Tag Archives: cognition

Infants Reasoning About the World

The world may appear to be a ‘blooming, buzzing, confusion’ to infants, but within a few months infants are able to indulge in sophisticated cognition. They develop folk physical/astronomical theory, folk psychological theory,  folk moral theory and folk biological theory, pretty rapidly.

This post is about those cognitive frameworks that infants develop and which more or less persist in adulthood.

An infant

An infant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It had been my contention, that Autistic children are predominantly governed by physicalist explanations and frameworks, while those prone to psychosis indulged more in mentalistic cognition.  However, I recently came across the work of Renee Baillargeon and colleagues [pdf, pdf] that suggests that infants have four different types of cognitive frameworks.

  1. Physical reasoning system:  Infants are able to reason about the world like little physicists, assuming objects and their permanence over time.  Thus in a standard Violation of Expectation paradigm, they would look significantly longer at an event where object permanence is violated.  They also assume continuity about the object even when it may be hidden from sight and reappear from behind a blind. Thus they are able to perceive the world in mechanistic terms.
  2. Psychological reasoning system: Infants are also able to reason about the other agents around them, that the agents have a mind of their own and have their wishes, preferences and desires. The infants apply the principle of rationality (consistency and efficiency etc) to the agents and are surprised if the agent behaves irrationally (is inconsistent in his choices or completes an action using inefficient means). The agents are believed to ave autonomous control over themselves and have mental states which make them act as they do. Even at a very young age, infants are able to infer this.
  3. Scoio-moral reasoning system: This sort of reasoning may seem similar to earlier psychological reasoning, but is different in important respects. Infants are able to reason about other individuals that interact with each other. These interacting individuals are governed by principles of reciprocity, loyalty to in-group, fairness etc and infants comprehend and apply these yardstick to interacting individuals and are surprised when these principles are not honored. For eg, they would be more likely to help a helper than a hinderer and would also expect other members to do the same.
  4. Biological reasoning system: This sort of reasoning is about there being certain entities that are a certain form of life viz animals. Animals or life-form is something which has innards or an internal source of energy and if you take the innards out of the animal , the animal stops functioning.  Apart from being self-propelled and agentive, the condition that the animal has innards is very important for this system.

So what does this tell us about humans and the world? I believe this is further evidence that humans have four types of ways of looking out at the world: World in terms of its physical properties and constituents; World as constituting of conscious agents that have metal states that drive their behavior; world as constituting of intentional, interacting individuals that have their inner values and emotions; and finally world as constituting of biological animals that have their carnal grounding. No one way of looking at the world is perfect, The world is both matter and life and we are both minds and morals- it is the multiplicity of the world/ ourselves that makes it so rich and enticing!

Many Paths, Many Ends

Aum symbol in red

Aum symbol in red (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human beings are driven by many different goals throughout their life and though the goals of one individual would be different from other, the major goals of life can be classified as striving towards finding happiness, success, integrity and meaning in life. I have blogged elsewhere about how the latest research in positive psychology is explicating these four different legitimate aims via which one may lead a good or flourishing life. Also, a rider is in place here- its not as if one needs to, or is indeed, driven by one major goal to the exclusion of others, but a normal human life involves balancing and trading off one major goal with the other, depending on the need of the hour, the stage of ones life and one’s proclivities.

While psychology of motives and major goals has taken so many years to identify and contrast these goals, the seers and mystics of ages gone by, had been equally eloquent and discerning while coming up with the list of what should be legitimate aims of life- Hinduism defines four Purusharthas- Kama, Artha , Dharma and Moksha. I see a close parallel between Kama or being driven by passions or striving towards pleasure and happiness; between Artha or being driven by materialistic pursuits and towards success and achievement; between Dharma or striving towards living an ethical life and towards integrity and finally between Moksha or striving towards finding meaning and purpose in life (remember existence precedes essence).

To me the association looks too good to be true; but there is no reason to doubt that seers of yonder times may have been able to grasp these subtleties based on their acute mediation on human nature in the jungles.

Similarly, much of psychology is the study of ABCD- i.e Affect, Behavior, Cognition and Desire/ Dynamics. The ABCD model of psychology that I subscribe to tries to carve all human psychological phenomenon using the ABCD prism- identifying the underlying emotional components (Affect) , the behavioral components (Behavior) , the cognitive components (Cognition) and the motivational components (Desire/dynamics) . A (psychological) human himself may be thought of made up of emotions and feelings (affects), actions and reactions (behaviors), thoughts and beliefs (cognitions) and motives and drives (desires) – for some individual emotions may be in driver seat and for some other individual thoughts or intellect may be in the driver seat.

You can probably guess where I am going from here. Just like there are four major goals of life (the four purusharthas) ; so too there are four major ways or paths to achieve the ultimate aim of life (reunion with God) – the four Yogas – The Bhakti Yoga, the Karma Yoga, the Jnana Yoga and the Raja (ashtang) Yoga. To me these four pathways are again very psychologically based- Bhakti Yoga being useful to those who are predominantly emotional in nature; Karma Yoga for those who are more action oriented; Jnana Yoga for those more intellectual or cognitive in their outlook and Raja Yoga for those wanting to purify their motives/ habits using mediation etc.

Again just like a focus on either success or happiness or meaning or integrity may not be fruitful, so too for ‘normal’ humans a predominance with the Bhakti marg or the jnana marga or the Karm Marga or the Raja yoga marg may not be entirely healthy or salutogenic. We need to walk the path of all the margs simultaneously and depending in the need of the hour, or our stage of life be conversant and adept in all of these- be a good bhakt, a good karmayogi, a jnanai and a Raja Yogi.

While the later branches of Hinduism have overemphasized the importance of Moksha to the exclusion of other purusharthas, IMHO, a more balanced pursuit of all major goals of life and a more flexible adoption of the all the four major ways would go a long towards making the life flourishing and beautiful for all!

While to many of you the equating of psychological goals with spiritual goals may appear confusing, suffice to say that thee has started accumulating evidence at the level or neural circuits and brain areas about the dissociation between say happiness and meaning dimension for a good life or between economic (success) and moral (integrity) domains in general. Similarly there is enough evidence that the ABCD model of psychology is a good prism through which to see and study psychology. The fact that ABCD model/ findings from neuroscience/ psychology corroborate ancient insights is surprising but also reassuring in way. It was anecdotally known that Hinduism is so resilient because of its profound psychological basis- new finding are just confirming some of that.

Here is to whatever major goal and path you align your life with!!

emotion and personality: take 5

Scared child
Image via Wikipedia

I started the emotion and personality series with a focus on the eight stage model and how that informs us about both personality and emotions. I ended up changing tracks and pursuing Millon’s evolutionary stages and polarities and extending it to the ABCD of four broad psychological domains. Avid readers will notice that both my eight stage model and the Millon’s stages/polarities are based on evolutionary considerations and thus there should be neat synthesis involving the two. this post is an attempt to do so under the framework of the four basic domains of psychology : the ABCD model of psychology.

To recap: all psychology basically can be broken into study of :

  1. Affects or emotions
  2. Behaviors or  social factors
  3. Dynamics or drives and motivations and
  4. Cognition or learning, memory etc.

There have been paradigms in psychology like affective psychology, behaviorism, psychodynamcis and cognitive psychology that have focused on one domain more than the other. One can even extrapolate the diffrent approaches and discplines that are releavnt to each domain as below:

  1. Affect/emotions: Evolutionary explanations as most emotions are evolved mechanisms. Biological context is relevant. Genes drive this.
  2. Behaviors/social functioning: Social/situational explanations dependent on interactions with other people/cultural effects. Cultural context is more relevant. Environment drives this.
  3. Dynamics/ drives/motivations: Developmental explanations of how life course and needs/drives interact. Ecological context is instrumental. Environment chooses genes here and only certain phenotypes expressed.
  4. Cognition: economic/information-processing explanations that explain decisions, perceptions etc. Constructed and created context is important here. Niches are build and genes choose environment.

The Affect and Dynamics can be clubbed together as Evo-devo explanations and refer to subjective phenomenon;  while the Behavior and Cognition can be clubbed together as Socio-Economic explanations and refer to objective observable phenomenons. But anyway this is digressing a bit from the main topic.

Getting back to topic at hand, the four domains correspond to the four evolutionary stages of millon and each stage has two polarities and thus map to eight stage model as follows:

  1. Affect maps to problem of Existence and the polarity of pain and  pleasure mapped respectively to say the  ‘FEAR’ and ‘SEEKING’ system of Pankseep. These (the panksepp emotions systems)  I have previously shown how they are mapped to the eights stage model.
  2. Behavior maps to the problem of Adaptation and the polarity of Active and Passive mapped respectively to the ‘RAGE’ and ‘PANIC’ systems of panksepp.
  3. Dynamics/Drive maps to the problem of Replication and the Polarities of Self and Other mapped respectively to ‘LUST’ and ‘CARE’ of Panksepp.
  4. Cognition maps to the problem of abstraction and the polarities of Broad/creative versus narrow/rigid and maps respectively to ‘PLAY’ and ‘SELF’ systems of Panksepp.

Seen form this angle, the eight stages are just the eight polarities manifesting one after the other in the developmental course.

Extending Millon’s evolutionary considerations,it behooves to remember that another way to look at his problems is to view the change sin phylogeny, ontogeny , function (ultimate) and causation (proximate) of any trait.

Phylogeny is dependent on historical environment and leads to the trait having its ultimate thematic value. This I argue is the problem of existence (of trait/individual) and manifests as the domain of Affect.

But a trait with a fixed value would be of no use. Around the ultimate thematic value there will be ultimate variation that charts the possible functional map of what that feature is supposed to do. The abstracted ancestral environment (EEA) is teh context in which function evolves. This is the problem of abstraction and manifests as domain of cognition,.

Apart form the ultimate thematic value, one needs to tune that value to the immediate ecological and developmental context.  Ontogeny is dependent on such an ecological context and is a proximate thematic mechanism that leads to a particular stable thematic value of a trait. This is also the problem of Replication (r-K)  and manifest as Dynamics.

However, even a fixed proximate thematic value of trait will be useless as situations keep changing. Causation is responding to immediate environment in appropriate and adaptive manner. This is the problem of adaptation and manifests as domain of behavior.

I can relate the above to Aristotle’s four causes, but will leave that for another day; time now to wrap up the personality part. Emotions we have seen can be easily subsumed under the ABCD domains of psychology. As Pankspess model has been related to cloninger personality traits, I’ll leave the case rested that personality can also be adequately explained using the ABCD construct.

Before signing off, I’ll hastily note that to me, these ABCD domains map to underlying neurotransmitter systems:

Affect (pain/pleasure/’FEAR’/’SEEKING”) is associated with Noradrenaline system (NE). the role of ?NE in FEAR is clear, but for SEEKING DA also seems to play a role.

Behavior(active/passive/’RAGE’/’PANIC’)  is associated with Serotonin system (SE). The relationship of Serotonin with aggression and separation distress as well as behavioral manifestations like eating/sleeping cycle are well known. Known abnormalities in SE also cause OCD/Panic attack etc. Known abnormalities lead to fatigue, lethargy etc.

Dynamics (self/other/LUST/CARE)  is associated with Dopamine (DA). Known abnormalities in DA cause motivational obscurity like paranoia/psychosis.

Cognition (creative/rigid/’PLAY'”/SELF) is asscoited with Acetylcholine (ACh) and known abnormalities in ACh here lead to Alzheimer etc.

That shall be all for now.

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The ABCD of Psychology and Happiness

A smiley by Pumbaa, drawn using a text editor.
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve recently latched onto the ABCD model of psychological entities, where any psychological aspect is defined by following four features/dimensions: Affect( how does it subjectively feel) , Behavior (what are the manifest effects resulting in overt behavioral changes) , Cognition (how is it cognitively appraised) and Desire/Drive(what are the underlying motivations).

I was prompted on this journey by the evolutionary theory of personality (see here) by Theodore Millon, where he identifies four different evolutionarily salient domains and fields of adaptation: Existence (pain/pleasure) mapped to Affect in my model, Adaptation(active/passive) mapped to Behavior in my model, Replication(Self-other) mapped to Desire/drive in my model and finally Abstraction (broad-narrow) mapped to Cognition in my model.

Thus personality clearly is a dynamic between these four ABCD factors. What we habitually feel, how we habitually act, what usually drives us and how we habitually make sense of our situations clearly defines a personality.

I have also covered how emotions can be similarly considered as belonging to these four domains and having four ABCD dimensionsaffective in nature, lead to action tendencies, differential appraisal and cognitive underpinnings and different motivational states-whether the motivation to be in control or to nurture the other.

As it happens I am also keenly into this new ‘positive psychology’ stuff and keep reading the practitioners in this field; thus while reading ‘Happier’ I came across the happiness definition (as per Seligman) as anything that is pleasurable, meaningful and engaging, then I could immediately see the relationship to ABCD model by extending the concept of Drive (or intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation) to the mix and thus came up with this ABCD definition of happiness on twitter:

ABCD of happiness: find work that has pleasure(Affect), meaning (Cognition) and is engaging(Behavior) and intrinsically motivating(Desire)less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

The above to me perfectly sums up the Happiness formula and is very easy to remember too!
I also serendipitously came across this amazing video based on Dan Pink‘s ‘Drive’

That made me think further of how the same ABCD formula applied to work incentives.

The ABCD of incentives – Offer Money (Affective), Mastery (Behavior:skilled) , Purpose (cognition:meaningful) and Autonomy (Drive:intrinsic)less than a minute ago via web

That to me is further proof of the simplicity and power of this simple ABCD formula. So are you ready to apply the ABCD of happiness and work incentives to your life?

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Personality and emotion: take 4


Illustration of spacetime curvature.
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve written about the relation between personality and emotion from my perspective, but was gladdened when I found Scherer has written on the matter in a very eloquent and apt manner. To quote from him and Revelle:

Personality is the coherent patterning of affect, behavior, cognition, and desires (goals) over time and space. Just as a full blown emotion represents an integration of feeling, action, appraisal and wants at a particular time and location so does personality represent integration over time and space of these components (Ortony et al., 2005). A helpful analogy is to consider that personality is to emotion as climate is to weather. That is, what one expects is personality, what one observes at any particular moment is emotion.

It is important to note that personality/emotion definition has been expanded to include cognition as well as affect; behavior as well as motivation (desires). Traditionally emotions are seen as affective (feeling) in nature but we know that emotional states have different cognitive underpinnings and can affect cognition in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Similarly though emotions may be more closely related to motivational issues (desires etc) they are also manifested in overt behavioral tendencies. some are energizing while others are calming/soothing.

In one of the last emotion/personality post , I referred to the dimensional emotional model of PAD (Pleasure-Arousal-dominance) as proposed by Meherbain. It is apt to note here that pleasure (pleasantness/unpleasantness) dimension is very much related to affect i.e. subjective feeling or how the emotion is subjectively felt. Also Arousal (Ready/Relaxed) is construct very much related to behavior or action tendencies. Some emotions lead to more vigorous, ready and active engagement with the environment as compared to others wherein one may be relaxed. Similarly Dominance (control/lack of control) is a motivational emotional dimension reflecting whether one wants to control and be in control or be dominated/ lose control in a particular situation.

That leaves us with cognition/appraisals dimension of emotions, but before we get onto that let us revisit the four evolutionary stages of Millon and how opposites on each stage lead to personality variations and disorders. The parallel with emotions will be self-evident.

The first stage is that of Existence and the polarity is of pain/pleasure: again an affective dimension/stage. Stability or life-preservation is coded by predominant disposition towards avoiding feelings of pain- a pain sensitive phenotype; Enhancing or life-enhancement is coded by predominant disposition towards felling pleasure a pleasure sensitive phenotype.

The second stage is that of Adaptation and the polarity is of active-passive: again a behaviorally defined dimension/stage. Modifying the environment to suit ones need is an active strategy, while passively accommodating to environmental niches is the passive strategy. both are defined behaviorally and the actual actions/behavioral tendencies define the personality type.

The third stage of Millon is that of Replication and the polarities are that of Self and Other: this is particularly a motivational dimension…whether one is motivated by selfishness and focus on oneself or by concern for others and selflessness too. There is polarity and tension between self-actualization tendencies and wants and other-nurturing motivational disposition. If focus is on self one would tend to dominate others, if focus is on others one would be willing to become vulnerable and submissive.

The fourth stage of Millon, that he does not relate to personality, but which I find integral to my theory is that of Abstraction and the polarity of information gathering versus information selection/transformation. I call the polarity Broad Versus Narrow and it is reflected in whether one is creative or is rigid and inflexible in thinking, , but the important point to note is that a cognitive dimension has been added to personality at the fourth stage.

Which brings us back to the (missing) cognitive dimension of emotions. I would have gladly taken the credit of discovering/proposing such a cognitive dimension, but it seems I was beaten to the game by Fontaine et al who made the bold statement :“The World of Emotions Is Not Two-Dimensional”.

As per Fonatine/ scherer et al’s analysis, using 144 features (like (a) appraisals of events, (b) psychophysiological changes, (c) motor expressions, (d) action tendencies, (e) subjective experiences, and (f) emotion regulation.) characterizing the 24 prototypical emotion terms, they found that emotions must be specified by at least four dimensions:these dimensions were evaluation-pleasantness, potency-control, activation-arousal, and unpredictability.

Note that the first three dimensions are similar to PAD while the fourth dimension is cognitive(appraisal) in nature- predictability vs unpredictability or certainty vs uncertainty in the appraisal of the situation. this ca be reasonably related to Broad Vs Narrow last stage of Abstraction i.e. whether one is cognitively open to new situations or appraisals or closed to them.

So the relationship between emotions and personality is more or less clear to my naive mind as of now. Of course I’m leaving some parts for the next post that will extend this and correlate with the eight stage process.

For now I’ll like to end with the excellent Scherer et al article quote:

In that personality represents the integration over time of feelings, actions, thoughts and desires, theoretical developments in personality benefit from a greater understanding of emotional processes. At the same time, research in emotion can take advantage of individual differences in sensitivities to situational cues and predispositions to emotional states. The questions of why some people become angry, while others become frightened or depressed in response to threats, and why some become elated while others seem unaffected when given rewards will be better understood by jointly studying the problem of long term coherence (personality) with short term fluctuations in affect, behavior, cognition and desire (emotion).

Fontaine, J., Scherer, K., Roesch, E., & Ellsworth, P. (2007). The World of Emotions is not Two-Dimensional Psychological Science, 18 (12), 1050-1057 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.02024.x

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Basic emotions: the eight stage model fits again!


2nd third of 17th century
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I had been struggling with the how many and what framework to use for defining the basic emotions and especially as I was sure that there would be eight basic emotions/emotion systems that would lie on a eight fold evolutionary path/model.

Basic emotions research is fraught with many researchers claiming different types of basic emotions and thus there is a lot of disagreement and little consensus. I’ve looked ate Ekmans models , Plutchik’s wheel and others but found all lacking. Recently I came across the basic emotion systems as neural circuits as proposed by Jaak Panksepp and could immediately see a parallel and gleam of truth there.

First a little introduction to Panksepp’s approach. He works at the primary-process level, which is to say the sub-cortical affective brain level rather than secondary process memory or emotional learning stage or tertiary level cortical brain areas where one has thoughts about feelings as the objects of study.

He has stimulated the sub-cortical as well as cortical brain areas and found that stimulating specific sub-cortical brain areas produces specific emotionl action tendencies and behavior in animals and humans and has thus identified seven brain affective systems and a separate SELF system that subsumes them all and is the basis for affective consciousness.

Without further ado, I’ll list the eight emotionless systems as I see , ranked as per my eight fold order. Its important to note that Panksepp also arrives at these circuits keeping in mind evolution as a guiding force.
1. FEAR is characterized by bodily tenseness and a shivery negatively valenced immobility, which can burst forth into a dynamic flight pattern with chaotic-projectile movements to get out of harm’s way (which may reflect recruitment of dopamine energized SEEKING urges); this system has to do with the problem of avoiding predators.
2. SEEKING is characterized by a persistent positively-valenced exploratory inquisitiveness, with energetic for-ward locomotion — approach and engagement with the world—consisting of probing into the nooks and crannies of interesting objects and events (this system is critical also for most other basic emotional responses, such as the seeking of safety when threatened); This is related to searching for food/exploring.
3. RAGE is characterized by a vigorous casting of the body at offending objects with biting and pounding of the extremities; it is a mixture of positive and negative valence; it is related to dominance hierarchies and submission and relationship with consepcifics esp with regards to territorial behavior.
4. PANIC (separation distress) is characterized by aversive crying actions, with urgent attempts at reunion, followed by weakness and a despairing body carriage as grief sets in if reunion fails; this is related to the affiliation systems especially the mother-child bonding problem.
5. LUST is characterized by an urgent and rhythmic thrusting of the body toward receptive others, and in their absence, a craving tension with both positive and negative affective features;this is related to sexuality, adolescence and shame/dis-inhibition.
6. CARE is characterized by a gentle,caressing, enveloping body dynamic accompanied by relaxed positively valenced states of the body; this is related to the intimacy needs and the need for having an intimate relationship with another.
7.PLAY is expressed in a bounding lightness of movement that has an affectively engaging dynamic poking and rhythmic quality, at times bordering on aggression. this is related to communication needs, activity and playfulness and vibrancy dimensions.
8. SELF- the systems that lies at intersection of all emotional systems and cognition and leads to affective consciousness. In my model this would be the need for integrity and might also be related to physical/social disgust.

Here is a table summarizing the neural systems, the emotions and psychopathology associated with each. the only issues I have is placement of Shame, which I think should go with lust. Similarly Hatred/contempt may go with the eight stage that of SELF.

So what do you think of Panskepp’s neurally grounded model. Do the basic emotions that he has discovered in species as low as the rat , appeal to you? On a tangential note, I had a private conversation with Bjorn Brembs on friendfeed as per which flies though may not have ’emotion proper’ related to the above emotion circuits but definitely have traits resembling these circuits and have personalities, to speak of. thus, I believe these circuits and the problems they pose are evolutionary conserved and Panksepp is on the right track.

Panksepp, J. (2000). The neuro-evolutionary cusp between emotions and cognitions: Implications for understanding consciousness and the emergence of a unified mind science Consciousness & Emotion, 1 (1), 15-54 DOI: 10.1075/ce.1.1.04pan

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Am Manic, will focus; Am sad, will drift


Lucky Guy Happy Gal... :-)
Image by wazari via Flickr

Attention can be focused or it can be diffused. Attentional focus has been shown to be affected by mood or affect; with positive affect leading to a broadening of attentional focus;  and negative affect, in general been shown to be associated with a narrowing of focus.

However, Gable and Harmon-Jones argue that emotion or affect is not a uni-dimensional construct, but has at least two dimensions: affective valence- i.e. whether it is felt as pleasurable or dis-pleasurable; and motivational  direction- i.e. the action tendency to approach or avoid in pursuit of a preventive/promotional goal.

Much work on emotions has emphasized that they have a number of underlying dimensions. Two dimensions that have received considerable attention are affective valence, the felt pleasure or displeasure, and motivational direction, the action tendency associated with a particular emotional state—approach or withdrawal. Approach motivation refers to an urge or action tendency to go toward an object, whereas withdrawal motivation refers to an urge or action tendency to move away from an object.

They also argue that much of the extant literature on emotion-attention linkage has focused on emotional valence alone, with just one type of motivational direction, and thus has not clarified the (in)dependent role of valence and motivational direction as regards to attention.

Thus, for e.g., the finding that positive emotions lead to  broadening of attention is focused on such research as emotions of joy, contentment etc that are low in approach motivation and are emotions felt after the goal has been reached.

Similarly, the research that has found that negative emotions lead to narrowing of focus have relied on emotions such as fear, anger etc that are high in withdrawal motivation and are pre-goal.

I believe, it is important to step back a little here and go back to our conception of happiness-ennui (mental well-being) continuum and sadness-mania (mental illness) continuum. Another way to conceptualize them is to see sadness having negative valence and low withdrawal motivation – it is passive; mania as having positive valence and high approach motivation- mania is characterized by immense desire for a goal and is pre -goal. Happiness is post goal emotion and is characterized by positive valence and low approach motivation- you have already reached the goal and do not need to exert much efforts in goal directed activity; ennui/boredom/listlessness is negative in valence and has high withdrawal motivation- it is pre-goal- a search for a worthwhile goal.

Another way to make the difference stark is employ the terminology of Berridge et al: happiness is related to liking and the opioid system; while mania is related to wanting and the dopamine system.  Depression/sadness  is related to disliking /feeling pain while ennui/boredom is related to dreading the outcome/feeling anxious (nothing to do and hence life is useless/meaningless!..anxiety but existential anxiety). Berridghe et al have shown that wanting/liking and dreading/disliking differ and have different neural and neurochemichal correlates.

To become a little philosophical, the wanting/disliking  mental illness continuum leading to mania or depression in extremes is to be avoided (thus the dictum of all religions to shun desire/ be stoic) while the happiness-ennui/boredom/existential anxiety system is more preferable where you focus on liking positive outcomes and dreading negative/neutral ones. While the former, to paraphrase Freud,  is the hysterical misery at worst, the latter is common unhappiness at worst.

But anyway that was long detour. Lets get back to the studies by Gable et al.

In the first study, the authors showed that motivational direction was relevant and was the reason behind the positivity-broadening of attentional focus effect. they showed that positive emotions lead to broadening of attention only in low approach motivation condition; but when the positive emotion had high approach motivation (emotions like desire. engagement etc), the positive affect lead to narrowing of focus.

Now a brief detour into methodology: the attentional focus is usually measured using local-global tasks whereby it is determined whether one is paying attention to global features or local features of an ambiguous/mixed stimuli. For eg, the most popular of these consists of a global big H made up of smaller (say 5 in number) F’s and then determining whether the subject notices the global H or the local F. Details can be seen in the Gable papers which are open access.

Now the authors found robust support for their hypothesis that it is the motivational direction and not affective valence that determines the attentional focus. They also relate it to adaptivity.

Positive affects, particularly those low in approach motivation, suggest a comfortable, stable environment and allow for a broadening of attention and cognition, which may serve adaptive functions (Carver, 2003; Fredrickson, 2001). However, broadening does not occur when positive affects are high in approach motivation. Such positive affects often encourage specific action tendencies, such as tenacious goal pursuit, and an associated reduction in attentional breadth. This reduced attentional breadth may prove adaptive, as it assists in obtaining goals.

They also extend these finding to negative affects and depression etc and I can easily relate them to earlier work I have covered regarding the danger or safety of environment and promotional/ preventive focus:

Together with past research, the present research supports the idea that low- and high-approach-motivated positive affect produce opposite effects on attentional breadth. It is possible that the intensity of withdrawal motivation exerts similar attentional effects; that is, low-withdrawal-motivated negative affect may cause broadening, whereas high-withdrawal-motivated negative affect may cause reduction in breadth. Indeed, such an interpretation would fit with past research. For example, individuals with depression, a low-intensity motivation, are more creative than nondepressed individuals (Andreasen, 1987) and show broadening of attention and memory (von Hecker & Meiser, 2005). In the case of low-motivated negative affects such as sadness and depression, “a more open, unfocused, unselective, low-effort mode of attention would prove not deficient but, on the contrary, beneficial” (von Hecker & Meiser, 2005, p. 456), as one disengages from a terminally blocked goal and becomes open to new possibilities (Klinger, 1975). The past research that found negative affect caused decreased attentional breadth may have evoked negative affective states that were high in withdrawal motivation (e.g., fear; Gasper & Clore, 2002).

This brings me to their current paper , aptly titled , The Blues Broaden, but the Nasty Narrows, that found exactly the effect hypothesized above that sadness/depressive mood was related to broadening of attention, while disgust, a negative emotion with high withdrawal motivation was related to narrowing of focus. they also found that the effect of negative emotion was mediated by arousal which could stand as a proxy for motivational direction.

These two experiments revealed that the relationship between negative affect and attentional precedence is more complex than commonly thought. In line with past theory and evidence, Experiment 2 demonstrated that negative affect caused a narrowing of attention. However, this narrowing occurred only when negative affect was high in motivational intensity. When negative affect was low in motivational intensity, in Experiment 1, it caused a broadening of attention. These results are consistent with the idea that the effect of emotion on local/global precedence is not due to negative versus positive affect, but is instead due to motivational intensity. Positive and negative affects of low motivational intensity broaden attention, whereas positive and negative affects of high motivational intensity narrow attention.

To me this is sufficient, clinching and converging proof of the theories I have been trying to develop with regards to emotions (specifically mania, depression, happiness and despair) and make clear that there are at least two dimensions to happiness/sadness and mental well being/illness constructs. Perhaps if we start liking what we have and stop coveting or wanting more, we have a philosophical, religious, as well as now a psychological, blueprint for how to lead the good life and how to avoid a living hell.

Gable, P., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2010). The Blues Broaden, but the Nasty Narrows: Attentional Consequences of Negative Affects Low and High in Motivational Intensity Psychological Science, 21 (2), 211-215 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609359622
Gable, P., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2008). Approach-Motivated Positive Affect Reduces Breadth of Attention Psychological Science, 19 (5), 476-482 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02112.x

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Encephalon #79: the year-end edition!


Answer this honestly:

1. Do you feel preoccupied with the encephalon (think about previous editions or anticipate next edition)?

2. Do you feel the need to read the encephalon with increasing number of contributions in order to achieve satisfaction?

3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop reading encephalon?

4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop reading encephalon?

5. Do you end up reading encephalon longer than originally intended?

6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant blog posts, twitter conversations , web surfing opportunity because of the encephalon?

7. Have you lied to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the encephalon?

8. Do you use the enecpahlon as a way of escaping from research or of relieving a writers block (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression (over not being able to write/contribute)?

Answering “yes” to five or more questions may mean you suffer from encephalon addiction over a six month period and when not better accounted for by a manic episode or internet addiction. Contact Sandeep Gautam to get institutionalized:-) The formal diagnostic guidelines coming soon to a DSM-V near you!

internet addiction

The stage for the year end edition is set by this post from the Neurcortic that asks and concludes in the negative that whether internet addiction shrinks the brain? The writeup nicely sums up the divergent views on internet addiction from those of Kimberly Young at one end to Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks fame at the other. No points for guessing where my or Neurocritic’s sympathy lies:-)

Now that you have read my ill-styled post till here, I am sure you love to inflict pain on yourself- else why bother continue reading. Perhaps you are masochistic; or perhaps you are not- you are just a borderline who doesn’t feel any pain-whether real or imagined.  the second contribution from Neurocritic looks at recent research that found low activation in pain perception and assessment regions of the brain for borderline subjects, who typically self-injure, while they were imaging themselves under self-injury condition.

Do you like reading encepahlon (a light and sweet candy to your eyes I am sure) or the regular mouse trap posts (some spinach that is hard to eat and takes longer to digest) . Does you decision as to whether to prefer candy in childhood, affect your life outcomes like how violent you may turn out in adulthood?  this is the question BrainBlogger grapples with in this post that looks at why sugar and spice is not always nice and children eating a lot of candy can become violent later on. One reason could be lack of ability to make wise delayed gratification decisions just like in the marshmallow study.


Ok. now for some cool experimentation.stop and take a deep breath.  Some of you Imagine  reading the encephalon. Others go ahead and read it.   now look at encephalon logo. some of you look at  it twice. some thrice. now tell me, and the answer from all of you should be in the affirmative,- as to whether you read the encephalon or just imagined reading it. In a study very similar to this, but spread over weeks, it was found that when imagining an activity and subsequently(after a week or so)  being presented with pictures showing the completion of the activity, the subjects were more likely to confound , at a later date, that they had actually indulged in the activity and not just imagined it. such is the power of words and this is amply highlighted by NeuroNarrative coverage of the same in which he also extends this to everyday settings including eye-witness testimonies.

Just like images are so important, words too are- they can literally break your heart.  The second contribution from NeuroNarrative looks at how a predominance of emotional words as opposed to cognitive words in a couples’ arguments can signify heart risks, risks of diabetes etc. via the stress hormones mechanism.  That reminds me,  that to unbreak your heart (a la Toni Braxton), perhaps we also need a study of how compassionate and empathetic words used in conversations can literally heal the heart and raise immunity etc.

Talking about enhancing cognitive fitness, how can one but miss the leaders in the field – the SharpBrains. This time SharpBrains lists other leaders and 10 innovations ranging from computerized CBT to ‘cognitive shops’ that are defining the field and raising hopes for the ageing population.I am sure reading encephaoln on a regular basis is another sufficiently demanding and cognitive fitness enhancing innovation that Mo had originally come up with, that I have mentioned Neurophilosophy in this encephalon (despite no submissions) by the founding father.

Does the idea of a tongue -in cheek encephalon resonate with you? Does it set your brain neurons and circuits and systems all in synchrony, resonating with each other- if so you may also like this post by Modern Dragons, that argues that neural resonance and neuroacoustics may be the one holy grail principle of neuroscience that people may have overlooked and that might explain everything.

Talking about grand unifying theories, I cannot but help self plug my post on the recent Crespi et al findings that vindicated my grand theory of Autism and Psychosis as opposites on a continuum. The post itself is a shameless chest thumping and self-congratulating piece of basking in reflected glory. If you are still not convinced that I eat , breathe and drink the autism-psychosis theory, watch this devidutt patnaik TED talk (my second contribution) and see how craftily I can relate almost anything to my pet theory:-)

That is it folks. 2009 is gone and we will see a brand new, non-addictive version of encepahlon in 2010 soon. Till then keep reading and reading this edition -its not just sweet and good for your ageing brains, its nicely worded , has good pictures and is the perfect place for contemplating grand unifying theories, even if they cause you discomfort- I know all of you are borderlines and either love or are insensitive to this self inflicted pain!

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