Are moods and emotions part of our perceptual experience?

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Are moods and emotions part of our perceptual experience?

Post by jamalrob on Mon Oct 19, 2015 4:57 am

I wrote this somewhere else recently. Now I'm pasting it here because I'd like to see what people think.

Downstairs in the living room after work, it’s already dark and I’m reading a 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 suggests 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 (because of philosophical prejudices, to be sure). 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 and philosophical habit more than it does a substantial division of subject matter. As neuroscientists and psychologists have increasingly become aware over the past decades, cognition and affect are intimately linked.

And 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

What do you think? I think when you look at the work being done in neuroscience and psychology these days, much of the philosophical discussion about perception looks feeble and totally off track, basing itself upon an older scientific paradigm, one at the same time more mechanical and more rationalist.
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Re: Are moods and emotions part of our perceptual experience?

Post by Dunnagan on Mon Oct 19, 2015 2:45 pm

Maybe the room itself is an object created in a psychic space. Since neuroscientists propose theories about how data is coordinated into a cohesive image, it appears they already assume an active role for perception in the creation of the object of perception. I understand why some would retreat from that line of thought and say we should look to judgments and streams of words which arise during perception. I personally have an emotional response to that debate. Things quickly become convoluted.

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Re: Are moods and emotions part of our perceptual experience?

Post by jamalrob on Tue Oct 20, 2015 3:01 am

Dunnagan wrote:Maybe the room itself is an object created in a psychic space.   Since neuroscientists propose theories about how data is coordinated into a cohesive image, it appears they already assume an active role for perception in the creation of the object of perception.  I understand why some would retreat from that line of thought and say we should look to judgments and streams of words which arise during perception.  I personally have an emotional response to that debate.  Things quickly become convoluted.
Yes, the key here is that perception is active, as you say, and because action is saturated with emotional motivations and drives, it seems reasonable to say that perception is fundamentally affective too.
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Re: Are moods and emotions part of our perceptual experience?

Post by Hanover on Tue Oct 20, 2015 3:07 am

The combination of all inner experience, sensory perception, and the concept of self is what Kant meant by the transcendental unity of apperception (I think). Regardless, I agree with the OP. The separation of external really entirely from the subjective experience, including emotions, interpretation, and biases, is impossible, and actually incoherent.
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Re: Are moods and emotions part of our perceptual experience?

Post by Blueswing on Tue Oct 20, 2015 1:34 pm

jamalrob wrote: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.

I'm not clear what you are getting at when you talk about the "meaning" of night-time, and perhaps more significantly, I don't see how the meaning can be in what you see, hear and feel prior to interpretation.

Would you like to clarify?

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Re: Are moods and emotions part of our perceptual experience?

Post by jamalrob on Tue Oct 20, 2015 1:47 pm

Blueswing wrote:
jamalrob wrote: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.

I'm not clear what you are getting at when you talk about the "meaning" of night-time, and perhaps more significantly, I don't see how the meaning can be in what you see, hear and feel prior to interpretation.

Would you like to clarify?
That the day's activities are over and one's friends and family have retired for the day: that's partly what night-time means for us. That is its significance. And perception, I hold, is always a directed, meaningful perception, in ethological terms a detection of affordances in the environment. That is, I do not believe in raw givens synthesized or interpreted by consciousness. What we perceive is always already what is meaningful.

Why do you ask? What's your take?

(Again, forgive my brevity but I'm keeping my posts short because of my current incapacitation)
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Re: Are moods and emotions part of our perceptual experience?

Post by Blueswing on Tue Oct 20, 2015 2:32 pm

jamalrob wrote:
Why do you ask? What's your take?

I don't have a take yet, I was asking in an attempt to get clear about what you are saying. I wonder if "night-time" is a good example to use in this discussion: it's a concept with a wide range of complex associations.

You say that what we perceive is always what is already meaningful, but surely I may perceive some novel object and not know what it is? What about dogs and babies, they see and feel and hear, do they only perceive what is already meaningful.

(Again, forgive my brevity but I'm keeping my posts short because of my current incapacitation)

Brevity is very welcome.


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Re: Are moods and emotions part of our perceptual experience?

Post by Moliere on Tue Oct 20, 2015 7:04 pm

I know I agree with this:


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.

And I know that moods and emotions direct perception. But I'm hesitant to say that moods and emotions are a part of perception. Can't we also perceive our emotions, after all?

And just as the lamp is not a part of my perception, though I perceive the lamp, I'd be hesitant to say that my moods or emotions are a part of my perception, though I can perceive them [and my perceptions are directed by them, as perception is just another activity]

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Re: Are moods and emotions part of our perceptual experience?

Post by cavacava on Wed Oct 21, 2015 3:06 am

I think it is a two way street.

We start off as pre-linguistic babies, with certain instincts which include emotions, sexuality, very basic physicality ('little materialists') Later we learn a language and become able to assign feelings/emotions to certain words, words that describe our physical state: hungry, fearful, happy, and so on.

Through language our thoughts become free of their physical bounds, we are able to contemplate many things that go beyond any direct experience. At the same time we continually add nuances of meaning and emotive associations to the words we use all the time.

The process of going from the physical to the mental is not a one way street. The mental aspects of our thoughts, which are constituted by language change our perceptions because they are intimately connected with our perceptions.  Our thought evolved from our perceptions, and because of this thought becomes able to direct our perceptions so  they can conform to the meaning and emotional associations we have already established.

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