Preposterous Universe

Thursday, September 02, 2004
Emotional states

At a big multi-disciplinary conference like the European Forum at Alpbach, the real fun is not giving your own presentations but sitting down over some Hefeweizen and chatting with some of the other participants. One of the students in our seminar was a Dutch psychologist who explained to us what an emotion really is. Unfortunately I don't remember his name, and also unfortunately I am not at all an expert in talking about these things, but let me try to explain his major idea.

The claim was essentially that true "emotional states" are not distinguished by the kind of response a creature gives, but the timing: emotions are distinguished by persisting long after the stimulus that has caused them has been removed, or by being prompted by conditions that merely recall the original stimulus, rather than duplicating it. The example given was that we get chewed out at work by our boss, get angry, but rather than actually taking it out on our boss (which might be maladaptive behavior) we go home and act cross to our family. In contrast, most animals (chimpanzees perhaps being the only counterexample) are "machines," reacting simply to the stimulus of the moment. They might remember previous stimuli, and react appropriately with fear or joy if it looks like the stimuli might return, but they don't nurse emotions that cause apparently-inappropriate responses long after the stimuli have disappeared.

The empirical support that was adduced for this position was the role of the frontal lobe in the feeling of emotions. Lobotomized patients, whose frontal lobes have disconnected from the rest of their brains, have IQs that are essentially unchanged, but become completely different people as their emotional responses are dramatically altered to the point of almost disappearing. Interestingly, these patients also lose the ability to plan future events, even something as simple as a dinner party. The claim is thus that it's the frontal lobe, which is much more developed in humans than in other animals, that provides us with the ability to experience emotional states. (In 1949 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Egas Moniz for the development of the frontal lobotomy technique for treating patients with schizophrenia; this has often been called the biggest mistake in the history of the Prizes, although the official Nobel website seems less than completely contrite.)

It seems clear that there is some complicated relationship between emotions, persistence, and the frontal lobes, although it's not perfectly clear to me that the idea of maintaining a response even after stimuli are removed is really the most important aspect of emotions. But there are clearly consequences for the question of animal rights, namely that we should not attribute true emotional import to signs of animals' "suffering"; when the lobster is struggling to get out of the pot of boiling water, this is merely a robotic reaction, not analogous to a true human emotion (so the reasoning goes). In fact, our Alpbach friend related amusing stories about how he had been invited to speak at gatherings of animal-rights activists, who had apparently noticed that he had done research on animals and emotions without looking closely at was his conclusions were. Happily, he managed to escape the meetings in one piece.

So if emotions are what separates us and the chimps from the rest of the animal kingdom, what is it that separates us from the chimps? In one sense, not much; I just finished reading Will Self's novel Great Apes, which features a London artist who wakes up one morning to find that the roles of chimps and humans have been miraculously interchanged, complete with horrible puns ("going humanshit" and worse). I tend to agree with Steven Pinker that grammar is what separates us from other animals; the subjunctive mood is what makes us human. This fits in well with my social-contractarian outlook; human beings can get together and make up rules about how we agree to act in certain situations, something other species just can't do.

But I better quit roaming outside areas I know anything about before I completely destroy my credibility in those areas in which I'm supposed to be an expert.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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