Emotions are cognitive, not innate, researchers conclude

February 15, 2017, New York University
Credit: George Hodan/public domain

Emotions are not innately programmed into our brains, but, in fact, are cognitive states resulting from the gathering of information, New York University Professor Joseph LeDoux and Richard Brown, a professor at the City University of New York, conclude in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We argue that conscious experiences, regardless of their content, arise from one system in the brain," explains LeDoux, a professor in New York University's Center for Neural Science. "Specifically, the differences between emotional and non- are the kinds of inputs that are processed by a general cortical network of cognition, a network essential for conscious experiences."

As a result, LeDoux and Brown observe, "the brain mechanisms that give rise to conscious emotional feelings are not fundamentally different from those that give rise to perceptual conscious experiences."

Their paper—"A Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness"—addresses a notable gap in neuroscience theory. While emotions, or feelings, are the most significant events in our lives, there has been relatively little integration of theories of emotion and emerging theories of consciousness in cognitive science.

Existing work posits that emotions are innately programmed in the brain's subcortical circuits. As a result, emotions are often treated as different from of consciousness, such as those related to the perception of external stimuli. In other words, emotions aren't a response to what our brain takes in from our observations, but, rather, are intrinsic to our makeup.

However, after taking into account existing scholarship on both cognition and emotion, LeDoux and Brown see a quite different architecture for emotions—one more centered on process than on composition. They conclude that emotions are "higher-order states" embedded in cortical circuits. Therefore, unlike present theories, they see states as similar to other of consciousness.

LeDoux, the founder of the Emotional Brain Institute who also has an appointment in NYU's Department of Psychology, has worked on emotion and memory in the for more than 20 years. He is also a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. Brown is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York's LaGuardia College.

Explore further: What can animals' survival instincts tell us about understanding human emotion?

More information: Feeling it: A higher-order theory of emotional consciousness, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1619316114

Related Stories

What can animals' survival instincts tell us about understanding human emotion?

February 22, 2012
Can animals' survival instincts shed additional light on what we know about human emotion? New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux poses this question in outlining a pioneering theory, drawn from two decades of research, ...

Is there such a thing as an emotional hangover? Researchers find that there is

December 26, 2016
Emotional experiences can induce physiological and internal brain states that persist for long periods of time after the emotional events have ended, a team of New York University scientists has found. This study, which appears ...

Researchers outline barriers to treating fear and anxiety

September 9, 2016
A misunderstanding of how the certain parts of the brain function has hampered the creation of pharmaceuticals to effectively address fear and anxiety disorders, a pair of researchers has concluded. Their analysis, which ...

Understanding fear means correctly defining fear itself, study concludes

February 4, 2014
Understanding and properly studying fear is partly a matter of correctly defining fear itself, New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux writes in a new essay published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ...

New theory of emotions

June 25, 2013
unimaginable. Although emotions are so important, philosophers are still discussing what they actually are. Prof. Dr. Albert Newen and Dr. Luca Barlassina of the Institute of Philosophy II at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum ...

MRI scanner sees emotions flickering across an idle mind

September 15, 2016
As you relax and let your mind drift aimlessly, you might remember a pleasant vacation, an angry confrontation in traffic or maybe the loss of a loved one.

Recommended for you

Parents' brain activity 'echoes' their infant's brain activity when they play together

December 13, 2018
When infants are playing with objects, their early attempts to pay attention to things are accompanied by bursts of high-frequency activity in their brain. But what happens when parents play together with them? New research, ...

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

In the developing brain, scientists find roots of neuropsychiatric diseases

December 13, 2018
The most comprehensive genomic analysis of the human brain ever undertaken has revealed new insights into the changes it undergoes through development, how it varies among individuals, and the roots of neuropsychiatric illnesses ...

Researchers find the cause of and cure for brain injury associated with gut condition

December 13, 2018
Using a mouse model of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)—a potentially fatal condition that causes a premature infant's gut to suddenly die—researchers at Johns Hopkins say they have uncovered the molecular causes of the ...

How the brain tells you to scratch that itch

December 13, 2018
It's a maddening cycle that has affected us all: it starts with an itch that triggers scratching, but scratching only makes the itchiness worse. Now, researchers have revealed the brain mechanism driving this uncontrollable ...

New genetic clues to early-onset form of dementia

December 13, 2018
Unlike the more common Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia tends to afflict young people. It accounts for an estimated 20 percent of all cases of early-onset dementia. Patients with the illness typically begin to ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 15, 2017
Would they extend their theory to cover animals,at least to include mammals and birds?
2.7 / 5 (3) Feb 15, 2017
"Emotions are not innately programmed into our brains, but, in fact, are cognitive states resulting from the gathering of information"

-Uh oh - the zombie tabula rasa returns from the grave looking to eat our brains and excrete chalk dust.

I suppose that a mother bears rage at threats to her cubs is a learned emotion? Jealousy might very well be a learned experience, and protecting a mate from being impregnated by some rogue might mean you waste all that effort raising a child with someone elses genes.

Oh well.

These guys should try to refrain from using undefinable nonsense terms like 'consciousness' and 'higher-order' and 'architecture' which are dead giveaways.

joseph dedoux (age 67 years) - can pavlovs dog learn new tricks, like salivating at the prospect of yet one more grant in his twilight years?
2.7 / 5 (3) Feb 15, 2017
Richard Brown - "I earned my PhD in Philosophy with a concentration in Cognitive Science"

- The only way to save the discipline of philosophy is to convince people it is science. Somehow.

Yeah maybe that'll woork.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2017
Emotion has highly stereotypical properties across not only all human cultures but across mammals generally and are quite clearly genetically mediated at some level.

Finding properties that can be explained by studying particular brain systems and their response to sensory stimulation does not mean that "Emotions are not innately programmed.."

It is like claiming that standing upright and walking is not an innate property of the human brain because adults can control their legs. Yet many species walk within minutes of birth...

This is another case of an attempt to impose a particular view or perspective onto all other researchers as if there is some sort of competition to acquire as much intellectual territory as possible...a rather childish but unfortunately widespread behaviour.

Emotional (and most cognitive) tools are innate; usage of the tools is learned.
Feb 16, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Feb 16, 2017
The article is only trying to confirm an intuitive description of emotion, which is; you felt an emotion and your body reacted to it, rather than an earlier theory which says; your body reacted to something and you realize it was emotion.

I'm guessing both theory is based on introspection of self, but the later is easier to test with animals, because animal reacted consistently to things; wagging tails when happy or freeze when scared.

Maybe the author have a test for the first one, but apparently it wasn't mentioned in this article (if it exist).
not rated yet Feb 16, 2017
Yeah, no doubt these are controversial assertions. You could say that your dog adopts your emotions, but most people believe that they just innately have some of the same qualities and emotions of humans. There is a ton of study in this area.

You can't just propose some psychology dissertation asserting that the most deeply engrained and widely shared states of being are governed by society and environment, at least not without proposing a serious alternative mechanism, and delving deeep into mechanism. Wonder if this paper will be a riveting read?
not rated yet Feb 16, 2017
The person writing the press release may have made a hash of this. The way I read it, the authors are not talking about emotions but rather the "conscious experience of emotion." Furthermore, they seem to be saying that this conscious experience is processed by the same general network that processes other conscious experiences -- i.e. there is no special processor for the conscious experience of emotion. Everything is muddied by the use of the work "consciousness". Are we talking about "autobiographical consciousness: that is experienced by humans and a very few animal species, or are we talking about being awake to the world -- which is shard by most higher animals? I think you would need to read the article to find out what LeDoux intended.
not rated yet Feb 21, 2017
The way I read it, the authors are not talking about emotions but rather the "conscious experience of emotion." Furthermore, they seem to be saying that this conscious experience is processed by the same general network that processes other conscious experiences

Okay, that makes sense. Emotions come from physical structures in the brain that are shared structures common to related life forms. An electrical probe can elicit any of the four F's. But how one processes the emotion is a function of cognitive training. I can live with that.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.