For more information, contact:
Gary Schouborg, PhD
Schouborg, Gary (2000). "Review: Why We Feel, by Victor S. Johnston". Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7 n.7, 88-90.
Victor S. Johnston, Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions (Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1999, ix + 210 pp., $26.00, ISBN 0-7382-0109-X (hbk).
Why We Feel is a functional, evolutionary account of human emotion. A very readable introduction for the non-specialist, it has three major goals: explain (1) the phylogeny and (2) neural substrates of human emotion; and (3) how consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.
Phylogeny. Johnston adeptly employs computer simulations to illustrate a non-teleological, evolutionary account of human emotion. A criminologist computer program, FacePrint, generates faces that witnesses rate for accuracy in depicting a target suspect. The program works according to random principles of natural selection rather than Lamarckian principles of guided instruction——i.e., witnesses do not provide direction, but only rate (select) faces created by the computer's face-generating algorithm. Johnston compares FacePrint to immunology, identifying two selection principles nested like Russian dolls: a general one (phylogenetic) that we inherit in our genes and that provides broad parameters within which we learn; and a specific one (ontogenetic) by which we develop antibodies for our unique circumstances.
Johnston applies the image of Russian dolls to human emotions. The outside doll is our genetic inheritance. The inside doll is our emotions, a value system that arouses us to act in ways that have enabled us to survive as a species. Operating implicitly in Johnston's account is a distinction between phylogenetic and ontogenetic teleology. Emotions direct individuals toward certain actions (ontogenetic teleology), some of which happen (no phylogenetic teleology) to have promoted reproductive success and some of which have not. Species whose members were motivated to act in ways that happened to be unsuccessful are now extinct.
Johnston simulates emotional functions with Sniffer, a computer program that discriminates between pleasant and unpleasant odors. Sniffer simulates only primitive subjective feelings, or affect. Human emotions are more complex subjective feelings, dividing themselves among three domains, each distinctively related to reproductive success: surviving to reproductive age, reproducing, and ensuring that offspring reach reproductive age. Johnston explains altruism and the social emotions in this context, arguing that they require "an elaborate semantic memory of adaptive behaviors" that gives environmental events meaning by relating them to inner feelings.
Neurology. Johnston gives us a tour of MacLean's theory of the triune brain: reptilian (old motor, stereotyped response), mammalian (limbic system, basic emotions, allows us choices in responding), and neocortex (extends the deliberative ability of our emotions through reasoning and thinking).
LeDoux fine tunes MacLean's discovery that the medial forebrain bundle (MFB) links the limbic system to the old motor, reptilian brain. LeDoux established that the amygdala is essential for fear, whereas the neocortex only makes finer discriminations of fear. Outputs from the amygdala go to the hypothalamus, which stimulates physiological reactions, and to the neocortex, thereby modulating cortical excitability and making decisions more adaptive. The hippocampus supplies contextual cues to the amygdala. The MFB links these elements of the limbic system to the nucleus accumbens at the top of the motor system. Since subjective feelings of pleasantness and unpleasantness (hedonic tone) arise from releasing dopamine onto the nucleus accumbens, the MFB is currently seen as the source of self-stimulation.
The preceding is a useful framework within which to view four recent JCS studies. Associating emotion with a rise in body-core temperature, Cabanac (1999) argues that emotion, with its initial stages of deliberation and interest, emerged between amphibians and reptiles. This suggests that the roots of emotion are closer to the reptilian brain than MacLean realized. Panksepp points in the same direction by arguing that "value is built into us at the very deepest levels of our brains" (Watt, D.F. 1999). Damasio argues for an unconscious proto-self created by the brainstem's mapping of the body (Watt, D.F. 2000). He therefore not only supports Throop's (2000) anti-constructivist, phenomenological argument for a pre-conceptual awareness of self and emotion; he argues for primitive self and emotion functions that are prior even to pre-conceptual awareness.
Consciousness. Phylogeny and neurology comprise the bulk and real contribution of Why We Feel. Johnston's attempt to explain consciousness as an emergent property of the nervous system is less successful. To his credit, his phylogeny and neurology of human emotion help us understand how consciousness depends on the dynamic organization of the human nervous system, which in turn produces behaviors that have been successful in the survival of our species. Johnston believes that evolutionary functionalism thus "defuses" Chalmers' hard problem by identifying the function of conscious experience. He notes that experiencing sugars as sweet alerts us to nourishment, experiencing acids as bitter alerts us to toxins. He concludes that consciousness therefore has an evolutionary function. However, the example shows only that discriminating between sugars and acids has reproductive success. It does not tell us why such discrimination must be conscious, and therefore it does not identify a function for consciousness as such.
Johnston's account of emergent property, which is his conceptual link between consciousness and brain, allows his unintentional sleight of hand. His first account is only a definition of a resultant: "merely an attribute that arises as a consequence of the arrangement and interaction between individual components". He gives the example of a car's acceleration and cornering abilities as emergent properties of the car. However, they are merely the resultant of operating characteristics of the car parts, whereas a true emergent property is qualitatively distinct from its components. The hard problem of the relationship between consciousness and brain is hard because consciousness somehow depends on the brain and yet is qualitatively nothing like it. Johnston later gives a better example: a guitar string's vibration as a non-linear result of linear processes. Here, at least, the result requires different mathematics than its components do. But it is still qualitatively the same as its components: analyzable in terms of energy, motion, and time.
Fortunately, the book's value does not rest on solving the hard problem of identifying the unique function of consciousness. Johnston has already contributed much by his very readable introduction to the evolution, function, and neural substrate of human emotions.
Cabanac, M. (1999), 'Emotion and phylogeny', JCS 6 (6-7), 176-190.
Throop, C.J. (2000), 'Shifting from a constructivist to an experiential approach to the anthropology of self and emotion', JCS 7 (3), 27-52.
Watt, D.F. (1999), 'Consciousness and emotion: Review of Jaak Panksepp's "Affective Neuroscience"', JCS 6 (6-7), 191-200.
Watt, D.F. (2000), 'Emotion and consciousness: Part II (review of Anthony Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens)', JCS 7 (3), 72-84.
Synopsis (not included with the published review)
Why We Feel is an evolutionary functionalist theory of human emotions. Written for the non-specialist, it addresses concepts such as emergent property, DNA, natural selection versus Lamarckian instruction, random process versus random variation, innovation versus determinism, and meaning.
Chapter One: The Grand Illusion attacks naive realism, the assumption that our conscious experiences are of qualities that inhere in things. Rather, consciously experienced qualities are emergent properties generated by the brain in response to external realities such as electromagnetic radiation, air pressure waves, sugars, and acids.
Johnston offers two strategies for supporting evolutionary functionalism: computer simulation (chapters 2 - 4) and "uncovering the historical design" of emergent properties such as feelings (chapters 5 - 8).
Chapter Two: The Mother of All Codes explains evolution as the interaction of DNA with the environment, which produces neural modifications in the organism mediated by protein synthesis. Where the environment is relatively stable compared to the lifespan of the organism, natural selection accounts for adaptation (phylogenetic learning). Where the environment is more changeable, behavioral adaptation such as learning and reasoning becomes more important (ontogenetic learning).
Chapter Three: Searching FaceSpace introduces us to FacePrint, a criminologist computer program that generates faces that witnesses rate for accuracy in depicting a target suspect. The program works according to random principles of natural selection rather than Lamarckian principles of guided instruction: witnesses do not provide direction, but only rate (select) faces created by the computer's genetic algorithm. Johnston compares this method to immunology, identifying two selection principles, nested like Russian dolls: a general one (phylogenetic) that we inherit in our genes and that provides broad parameters within which we learn; and a specific one (ontogenetic) by which we adapt to our unique circumstances.
Chapter Four: Russian Dolls applies the preceding to human emotions. The outside doll is our genetic inheritance. The inside doll is our emotions, a value system that arouses us to act in ways that have enabled human beings to survive as a species. There is no teleology here: our emotions have not evolved in order for us to survive. Rather, they direct us toward certain actions, some of which happen to have promoted reproductive success and some of which have not. Species moved toward the latter actions are now extinct. Johnston simulates emotional functions with Sniffer, a computer program that discriminates between pleasant and unpleasant odors.
Chapter Five: The Omens of Fitness focuses yet more precisely on the functional role of subjective feelings. Sniffer simulated only primitive affect. Human emotions are more complex, dividing themselves among three domains, each distinctively related to reproductive success: surviving to reproductive age, reproducing, and ensuring that offspring reach reproductive age. Johnston explains altruism and the social emotions in this context, arguing that they require "an elaborate semantic memory of adaptive behaviors" that gives environmental events meaning by relating them to inner feelings.
Chapter Six: The Pathways of Passion explains how semantic memory is designed into the brain. It also argues that "consciousness is an emergent property arising from the self-organization of concurrently active but spatially distributed regions of the brain."
Chapter Seven explains sexual attractiveness. Across all cultures, men and women are attracted to characteristics of the opposite sex that promote reproductive success: men to features correlated with fertility; women to features correlated with commitment and the ability to acquire resources.
Chapter Eight: Legacy or Logic? explains reasoning as not a matter of formal logic, but based on feelings, which specify what promotes, or promoted, reproductive success. What we call irrational decision making is really based on feelings that evolved in response to an environment that no longer exists. Under certain conditions, our feelings help, rather than hinder, our reasoning.
Chapter Nine reprises everything that has preceded, expanding on innovation as the key to evolution and human creativity as the key to our future adaptation.