Affect is typically considered to reflect the feelings associated with emotional processes, which are related in presently unknown ways to the other major components of emotions—expressive, autonomic, and cognitive. Affective experience has been among the most difficult aspects of mind to understand scientifically because it is so thoroughly subjective. Its importance in human economic, political, and social affairs has long been subsumed under the concept of utility—the recognition that societies must aspire to the greatest good (and the least suffering) for the greatest number. As Jeremy Bentham (1789, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation) famously said: "Utility is ... that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness . . . or . . . to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness." Experienced affect is the neural currency for such cost-benefit "calculations" in the economy of the brain. When linked to specific perceptions, affective feelings typically signal the survival utility of objects.
There are, of course, an enormous number of affects, and it is by no means certain how any are instantiated within the brain. Although emotional feelings often appear related to objects of the world (since brains project feelings onto sensory/perceptual processes), affects are actually elaborated by specific brain systems. To the best of our knowledge, the critical systems are concentrated in ancient brain areas also found in many other animals.
Conceptually, affects may be divided into those that reflect bodily needs and disturbances—the hungers, thirst, and various other pains and pleasures of the world—while others are more closely related to instinctual actions—the expressive emotional urges of the mind. To understand the former, a guiding principle is that objects of the world that support survival are generally experienced as delightful and pleasant, while those incompatible with survival are experienced as aversive and unpleasant. The "sensory-linked affects" are typically studied as perceptual experiences of the brain; for instance, the taste of chocolate or the disgust engendered by the smell of feces. Such valenced experiences—the varieties of goodness and badness—are mediated by specific brain circuits that course upward through brain stem, thalamus, and hypothalamus to ancient limbic cortical areas of the brain. For instance, people with insular cortical damage are deficient in experiencing negative feelings such as pain, disgust, and coldness. Yet other cortical areas (e.g., orbitofrontal cortex) help distinguish many sensory pleasures.
The other major category of affective experience is more closely linked to emotional systems that allow organisms to generate adaptive instinctual behaviors during various life-challenging situations. Thus, all mammals have brain systems for: (1) seeking resources, (2) becoming angry if access to resources is thwarted, (3) becoming scared when one's bodily well-being is threatened, (4) various sexual desires that are somewhat different in males and females, (5) urges to exhibit loving and attentive care toward one's offspring, (6) feelings of panic and distress when one has lost contact with loved ones, and (7) the boisterous joyousness of rough-and-tumble playfulness. Each is manifested through characteristic action patterns that reflect the dynamics of the associated feelings. All other mammals may experience such basic feelings because of brain systems they share with humans. For instance, other mammals are attracted to the drugs that humans commonly overuse and abuse, and they dislike similar drug-induced experiences. Of course, there are many socially-derived feelings as various basic emotions are thwarted and blended in real life situations (yielding frustrations and feelings such as shame, jealousy, guilt, or embarrassment, many of which may be uniquely human).
The vast human capacity to think and to symbolize experience in language and culture has added subtle layers of complexity to our feelings, especially our aesthetic experiences. As scientists categorize the diverse affective dimensions of life, many are tempted to simplify emotional complexities into holistic schemes (e.g., positive and negative affects) that may partly reflect our linguistic capacity to oversimplify. But there may also be superordinate brain systems for such global feelings.
Although humans have many special feelings ranging from awe to zoophobia, scientific understanding of the evolved nature of feelings is best obtained through the study of ancient brain systems we share with other animals. Recent evidence indicates these systems do have chemical codes, such as the neuropeptides, which help conduct specific neuroaffective tunes. Most of these substances, which barely cross blood-brain barriers, must be placed directly into animals' brains. However, as related medicinal agents are developed, we can anticipate the emergence of new and selective psychiatric drugs to control troublesome or excessive human feelings. For millennia, humankind had only one such drug, opium, which could alleviate physical pain as well as the painful grief arising from social loss.
So what, in a deep neural sense, are emotional feelings? They reflect the various types of neurodynamics that establish characteristic, mentally experienced "forces" that regulate and reflect action readiness within the nervous system—the pounding force of anger, the shivery feelings of fear, the caress of love, the urgent thrusting of sexuality, the painful pangs of grief, the exuberance of joy, and the persistent "nosy" poking about of organisms seeking resources. Moods and many psychiatric disorders may reflect the long-term balance or imbalance of the various positive and negative affective systems.
And how do the material events of the brain get converted into the mystery of subjective experience? No one is certain, but some have suggested that the core of our being is organized around neurosymbolic motor-action coordinates of the brain. The various basic neurodynamics of such a core "self," evident in the instinctual action dynamics of each animal, may be critical for the transformation of brain activities into emotional experiences. If this is the case, then certain affective values were built in at the very core of mammalian brain evolution, thereby providing a solid grounding for mental life. This view of brain-mind organization, not widely accepted by certain schools of materialist (e.g., behaviorist) thought, has the potential to contribute to a more accurate and admirable scientific image of life than was evident during the twentieth century.
Bowling Green State University
Was this article helpful?