Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mind, body and emotion

By Steve Rensberry

 The essence and source of human emotions, like that of consciousness itself, is a complex phenomenon that has caused a great deal of bewilderment throughout history. Author and professor Paul Thagard makes an interesting observation in an April 15, 2010 blog for Psychology Today, entitled very simply, "What are emotions?"
   Thagard first appraises the dualist view as being weak on evidence and heavy on wishful thinking or motivated inference, then points to two main scientific explanations for how emotions arise. One is the cognitive appraisal theory, which suggests that emotions represent a reaction to how well we are achieving any particular goal, the result being happiness when we're getting closer and anger when we encounter obstacles. The second explanation argues that emotions are tied to physiological changes.
   "On this view, happiness is a kind of physiological perception, not a judgment, and other emotions such as sadness and anger are mental reactions to different kinds of physiological stages," he writes.
   Most intriguing is Thagard's comment that our current understanding of how the brain functions suggests that the two theories can be unified.
   "Visual and other kinds of perception are the result of both inputs from the senses and top-down interpretations based on past knowledge. Similarly, the brain can perform emotions by interactively combining both high-level judgments about goal satisfactions and low-level perceptions of bodily changes," he says.
   As for the physiological connection, research also points to a number of compounds and molecules in the body that appear to drive various emotional states. These include adrenaline, acetylcholine, dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, testosterone, estrogen, melatonin and oxytocin.
   When so many of these substances perform multiple functions in the context of a biologically complex, dynamic living organism, it's no wonder emotions are so difficult to quantify. In artificial intelligence, it remains to be seen if duplication of human emotional reactions will be worthy of broad-based emulation or perhaps something that is a little more on the level of sanity.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Life outside the hive

By Steve Rensberry   

 Why do so many people believe in the absolute reality of so many things with such little evidence to validate their truth? Consider ghosts, angels, demons and that most prominent of deities -- God, or Allah if your prefer.
   If you find yourself one of the believers, I implore you to entertain this one simple question: Is it even remotely possible that such entities could be mere fabrications of the human mind?
  Why exactly do you believe what you do? Is it based on solid, empirical evidence or is it based on subjective, cognitive experience and philosophical speculation? History is replete with examples of magical thinking and superstitious belief. How do you know what you believe is any different?
   Don't get swayed by the human impulse to turn wishes into reality by imagining to be true things which are false. As finite, emotional creatures in a complex world, the best and most rational position to take is one that rests on a healthy foundation of skepticism and critical thinking.
   Part of your challenge--if you choose to accept it--is to wean yourself away from the comfort zone of all-encompassing belief, in the kind of belief that literally takes over your life. The difficulty is that the simple act of believing in something, even if it is based on a falsehood, can offer a tremendous amount of psychological comfort and positive reinforcement, especially when coupled with a supportive social network.
   They say that much of what we believe is simply a matter of inculcation from a very young age, the evidence notwithstanding. But there comes a time when we all need to grow up and become honest with ourselves. Don't give up on reality by thinking you've found the absolute, unquestionable truth, from now until eternity. Trust me, there is life outside the hive.

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion