Separating Emotion From Cognition

fMRI Scan

One of the main points I took
away from the discussion on unity is that psychology needs to integrate results
from different methodologies in order to better understand psychological
phenomena. The emotions are a prime example of where this is happening, perhaps
because the late blooming of emotion research has coincided with the explosion
of brain imaging paradigms. And so the term ‘affective neuroscience’ has come
into it’s own. This post asks whether there’s any justification for separating
affective neuroscience from cognitive neuroscience.

The term ‘affective
neuroscience’ was coined by Jaak Panksepp in the early 1990s to distinguish it
from cognitive neuroscience. Panksepp explains his view that affect or feelings
“…distinct neurobiological
processes in terms of anatomical, neurochemical, and various functional
criteria, including peripheral bodily interactions. Emotional and motivational
feelings are unique experientially valenced ‘state spaces’ that help organisms
make cognitive choices – e.g., to find food when hungry, water when thirsty,
warmth when cold, and companionship when lonely or lusty.” (Panksepp, 2003:6)
Panksepp departs from LeDoux
who, you’ll recall (if not go here), thinks conscious emotions are too bound up
in the problem of consciousness to be currently amenable to sensible
investigations. Panksepp, meanwhile, argues that ‘affect’, by definition
consciously experienced emotion, is important in the study of emotions.
That aside, one of the most
important points that Panksepp (2003) addresses is the question of whether
affects and cognitions can be separated in any meaningful way. He argues that
while it may not be possible untangle cognitions from affect, there is
considerable utility in examining the way in which it is ’embodied’. And here
lies an important role for the neuroimaging of humans and animal brain
So what evidence is there, for
Panksepp (2003), that emotions and cognitions can be separated?

  1. From a considerable amount of
    research, there seem to be emotional processes that are completely separate, or
    independent of, pure cognitions.
  2. Removing the higher parts of
    animal’s brains (decortication) still leaves them with affective responses. Put
    crudely: without their cortexes, animals can still feel, but can’t think
  3. Young children appear to
    display greater emotionality than adults. This might suggest that higher
    processes, developed later in life, serve to ‘dampen’ evolutionarily programmed
    emotional processes.
  4. Cognition is digital and
    emotion is analogue.
  5. Emotions are broadly similar
    cross-culturally, cognitions are not.
  6. The right hemisphere of the
    brain seems more emotionally-skilled whereas the left is more
Even taken together these
points do not prove that affects and cognitions are separate entities, but they
do suggest some separation between processes. From the opposite perspective, it
is clear that affects and cognitions, while their distinctiveness is being
argued here, are massively and necessarily interrelated. Thinking evolutionarily,
our cognitions need our emotions and vica versa. A head is no use without a
heart to go with it. That doesn’t mean there isn’t considerable utility in
analysing each separately.
In the reality of everyday
research, Panksepp (2003) argues, it is useful to emphasise the distinction
between affects and cognitions if only to encourage a greater focus on emotion.
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.