Friday, June 12, 2009

Emotional machine

Emotional Perception
Mo, over at Neurophilosophy, has a fantastic summary of a new paper from scientists at the University of Toronto investigating the link between affective mood and visual perception. The basic moral is this: If you want to improve your peripheral vision, or become better at noticing seemingly extraneous details, then do something to make yourself happy:

Positive moods enhanced peripheral vision and increased the extent to which the brain encoded information in those parts of the visual field, to which the participants did not pay attention. Conversely, negative moods decreased the encoding of peripheral information. But does the enhanced peripheral vision that occurs because of positive mood induction come at the expense of central (or "foveal") vision? Schmitz and his colleagues compared FFA activity in the positive and negative mood induction trials, but found no difference. The enhanced peripheral vision following positive mood induction does not, therefore, occur as a result of a trade-off with central vision.
The larger point, of course, is that emotion influences every aspect of cognition, even aspects of sensory processing that seem to have nothing to do with feeling or passion. This, I think, is one of the most important theoretical shifts to take place in cognitive science over the last few decades. From its inception in the mid-1950's, the cognitive revolution was guided by a single metaphor: the mind is like a computer. We are a set of software programs running on 3 pounds of neural hardware. (Cognitive psychologists were interested in the software.) While the computer metaphor helped stimulate some crucial scientific breakthroughs - it led, for instance, to the birth of artificial intelligence and to insightful models of visual processing, from people like David Marr - it was also misleading, at least in one crucial respect. Computers don't have feelings. Because our emotions weren't reducible to bits of information or logical structures, cognitive psychologists diminished their importance.

Now we know that the mind is an emotional machine. Our moods aren't simply an irrational distraction, a mental hiccup that messes up the programming code. As this latest study demonstrates, what you're feeling profoundly influences what you see. Such data builds on lots of other work showing that our affective state seems to directly modulate the nature of attention, both external and internal, and thus plays a big role in regulating thinks like decision-making and creativity. (In short, positive moods widen the spotlight, while negative, anxious moods increase the focus.) From the perspective of the brain, it's emotions all the way down.

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