Ideas that add up #216

There’s neural circuitry that monitors the level of glucose in our blood, constantly. This is all unconscious, because if we were constantly aware of this and monitoring all the bodily functions consciously, our conscious mind would be overwhelmed. So, when glucose drops, this brain circuit communicates that to our awareness with an emotion that we call “hunger”. And then that motivates us to go eat.

It’s not the emotion that’s driving anything. You can use various techniques to suppress that emotion of hunger, and it’ll help, but you’re not actually going to solve the problem until you raise glucose in your blood.  …

Another example: today I walked out of my home, I felt like I was forgetting something, I went through the list – I wasn’t forgetting anything. I drove a mile down the road and realised that I’d left my lunch at home. That’s because your conscious mind can’t hold all this information, in consciousness. But my unconscious mind knew, totally knew, and it was communicating that information to me with this queasy emotion of anxiety “you’re forgetting something”. And so, I think that that’s what emotion is: it’s your unconscious mind communicating to your conscious mind.

Neurobiologist R. Douglas Fields in ‘Anger’, BBC World Service’s The Forum, 15/2/16

Something happens that causes an individual to feel desire, say, or fear. The emotion, as we are used to thinking of it, heats (or freezes) the blood and floods the mind with anticipation (or apprehension), meanwhile arming the body for action. But according to neurobiology those physical changes actually take place on autopilot, with emotion – of which we are only belatedly aware – thrown in to amplify the experience and turbocharge the response.

The sequence is: some kind of physical event gets registered as a sensation; that sensation, needing to be acted on, is then amped up and made vivid with emotion; that emotion then spills into awareness. “It’s your unconscious mind communicating to your conscious mind” via the hard-wired chemical circuitry of the body.

That’s good. Very pat. But is it complete?

Because emotion is itself a driver for physical and mental events, as well as being driven by them. It communicates from the (unconscious) body to the (conscious) mind and back again. Also from my body and mind to yours, and yours to mine, and round again. 

For example, an itch will be scratched, and so will a phantom itch, transferred to me when you mentioned “head lice”. No root source of the problem, there, just emotional association triggered by a pesky word.

Irritation brings on a frown, maybe to help with concentration, but the frown itself intensifies the irritation and broadcasts that emotion to others, who then mirror or counter with emotions of their own, despite being at one remove from the original source of irritation.

And how about the feeling of love? The kind that’s different from desire. The kind that makes you only want to give, not take. The kind that momentarily hollows the breath from your chest and renders you incredulous – or rather, in neurobiology terms, that accompanies (but imperceptibly lags behind) that peculiar sensation in your chest.

Disappointingly, on reflection, the feeling of love fits rather neatly with that physiological description of an unconscious process communicating itself into conscious awareness. 

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