Emotion and Motivation

yogi small 2What is “Emotion”?

Since childhood I’ve been confused about my emotions. Clearly these inner feelings exist, and are strong, but what are they? Could they be controlled, or even defined? The mystery of emotion was the stimulus that drove me towards the study of the mind and, from there, neuroscience.  While I have never directly studied “emotion”, I continue to read about it and think about it.

In the past decade neuroscience and psychology have reached an apparent consensus. An important feature of the consensus is that emotions are conscious feelings of the inner state of the individual. While I appreciate, and largely agree with the consensus, I’m proposing an extension: Emotion as Motivation. Continue reading

Are we conscious when driving?

driving

Or are we zombies?

Frequently, perhaps  most of the time, I feel I drive on “autopilot”. That is, I drive without awareness of driving. This is especially true when driving along highly familiar routes, such as my 1-hour commute from NJ to Brooklyn. While driving, my clear conscious experience is typically on something else: perhaps what’s on the radio, perhaps a problem at work, or a personal relationship. Clearly, however, my sensory motor system is working. I’m steering, turning, responding to other cars, etc. Others might suggest that I’m “multitasking”, switching between 2 conscious modes, but I don’t feel that’s the case.  Continue reading

Morning Rumination on Consciousness

snoopy doghouse2While lying in bed this Sunday morning a few thoughts on consciousness came to me. Morning insights can be useful or vapid — not sure which these are. But they’ve stuck in my head, like a tune that keeps replaying. I’d like to share them and discuss them. Three semi-awake assertions:

  1. A conscious agent must be able to make a statement of fact
  2. Consciousness is an act of communication
  3. The statement of fact cannot be the state itself; it must be a symbolic representation of state

Continue reading

What is episodic memory good for?

The function of learning is clear: modifying behavior through experience. Memory, the storage of information that supports learning, is clearly necessary and valuable. Current psychology and neuroscience tell us that there are two memory systems enabled by separate neural systems. Procedural memory relies on reward circuitry and trial-and-error processes to mold efficient behaviors. Episodic memory stores specifc events in the life of the individual — but for what purpose? Continue reading

Schadenfreude

lostInTheCosmosv1“You are standing by your paper-tube in Englewood reading the headlines. Your neighbor comes out to get his paper. You look at him sympathetically. You know he has been having severe chest pains and is facing coronary bypass surgery. But he is not acting like a cardiac patient this morning. Over he jogs in his sweat pants, all smiles. He has triple good news. His chest ailment turned out to be a hiatal hernia, not serious. He’s got a promotion and is moving to Greenwich, where he can keep his boat in the water rather than on a trailer. “Great, Charlie! I’m really happy for you.” Are you happy for him?

(a) Yes. Unrelievedly good news. Surely it is good news all around that Charlie is alive and well and not dead or invalided. Surely, too, it is good for him and not bad for you if he also moves up in the world, buys a house in Greenwich where he can keep a 25-foot sloop moored in the Sound rather than a 12-foot Mayflower on a trailer in the garage in Englewood.

(b) Putatively good news but— but what? But the trouble is, it is good news for Charlie, but you don’t feel so good.

— Walker Percy’s (1983) “Lost in the Cosmos: The last Self-Help Book” [1]

Continue reading

What is Cognition?

snoopy2In 1981 I was an eager post-doctoral fellow, learning to record place cell’s in Jim Ranck’s lab and beginning to understand John O’Keefe and Lynn Nadel’s “Cognitive Map” theory of the hippocampus. One afternoon, while I had a rat in the maze and watched traces of action potentials sweep by on the oscilloscope, Jim Ranck looked over my should and said …

“This is terrific! Place cells are the gateway to understanding how the brain produces cognition.”1

This was both inspirational and opaque. Continue reading