Reflection 131: Feedback

July 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Three posts ago (Reflection 128: Woody Allen Consciousness), I dealt with four aspects of consciousness in which (through introspection) I claimed to see anxiety as a common feature, and the amygdala as playing an implicit role in that anxiety. I sent a copy of that post to Joseph LeDoux, leading authority on emotional consciousness (whom I had quoted), and in return he sent me a short note, and the draft of a manuscript he’d written on emotional coloration of consciousness. LeDoux’s reply read:

Thanks for the note. Interesting ideas. But my view is that the amygdala [is] not really involved in conscious fear or anxiety, at least not directly. The arousal that it generates contributes but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable. I’m attaching something that came out last year in a book called Frontiers of Consciousness (Ox U Press). The attached is an unedited version of the ms, but is basically what was published. Thanks again. Joe

Talk about anxiety, I was anxious upon reading the note, and even more anxious upon reading the attached chapter, which amounted to a complete review of emotional consciousness, citing 351 sources from the relevant literature. LeDoux was generous in dubbing my subjective ideas “interesting,” but there was no question he had the peer-reviewed facts on his side. Still, I felt the reason I sent the post to an expert in the field held true: there was a place in consciousness studies for introspection as a supplement to animal research, philosophical musings, functional imaging, psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, the arts, and any other human activity shedding light on the mind. I’d said in my initial email that introspection and basic brain research were tunneling into the same mountain from opposites sides, hoping to meet in the middle, or by a different metaphor:

In addition to studies of neural substrates of consciousness, I firmly see a need for a sandwich approach which will inform such studies by coming from above—not from the substrate but the real item itself—because I think consciousness, as an emergent property, will never be found in the neurons themselves because that’s not where it lives. So that’s what I blog about, for whatever it’s worth.

Having read LeDoux’s chapter three times now, I am impressed both by the amount of research that has been done—and the amount that still lies ahead. In truth, much of what we know today about emotional consciousness is based on informed yet conjectural interpretations of basic research. The field rests largely on claims and arguments. A close reading reveals phrases such as “are believed to be,” “are often considered,” “may be,” “might be thought of as,” “my proposal is,” “I will argue that,” “is likely to,” “probably occurs,” “much debate exists,” “perhaps,” and so on. Knowledge is harder to come by than we commonly suppose. The essence of science (that is, of knowing) is doubt and skepticism, which is why on-going research is so necessary. Current knowing invariably rests on a flurry of assumptions, beliefs, and conditional assertions. Only when the flurry dissipates does knowledge stiffen into certainty—always an illusion to fill the break until flurries fly again.

Science, like religion and philosophy, is an edifice in need of constant maintenance. My image is of a juggler whirling Indian clubs in the air, dropping one here or there, picking up others, diligently striving, balancing, laboring, watching, paying careful attention, always appearing the same yet never quite the same two cycles in a row. In a moment of laxity, the clubs spill in a heap—until gathered and set in motion with renewed vigilance. Such is every human endeavor. Such is medicine, the stock market, technology, the Internet, blogging, and consciousness itself—the ultimate human endeavor.

I juggle my consciousness as best I can, as you juggle yours. Taken together we form a spectacle of jugglers whirling our clubs en masse while knowing distraction or exhaustion or simply missing a beat will make us drop one or more. We can’t keep going forever. Sooner or later. . . . What, me anxious?

But back to emotional consciousness. Essentially, it is whatever aspect of mind we pay attention to that bears emotional overtones expressing how we feel at the time. In picturing the amygdala responsible for feelings of anxiety, I am the arch-conjuror reaching farther than I have any right to on the basis of evidence—but reaching anyway because that is my nature. If I don’t reach farther today than yesterday, what’s the point of going on? Done reaching, I am finished. Where’s the adventure in that?

I sent my 128th post to Joseph LeDoux because I felt I had made a discovery—that anxiety is behind a large part of consciousness. I have claimed that consciousness is given us to solve novel problems that evolution has no leverage on, and anxiety is what turns a situation into a problem. Anxiety is a sign we are invested in a particular situation and care about the outcome. Interpreting the phenomenal situation is a problem if we want to get it right. Adopting the right idiom of consciousness in addressing the situation is a problem in itself reflected in how we present ourselves to the world. And lastly, applying an appropriate elixir (or fudge factor) in order to fit our way of thinking to the situation is a forth-order problem. All involving anxiety because we’re not sure of ourselves or the outcome we desire. And implicating the amygdala as the neural seat of emotional consciousness, so I claimed—which is where I overreached myself. In correcting me by saying, “The arousal that it generates contributes [to feelings of anxiety] but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable,” LeDoux is asserting the position he took in Synaptic Self where he wrote:

While individual brain regions and networks make distinct contributions to the processes that together constitute anxiety, anxiety itself is best thought of as a property of the overall circuitry rather than of specific brain regions (Viking, 2002, page 290).

In his chapter in Frontiers of Consciousness, LeDoux makes it clear: “Amygdala processing in humans occurs unconsciously.” Summarizing, “Indeed, amygdala processing meets most of the principles of automaticity—that is it is independent of attention and awareness.” So, like Hamlet sensing a presence behind the curtain in the queen’s bedroom but not knowing it is Polonius, I had no way of identifying the amygdala as the source of the anxiety associated with problem-solving in self-examined consciousness. As part of a network, the amygdala itself is not subject to introspection.

I stand corrected. Which I take to be a demonstration of cooperation between neuroscientists on one hand and us introspectors on the other.

Putting Heads Together

 

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