The link between cognition and emotion

It’s easy to think of cognition and emotion as separate from one another, but research in cognitive science and neuroscience have suggested the two are more closely linked than we’d like to believe. Cognition can be defined as activities related to thought processes that let us gain knowledge about the world while emotions would be what we feel that involve physiological arousal, evaluation of what we experience, how our behavior expresses them, and the conscious experience of emotions themselves. To understand how cognition and emotion interact with one another in the brain, we may view cognitive behaviors neuroscientific phenomena as the result of both cognition and emotion, rather than simply one or the other. With research spanning philosophy, cognitive science, and neuroscience, emotions are no longer considered antagonistic to reason the way ancient Greek and Roman scholars treated them. Now, philosophers are much more inclined to view them closely linked through ideas such as reason being a slave to passion or reason giving way to passion through subjective experience.

Evidence of the mere-exposure effect, that people prefer things merely because they’re more familiar with them, in 1980 by psychologists William Raft Kunst-Wilson and R. B. Zajonc and as well as other findings in behavioral research shifted debates to focus on affect as a feature primary to yet independent of cognition. It could be related to unconscious processing and subcortical activity with cognition related to conscious processing and cortical involvement.

Researchers generally agree on what constitutes cognition. Cognition, including memory, attention, language, problem-solving, and planning, often involve controlled neurological processes that respond to stimuli in the environment. This may include maintaining information while an external stimulus attempts to distract the mind. When cells in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of a monkey maintains information in the mind for brief periods of time, we can describe this link as a neural correlate for the cognitive process. With functional MRI (fMRI), we can identify which part of the brain are involved in these cognitive processes. Emotion, on the other hand, is much more subject to debate among scientists and philosophers.

Emotions are arguably the most important part of our mental life to maintain the quality and meaning of existence. We find meaning in emotions and rely on them to make sense of the world, sometimes in ways cognitive processes don’t offer. When researching emotion, some incorporate drive, motivation, and intention behind them as part of these states of mind.

Other researchers may use emotions in the conscious or unconscious assessment of events such as a feeling of disgust in the mouth. Subcortical parts of the brain such as the amygdala, ventral striatum, and hypothalamus are often linked to emotions. These brain structures are conserved through evolution and operate in a fast, sometimes automatic way. Still, how the different parts of the complex circuitry of the brain can mediate specific emotions is under research and debate. Neuropsychologists, neurologists and psychiatrists are only recently understanding the role of emotional processing in more complicated brain functions like decision-making and social behavior.

But there’s much more to emotions than the physical phenomena in the brain.

Imagine coming across a terrifying bear while hiking. In our most immediate reaction of fear, we can evaluate the situation (the bear is dangerous), a bodily change (increase heart rate), a phenomenological perception (feeling unpleasant), an expression of fear (eyelids raised and mouth open), a behavior component (wanting to run away), and a mental evaluation (focused attention on our surroundings). The phenomenological part involves our subjective experience as we respond to the world around us. All of these features come together in our emotions and can be debated to different degrees of necessity and sufficiency to emotions. On top of that, emotions may be directed towards objects with our intention (such as feeling angry at someone rather than just feeling anger on its own) and can shave motivation with respect to behavior (such as acting out of anger). Researchers have also debated whether emotions describe ourselves or emotions express ourselves imperatively. They’ve debated how the brain implements different types of emotions and how neural mechanisms describe emotional phenomena.

Cognitive theories of emotions that have become popular in the latter half of the 20th century can be differentiated between constitutive and causal theories. Constitutive theories use emotions as cognitions or evaluations, while for causal theories, emotions are caused by cognitions or evaluations. For example, being frightened by a grizzly bear involves a judgment that the bear is scary. The fear may be the judgment itself or the result of the judgement. They let us differentiate between the complicated interactions of cognition emotion such as determining whether someone’s anger in response to a situation is the result of a cognitive evaluation of the situation or a reaction that’s more natural and automatic. In the mid-twentieth century, philosophers C. D. Broad and Errol Bedford emphasized constitutive approaches to emotion which would become dominant in philosophy while causal ones more popular in psychology. These philosophers argued that, if emotions had intentionality, there would be internal standards of appropriateness to which an emotion is appropriate. These cognitive evaluations, identifying emotions with judgments, have been used by philosophers such as Robert Solomn, Jerome Neu, and Martha Nussbaum since then. Identifying emotions with judgements, judgementalism, have been pivotal in cognitive theories of emotions.

Judgementalism in this way, however, doesn’t explain how emotions motivate, the subjective phenomenal experience of emotions, how one can experience an emotion with being able to identify a judgment with it, or a “recalcitrance to reason,” how we experience emotions even when they go against judgements that contradict them. Judgementalists may counter these issues by determining what judgements emotions are such as “enclosing a core desire,” as Solomon has argued, to let them motivate or “dynamic”, as Nussbaum has argued, so they may account for these issues. Through these methods, they may involve accepting how the world seems even with contradictory judgments.

Other work in the 1960s showed how the cognitive component of emotions directly interacted with the physical bodily changes that occur alongside them. Psychologists Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer developed a theory of emotion, known as the two-factor theory or Schachter-Singer theory, in which emotion is how we cognitively evaluate our bodily response to emotions. Injecting participants with epinephrine to arouse their subjects, the participants were told the drug would improve their eyesight with some of them additionally being told about the side effects. When witnessing other people act either happily or angrily, the participants who didn’t know about the side effects were more likely to feel either happier or angrier than the ones who were. The two theorized that, if people experienced an emotion without an explanation, they’d label their feelings using the feelings in the moment, suggesting participants without an explanation were susceptible to the emotional influences of others. The theory has faced criticism that it confuses emotions with how we label them such that we need complete knowledge of our emotions to label them as well as difficulty in explaining how we may experience emotions even before we think of them. Research in neuroscience has shown thinking about stimuli in ways to increase the emotion may boost prefrontal or amygdala activity while decreasing the emotion may reduce it.

Integrating data and research from various parts of the brain, as they can provide the basis for cognitive phenomena, would illustrate a greater picture of emotion and cognition. There are many structures involved in functions and many functions for the individual structures of the brain. These neuron computations that underlie those phenomena also have affective and cognitive components, as described by cognitive scientists and philosophers. Viewing the relationship between emotion and cognition as a tug-of-war between the two doesn’t accurately capture the relationship between emotions and how we thinking about them. A combination of research in neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophy would do justice.


Originally published at on October 6, 2019.

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