Rediscovering The Emotional Unconscious

Man Cries

In the last post I started the
discussion of emotions with a few general points made by the philosopher Robert
Solomon. In this post I’m moving onto a psychologist whose study of the
emotions has been extremely influential: Joseph LeDoux. In his book, The
Emotional Brain, LeDoux (1996) examines and explains the automatic nature of
many emotional processes. But these won’t concern us just yet. First we need to
consider an important criticism LeDoux makes of much previous research into
LeDoux (1996) looks back to
the cognitive revolution to explain why emotion research has been lacking. The
beauty of the cognitive revolution was that it reintroduced the idea that
examining unconscious processes was a legitimate target of scientific interest.
The behaviourists before had shunned all unconscious processes, arguing that an
organism’s overt behaviour was the only measure you could trust. Cognitivists,
however, said we can make inferences about unconscious processes from the way
humans (and indeed other animals) react to particular situations.
Emotions, for LeDoux, have not
had the advantage of this revolution. Instead, the focus in emotion research
has been on the conscious experience of emotions. For example, after some
experimental manipulation, the subject is asked:

  • “How do you feel?”
  • The subject introspects and
    returns the answer: “Err… I feel fine.”
This is often considered a
valid method of investigation. But, now imagine using this technique to model
basic cognitive processes like memory, the subject is asked:

  • “How many digits can you
    retain in short-term memory?”
  • The subject introspects and
    returns the answer: “Err… Probably about 7.”
Valid? “Err… Probably not.”
Obviously I’m taking (considerable) liberties with this example, but the underlying
point is valid. Why should anyone be able to properly comprehend their own
emotions if they can’t properly comprehend their cognitions? After all, it is a
well-known phenomenon that other people can sometimes judge our emotional state
better than we can ourselves. How is that possible if we have complete access
to ‘how we feel’?
LeDoux (1996) expands this
idea by pointing out that emotion researchers have accidentally bitten off much
more than they can chew. Instead of ‘just’ examining the problem of unconscious
emotional processes, they are also attempting to unpick the problem of
‘consciousness’ at the same time. In other words, not only are they trying to
examine unconscious emotional processes, but also to understand how these move
into consciousness.
Two crucial ideas have emerged
from the first two posts in this series. Firstly, Solomon argues emotions can
be thought of as strategies, not just simply as processes out of our conscious
control. The second crucial idea, which LeDoux argues, is that emotions don’t
seem to have benefited from the cognitive revolution in the same way that
cognitions have. Enormous research efforts have been made to understand
unconscious cognitive processes, but rather less effort has been made to
understand unconscious emotional processes.
Are these viewpoints
compatible? On one hand a philosopher is telling us that, in some sense, we
actually have control over our emotions. At the other, a psychologist is
telling us that, because emotional processes are largely unconscious, we don’t
have access to them. How can we have control over something we can’t gain
access to? Actually these points of view are perfectly compatible, for the same
reason that I can will my hand to move, but I don’t have direct access to the complex
series of physiological interactions that are required to achieve this feat.
So, now that we’ve somewhat
devalued the importance of research into conscious emotional processes, what
does the research tell us about unconscious emotional processes? Stay tuned…
About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.