Paul Thagard, Brain Mechanisms Explain Emotion and Consciousness

March 3, 2016 @ 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
141 Park Hall
Barry Smith

Paul Thagard (Department of Philosophy, University of Waterloo)

Brain Mechanisms Explain Emotion and Consciousness

Is love a judgment, a body process, or a cultural interpretation?  Emotion theorists dispute whether emotions are cognitive appraisals, responses to physiological changes, or social constructions.   That emotions are all of these can be grasped by identifying brain mechanisms for emotions, including representation by groups of spiking neurons, binding of representations into semantic pointers, and competition among semantic pointers.   Semantic pointers are patterns of firing in groups of neurons that function like symbols while incorporating sensory and motor information that can be recovered.   Emotions are semantic pointers that bind representations of situations, physiology, and appraisal into unified packages that can guide behavior if they outcompete other semantic pointers.   Social and linguistic information is incorporated into cognitive appraisal.   This view of emotions is supported by computer simulations (using Chris Eliasmith’s Semantic Pointer Architecture) that model dynamic appraisal, embodiment,  interaction of physiological input and appraisal, and reasoning about emotions.  Unlike traditional theories, the semantic pointer theory of emotion can also explain why people have conscious experiences such as happiness and sadness.

Eliasmith, C. (2013). How to build a brain:  A neural architecture for biological cognition.

Thagard, P., & Schröder, T. (2014). Emotions as semantic pointers:  Constructive neural mechanisms. In L. F. Barrett & J. A. Russell (Eds.), The psychological construction of emotions (pp. 144-167).

Thagard, P., & Stewart, T. C. (2014). Two theories of consciousness: Semantic pointer competition vs. information integration. Consciousness and Cognition, 30, 73-90.