A higher-order theory of emotional consciousness

Research Highlight

Emotions can only arise through higher-order brain processes

© GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Photodisc/Getty

© GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Photodisc/Getty

Emotions aren’t innately programmed in primitive brain areas, but arise from information gathered by higher-order parts of the cortex, the grey, outer layer responsible for consciousness, according to a paper co-authored by the philosopher, Richard Brown, from The City University of New York.

If you see a snake, traditional theory states that defensive survival circuits, centred around an almond-shaped sub-cortical structure called the amygdala, kick into gear to produce fear. But animals without an amygdala can still be fearful. So, Brown and his colleague, Joseph LeDoux, from NYU postulated, another set of circuits, in the cortex, must run alongside the defensive survival circuits. It includes memory systems which unconsciously dredge up semantic information about a snake’s potential threat and cognition networks which provide conscious awareness that you might be in danger.

Even though this study focused on fear, they note in the paper that “the basic principles involved can be leveraged to understand other emotions as well”.

Supported content

  1. PNAS 114, E2016–E2025 (2017). doi: 10.1073/pnas.1619316114
Institutions FC WFC
LaGuardia Community College of City University of New York (CUNY LaGuardia), United States of America (USA) 0.50 0.50
NYU Center for Neural Science (CNS), United States of America (USA) 0.25 0.25
The Emotional Brain Institute (EBI), United States of America (USA) 0.25 0.25