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Consciousness and Emotions:
Different Ends of the Same Stick

Consciousness and emotions are bodily states that are prominent features of our daily lives and we all have an intuitive understanding of what they are. Yet they have proved difficult to objectively define and measure in scientific terms. The fact that consciousness and emotional feelings are subjective, and therefore elusive to scientific scrutiny, is the main reason why they have been largely rejected by behavioural psychologists as legitimate modalities for study - we discuss this in The Historical Perspective.

In his book Principles of Psychology published in 1890, William James wrote that consciousness was an “awareness of oneself and the environment”. James’ definition remains the standard definition touted in many text books today and most people are comfortable with this explanation when they first come across it. On closer scrutiny, however there’s a problem. We have to define what awareness and the self are. And it turns out that awareness is non other than consciousness, and the definition of the self is as elusive as that of consciousness!

As a first step to solving this puzzle, let’s begin by teasing out what we know about some of the properties of consciousness and emotions.

Consciousness has different levels, such as awake, asleep, coma etc., where our degree of consciousness varies on a continuum from very conscious, through semi-conscious and on to unconscious. Consciousness also has content, what we are actually conscious of, such as being aware that we’re frightened. Whether it’s possible to be conscious without content is unknown, but it’s conceivable in certain seizure or meditative states. Obviously, there’s no content in unconsciousness, if there were it would be a state of consciousness. And of course, the content of consciousness is subject to the narrow focus of selective attention (we only pay attention to about 40 of the 11,000,000 bits of information per second that constantly bombard our brains from our senses; eyes, ears, nose, skin, internal organs, etc.).

Next, let’s see what we can unravel about the concept of the self. Before we do this, we need to know a little about how children's minds develop. It was for a long time believed that children's minds worked like adult minds, just with less knowledge – in essence they were ‘stupid’ versions of adults. In 1924, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget published his stages of cognitive development, that mapped out four, distinct stages a child’s brain goes through as it grows from birth through to adolescence. We won't concern ourselves with these stages here, except for one - the so-called preoperational stage that occurs roughly, and gradually, between the ages of 2 and 8 years.

During this stage, children start to rely less and less on sensorimotor information from the environment and shift their attention toward symbolic and conceptual information. The development of language starts at around 2 and is pretty much complete by 4 years of age. By age 7, children are increasingly using words to think (inner speech) and to solve problems by ‘talking their way through them’.

Children are not born with the ability to appreciate that others think differently from themselves – egocentrism is the inability to conceive the point of view of others. A good example is a young child that covers his eyes and assumes that because he can’t see you, you can’t see him. For those who have young children, the reason they readily stand in front of you and block your view of the television is because they genuinely cannot appreciate that you do not see what they see, they are not being rude or inconsiderate.

Between the ages of about 4 through to 8, children gradually develop the ability to see things from another’s point of view, a theory of mind. They begin to appreciate that internal feelings akin to their own, such as ‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘angry’ and so on, are experienced by others as well, and they begin to read this information from facial expressions – 'mum with a sad face means she feels sad’. In other words, they develop empathy. It is now widely acknowledged that in autistic children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome (a mild form of autism), this is the bit 'lacking' or 'missing'. These people have profound difficulties in appreciating the mental states of other individuals.

Whether non-human animals possess a theory of mind is a matter of hot debate in scientific circles and ultimately unknowable because we can’t ask them! fMRI studies in humans show that parts of the parietal and temporal lobes, the anterior cingulate and the insular cortex ‘light up’ when subjects are asked to think about themselves or others. Again, in other species these experiments are unrepeatable because one cannot ask the animal to think specifically about anything!

I personally do not think that non-human animals have a theory of mind, not in the sense that we understand it anyway; and I'll develop this argument further at a later date. But does this mean then they are not conscious either? Many scientists take the view that the content component of human consciousness arises from higher brain functions where theory of mind exists and that other mammals (or any other animals for that matter) simply do not have this capacity. The general consensus in the scientific community therefore, is that consciousness, as described above, is something unique to human beings.

Recent research disputes this long-held view (see Our Emotional Pets). It now appears more likely that consciousness is not a unitary property of mind, in the sense that you either have it, or you don’t. Rather, it exists at three levels that have developed one on top of the other in ever-evolving sophistication over evolutionary time.

  1. Primary consciousness: Consists of raw, sensory and perceptual feelings such as hungry, thirsty, hot, cold and so on. Feelings that would be a great advantage in maintaining bodily homeostasis. This level of consciousness gives raw feedback on how things are going in the outside world, well or badly, and is primarily concerned with keeping the organism out of trouble and alive.
  2. Secondary consciousness: Consists of the capacity to have thoughts about experiences. This is where the content of consciousness resides.
  3. Tertiary consciousness: Consists of the capacity to have thoughts about thoughts, self-awareness and to be able to express these feelings linguistically. This is where the theory of mind component of consciousness resides.

It’s pretty evident from the science that all mammals (and perhaps some other vertebrates as well) share both primary and secondary consciousness. It’s also pretty certain that tertiary consciousness is unique to human beings. Tertiary consciousness requires high intelligence, and high intelligence requires special behavioural conformation. To learn about behavioural conformation, read Coppinger's book, cited in the references for Our Emotional Pets.

What we’ve really been concerned with in the above discussion is the content aspect of consciousness.
So far, I’ve said a great deal about consciousness, but very little about the other end of the stick – emotions. So let’s address this imbalance right now.

Many scientists working in the field behavioural psychology using laboratory animals (see The Historical Perspective) have been inclined to split emotions into emotional behaviours and emotional feelings. The reason for this is that it ‘lets them off the hook’ when it comes to explaining why they believe that a behaviour, such a withdrawal from a painful stimulus, works differently in the brain of a rat, or your dog or cat than it does in you, a human.

An emotion consists of a physiological state, such as increased heart rate, sweating, dilated pupils and so on. It also has a conscious, feeling state, such as feeling fearful. Psychologists call this subjective feeling an affect, so you’ll see the term affective state used in text books and journals. The consequence of an emotion is generally some behavioural response, such as running away, or the withdrawal of a paw from a thorn. The feeling also causes a change in the level of arousal, that affects how strongly the memory of the emotional event is laid down. Let’s now have a look at each of these states of emotion in some more detail.

Emotions – physiological states
The hypothalamus of the limbic system is directly connected to the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system where it affects organs such as the heart, lungs and gut. The hypothalamus also causes the release of adrenaline into the blood stream from the adrenal glands perched on top of the kidneys.

The hypothalamus is also connected to the pituitary gland and stimulates it to release adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) that travels down to the adrenal glands through the circulation and stimulates the release of more adrenaline, and also cortisol into the blood stream. This is called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, or HPA axis for short.

Together, these two systems are responsible for the so-called stress response.

The direct connection of the hypothalamus to the sympathetic nervous system mediates a rapid response, compared to the indirect HPA route. So, the stress response occurs in two distinct waves of activity as summarised below:-

  • 1st wave, autonomic response: Rapid (seconds). Causes an almost immediate increase in the heart rate and respiratory rate, dilates blood vessels to get more blood and oxygen into muscles. Dilates the iris in the eyes so the animal can see better. It also slows the gut down, diverting blood used for digestion to the muscles.
  • 2nd wave, HPA axis response: Slow (minutes to hours). Causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol mobilises the glucose stores in the liver and muscles so it can be metabolised as fuel in the brain, muscles, heart and other organs. Cortisol also primes the hippocampus to add an ‘affective flavour’ to the memory of the event that triggered the stress response in the first place.

Both systems work together to provide more blood, oxygen and  nutrients to the vital organs so the animal is prepared for fight or flight, and to ensure that an appropriately meaningful memory is laid down recording the event.

Our bodies are optimised to thrive on a little bit of daily stress. We perform better and we learn better, and this applies to all mammals. The problem lies in uncontrolled, long-standing (or chronic) stress. The main reason for this is the sustained elevated levels of cortisol floating round in the system. The adrenaline is also a problem. If there was no real emergency, such as running away, to burn it all up, the adrenaline remains in the blood stream causing sustained autonomic stimulation. With long exposure, cortisol and adrenaline damage the immune system, cause diabetes, stunt growth, impair memory and learning and cause high blood pressure.

Of course, in evolutionary terms the stress response is really important for the survival of an organism – it gets it out of trouble fast and if appropriate, gives it something to remember and therefore avoid similar situations in the future. In our modern sheltered, cosy, domestic lives, real danger is not much of a problem, but in our lifestyles, chronic stress certainly is. The same applies to our pets, especially when we behave in unpredictable ways that they can’t make sense of, or train them with little or no feedback!

Emotions – affective states
We discuss the work of Paul Ikman and the six basic emotional states, Happiness, Anger, Surprise, Disgust, Sadness, and Fear in another section, see More About Emotions.

What is really interesting for us in relation to our pets is that research over the last decade or so has shown that the development of some of these emotional affects is phylogenetically much older than previously thought. The parts of the brain that are responsible for the FEELINGS of anger, fear, happiness and sadness are present and well developed in ALL mammals, and some other non-mammals as well. In addition, all mammals have brain systems that are responsible for the FEELINGS of being separated from ‘chums’, play and lust. Have a look at this table:-

Tie these basic, mammalian emotional affects in with the three levels of consciousness, primary, secondary and tertiary, that I described above, and we can begin to draw some objective conclusions about where FEELINGS in out pets fit in to the overall scheme of things.

The table above shows a logical evolutionary progression of:-


It makes no sense at all to assert that somehow humans are the only species that can experience affective states. There are just too many advantages to the survival of a species for basic FEELINGS to have been bypassed until Homo sapiens appeared on the planet.

After all, how your dog or cat FEELS at any moment is highly subjective. The only way to truly find out is to ask him!

On this I will leave you to ponder and draw your own conclusions...

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