The Frontal Cortex

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Cam
    June 11, 2009

    I’m just not so sure that Marr and his cohort would have denied that the brain is emotional, and I’m not sure how you can justify saying that emotions aren’t reducible to information or logical structures? Affective state modulating attention seems to be the sort of thing the computer science/algorithm driven typed would have loved.

  2. #2 Herbal Amanda
    June 11, 2009

    This is a good thing to keep in mind for keeping retail employees and security guards happy so they can watch out better for shoplifters and the like.

  3. #3 Micburke
    June 11, 2009

    Anybody have thoughts about a reverse stream path. -exercises to improve peripheral vision perception improving mood?

  4. #4 Mozglubov
    June 11, 2009

    Cam, I was going to say the exact same thing but you beat me to it…

  5. #5 mariana_soffer
    June 11, 2009

    Excellent post, check this thing I wrote:

    We, the human beings have the tendency to interpret what we see, and experience through the emotions that are invoked by these different mediums. We are meaning making machines! The interpretations are based on out values, emotional states and in reality, As a result, there is an assumption that what we see is the way things are. Never do we question the accuracy of this information, we simply take it as fact .So, the way we perceive things has the power to shape how we think and act in the world.

    http://singyourownlullaby.blogspot.com/2009/03/life-interpreter.html

    and related to it:

    http://singyourownlullaby.blogspot.com/2009/01/distorted-mind.html

    and remember that lucky you can change the patterns that lower your quality of life thanks to neuroplasticity; Which functions like this “The brain circuits compete against each other therefore the ones that are already installed to function in a certain way have an advantage over the new ones that are trying to be acquired. This is what makes learning things and changing habits harder with age, not that the neurons get stiffer with time.”

  6. #6 gabriel
    June 12, 2009

    I imagine this also has something to do with the startle reflex. In response to negative stress, there is increased tension in the flexor muscles of the body, in the chest and abdomen and even in the eyes. your eyes close a bit and the muscles around the eyeball squeeze, narrowing the focus.

  7. #7 John Warren
    June 12, 2009

    The piece on emotional perception is terrific. About a year ago I started taking classes and learning to meditate. It is a wonderful way to calm your mind, slow down and control negative emotion. Have you tried meditation?

    John

  8. #8 Helena
    June 13, 2009

    Micburke,
    I have some experience with increasing visual acuity and perception (thus also improving my peripheral vision). I suffered from clinical depression for a long time, but doing some “exercises” and developing a habit of this has really improved me (I haven’t felt a need for therapy in a long time). So I would conjecture that this is true, although of course some studies should be done. If anyone wants to try it, I would highly recommend it and would be interested to see how people’s moods are affected by this.

  9. #9 SteveO
    June 15, 2009

    Is this not perhaps more straightforward than it sounds though? My guess would be that peripheral visual perception is improved when you are in a good mood because when you are in a negative mood about something, your mind often has something negative it is focusing on, which would make for an obvious distraction.

    Being happy however, could just be a lack of negative focus. If there is actually some focus to the hapiness, given that the focus is not negative, I would imagine the brain would optimally ignore the focus somewhat because it is not a problem, unlike the negative case. Given that our brains are essentially problem solving biological machines (ok, thats very generalised, but never mind!), I think that would sufficiently explain why negative issues distract us more.

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