Fringe feelings

There are those fringe feelings in consciousness that are not perceptions or actions but just feelings: parts of various emotions and hints about what is happening. A feeling of familiarity, of distrust, of ‘tip of the tongue’ are fringe feelings so are feelings of anger or happiness. Here is a new pair introduced by Wray Herbert (here). They are similar, he calls them ‘Whew!’ and ‘Finished!’.

Wipe your brow, slightly roll your eyes, relax your shoulders and let out a forceful little puff of air and feel the relief. You have either survived a very close call or you have finished a huge task. This might be the same fringe feeling, relief, but Herbert explains how they are different.

Are there really Whew! moments and Finally! moments—very different circumstances that generate the same basic emotion? Sweeny and Vohs decided to explore this possibility in a couple experiments. They wanted to see if, on closer examination, the two kinds of relief might differ significantly in nature and consequences. … The scientists suspected that the two kinds of relief would produce different results, cognitively and emotionally. And that’s just what they found. Those who were recalling a Whew! experience were much more likely to fixate on the most dire outcome they might have experienced. Those recalling a Finally! experience also engaged in what-if thinking, but they tended to focus on how things might have turned out better. Sweeny and Vohs believe this is because “what if” thinking arises to guide future behavior: When we narrowly dodge a bullet, it’s adaptive to think about how we might do that again (or even better) next time around. Such strategizing is not so beneficial when one has completed a task that’s either unavoidable or, in the end, gratifying—even if it is a relief to do so. …That is, those who were thinking Whew! were more apt to imagine the worst, and this catastrophic thinking led to feelings of being alone and disconnected. Their minds may have been strategizing for the future, but in the meantime they were suffering through painful what-if scenarios. … The other form of relief—Finally!—may also have some adaptive value for the future, though quite different. By engendering positive thinking and solidifying a sense of belonging, it might help reinforce the motivation to push on when faced with life’s challenges.

This fits with what we have been thinking about fringe feelings in consciousness. Just like it is advantageous to remember our perceptions and actions, it is also advantageous to remember the ‘colour’ of events: their emotional settings (made me angry), the train of mental work that they set in motion (must recall who that is), and the lessons that should be learned (never go that close to the edge again). The immediate memories with marks of significance like this are unlikely to disappear quickly by being carelessly lost in consolidation.


That fringe feeling we get that we should be wary, suspicion, rises into consciousness from time to time – but where does it come from?

A recent item in ScienceDaily (here) reports on a paper by Bhatt, Lohrenz, Camerer and Montague, Distinct contributions of the amygdala and parahippocampal gyrus to suspicion in a repeated bargaining game. They separate two types of suspicion.

“We found a strong correlation between the amygdala and a baseline level of distrust, which may be based on a person’s beliefs about the trustworthiness of other people in general, his or her emotional state, and the situation at hand. What surprised us, though, is that when other people’s behavior aroused suspicion, the parahippocampal gyrus lit up, acting like an inborn lie detector.”

One way to think of this is that there is a default level of wariness set by the amygdala. It is on a spectrum from being trusting as a default to being suspicious as a default for each individual and would also change with the danger of the situation and the day to day level of confidence of the individual. The parahippocampal gyrus on the other hand reacts to the probability that a particular person is untrustworthy.

So, the fringe feeling of wariness comes from the amygdala but the attribute of untrustworthiness associated with a specific individual comes from the parahippocampal gyrus.

Arriving at where we started

“And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.” – T S Eliot

There is a bit of this sentiment in embodied cognition theory. We can see this in the way our language is riddled with heart metaphors implying that the heart is the seat of some emotions. The idioms show that once it was natural to include more than the brain in our feeling/knowing/aware selves. “He has a broken heart”; “my heart is not in it”; “she is all heart”; “they are hard hearted”, “my heart tells me to do it”. These saying hark back to a time when we did not separate ourselves at the neck, but thought of ourselves as an indivisible whole.

One way to look at the connection of the brain with the rest of us, is to notice, that our conscious awarenesses know our emotional state through its effects on our bodies. We are conscious of our excitement because our heart rate rises. We are conscious of our displeasure because we feel our brow frown. We are conscious of our fear by our breathing becoming weak. The easiest route to consciousness is through the senses and that includes our sensing our own bodies.

Another way to view the connection is to look at where our conscious thoughts come from. We can think of everything having a predecessor. We start with what can be felt by a newborn and assume that growing up provides layer upon layers of elaboration of the things a baby can know. We use nested metaphors and analogies. So the feeling of social comfort can be tapped by feelings or warmth or closeness. Physical pain and social rejection are related.

Embodied cognition research has found many connections. Recently there was an article in the Scientific American by Adam Waytz that elaborated on the heart-brain connection. (here)

Psychology’s recognition of the body’s influence on the mind coincides with a recent focus on the role of the heart in our social psychology. It turns out that the heart is not only critical for survival, but also for how people related to one another. In particular, heart rate variability (HRV), variation in the heart’s beat-to-beat interval, plays a key role in social behaviors ranging from decision-making, regulating one’s emotions, coping with stress, and even academic engagement. Decreased HRV appears to be related to depression and autism and may be linked to thinking about information deliberately. Increased HRV, on the other hand, is associated with greater social skills such as recognizing other people’s emotions and helps people cope with socially stressful situations, such as thinking about giving a public speech or being evaluated by someone of another race. This diverse array of findings reflects a burgeoning interest across clinical psychology, neuroscience, social psychology, and developmental psychology in studying the role of the heart in social life.

We are returning to ways of knowing ourselves that are very old, but, hopefully, we are returning with more understanding.


In the spring, Neurophilosophy had a post on the research of D. Havas into the effects of botox on emotion. (here).

Do you smile because you’re happy, or are you happy because you are smiling? Darwin believed that facial expressions are indeed important for experiencing emotions…Botox, which is used by millions of people every year to reduce wrinkles and frown lines on the forehead, works by paralyzing the muscles involved in producing facial expressions…it impairs the ability to process the emotional content of language, and may diminish the quality of emotional experiences…

Havas recruited 40 women for the new study, all of whom were seeking first-time botox injections as a cosmetic treatment for frown lines on the forehead. These participants were asked to read sentences describing happy, sad or emotionally neutral situations. Immediately afterwards, they were taken to the physician, who gave them a single injection of botox into the corrugator supercilii, or “frown” muscle. (Botox acts by inhibiting the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from motor neurons, leading to temporary muscle paralysis 24-48 hours later. Typically, the procedure is repeated after 3-4 months; with time, the muscles may atrophy, or waste away, through disuse.) Two weeks after the injection, the participants returned to lab to read another set of similar sentences.

The reseachers found that botox slowed the reading of the sentences containing sad emotional content, which, as the earlier work showed, would normally cause the frown muscle to contract. The reading time for the happy and neutral sentence was the same in both sessions. The researchers assume that the increase in reading time means that paralysis of the frown muscles hindered the participants’ understanding of the emotional content of the sad sentences. They also argue that their findings support the hypothesis that feedback from the muscles involved in producing facial expressions is critical in regulating emotional experiences.

…news stories completely overlook the more profound implication of the results – that by paralyzing the muscles involved in producing facial expressions, botox may actually diminish the experience of emotion in those who use it.

This is another piece of evidence that consciousness is primarily concerned by perception. In this case it is registering an emotional state primarily from the perception of movement of facial muscles.

Finding out our feelings

There is a trick that sometimes helps to make a decision. When we have thought about two options for a long time and mulled over many different aspects of each and have no decision. When we have even taken a pencil and paper and organized the pros and cons and get still no decision. The options are perfectly balanced. Then we flip a coin to decide. In the instant that the result of the coin toss is known, there is a feeling of contentment and relief or there is a feeling of disappointment and dissatisfaction. We really did have a preference even if we were not aware of it. So we follow our feeling rather than the result of the coin toss. Of course, we only do this because we have established that the options are almost equal in attractiveness.

I was reminded of the way this feeling is so immediate and strong, yet fleeting – very different to a slowly growing feeling – when I read a blog by Neurosceptic (here).

Schopenhauer’s trick relies on the fact that emotion is faster than thought. A letter takes you by surprise: even if you’re expecting to hear from someone, you don’t know exactly when it will arrive. It arrives: in that first second your emotions have a chance to show through, before your thoughts have got into gear. It works with emails and phone calls as well, of course, but not with any encounter which is planned out in advance.

What is happening here? Why would an unsuspected emotional reaction be triggered so fast and strong? The feeling had never risen to consciousness before and so it probably had not risen to a bodily emotion before either. Some part of the situation had been dealt with but had never needed the use of working memory and so was hidden from awareness. Maybe – on the other hand –

Source of emotion

FrontalCortex has a great posting on the magic of Wii games. (here) Lehrer connects the player’s movement with the emotional feeling of the game as an illustration of the embodied mind.

To understand how the Wii turns stupid arcade games into a passionate experience, we have to revisit an old theory of emotion, first proposed by William James. In his 1884 article “What is an emotion?” James argued that all of our mental feelings actually begin in the body. Although our emotions feel ephemeral, they are rooted in the movements of our muscles and the palpitations of our flesh. .. For most of the 20th century, James’ theory of bodily emotions was ignored. It just seemed too implausible. But in the early 1980s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio realized that James was mostly right: Many of our emotions are preceded by changes in our physical body. Damasio came to this conclusion after studying neurological patients who, after suffering damage in their orbitoprefrontal cortex or somatosensory cortex, were unable to experience any emotion at all. Why not? The tight connection between the mind and body had been broken. Even though these patients could still feel their flesh–they weren’t paraplegic–they could no longer use their body to generate feelings. And if you can’t produce the bodily symptoms of an emotion–the swelling tear ducts of sadness, or the elevated heart rate of fear–then you can’t feel the emotion. .. As Damasio puts it, “the essence of feeling an emotion is the experience of such [bodily] changes in juxtaposition to the mental images that initiated the cycle.” The resulting state of consciousness–an emulsion of thought and flesh, body, and mind–is our feeling of fear.

The content of consciousness is largely, perhaps almost totally, derived from the process of perception. It may be that emotions must be sensed in order to be felt consciously.

Embodied power

Simoleon Sense has a post with a link to an interesting paper (here), Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance , by D. Carney.

In research on embodied cognition, some evidence suggests bodily movements, such as facial displays, can affect emotional states. For example, unobtrusive contraction of the “smile muscle” (i.e., the zygomaticus major) increases enjoyment (Strack, Martin, Stepper, 1988); the head tilting upwards induces pride (Stepper & Strack, 1993); and hunched (vs. upright) physical postures elicit more depressed feelings (Riskind & Gotay, 1982). Approach-oriented behaviors, such as touching, pulling, or nodding “yes,” increase preference for objects, people, and persuasive messages (e.g., Briñol & Petty, 2003; Chen & Bargh, 1999; Wegner, Lane, & Dimitri, 1994); and fist clenching increases men’s self-ratings on power-related traits (Schubert & Koole, 2009). However, no research has tested whether expansive versus constrictive power poses cause mental, physiological, and behavioral change in a manner consistent with the effects of power. Specifically, we hypothesized that high- versus low-power poses would cause individuals to experience: (1) elevated testosterone, (2) decreased cortisol, (3) increased feelings of power, and (4) higher risk-tolerance. Such findings would suggest that embodiment goes beyond cognition and emotion and could have immediate and actionable impacts on behavior. ..

Results show that posing in high-power (versus low-power) displays causes physiological, psychological, and behavioral changes consistent with the literature on the effects of power on power-holders – elevation of the dominance hormone testosterone, reduction of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases in behaviorally demonstrated risk-tolerance and feelings of power.

These findings advance our understanding of embodied cognition in two important ways. First, they suggest that the effects of embodiment extend beyond emotion and cognition, to physiology and subsequent behavioral choice. For example, as described above, nodding one’s head “yes” leads to more persuasion, and smiling increases humor responses; we suggest that these simple behaviors, a head-nod or a smile, might also cause physiological changes that activate an entire trajectory of psychological, physiological, and behavioral shifts—essentially altering the course of that person’s day. Second, these results suggest that any psychological construct, such as power, with a signature pattern of nonverbal correlates may be embodied.

The idea that we have, first, a conscious feeling of power, then take a powerful pose is not shown in experiment. Instead we have, first, the unconscious signal to take a powerful pose, then the conscious feeling of power. Embodiment appears to be attitude-bodily response-conscious feeling, in that order.

Emotional feeling

Genevieve Wanucha wrote a very interesting article in Seed magazine, “Emotion’s Alchemy”. (here) Following on from the last post, more from this article.

…Damasio’s team found that people reported feeling emotional only after the eruption of a physical emotion. “It’s very important for you to think of emotion as an action, so crying is a component of emotion, never as a part of feeling. Feeling is a perception of the action we have,” he told me….

In that same study, Damasio found that the body-sensing region of the brain, the somatosensory cortex, came online as the feelings arose. Later, in 2006, he reported that for each basic emotion (e.g., happiness, sadness, anger, and fear) there is a distinct cardio-respiratory pattern. Linking these data sets together, in a technology-age tweaking of the James-Lange theory, Damasio suggests that feelings arise from “maps” continually forming in brain regions such as the somatosensory cortex. The brain doesn’t have simple “on” and “off “emotional switches. It is always in flux. Feelings are more than the brain’s perception of emotion; they are a constant process of mapping shifting body states.

What appears to be happening is that consciousness registers a perception of emotional states as a fringe feeling. Consciousness does not contain emotion – it contains a model of emotion existing in the body using the form of a feeling.

Feeling a presence

The Scientific American site had an article by M. Shermer on sensed presence effects. (here) He puts forward a list of possible causes:

Whatever the immediate cause of the sensed-presence effect, the deeper cause is to be found in the brain. I suggest four explanations: 1) The hallucination may be an extension of the normal sensed presence we experience of real people around us, perhaps triggered by isolation. 2) During oxygen deprivation, sleep deprivation or exhaustion, the rational cortical control over emotions shuts down, as in the fight-or-flight response, enabling inner voices and imaginary companions to arise. 3) The body schema, or our physical sense of self—believed to be located primarily in the temporal lobe of the left hemisphere—is the image of the body that the brain has constructed. If for any reason your brain is tricked into thinking that there is another you, it constructs a plausible explanation that this other you is actually another person—a sensed presence—nearby. 4) The mind schema, or our psychological sense of self, coordinates the many independent neural networks that simultaneously work away at problems in daily living so that we feel like a single mind.

Neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls this the left-hemisphere interpreter—the brain’s storyteller that pulls together countless inputs into a meaningful narrative story. In an experiment with a “split-brain” patient (whose brain hemispheres were surgically disconnected), Gazzaniga presented the word “walk” only to the right hemisphere. The patient got up and began walking. When he was asked why, his left-hemisphere interpreter made up a story to explain this behavior: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”

The body loop

A little while ago Jonah Lehrer (here) posted a blog on the work of A. Damasio and A. Bechara.

Why would being able to count your heartbeats lead to better performance at a card game? The answer tells us something interesting about the “body loop,” and the importance of eavesdropping on those subtle emotions reverberating through our flesh. As William James hypothesized back in 1882, every emotion begins as a series of physiological changes in the body; our metaphysical feelings have a very carnal source. “What kind of an emotion of fear,” James wondered, “would be left [after seeing a bear in the woods] if the feeling of quickened heart beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose bumps nor of visceral stirrings, were present?” James’ answer was simple: without the body there would be no fear. We need the body in order to feel.

Damasio believes that emotion has a central role in rational thought. Feelings are indispensable.