Consciousness is a type of Emotion (excerpt)

Richard E. Cytowic MD p00907 at psilink.com
Mon Oct 18 11:19:34 EST 1993

Excerpt from the chapter "Consciousness is a Type of Emotion"
   "The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A Bizarre Medical Mystery Offers
Revolutionary Insights into Reasoning, Emotions, and
   by: Richard E. Cytowic, MD
   Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam Publishing (hardback) 8/93
     isbn 0-87477-738-0  $21.95/$28.95  800-788-6262

I indicated that were it not for emotion, our mentation would be
predictable and unimaginative. The ability to pluck qualitatively
salient information from the passing stream and to act 
efficiently on fragmentary information is what leads to
imagination and an sthetic capacity. Intuition, for example, is
the expression of a decision based on the efficient use of
partial information. Humans excel at this, which is a blessing
given that human thinking is neither inherently logical nor

Because the anatomy of emotion is also partially the anatomy of
memory, increased clarity comes from the capacity to look at and
to remember previous actions. The reasons we develop when talking
to ourselves become clearer as we gather and retain more
knowledge about our motivations, the way we make decisions, and
how we rationalize our actions. Seemingly irrational things like
contradictions are a natural part of this process. We develop
dichotomies, such as good versus evil, to clarify our thoughts.
It is probably impossible to understanding anything without
making such polarities. Some polarities are true and have a
physical basis, like positive and negative. Others are elusive
and resolved only by perserverance. When we eventually fathom a
linkage we call it insight.

Some people are blessed with an intuitive grasp of relationships
between huge numbers of variables without having to "reason"
their way through them. Such a person was Ramanujan, the Indian
boy who developed mathematical proofs to theorems he had invented
himself. Because the theorems were so obvious to him, he only
wrote down the proofs. The British mathematician Hardy declared
that Ramanujan's proofs had to be true because no cheat could
have fabricated work so sophisticated. While few of us possess
intuition this grand, we all possess this uniquely human type of
creative thinking that brings order to a jumble of variables and
somehow gives meaningful pleasure.

When faced with a totally new problem in a new context, we
somehow come up with a creative solution. This happens all the
time in ordinary human situations like raising children or trying
to get someone to notice us. We solve myriad daily problems that
involve our relationships with the world and with other people.
It would be difficult for a logical machine following rules to
deal with such problems, no matter how detailed the rules were.
If we could define emotions in terms of rules then perhaps we
could stick them into such a machine and make it intelligent in
the sense hoped for by AI enthusiasts. But emotions cannot be set
down in formal terms; they can only be understood by living life
and feeling our way through it.

Creative people who do original work do it with an emotional
charge, and the greater the charge,  the better they seem to
work. This kind of emotional tone seems to be the guiding force
in any new creation. Emotion not only makes our brain so
efficient but also gives us our intuitive sense of what is
correct and what goes together. This is of course the capacity
for an sthetic, a sense of what is beautiful and not beautiful.
Without such a capacity we probably would not have higher realms
of creative thought, such as literature, architecture, or

While pointing out the overlap between emotion and memory, I want
to emphasize that memory is not simply a fixed look-up table. It
too is a creative process during which the state of the brain's
electrical fields change. The sensory cortices generate a
distinct pattern for each act of recognition and recall, with no
two ever exactly the same. They are close enough to cause the
illusion that we understand and have seen the event before,
although this is never quite true. Each time we recall something
it comes tainted with the circumstances of the recall. When it is
recalled again, it carries with it a new kind of baggage, and so
on. So each act of recognition and recall is a fresh creative
process and not merely a retrieval of some fixed item from

Furthermore, persons, objects, and events are not perceived in
their entirety but only by those aspects which are, have been, or
can be experienced and acted upon by an observer. An example of
this fragmentary nature of perception is found in a mundane
object such as a disposable plastic cup. Everyone knows that you
drink from it. But we can comment on little else--for example its
tensile strength, translucency, thermal coefficient, chemical
composition, or what is stamped on its bottom. A physical
universe is contained in that cup by such an analysis. Yet all we
really know about it is what you do with it. This limited aspect
of knowing is peculiar to humans, the observers and manipulators.
All that we can know about anything outside ourselves is what the
brain creates from raw sensory fragments, which were actively
sought by the limbic brain in the first place as salient chunks
of information.

This view of perception and memory does not appeal to the
idealism of philosophers because it speaks to the limits of our
knowledge and what we really know: namely, conscious knowing is
restricted by the possible interactions we have with events and
things. Conscious knowing is based in direct, hands-on

Put in a more familiar context, artists and creative writers look
at the world in a certain way. It is the same world that everyone
else sees, but seen differently. Contemporary people often call
artists weird because they do not seem to be seeing the same
things that the majority sees. It is critical to realize that the
sensory gateways that feed into the brain establish their own
conditions for the creation of images and knowledge. Artistic
giants knew full well that their visions were not shared by most
people. Even when persecuted or abandoned because of their vision
artists persist. That is all the can do because their visions are
their reality, and for many of us they subsequently become our
reality when we experience their art.
     *End of Excerpt****
copyright (c) Richard E. Cytowic, MD

More information about the Neur-sci mailing list

Send comments to us at biosci-help [At] net.bio.net