I’d like to invite you to a thought game by asking the question:
Do you think that we will ever build a computer or a robot
that would be like a human?
Almost invariably, most people give the same answer:
«Machines will never have feelings», implying that what makes people unique
is their capacity to have feelings.
What do you think?
Is this the exclusive quality that separates humans from machines?
Do animals have feelings?
What about emotions?
Is there a difference between emotions and feelings,
such as empathy, compassion, love and altruism?
When, for example, Tony, my African Grey parrot says
«are you okay?» or «I love you» every time he sees me sad …
is that a sign of empathy or compassion?
There are many people who think so, as they attribute anthropomorphic qualities to Tony.
This line of thinking, of course, begs the reasonable question thatpsychologists
have been asking for some time:
What are emotions or feelings?
According to many, there is a difference between these two concepts.
At least from a semantic point of view, an emotion is a behavior,
while a feeling is the perception or experience of one’s own affective state.
These two constructs typically occur in us together.
Emotions are automatic responses following an event relevant to our wellbeing.
A feeling is the mind’s observation of these behavioral events occurring within us.
An emotion is a repertoire of autonomic motor responses many of which
are mediated through hormone releases.
A feeling, on the other hand is a cognitive event.
Let’s take a closer look at emotions from a neuroscience point of view.
You are walking alone in a forest, and suddenly you hear steps behind you.
You see that a huge hungry-looking grizzly bear is following you.
You feel your heart pounding in your chest, you are sweating,
your breathing changes, your muscles tense.
Your body gets ready for fight or flight.
Even your face takes on an expression of fear,
where your eyes become bigger while your mouth drops open.
These are all automatic, involuntary responses initiated deep in the brain,
in a nucleus called the amygdala,
(which in Greek means «almonds» ) taking its name from its shape.
If you were to place your index finger above your ears pointing toward your brain,
you will be pointing toward your amygdala.
Your body is on auto pilot preparing itself for injury
by releasing stress hormones.
These somatic and hormonal reactions are programmed in your brain,
mainly hardwired and to some extent learned through experience,
each having their own behavioral pattern.
In the 1970s, Paul Ekman, a behavioral scientist,
made an important discovery.
He identified seven emotions on the basis of facial expressions
that were common across cultures:
happy, sad, fear, anger, disgust, surprise and contempt.
The fact that these emotions are universal and independent
of cultural influences.. suggests that they are biologically inherited in humans.
He even observed that during brief moments lasting less than half a second,
these expressions «leak» on the face revealing latent or concealed emotions.
This finding excited not only the scientific community
but also law enforcement and spying agencies,
such as the FBI, the CIA and the KGB.
Today anyone can be trained through internet based programs
to detect such micro-expressions, thus becoming an expert
at detecting lies accurately.
But Ekman did not stop there. He asked the question what would happen
if he were to physically manipulate the face to produce
one of these expressions.
Keep in mind that during these mechanistic manipulations of the face,
there was no external event causing an emotion.
What he observed was that the body reacted to the face manipulation
by producing somatic and hormonal responses
similar to having an emotion in response to an external event.
Interestingly, the person would report feeling or experiencing this emotion.
So, an emotional response and its associated experience
can happen in the absence of an emotion evoking stimulus.
In another study, when they injected adrenalin
to participants, compared to control participants
who received only a saline injection, the adrenaline group reacted
with greater intensity to an emotional situation.
They concluded from this that when faced with an emotion-eliciting situation,
internal hormonal levels play a significant role in how the person will react
and will also experience the emotion, also implying that the experience
is modulated by the body’s physical and hormonal state.
Both of these sets of data suggest that the affective behaviors
are independent of emotion-eliciting causes.
Negative emotions produce anxiety.
Anxiety is very common in our society, while most people have
a very difficult time regulating anxiety.
Associated with a feeling of psychological pain and dysphoria,
anxiety is often mislabeled and misdirected.
A good example of misdirected anxiety is the condition
of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Psychological trauma is best treated by reliving
the traumatic experience and directed to pay attention
to mental and physical events of an affective experience.
People who were videotaped while having their wisdom teeth extracted
under local anesthesia were brought back to the laboratory one week later.
They were shown their surgery as their brain and autonomic activity were monitored.
Naturally, viewing and recalling their own surgical procedure
evoked feelings of high anxiety.
Then they were instructed to close their eyes and relive the experience.
This was repeated five times.
With each repetition, they reported less anxiety,
while autonomic responses became more settled.
More interestingly, one brain area close to the amygdala
showed increasingly diminished responses with repeated reliving,
until they returned to baseline. Reliving or introspection
of one’s experience of anxiety has healing effects.
To understand the brain mechanisms of anxiety,
we must become familiar with a concept known to psychologists as emotion regulation.
Emotions are initiated at the amygdala, but this is not the end of the story.
The prefrontal cortex that has bidirectional connections with the amygdala
plays the role of regulating these emotions dampening the activity of the amygdala.
There is yet another brain area that has reciprocal connections
with the prefrontal cortex, the insula.
The insula is responsible for the awareness on one’s own emotionality,
as it is evidenced through magnetic resonance based functional brain imaging.
Lack of ability to experience one’s own emotionality
is a condition called alexithymia.
Such individuals also lack empathic responses.
But what exactly is the role of the insula ?
It is the brain region involved in somatic sensations of the inner body.
The insula, in other words, senses activity of visceral organs.
From this we can hypothesize that the perception of visceral changes
and the perceptions of one’s emotional state are closely linked.
Unfortunately, insular activity does not easily come to the level of awareness.
This explains why the connection between emotion
and visceral sensation is not directly inferred.
Only indirect inferences can be made through the insula,
and this is why feelings reflecting the perception of one’s own emotionality
are often misguided and mislabeled.
Frustration over source and nature of anxiety leads one
to think that pleasures are the treatment for the pain,
instead of identifying and addressing the actual causes
(physical/hormonal) that remain active.
Pleasure is only a temporary analgesic that, as it wares off,
give way to the underlying pain.
Thus the pain-pleasure cycle.
Instead of a direct and effective solution,
pleasure then becomes an unsuccessful alternative leading
to an extended and reinforced pleasure-pain cycle,
while a wavering attention, I believe, is the result of frustration
in finding answers to our anxieties.
So, what is the solution to the riddle of anxiety?
The answer might begin to become more apparent under
our contemporary neuroscientific understanding.
It requires a fine attunement of our senses particularly
those involved in visceral sensations.
It is possible through training and attention
to our inner senses that this can be accomplished.
Practitioners of contemplative approaches have developed
methods addressing these issues.
In this practices, a return to self is a necessary condition.
But a means to what?
A turn to self can become mere egocentrism.
But one should not stop there.
The ultimate destination is union with God
through Whom we can become fully actualized.
In Eastern Christian tradition, such practices are found
in a collection of writings known as the Philokalia,
in which people such as Callistus and Ignatius Xanthopoulos
talk about such methods involving
the connection between the «nous»
(loosely translated as the «mind») and the heart.
in order to pay attention and focus on the heart.
It is interesting that both breathing and the heart
are visceral components receiving heavy autonomic regulation.
The return to self is not the end goal,
as it is in several oriental practices.
Finding and connecting with God is known as deification.
Deification is the ultimate actualization of our humanness
involving the healing of the spirit and the body.
A healthy approach to the natural senses might assist i
n restoring the spiritual senses.
After all, man is a spiritual and somatic entity
in the process of becoming deified.