calmed down; as soon, however, as reports reached me that the fire is coming closer to my area, I became anxious, fearful, upset.
    This emotional roller coaster experience could very clearly be accounted for by reference to the facts I became aware of, facts my reasoning capacity could discern and understand...
    [continued below]

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  8. [continued] "...Reason is what we use to recognize the world, to figure out what’s what. Then, based on how we assess the impact of what we recognize on our well being, we respond with our emotions. Of course the situation can get very complicated so that it is difficult to figure out which is first, which next in every case, but generally it is more likely the case that our passions follow reason, not the other way around. When people do something out of a strong emotion, what they do has to be informed by what their reasoning shows them. Passions, desires, feelings, and such do not work as ways of identifying the world since identification presupposes judgment and judgments are made by the mind, by our reason.

    The prior thinking in these examples were the evaluation in the danger or otherwise *to us* of the fact of uncontrolled fires--which previous thinking will have told us is not just *not* a value to us, but a positive hazard.

    Our prior thinking about the facts comes before our evaluation of the facts.

    And this works too for the facts about our own thinking and feeling equipment. If we are shortsighted, for example, prior thinking will tell us it is good to wear glasses (an evaluation). Equally, the fact that our brain has an organic condition (for another example) is another fact about which it would be good for us to evaluate properly, i.e., to say, essentially, there is an organic condition making my emotional mechanism work improperly that either requires chemical XYZ to repair it, or necessitates me evaluating more carefully.

    None of this is to say that "programming" our emotions by prior thinking is without error, because clearly it can be. But it is especially so when we fail to recognise that our emotions are not causeless, and we fail to undertake the necessary work.

    [continued below]

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  9. [continued]

    VALUES: Our prior thinking about the facts comes before our evaluation of the facts. The sum of our value judgements about the facts of reality (whether made consciously or not) make up the *software* that we elect to run. And "the sum of our value judgements" is what we call a philosophy.

    Says Ayn Rand: "You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational conviction--or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew.
    But the principles you accept (consciously or subconsciously) may clash with or contradict one another; they, too, have to be integrated. What integrates them? Philosophy. A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation--or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown.
    You might say, as many people do, that it is not easy always to act on abstract principles. No, it is not easy. But how much harder is it, to have to act on them without knowing what they are?
    Your subconscious is like a computer--more complex a computer than men can build--and its main function is the integration of your ideas. Who programs it? Your conscious mind. If you default, if you don't reach any firm convictions, your subconscious is programmed by chance--and you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted. But one way or the other, your computer gives you print-outs, daily and hourly, in the form of emotions--which are lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values. If you programmed your computer by conscious thinking, you know the nature of your values and emotions. If you didn't, you don't..."

    [continued below]

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  10. [concluded[ "...Many people, particularly today, claim that man cannot live by logic alone, that there's the emotional element of his nature to consider, and that they rely on the guidance of their emotions. Well, so did the astronaut in my story. The joke is on him--and on them: man's values and emotions are determined by his fundamental view of life. The ultimate programmer of his subconscious is philosophy--the science which, according to the emotionalists, is impotent to affect or penetrate the murky mysteries of their feelings.
    The quality of a computer's output is determined by the quality of its input. If your subconscious is programmed by chance, its output will have a corresponding character. You have probably heard the computer operators' eloquent term "gigo"--which means: "Garbage in, garbage out." The same formula applies to the relationship between a man's thinking and his emotions.
    A man who is run by emotions is like a man who is run by a computer whose print-outs he cannot read. He does not know whether its programming is true or false, right or wrong, whether it's set to lead him to success or destruction, whether it serves his goals or those of some evil, unknowable power. He is blind on two fronts: blind to the world around him and to his own inner world, unable to grasp reality or his own motives, and he is in chronic terror of both. Emotions are not tools of cognition. The men who are not interested in philosophy need it most urgently: they are most helplessly in its power."

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  11. Hi Mark, I certainly don't read him as arguing that the hardware plays no role at all--as you say, "plays a role" is not the same as "determine."

    I like Tibor Machan's distinction. Nature and nurture between them give us our hardware--or in Machan's terms, our personality. It's then up to us (our free will) what we do with it. This becomes our character--which emerges as the result of our own programming, or lack thereof.

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  12. What an interesting article.

    I met a man who had something wrong and he could not express or could not experience emotions as far as can be recognised. It was most odd to talk with him. He had an unusual mannerism about him. What would be the situation if his disorder had been the other way about? That would mean that he would have the capacity for emotions but his conscious thinking mind would not be working so good. Would the result be he could not have expression of emotions because even though that part of his brian was OK it was getting no input from the other not working part?

    Amit

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  13. Peter

    You did the same cut and paste two times. Didn't you check it? Also the Rand cut and paste mentions an astronaut story which was not included.

    Use your own words more or else be more careful copying the work of other people out so it can be understood properly and in the way they intended.

    Amit

    ReplyDelete

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