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16 September 2015

It Gets Lonely Downstairs

Downstairs in the living room after work, it’s already dark and I’m reading my book by the light of a small corner lamp. There’s nobody downstairs but the room has a cosy feel and I’m not lonely. Later the others appear and go about their business in the kitchen, talking, laughing, preparing a meal. I’m not a part of their conversations or activities but I feel I’m a part of things all the same. These are people I love and who love me. And the thing is, I felt myself to be part of things, part of the everyday social activity of the house, even before they appeared.

Later they’ve retired upstairs to bed and I’ve decided to stay downstairs and read. Now it begins to get lonely and the room feels less cosy, more alien. Everything looks colder, less familiar, less open to my gaze. Why do things feel different? After all, earlier I had the whole of the lower floor of the house to myself just as I do now. And little else has changed, in coldly objective terms, except that it’s a bit darker. No, the difference is that the feeling of the house now is the feeling of a house that’s no longer the potential scene of conviviality, no longer a stage for sociality. And I literally perceive this. That nobody will come back downstairs is a perceived quality of my phenomenal field, the perceived world around me. It’s part of the meaning of night-time, but it’s not a meaning I come to understand through a conscious act of interpretation. The meaning is in what I see, hear and feel, prior to all interpretation.

This one example shows that the static mechanical picture of perception that’s been so common in modern philosophy and psychology, in which a passive subject reacts to sensory inputs from the outside world, is woefully inadequate.

Some will think this is all a bit soft, that feelings, moods, and emotions don’t belong in an account of perception, which is a matter of cognition, sensory physiology, and brain states. But this objection is the result of an historical accident. Feelings, moods and emotions are referred to in psychology and neuroscience as affect, as distinct from cognition, which encompasses language, perception, and intellection. Well it so happened that cognition and affect came to be treated separately. In the field of neuroscience, for example, the relevant disciplines are called cognitive neuroscience and affective neuroscience. But this distinction reflects the historical growth of a discipline more than a substantial division of subject matter. Cognition and affect are intimately linked.

Cognition would be rudderless without the accompaniment of emotion, just as emotion would be primitive without the participation of cognition. This conclusion has been forced upon us by many sources of evidence, but perhaps most compelling are the data that indicate there are no parts of the brain dedicated exclusively to cognition and others to emotion. It is ironic that the duality between reason and emotion that has been perpetuated through the ages is a distinction that is not honored by the architecture of the brain. We have an enormous opportunity and obligation in the biobehavioral sciences today to finally integrate into a meaningful whole the cognitive and affective processing systems.
—Richard J Davidson, Cognitive Neuroscience Needs Affective Neuroscience

I think this supports the view that perception, that prime subject of cognitive science, is affective and emotional too. And this surely fits with personal experience. Fear, anger, disgust, and joy all direct us to the world in different ways, so that we perceive things differently. To put some scientific meat on these bones of intuition: it’s been shown in numerous recent psychological studies that emotions or moods can affect the perception of things like the steepness of hills, which appear steeper to those in a sad mood, and visual contrast, to which we become more sensitive when looking at a person with a fearful expression. In a fascinating paper entitled “Emotion and Perception: The Role of Affective Information”, the authors conclude:

Not only is it possible for emotion to influence perception, but in fact it seems to happen quite frequently— across many levels of visual perception and in response to a variety of affective stimuli. Affective valence and arousal carry information about the value and importance of objects and events, and the studies we have reviewed indicate that such information is incorporated into visual perception of one’s environment. Thus, we noted that fear increases the chances of seeing potential threats, that positive moods encourage one to maintain one’s current way of looking at things, and that negative moods encourage a change. Research indicates also that objects in the environment with emotional and motivational relevance draw attention and may become more easily detected by appearing larger.
—Zadra and Clore, Emotion and Perception: The Role of Affective Information

Emotion and Perception: The Role of Affective Information
An effect of mood on the perception of geographical slant [PDF]

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