By Michelle Maiese
We fall in love. We huddle together for comfort. We sway to the beat of our favorite songs. Over the course of a single day, we can feel joyful, anxious, sad, angry, and hopeful. These simple observations reveal the extent to which our mental lives are bound up with emotion and bodily feeling. Indeed, lived bodily experiences of emotion are what give our lives meaning, and they are also what make us fundamentally different from intelligent machines. To overlook or downplay these dimensions of human life while focusing exclusively on our capacities for language, conceptualization, or self-reflection is to ignore some of the key aspects of our existence.
Tet, according to the prevailing view in philosophy and cognitive science, what we call “the mind” consists in neural functioning and is comparable to the information processing carried out by computers. What our brains do, according to this general picture, is take in environmental stimuli (input), process it according it certain rules (algorithms), and then produce various sorts of behavior (output).
Theorists who have come to be known as Eliminativists have gone so far as to say that once we know enough about neural functioning, we may be able to dispense altogether with talk of ‘beliefs,’ ‘desires,’ ‘intentions,’ ‘emotions,’ etc., or at least view these terms just as convenient shorthand. Even theorists who take a less extreme view think that our efforts to learn more about the mind ultimately just amount to learning more about the brain and cognitive psychology. To understand memory or decision-making, then, what we need to do is understand the particular regions of the brain that are involved in these sorts of cognitive functions.
Even theorists who acknowledge the importance of feelings tend to focus their attention on the brain. For example, in a 2016 essay in The Stone, Robert Burton writes: “if philosophy is to guide us to a better life, it must somehow bridge [the] gap between feeling and thought.” He goes on to claim that just as thoughts are produced by the brain, feelings of empathy and disgust are produced by particular parts of the brain. According to Burton, our felt sense of meaning is fundamentally neurological.
Although this brain-centered view of the mind commonly is associated with a Materialist world view, the notion that the mind is separate from the body actually can be traced to Descartes, who viewed the immaterial mind (or soul) and the material body as separate substances that causally interact. While few theorists today believe that the mind should be understood as a non-physical substance, they maintain that the mind (now identified with the brain) simply interacts causally with the rest of the body.
Now, it would be hard to deny that the brain plays a crucial role in our mental lives, or that we can understand the workings of the mind while completely ignoring the brain. Certainly the brain does help to give rise to the felt sense that one’s life is meaningful. But what about the heart, the lungs, the stomach, and the skin? What the traditional approach sketched above neglects or downplays is the central role played by the body and affectivity in our mental lives.
First, this approach focuses primarily on the brain and says that the body plays merely an instrumental causal role in our mental lives by, for example, supplying the brain with visual information via the eyes. Second, this approach characterizes emotions and other affective states as somehow distinct from thought and intellect, and sometimes goes so far as to emphasize how these mental states distort or otherwise negatively interfere with cognitive functioning.
An alternative view has its roots in embodied cognition and enactivism and can be traced to theorists such as Shaun Gallagher, Lawrence Shapiro, and Evan Thompson. This view says that the nature and overall structure of our mental lives are rooted in our fully embodied, animate, neurobiological dynamics; and given that we engage with and make sense of our surroundings in-and-through bodily feelings, and in accordance with what we care about, consciousness and cognition are thoroughly bound up with affectivity and emotion.
Because our neurobiological dynamics cannot be specified in purely mechanistic terms, and because there is no sharp distinction between cognition and emotion, we are fundamentally different from intelligent machines or brains in a vat. Instead, conscious subjects like us are best understood as essentially embodied minded animals. This view emphasizes that the felt sense that one’s life is meaningful is not simply neurological, but rather spread throughout our living bodies.
Although this alternative view that emphasizes our embodiment has gained momentum in recent years, the traditional outlook remains the dominant one. But this traditional, disembodied, dispassionate characterization of the human mind has obscured our understanding of various forms of cognition. This is because neglecting the body and affective states makes it difficult to understand how conscious subjects like us rely on bodily attunement and intuition make sense of our surroundings and other people.
For example, a tendency to downplay embodiment and emotion in work on social cognition has lead many theorists to characterize interpersonal understanding in terms of “mind-reading” and abstract theorizing. One very popular view, presented by Simon Baron-Cohen, says that theorizing about another person’s mental states is a crucial way to make sense of her behavior and predict what that person is going to do. Relying on a set of causal laws that interrelate inputs, internal states, and behavioral outputs, we are able to attribute mental states and make inferences about an agent’s future behavior.
But as theorists such as Shaun Gallagher have noted, understanding other people’s minds and behavior relies heavily on bodily attunement and embodied interaction; and from the very beginning, people use expressions, gestures, and other bodily movements to communicate their desires and intentions. Thus, the metaphor of “reading others,” whether their minds or their bodies, is far too Cartesian and intellectualist. Instead, during ordinary face-to-face interaction, a spontaneous, emotive, and intuitive sort of attunement occurs. This suggests that social cognition is best understood as the shared dance of human life, and not a matter of theorizing via a set of generalizations about beliefs and desires.
In addition, as research by Jonathan Haidt and Antonio Damasio suggests, there is good reason to think that emotions and other bodily-affective states play a central role in enabling moral evaluation and decision-making. This is because our emotions and concerns assist with the focus of attention and help us to home in on features that are relevant to the situation at hand.
Along these lines, Luis Pessoa’s work explores how cognitive and affective processing are integrated in the brain, and claims that they conjointly and equally contribute to the control of thought and behavior. Further investigating the interplay, mutual reinforcement, and even inseparability of emotion and cognition can help us to devise better philosophical accounts of various sorts of human problem-solving.
This tendency to overlook or downplay the importance of embodiment and emotions has a number of significant practical implications. For example, in the field of psychiatry, there is a tendency to assume that psychological disorders can be attributed to neural dysfunction and treated via pharmaceuticals. Alternative modes of therapeutic intervention that involve the whole body, such as yoga and dance, receive far less attention and often are viewed as less reliable modes of treatment. And yet there is evidence that these bodily-based modes of therapy may have great potential for bringing about lasting change and helping to improve patients’ quality of life.
Likewise, in the field of education, there is a tendency to view learning in terms of conceptual and linguistic development. There has been relatively little research done on how to incorporate expressive arts or other measures that would tap into the emotional dimension of students’ lives and stimulate some kind of “affective reorientation.” This tendency to overlook or downplay the importance of face-to-face, fully embodied interaction likely has helped to fuel universities’ increasing reliance on online learning. And yet there is good reason to think that learning is a fully embodied, affective process that has its greatest impact when it actively engages “the whole person.”
Beyond these theoretical and practical benefits, though, there is an even deeper, humanistic reason why it is important to recognize that the mind is fully embodied and affective. Emphasizing the body and the emotions paves the way toward a more holistic view of the self that acknowledges the many facets of our lived bodily experience. This outlook puts biology center stage and stresses that we are minded animals who feel. To gain a full understanding of ourselves and our place in our world, we need to understand the interplay between how we think about things and how we feel about them; and this requires that we appreciate the importance of bodily feeling.
Indeed, the capacity for bodily feeling develops well before the capacity for thinking, and it is this capacity for feeling that we share with other minded animals. Thus, acknowledging that we are minded animals, and that the mind is fully embodied, may change the way that we see ourselves in relation to the animal kingdom. This view anchors us firmly within the natural world alongside the many other living organisms that have the capacity to feel, and to care about their existence. No doubt we are more sophisticated than many of these other animals in certain ways, and part of what makes us distinctive is our intellect and our ability to reflect on our feelings and affective states. Still, recognizing that we are minded animals can help us to appreciate how many of our deepest desires and deepest fears are linked to our embodiment. This includes our feelings of love, our need to be touched, our passion for food, our attraction to music and dancing, our anger over perceived injustice, and our fear of death. In order to really understand ourselves, then, we will need to take seriously the bodily and affective dimensions of our lives.
APP Editors’ Note:
Michelle Maiese teaches philosophy at Emmanuel College in Boston, MA, and is the author or co-author of three books in the philosophy of mind and philosophy of the emotions.
You can read more about her work, HERE.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 161
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 6 August 2018
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