Emotion as object and the enactive approach

Great confusion has arisen from the dominance of two approaches to the human experience: Descartes mind/body problem and likening cognitive functions to computer processing. The two seem to lead us to think of the mind as something internal and robotic. Enactive psychology is a step away from traditional theories of the mind. It allows us to explore the mind through lived human experience. Enactive psychology is a cognitive approach to the mind, placing human experience at the centre of the enquiry. The controversy is the enactive approach itself, but I wish to discuss the implications and evidence for enactive psychology through the enactive work done on emotion and perception.

Enactive theory rejects computationalism, that is, that the mind can be likened to a computer. Traditional cognitive theories propose that the mind ‘computes’ or interprets stimuli in the world and produces outputs, which can be seen in reaction behaviour. Evidence is growing however, that this explanation of how the mind works is insufficient. So what are we actually talking about when we hypothesise perception?

There are five aspects of the enactive approach which have been discussed in related blogs. For the sake of word count, I will not discuss them in detail but mention them. They are: autonomy (humans as self-generating and self maintaining agents); a rejection of computationalism (mind as computer, hierarchy of cognitive processes); cognition as embodied action (cognition involves one’s experience of oneself as a bodily subject situated in the world); ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ are not separate spheres connected through representational interfaces {enaction through an autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment (Colombetti and Thompson, forthcoming)}; experience central to an understanding of the mind.

Embodied perception: mirror neurons

Mirror neurons and body loops can help us understand how the body acts in certain circumstances and what may actually be going on in the brain. These are the two attempts which give an account of how one enacts in the world as a bodily agent.

Mirror neurons rely on the triggering of a neural pathway from an event, which may not specifically relate to the event. For example, consider hearing your car alarm go off in the middle of the night only to remember that you left your car at your friend’s house for the night. You find yourself in a state of panic and have increased heart-rate and sweat before the realisation calms you. The mirror neurons prepared you for a situation in which you were adequately aroused to deal with the situation. While this is an extreme example, I hope you get the idea. These neurons are mirrored when a situation arises of which the neurons associated with particular instances are activated.  Mirror neurons have been proposed as in play when recognising the emotions of others.

Advances in dynamic neural approaches to perception have allowed us to explore the sensorimotor aspects of embodied cognition. Hurley (1998) has explored dynamical systems of cognition with embodied experience as key to understanding perception and action. Although not an embodied or enactive theorist, she proposes that perception is a kind of action. This supports notions that perception is not something that happens to us or in us: it is something that we do (perception is action, action is perception). Mental activity is deeply linked to embodied presence. Cognition is grounded in embodied presence and experience.

Embodied emotion: body loops

In phenomenological research it has been suggested that an individual is considered as an embodied ‘being-in-the-world’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). This means that human action and human experience are not separable phenomena. Damasio (2000) states that we are not conscious of all of our feelings. He makes the distinction between ‘feeling’ and knowing that one has a feeling. “A perceptual experience is an embodied experience because it is an experience of the body in the act of perceiving” (Colombetti, 2007 p. 62).

Different emotions are associated with different bodily changes. Our capacity to perceive presupposes the ability to orient in the environment. Damasio (1999) proposes that we view emotion as an object. This allows us to examine causal effect of emotion (object) on the organism.

Damasio (1999) proposes that if the psychological and physiological context is right: an emotion will ensue. We do not need to be conscious of the inducer of an emotion and often are not, and we cannot control emotions wilfully. Embodiment is central to understanding the ‘lived body’. It allows a better understanding of what we call consciousness and the mind. It is proposed that emotions are acquired and processed through ‘lived’ or corporeal (i.e. bodily) interaction with stimuli.

Damasio (1999) proposed that the body loop occurs through hormonal and neural communication. Emotion occurs within the organism through these changes. Hormonal changes occur through the bloodstream, one’s feelings during an instance involving the interpretation of a situation or object. Neural signals are possible through electrochemical signals transmitted through nerves. It is at this level that theorists have opposed an embodied view – what happens to people who are partly or completely paralysed or people with ‘locked in’ syndrome and cannot rely on bodily interactions. However, it is important to note that ‘as-if’ loops are just one part of the causal underpinnings of emotion, so ‘locked in’ syndrome or paralyses does not discredit this approach. If we consider the ‘extended mind’ approach to cognition, we see that the brain and body incorporates other external players in the web of processes subserving emotions and feelings (Damasio, 1999).

Perceiving an object causes a set of values about a situation (Damasio, 1999). Emotions can be seen as personal responses to the environment. This suggests that it involves a subjective processes of interpretation i.e. appraisal (Colombetti, 2007). As Colombetti (2007) states: even though I know that my ‘euphoria’ at a party is caused by alcohol, it does not reduce it! The emotional response of an aroused body is available to the subjects experience. We can see therefore that traditional cognitive theories which often speak of the mind as a separate entity from the body are insufficient.

The Enactive Approach to Psychology requires further empirical investigation. For sure, enactive perspectives seem to have substantial merits and insights into the mind, especially explaining the phenomena of emotion, and other areas such as language which was not included in this blog. In relation to human experience, enactive psychology is preparing to provide answers to cognitive functionality. “Our face to face understanding of one another involves a similarity of bodily structure and sensorimotor skills, the capacity for visual reactions, and body proximity” (Colombetti & Thomson, forthcoming, p. 63).


Colombetti. (2007). Enactive Appraisal. Phenomenological Cognitive Psychology , 527–546.

Colombetti, G. and Thompson, E. (forthcoming). The feeling body: Towards an enactive approach to emotion, in W. F. Overton, U. Müller and J. Newman (eds), Body in Mind, Mind in Body: Developmental Perspectives on Embodiment and Consciousness. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens. London: Vintage.

Hurley, S. L. (1998). Consciousness in action. London: Harvard University Press.

Merleau-Ponty. (1962). Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge.


~ by alanmcauliffe on April 22, 2010.

One Response to “Emotion as object and the enactive approach”

  1. “Different emotions are associated with different bodily changes. Our capacity to perceive presupposes the ability to orient in the environment. Damasio (1999) proposes that we view emotion as an object. This allows us to examine causal effect of emotion (object) on the organism.” as you say. Just so; then emotional systems are viewed as external to the cognitive/perceptual system but as part of the organism. Is it the organism which thinks or the cognitive system which thinks? The embodied approach would presumably plump for the former whereas more classical psychology asserts the latter. My question concerns how autonomy fits into this embodied picture. Is the entire organism the autonomous agent? Are the emotional and cognitive/perceptual elements subsystems? If so, and they may be considered somewhat autonomous in their own respects, then isn’t the picture of interacting systems more appropriate than an autonomous organism? Why divorce cognition from the environment and then re-unite it within an embodied approach?

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