Giovanna Colombetti: The Enactive Approach To Emotions


colombettiGiovanna Colombetti, Department of Sociology, Philosophy, and Anthropology, University of Exeter

What is most distinctive about my work on emotions is that it is grounded in an account of the mind that emphasizes its embodied and affective character. My current project, funded by the European Research Council, is titled “Emoting the Embodied Mind” and it aims to reconceptualize a variety of affective phenomena from the “embodied” perspective in the philosophy of mind. The project is primarily philosophical, in the sense that it develops an abstract theoretical framework and explores its implications; in doing so, however, I draw on the empirical results unveiled by the affective sciences.

My starting point is the so-called “enactive” approach to the mind, which is a synthesis of several interrelated and mutually supportive ideas from different disciplines, in particular phenomenological philosophy, psychology, biology, and neuroscience (the key texts developing this approach are Varela, Thompson, & Rosch 1991 and Thompson 2007; for succinct introductions to enactivism see Torrance 2005; Colombetti & Thompson 2008; Di Paolo, Rohde, & De Jaegher 2010; Thompson 2011).

Enactivism rejects the assumptions, widespread in cognitive science, that the body does not itself underpin cognitive capacities and that cognition is instantiated “centrally” by the brain only. Rather, according to enactivism cognition is realized (“enacted”) by the whole living organism embedded in the world. A central theme of enactivism is the autonomous (i.e., self-determining) nature of living systems, and the idea that cognition, as enacted by living systems, ought to be understood in terms of self-organization. In a self-organizing system (e.g., a flock of birds), there is no component that instructs or controls how the other components of the system behave; instead, the structure and the behaviour of the system result from the reciprocal influences of its various constituents.

Another central theme of enactivism is the importance of examining in detail the nature of lived experience to develop an appropriate account of the mind. Much cognitive science is explicitly about the structure of the “cognitive unconscious”, i.e., it aims to explain how a certain system of non-conscious representations implements some cognitive function. Enactivism takes its lead from the idea, developed especially in the phenomenological philosophical tradition, that our body is not just a physical entity but also an experienced or lived structure (Husserl [1952] 1989; Merleau-Ponty [1945] 1962). Understanding the mind thus requires an exploration of our embodied nature at both physical and experiential levels. Moreover, the two levels need to inform one another; rigorous descriptions of experience are necessary to make sense of brain and bodily activity, and data about the latter can be used to refine experiential reports (for the idea of “circulation” between neuroscience and experience, see Varela 1996; for an application of this idea to the study of emotion, see Colombetti 2013).

            These two themes have interesting implications for our understanding of affectivity (see Colombetti 2014):

Emotional episodes are self-organizing patterns of the organism

From the enactive perspective, emotional episodes such as fear, anger, happiness, shame etc., are best conceptualized as self-organizing patterns of the entire organism that recruit various processes (neural, muscular, autonomic, etc.) into highly integrated configurations (Colombetti 2009a, 2014). Related suggestions can be found in psychological and neuroscientific works, together with supporting empirical evidence (e.g., Fogel & Thelen 1987; Fogel et al. 1992; Freeman 2000; Lewis 2005). Importantly, this proposal provides a middle way between some of the most influential theories of emotion in psychology. Self-organizing emotional episodes can be highly variable, because the processes constituting them can organize themselves in different ways, depending on the context. Yet at the same time, the range of their possible variations depends on the state of the organism, and is evolutionarily and developmentally constrained.

This perspective entails that there is no need to posit “internal causes” of emotion—such as affect programs (Tomkins 1962; Ekman 1980) or sequences of cognitive appraisals (as in the “component process model”; Scherer 2009). Additionally, there is no need to posit the existence of “basic” emotions, in the sense of emotions that are building blocks of more complex or non-basic ones. Rather, all emotional episodes can be seen as complex, flexible and variable self-organizing patterns—with some patterns occurring across different cultures, and other patterns emerging only in specific contexts or even in specific individuals.

This perspective also differs from the “conceptual act theory” proposed by Barrett and others (Barrett 2006; Wilson-Mendenhall et al. 2011), according to which conceptualization, usually driven by language, is needed for the construction of emotional episodes in oneself and others. From the perspective of self-organization, language and language-based concepts are not required for the organism to adopt, or better enact, specific emotional patterns (indeed even very simple organisms can be said to have emotions); at the same time, however, enculturation, including language, can influence how the organism self-organizes, including the way in which its various processes (muscular, physiological, etc.) integrate into specific emotional episodes (Colombetti 2009b, 2009c, 2014).

Appraisal is embodied

The enactivist idea that the mind needs to be understood by developing and integrating detailed accounts at the physical and experiential level has important implications for the notion of appraisal. This notion standardly refers to a cognitive-evaluative process that elicits emotion—either as an external cause of emotion, or as a causal mechanism internal to emotion itself. In either case, the process of appraisal is typically conceptualized as an entirely “brainy” process, clearly distinct from emotion, or at least from its bodily aspects (its visceral, musculoskeletal, expressive and behavioural components).

The enactive perspective entails that appraisal is not entirely in the head, but is constituted by the activity of the whole situated organism (for more details see Colombetti 2007, 2010, 2014). This view follows from the enactive conception of cognition as thoroughly embodied, but is also in line with experiential considerations as well as some recent neuroscientific accounts. Experientially, it does not seem possible to clearly distinguish appraisal from emotion, and it seems misleading to suggest that a separate appraisal can produce or elicit an emotion in a linear way—for example, to suggest that one first evaluates something as being a loss, and then feels sadness. When one appraises something as being a loss and experiences sadness accordingly, the appraisal is already, I maintain, imbued with sadness. Moreover, I think that it is also inaccurate to separate the experience of appraisal from the bodily feelings that often occur in emotion experience in the form of either visceral sensations or action tendencies. When these bodily feelings occur, they are not experienced as mere responses to the appraisal, lacking evaluative character; rather, they are part of the experience of assessing a certain event as unfair, scary, enjoyable, etc.

These experiential considerations converge with neuroscientific accounts emphasizing that the brain areas traditionally associated with cognitive and emotional functions are so deeply integrated via processes of continuous reciprocal influences (also called “circular causation”) that it is inappropriate to posit linear causal sequences from cognition to emotion (and vice versa; see, e.g., Freeman 2000; Lewis 2005). In fact, some even claim that it is impossible to identify brain areas uniquely dedicated to emotion (including bodily arousal) and cognition (including appraisal) respectively. In their extensive reviews, both Lewis (2005) and Pessoa (2008) for instance show that brain regions traditionally viewed as emotional, such as the amygdala, are also involved in cognition; and vice versa, brain regions traditionally viewed as cognitive, such as the prefrontal cortex, are also involved in emotion (see also Pessoa 2012). They conclude that emotion and cognition (and appraisal more specifically) are broad psychological categories that do not map neatly onto the brain. If we then add to this neural complexity the further consideration that the brain is itself deeply integrated with the rest of the organism (e.g., Thompson & Cosmelli 2012), it becomes even harder to hold on to the view that appraisal is a distinct cognitive and entirely “heady” process that does not overlap with other aspects of emotion.

Affectivity pervades the mind

Via its phenomenological connections, the enactive approach also helps to reclaim a “broader” and “deeper” notion of affectivity than the one usually assumed in the affective sciences. Affective scientists typically focus on relatively narrow and bounded phenomena such as emotional episodes and moods. The phenomenological notion of affectivity refers instead to our basic capacity to be “affected”, in the sense of influenced by something that matters to us (for an accessible introduction to this and other phenomenological ideas about consciousness, see Thompson & Zahavi 2007). In this sense, one need not be in an emotion or mood to be in an affective state; affectivity is a very broad phenomenon that refers to our basic, indeed inescapable, condition of caring about our existence and activities. This broad notion is also “deeper” than ordinary emotions and moods, in the sense that it is a condition of possibility for those (it enables them): if we were non-affective, i.e., indifferent beings, we would not be moved by anything, and accordingly we would not have emotions and moods. Importantly this notion of affectivity is intimately related to the one of embodiment. In a nutshell, it is because we are living bodily organisms that we can be affected and that things matter to us. Non-living beings do not strive to maintain themselves, and there is no reason why they should care about anything.

These three themes are elaborated in more detail in my book, The Feeling Body: Affective Science Meets the Enactive Mind (2014, just published by MIT Press). The book elaborates other enactivist themes and their relevance for affective science as well. For example, it proposes new phenomenological categories to describe in detail the many ways in which we experience our body in emotion experience. Drawing on the “neurophenomenological” approach (Varela 1996; Thompson 2007), the book also advances what I call a “neuro-physio-phenomenology” for the scientific study of emotion experience. This term refers to a method for integrating first-person data about emotional feelings (generated via rigorous first- and second-person methods, such as trained self-observation and intersubjective validation) and third-person data about brain and bodily activity (generated via measures of brain as well as autonomic and musculoskeletal activity). The idea is that first-person data should be used  to make sense of brain and bodily activity, whereas third-person data should in turn be used to refine reports about feelings (see also Colombetti 2013). The book also addresses the place of affectivity in intersubjectivity. I distinguish different ways in which we feel others in concrete, face-to-face (or better body-to-body) encounters—e.g., phenomena of basic empathy, feelings of closeness and intimacy, sympathy—and relate these distinctions to existing empirical evidence of how our brain and bodies respond to the bodily presence of others, supporting the interpretation that our widespread tendency to mimic others has primarily an affective role.

In sum, I think that the enactive approach to the mind offers a host of resources for thinking about affectivity in novel and fruitful ways. Affectivity is a complex biological as well as experiential phenomenon, and as such it needs to be addressed from a complex multidisciplinary and integrative perspective. Enactivism, with its synthesis of ideas from biology, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy of mind, and phenomenology, provides just such a perspective. Importantly, rather than inviting us to explain one aspect of affectivity (e.g., feelings) in terms of another (e.g., neural activity), it calls for detailed descriptions and analyses of each aspect, with the aim of showing that they can enrich and illuminate one another. This kind of pluralistic and integrative approach is, I think, precisely what we need to do justice to the richness of our embodied and affective lives.



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