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It's O.K. to be complicated. The case of emotion

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Since at least the time of Darwin, we have recognized that our human emotional life is very similar to the emotional life of other creatures. We all react in characteristic ways to emotionally valenced stimuli. Though other animals may not blush or cry, we all have prototypical ways of expressing anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness, and curiosity. In assuming that the neural circuits underlying these reactions are homologous or at least analogous across species, neurophysiologists and neuropsychologists have been able to construct impressive and substantial research programmes studying the neural correlates for emotion. They are to be applauded, for we now know quite a lot about where and how basic emotions are processed in the brain.

At the same time, there is a dangerous trend developing in the study of emotion in neurophysiology and neuropsychology, a trend toward oversimplifying and reducing emotional responses to the point of distortion. We all know that scientists must abstract away from much of what is going on in order to produce quantitative and unambiguous data. We also know that scientists operate using several basic methodological, technological, and theoretical assumptions. The question I wish to address here is whether, in the case of emotions, scientists haven't gone too far in their tendency to modularize brain processes and to reduce reactions down to their simplest components.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Philosophy, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0126, USA.

Publication date: November 1, 1999


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