Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Book Notes: Deeper Than Reason

This is a fascinating book by Jenefer Robinson that is rooted in the philosophy of emotion and aesthetics, but which deals with art history and cognitive and neurophysiology/psychology as well. I suspect it will be seen as a tour de force, and actually, I think it already is- it took me weeks to get a copy from the publisher because printings have continually sold out. To be honest, I think it is solid scholarship, not the last word on these subjects, but a new step in a fascinating direction.

In her first section, Robinson develops a theory of emotions in contrast to the more common cognitive theory of emotions- basically that our emotions are our cognitive appraisal of a situation in relation to our needs- so, happiness is based in a statement like "I am happy that _____." Robinson, in contrast, sees emotions "as processes, having at their core non-cognitive 'instinctive' appraisals, 'deeper than reason', which automatically induce physiological changes and action tendencies, and which then give way to cognitive monitoring of the situation." So, emotions are on the level of instincts and our later cognitive appraisals of our physiological state are a sort of stage two in experiencing emotions. Robinson's argument goes against much of recent philosophic thought on emotions, but is in line with the most recent neural-psychological thought on emotions.

A caveat here- I'm not entirely convinced by Robinson's emphasis on the adaptive qualities of affective appraisals. There's something that bugs me about psychological thought that tends towards explaining everything through evolutionary necessity. On one hand, it seems a bit simplistic and crude thinking- everyone thinks they understand Darwin, but how many do? Also, instincts tend to be overly romanticized- a certain "repression of our natural instincts" prevents us from raping each other, and thank goodness for that. Lastly, how does evolutionary theory explain how we get to more complex emotions, such as despair, that can lead to suicide, the seeming antithesis of evolutionary drives.

In her second section, she explains how her theory of emotions applies to novels, telling how to read certain novels in an emotional way. Next, she explains how to understand creation as a form of emotional expression, an interpretation that she rightfully associates with Romanticism. Lastly, she explains how to have an emotional experience with music, emphasizing that there are some pieces of music that must be listened to in an emotional way.

I do have some caveats here as well- it seems to me that the initial physiological cues may be similar when I hear that Debra Winger is going to die in Terms of Endearment as when I heard that my Aunt was dying of lymphoma. However, the affective processes seem to be objectively different, and if I read Robinson correctly, they seem to take place in different parts of the brain. So, how do we understand them as the same thing? Couldn't our response to art really be more like a mood than an affective response?

Qualms aside, this is a well thought through and provocative book that deserves any accolades it receives. Most importantly, Robinson reminds us of the value of our affective responses to art in shaping the way that we understand the world and ourselves. She concludes by stating that a person cannot be a complete human without art, after having given strong empirical proof of this fact throughout the study.

5 comments:

Hiromi said...

"So, emotions are on the level of instincts and our later cognitive appraisals of our physiological state are a sort of stage two in experiencing emotions."

Isn't this kind of old news? I mean, the typical cartoonish way to describe the human brain in a hierarchical evolutionary way: medulla/cerebellum, the areas that control involuntary, survival type stuff is the reptilian brain; the limbic system, the emotional center of our brains is the mammalian brain; we're the only animals to have a cerebral cortex.

The Pagan Temple said...

I always saw the evolutionary aspet of emotions as being a necessity to insure bonding, like of a parent to it's child, in order to nurture that child during it's formative years.

Humans especially. Most animals become self-sufficient fairly quickly, compared to human infants, which require a much longer period of caring, thereby creating a more intense emotional bond between parent and child, especially mother and child.

I forget now where I read that. I think it might have been "The Naked Ape", though unfortunately I forget the authors name. But it makes sense, as well as that all human emotions pretty much evolved from that.

The Pagan Temple said...

By the way, just wanted to say thanks for putting me on your Blogroll. Actually, I've been wanting to do the same thing with you, if I can ever figure out how to do it, and can find enough Blogs that are consistently good enough to put on one and that are updated consistently as well.

What site did you use? Blogrolling?

Rufus said...

Hiromi: It's more old news in psychology than in philosophy. What Robinson suggests is that emotions are not much different than something like the flinch reflex. Philosophy has tended to argue that emotions begin with our cognitive assessment of a situation. So, I think to myself "It is bad that I have no money" and then I feel sad. Robinson is saying the opposite happens, which I think psychologists have known, but philosophers haven't done much with. Of course, they love cognition, so that might be why.

Pagan: It's fascinating to me that babies bond with the mother through music. I do think that emotions have serious evolutionary benefits, but not all of them. Of course, that's fine with me.

No problem on the blogroll. I just added it manually to the template.

Hiromi said...

"It's more old news in psychology than in philosophy."

Dude... that's weird. And probably an argument for more interdisciplinary work.