HOW THE BRAIN FEELS
Emotion and Cognition in
Part 4 of a 5-part paper by Philip Harland
Love is ... an emo~cognition.
A woman drops her purse in the High Street, and stoops to pick it
up. Following behind her is a young man. He stops. Not to help her,
not to steal the purse, but to slap her bottom. It is an impulsive
act. He is immediately contrite. For most people the thought of
slapping the woman's bottom, had it occurred at all, would have been
a passing fragment of an idea among the hundreds which go through the
brain every moment. There would have been little chance of the idea
being put into action because the feeling that prompted it would have
been appraised, and any desire to act on it suppressed, in a fraction
of a second. But a few months ago the young man was the passenger in
a car driven by a drunken friend, and there was an impact accident in
which the frontal lobes of his brain were damaged.
There have been countless studies of victims of this kind of
injury which show it leading to radical personality change: typically
from thoughtful and mature to impulsive and erratic. When the frontal
lobe networks responsible for judgment and impulse control are
disrupted, it is the appraisal stage of emo~cognitive processing that
is most affected. This article has three sections:
This article has three sections:
"Feelings tell us
how we are doing." Joseph
- Feelings Tell Us How We Are Doing. A note on conscious
and unconscious appraisal. The more understanding we have of the
unconscious part, the better we'll be able to manage the conscious
- Reason Is Nowhere Pure. An analysis of the crucial
components of appraisal - the involvement and make-up of memory,
and the importance of individual belief systems.
- Fear Has The Largest Eyes Of All. How appraisal fits
into the brain's construction of the core emotion in
Give Bandler and Grinder their due. They were thirty years ahead
of their time in saying that experience is constructed unconsciously.
Science is beginning to prove the point, but we're still having to
remind each other.
Appraisal is the fourth of the five stages in the construction of
emo~cognition, and one of the most sophisticated, convoluted and
potentially misleading functions of the human brain. Most of us would
like to think of appraisal as a rational activity -- we experience an
emotion one way, and may then look at it objectively in another --
but 'pure intellect' and 'pure emotion' are what Alfred Korzybski
called structural fictions: they do not exist. They are inextricably
mixed in the crucible of the unconscious. In this article I shall
generally refer to the unconscious, or pre-conscious, parts of the
process as Appraisal, and to the conscious parts as
Re-appraisal. When both are in accord, all is well. When they
contradict, as they often do, there is likely to be conflict.
Paul Griffiths 1 describes two
'levels' of appraisal:
"low-level evaluation of
perceptual inputs driven only by simple features of the situation
detected early in perceptual processing and relative to an urgent
interpretation of the situation" I take this to be
Damasio's 'low road' of sensory signalling, referred to in Part 3 of
this paper as the 'direct' amygdala path. And
"higher level later evaluation that is
relative to the non-urgent multiple concerns of the
organism" (Damasio's 'high road', or what I call the
'indirect' cortical path).
'Higher level later' evaluation takes place both consciously and
pre-consciously -- that is, out of awareness but available to
consciousness on reflection. This would give each appraisal event
three inter-related phases [Figure 1].
Brain systems are anything but linear, of course. The phases do
not simply start at the top of the diagram and stop at the bottom.
There is direct emotional input into the re-appraisal phase that
prevents it going on forever [see the 'To Be or Not To Be'
panel below], while some of the results of re-appraisal feed back to
influence the earlier phases, and in turn become further input. It is
a systemic, recursive loop. The process is always the same,
but input and output are always different.
I want to concentrate here on the non-conscious phases of
appraisal, as the brain receives the body's proprioceptive
(internally produced and received) 'physiological readiness' signals
-- the direct path ... assesses them in combination with the
mind's cerebrally processed 'significance' signals that add
idiosyncratic 'meaning' to feeling -- the indirect path ... to
produce a mix of 'felt' and 'action' tendencies that make up our
sense of volition, the impulse to act.
This is a byzantine journey, as we saw in Part 3. In a
split-second the brain may receive billions of these signals
activating many millions of neurons generating millions of firing
patterns over a huge number of circuits across a variety of brain
regions in a multi-associative process predisposed by genes and
conditioned by life. No wonder we generalize, delete and distort so
much as we process this (and so often get it wrong).
To be or not to be: Hamlet and the Recursivity
Re-appraisal is the conscious evaluation
of what might be the outcome of acting on our
emo-cognitions. The nightmare of the 'rational' mind is
attempting to evaluate the outcome of the outcome of the
outcome in endless regress. Only an emotion can limit the
limitless range of plausible consequences that would
otherwise precede any decision to act. Even allowing the
throw of a die to decide would depend on the
emotion-influenced options we assigned to the numbers and
the emotion-inspired will to act on the result. What finally
motivated Hamlet out of analysis into action was his desire
for revenge (resulting in murder and mayhem, unfortunately).
Emotion and motivation have the same Latin root:
to move. Emotions move us, leading inevitably to the impulse
to act, but also to the opportunity for re-appraisal. These
final stages in the construction of emo-cognition will be
considered in Part 5.
Feelings get us into appraisal. We can now see that feelings get
us out of appraisal. Indeed, feelings depend on
The interval between actual
events and our awareness of them may be as little as one-fifth of a
second -- nowhere near long enough for us to separate our awareness
of the structural stages (AROUSAL --> SENSATION -->
CONSTRUCTION --> APPRAISAL) of a feeling without rigorous training
and practice. Whether you experience a roller-coaster ride as joyful
or dreadful depends on how you evaluate your expectations of the ride
with your feelings about who is accompanying you, your need for
control, and your judgment of the serious discrepancies between your
experience of balance and bodily support on the ground, and balance
and bodily support in the air. Love it or hate it? Only after your
feelings have been through five stages of construction, including
three phases of appraisal, will you know! 2
"Reason is nowhere
pure." Antonio Damasio
Our brains have evolved to create an endless succession of
(re)constructions of past events, pre-existing associations and
conditioned responses in combination with present-day ('remembered
present') beliefs, values, attitudes, needs and goals. It is this
mix, this kettle of fish, this wild inextricable maze we call
'memory'. It is in no one place in the brain, but distributed
throughout in what Damasio calls 'dispositional representations' or
'dormant firing potentialities'.
Memory is not a recording of things that happened, but a live
event happening now. We put it to work riding roller-coasters as much
as in taking exams or baking Yorkshire pudding, anything may prompt
it, and it is intrinsic to the appraisal process. Belief and value
systems have a pivotal importance in memory, and thus an
incalculable influence on appraisal.
The philosopher A.C. Grayling suggests that almost all our
emotions involve beliefs and values, or what some researchers call
'value structures' -- the memory's cluster of norms, goals, values
and preferences. If I feel shame, says Grayling, it is because I
believe I have done something that deserves contempt. If I feel
compassion, it is because I believe that the object of my sympathy is
suffering in a way that merits my concern.
comes from the Old French prisier: to price.
Evaluate comes from
the Old French value: worth.
When we appraise or evaluate the constructs we make of our
sensations we are simply pricing their worth to us. It isn't too
difficult appraising the worth of a pleasant feeling. But where is
the value in a painful feeling? [Figure 3]
A client with a problem around forgiveness, say, may invest the
value of compassion in a role model while denying it in themselves.
The value is actually held by the client in the painful feeling that
attends its denial.
"Fear has the
largest eyes of all." Boris
Those who suffer 'high anxiety', 'phobia', 'obsessive-compulsive
disorder', 'panic attacks' or 'post-traumatic stress' -- or any one
of a host of other conditions involving the fear response -- are
honouring the value of survival of the organism in the face of
Those single inverted commas mark the neuro-linguistic trap that
lies in wait for all facilitators and health professionals -- that of
inadvertently contaminating the client's metaphors (unique
description of symptoms) with our own (second-hand labels).
'Phobia', 'panic attack' etc may be handy containers for sorting
the enormous miscellany of subjective emo~cognitive states that have
their common origin in fear, but applying a generic label to an
individual client, even once, may affect the client's beliefs about
themselves and their mental state for evermore.
Manifestations of the fear response will usually have a pattern to
their context, or their cause, or their construction, but the
particulars of the pattern will be unique to each sufferer. LeDoux
suggests a theory of panic attacks based on internal signals of
heightened bodily arousal prompting the memory-inspired belief
that a panic attack is occurring.
This belief is likely to be reinforced by a further belief in
'panic' as an abnormal state beyond one's control, and a belief in
'attack' as an unwarranted event of external origin. All contributing
to an unconscious appraisal that what is occurring or about to occur
is unsolicited, inevitable and unmanageable.
Interestingly, the word panic derives from Pan, the
otherwise benign Greek god of the woods, whose sudden appearances
were said to cause irrational fear. The sight of a snake or a spider,
the feeling of an enclosed space with no escape route, a sudden loud
noise -- almost anything provided it has been linked to a traumatic
or life-threatening episode in the ancestral or biographical past --
may trigger reactions that overpower reasoned re-appraisal of the
How then is the fear response constructed, and what clues may it
contain to help us in assessing places for intervention, or in
facilitating the client to self-model? [Figure 4] 3
Each stage of this construction (AROUSAL -- SENSATION --
CONSTRUCTION -- APPRAISAL -- VOLITION -- ACTION) is
difficult to distinguish from the rest in the normal run of events,
but is accessible in therapeutic process. The example that follows is
from the Symbolic Modelling of a client using Clean Language. Clare
is in her late 20's and for twelve years has been suffering from what
she calls panic attacks. Her general practitioner has prescribed
anti-depressants, which lighten her mood but haven't stalled the
'attacks' or improved her self-confidence.
I can't understand what's
happening, because my mind is telling me I'm perfectly
And when you can't understand what's happening,
and your mind is telling you you're perfectly ok, what would you like to have happen?
I want to sort my head out, I want to feel
[We spend some time developing this outcome: What kind of 'sort'?
Is there anything else
about 'normal'? etc]
And what happens just before you want to sort your head out?
I feel fearful, my heart is pounding, I
can't catch my breath, I want desperately to get away and I can't
And just before you feel fearful [etc] ...?
Everything's fine, or at least, well no,
Clare is accessing the AROUSAL and SENSATION stages of the
feeling. As she learns to 'slow time down' around the rapid onset of
the attacks, she begins to get a sense of sequence and gradually a
pattern takes shape: the panic response appears in every situation
that she finds herself feeling~thinking:
This is supposed to be ok,
And when this is supposed to be ok, but isn't,
that's like what?
Like a frantic hamster in a cage who's
trying to escape but can't.
"The logic of the emotional mind is associative," says
Daniel Goleman. "It takes elements that symbolize a reality, or
trigger a memory of it, to be the same as that reality. That is why
similes, metaphors and images speak directly to the emotional
mind."4 The client is modelling her CONSTRUCTION of
the feeling ('frantic hamster in a cage') through metaphor.
She goes on to define the location of the metaphor's constituent
symbols in space, to assign them a coding in time, and to discover
their relationship to other symbols and to herself as perceiver:
Clean Language, Metaphor and Symbolic Modelling in the
David Grove's Clean Language is applicable to any facilitative
situation but was specifically developed to support a client's
modelling of self-generated metaphor. The Clean Language questions
are in bold. The full syntax of the exchange is condensed
And where is frantic
hamster in a cage?
[points a metre in front of her].
And is there
anything else about just
I'm in the kitchen with the hamster and the
garden's just outside.
old could 'I' be in the kitchen and
the garden's just outside?
Um, four or five.
And when um four or five in the kitchen
what happens next?
[Pauses, then younger voice tone] I
want to get away into the garden even though they'll be really
Over the next sessions Clare explores the complete metaphor
landscape of her anxiety, then suddenly shifts into cognitive
APPRAISAL as she is reminded of an incident in childhood when she had
been abused by a carer who was a friend of the family.
I felt helpless. I was
trapped. I wanted desperately to escape, but I was supposed to
She relates the child's helplessness to her panic responses as an
adult. The feelings are the same: a pattern coded in the bind she has
made for herself, that of wanting to escape but unable to.
However Clare now goes on to develop a symbolic resource -- she
calls it "gold liquid" -- which she uses
to convert the structure of her metaphor from fixed wheel in a cage
to a flow-chart involving eddies of water and spirals of light. Not
untypical of a self-generated resource -- idiosyncratic, imaginative,
and somehow it works, in a way only its owner understands. This
resource continues to develop and a few sessions later Clare reports:
"A week ago I had this weird
epiphany thing. I could imagine these droplets of gold liquid going
through my head. There used to be no movement, now I imagine this
cycle thing going [hand makes
circular repeating gesture] and I
think, Ah, that's it! That's what it's like when my mind's working
properly! I wrote and drew in my diary little gold droplets going
round it like some sort of chemical. Now if I feel I'm about to panic
and nothing's moving, I can think it and make it move."
Transforming a wheel going nowhere into a cycle lubricated by
droplets of gold has gone hand in hand with transforming the quality
of her experience from helplessness and depression to control and
self-assurance. It was no accident that her original outcome,
"To sort my head out", found its
resolution in the symbolic mapping of events in her own brain. And
gold liquid is a resource no therapist could have 'given' her. It was
one she had to generate, appraise and evolve for herself.
The systems involved in emotional appraisal are directly involved
in the control of emotional responses. In Part 5, the final article
in this series, we will look at their part in enhancing emotional
"Voici mon secret. Il est
très simple. On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur."
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
© 2002, 2004 Philip Harland
1 Paul E Griffiths, Basic Emotions,
Complex Emotions and Machiavellian Emotions, Conference Paper Kings College London 2002
2 If a client's metaphor for life were "a roller-coaster ride" or
"a constant uphill
struggle" and their outcome were to
transform it into "a level playing
field" or "a
stroll in the park", the change in their
metaphor landscape would be a significant measure of their
re-appraisal of themselves.
3 Figure 4 develops The
Construction of Emotion diagrams in Part
3. More about client self-modelling, and therapist
prototype-modelling of the client's model, in James Lawley and Penny
Tompkins, A Model of Musing, Rapport 57 Autumn 2002 and
References - see part 5.