Thinking, Emotions, and the Brain

Cognition, Emotion and the Brain a Different View-Alexander Savitsky copyright - alexander savitzky - 1996.

This article presents a realistic description of the brain's task in the psychophysiological process. The brain is considered as a physiological intensity-processing, modulating and relaying mechanism and not as a psychological-information processor. Knowledge about objects and events is not received by sense organs and processed, represented and stored in the brain, but is experienced by means of the effector systems of our organism. Experience is regarded as an effect of the integration of cognition with feelings. The cognitive and the affective processes are distorted or abolished, if deprived of this integration. This is proved by experiments, although the common interpretation of them has been varied.

Neither the ancient dualistic soul-body philosophy, nor Kant's escapism to transcendental metaphysics, or the countless theories of mind-brain interaction do explain psychophysio- logical phenomena. Encouraged by modern technology, contemporary scientists developed a neuropsychological dualism instead.The mysterious entity, by account of which contemporary scientists try in vain to explain psychophysiological processes is the brain. The current conjectures are based on the correlation between instances of brain damage, of stimuli, and electrical or chemical neurophysiological processes on the one hand, and psychological or behavioral events on the other. Most work on the cognitive and the psychophysiological sciences is grounded on the notion that we receive information about objects and events by sense organs. The information is coded and transmitted by neurons to the brain, where it is processed, represented and stored. Psychological operations, such as perception, thoughts, emotion etc. are, according to this suggestion, performed by the brain. But no code or process has been found, by the means of which information about any object is passed on to the brain or by which it is processed, represented or stored there. The reason for this failure does not derive from the lack of technological means, but, in the view of this article, from a misleading conception of the psychophysiological process.

Mind is regarded by this article as a dualistic-metaphysical or a literary entity. Psychological phenomena are instead considered as cognitive and affective activities, which are the effects of certain physiological processes. We cannot reduce psychological phenomena to physiological processes, or identify the one with the other, because they are of totally different categories of logical combinations, as causation and effects usually are. We also cannot define feelings or experiences of phenomena. We can only feel or experience them. We may try to describe and even influence physiological processes and observe their correlation with cognitive and affective effects. The latter are not just other terms, or substitutes for "mind"."Mind", being a metaphysical entity is itself a substitute for an explanation of psychological phenomena, whereas mental and affective activities are psychophysiological processes. This attitude does not contradict the recognition of human attributes, such as uniqueness, spontaneity, emotionality, wisdom or any other "raison d'etre".... .

This work will be based on the following assumptions: The properties of objects cannot be absorbed and transmitted by sense organs or by neurons, but are experienced by our organism. Hence environmental phenomena cannot be processed, represented and stored in the brain.

The cognition of objects is the effect of learning the sequences and combinations of proprioceptive, meaning tactile, kinesthetic and vestibular sensations, which may, but must not be extended by additional sensory modalities.

Affective events are effects of certain autonomic system's activities. According to this postulate any model of the psychophysiological system must discriminate five categories of logical combinations: Stimulating agents, trigger mechanisms, activating agents, effectors and behavioral psychological effects.The physical environmental factors are the stimulating agents. The sense organs are triggers. The neuronal and the hormonal systems are the modulating and activating agents. The motor and some of the autonomic system's organs are the effectors. Some effects of effector arousals are considered by us as psychological, meaning cognitive and affective effects.

Let us examine some of the conjectures mentioned above. A slight pressure on the trigger of a rifle causes an explosion in the cartridge and the ejection of the bullet. Can we regard the pressure of the finger on the trigger as the input of information about the finger? Is this information transferred to, processed by, or represented in the mechanism of the rifle? Do the various stages of the process belong to the same category? Is every stage a coded version, or the representation of the previous stage? These questions are odd. But aren't they similar to those asked and considered as appropriate in the description of psycho-physiological processes?

The conventional postulate that information is received by sense-organs and passed by neurons to the brain disregards the possibility of a simpler account: that (as with the rifle),each stage is only triggered by the previous activity and triggeres the following one. In this process stimulated sensory cells trigger neurons which in turn induce motor and autonomic effectors, which stimulate afferent neurons and vice versa in feedback loops. In this case the terms receptor and neurotransmitter are misleading. Receptors do not receive and transmitters do not transmit any psychophysiological knowledge about phenomena. Neither the physical stimulants, such as photons, vibrating particles or air waves, nor psychological phenomena, such as sensations of light, smell, taste or voices are transferred by neurons to the brain. Sense organs are triggers and not receivers of environmental information. Moreover, in spite of their specificity "receptors" of all kinds may be stimulated by different stimulants. The survival value of sense organs can be understood only by their contact (via neurons) with reacting effectors. The "information" received by sense-organs and passed by neurons may be reduced to two physical factors: frequency and intensity; and as revealed by Plank's equation, frequency is virtually a function of intensity. Neurons fire at a greater frequency if activated by a greater frequency or a greater intensity. Due to their physiological properties sense organs and neurons may sum up or moderate and relay these intensities of excitations evoked simultaneously by neurons from variouse parts of the organism. These neuronal processes relay the course of excitations to the relevant effectors.

Piaget regarded sensory-motor operations as the basis of perception, the cognition and recognition of objects and object relationships and the creation of cognitive schemata (Piaget and al. 1969). It is learned by means of reafferent palpation and locomotion evoking combinations and sequences of proprioceptive sensations. Touching the surface of an object is not sufficient to cognize a table and to distinguish it from a piece of wood, a chair or another phenomenon. To cognize a table we must palpate it. The combinations and sequences of muscle stretch sensations are learned as the length, weight, hardness, thickness etc. of the various objects. From tactile sensations we learn to infer, that objects are cold or hot, rough or smooth etc. By the vestibular sensations we learn to know the orientation, the position and locomotion of ourselves and of other objects.The combination of all these proprioceptive stimuli creates in us facilitated or potentiated organic feedback loops, which include the relevant effectors. The arousal of combinations and sequences of all these sensations is the process of cognizing, of creating new perceptions, or of recognizing, of "retrieving" them by evoking the learned cognitive schemata. By learning, these processes may be facilitated to such an extent, that the motor activities will be evoked to a minimal intensity. But they must be evoked. Disconnection of sensory-motor effectors from effectors of other modalities may distort or even deprive us of cognitive abilities, as will be described in the next lines.

Hubel and Wiesel detected, among others, cells which are excited when we see a bar at a specific orientation (Hubel and Wiesel 1962). But, according to the theory presented in these pages, what they virtually found are cells which relay arousals to the relevant motor vestibular effectors and not "orientation-sensitive cells". Searching for features or other properties of objects in the central neuronal system or in some codes of its activity seems strange, if inferred by scientists who know the properties of neurons. The process of cognizing objects and events does not represent features or other properties of objects, but the cognition of them. Cognition cannot be considered as the derivative of retinal stimuli, or of the appearence of retinal images, or retinotopic correlations in the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, or in "visual" cortices. For we cannot by optic means learn the meaning of hard, soft, heavy, thick, long, hot, distant, rough, wet, deep or other properties of phenomena. The optic ability is an extention of the proprioceptive basis of cognition. A blind born child may learn to cognize an object by palpation only. But neonates deprived of proprioceptive sensations cannot cognize phenomena (eg. Held and Hein 1963). Proprioceptive sensations may, but need not be enriched by optic and other sensations.

One hundred years ago Stratton wore goggles with inverting prismas (Stratton 1896). Thereby he virtually changed the combinations of retinal loci stimulated by the environmental stimulants. Nevertheless he adapted to his new "visual environment" not by changing the "retinal images", but by learning the new correlations between the sensory-motor and the vestibular sensations with the stimulation of different retinal loci. In other words, it is not important which area of the retina is stimulated. If we have learned, that we must raise our hand to reach an object we will see it above and not below.

And as to "abstract" psychological conceptions, let us consider some examples. Striatum neurons' discharge normally precedes the onset of specific movements. From this observation neuroscientists inferred, that the intention to move should be ascribed to the brain. Lesions of basal ganglia may be accompanied by akinesia, by disorders of movements-initiation. The conjecture that voluntary movements are initiated and induced by the brain, or, as dualistic philosophers infer, by a psychological entity, such as the "mind" does not contribute to an explanation of these psychophysiological phenomena. In order to remain in the realistic domain of psychophysiology we might rather infer, that activities of the sensory-motor feedback loops (which include neuronal junctions, such as the basal ganglia and others) are induced by neuronal activators and by motor-vestibular effectors and by the effects of their arousals. The cognitive effects of these physiological processes and the learned, facilitated or potentiated schemata may be regarded as one part of the relaying and guiding activities of the voluntary responses.

Various experiments do indeed indicate, that initiative, as also thoughts expectations and other psychological processes are characterized by motor activities. For example, some specific minor changes in muscular activities characterize particular psychological processes, such as imagining, "silent language processing" and others (Cacioppo and al. 1981). And Pavlov's experiments leave no doubt, that salivation and other physiological activities characterize the dog's expectation for food, or the imagination of such an event.

"Emotions" have been identified by William James with certain activities of the autonomic system. James claimed, that "we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike or tremble because we are sorry, angry or fearful..." (James 1890). In other words, contrary to Cannon (1927) James considered emotions as effects of physiological processes. This view must be accomplished, explained, but also partly challenged by introducing the task of learning and memory in psycho-physiological processes. Since such an explanation is beyond the scope of this epitomized article, it will be presented in my next work:"Learning, Memory, Cognition and the Brain" (in preparation). What we may remark at this stage is, that many physiological processes are performed without our knowledge of their mental effects. But no mental operations can be performed without their physiological basis. We may dissociate physiological processes from mental effects, but we cannot dissociate mental experiences from their physiological basis. The psychophysiological mechanism functions as a feedback system. Each psychological behavioral effect may influence or determine the involvement of the other categories of processes, including its physiological effectors.

When Olds and Millner discovered groups of cells, the stimulation of which, (by pressing a pedal) seemed to cause pleasure to the mouse (Olds and Millner1954) they actually must have found neuronal relay junctions interconnected to some autonomic system's activators, such as neurons of the autonomic system and hormone glands, which induce visceral constrictions or other reactions evoking pleasure in the mouse. The conclusion that pleasure-centres have been discovered in the brain is an overstatement based on an imaginary conception which cannot be logically accepted. Since the autonomic system is involved in the metabolism, the conversion, accumulation and use of energy and in maintaining homeostasis, stimuli, if strong enough, must induce the autonomic system (via the limbic system and the hypothalamus). And since some of the autonomic system's activities evoke in us feelings, we may infer that every stimulus, if strong enough, may evoke feelings, which are considered in this article as affective, meaning good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant effects. This psychophysiological feedback-mechanism is the second agent guiding our voluntary operations.

Autonomic processes become physiologically meaningful if integrated with visceral or other effectors activities. Feelings become psychologically meaningful when integrated with cognitive processes. The integration of the affective and the cognitive dimensions is necessary for our awareness of phenomena, an effect considered in this work as experience (Savitzky 1989,1991).

Unlike feelings, emotions, such as envy, hatred, grief, love etc. are experiences, since they contain not only the affective, but also the cognitive dimension. On the other hand we cannot cognize phenomena if the perception of them is not integrated with feelings, which award the cognition of objects and events with vital qualities. This attitude is supported by countless experiments and observations, mainly of disconnections of effector systems from each other. Surplus of inhibitory "neurotransmitters" or neurohormones, atrophy of nerve-cells in the brain, tumors and other kinds of damage or the pharmacological intervention of anesthetists or scientists in certain brain areas disonnecting or distorting the connections between the physiological systems may create anesthesia, analgesia, anamnesia, the various agnosias and other psychological distortions and insufficiencies.

A few of many examples: Superfluous quantities of dopamine (an inhibitory "neuro-transmitter") in the nigrostriatic pathway may result in delirium in schizophrenic patients. By a decreased activity of GABA and cholinergic striatal neurons in Huntington's disease some patients become euphoric, others are irascible and violent. Damage to the cingula of the limbic system, inferotemporal loss (Wilson 1957), removal of both temporal lobes (Kluver and al.1937) or any other kind of disconnection of the optic system from the proprioceptive or from the autonomic system may cause "psychic blindness"(Kluver and al,1937) or "visual agnosia"(Kolb and al.1985). The destruction of particular areas or even particular cells in the inferior or the superior temporal cortex, the striate, or the associative cortices may also cause various specific visual deficiencies (Desimone and al.1979; Kendrick and al.1987; Livingstone and al.1988;Phillips and al.1984). All these and many other correlations tempt us to regard defined brain areas as centres that are responsible for specific psychological functions and the motor, the autonomic and other organic systems as mere peripheral physiological agents. These theories derive from metaphysical ideas considering the brain as the "core" of the psychophysiological process and all the rest as the periphery of it, which is in the view of this article a mistaken and misleading conception.

The brain does not feel, perceive, think, represent or perform any psychological or behavioral processes. The brain is a physiological intensity modulating and relaying unit and not a psychological-information processor (Savitzky 1993). The so called "brain centres" are groups of neuronal relay junctions. Hence my conclusion from the above mentioned instances is, that the psychological process may become distorted or abolished, because the relevant physiological effector systems are damaged or disconnected from each other and not because functionally specific mental and affective brain centres are damaged.

I believe that the views expounded in this theory, which is based on a realistic consideration of the brain's function in the organic feedback system, will provide a better explanation of the psychophysiological aspect of cognitive and affective processes.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to my dear friends Dr. Eli Shezen, Dr.Eli Daryn, Prof. Josef Tagelicht and Prof. Dov Zipori for their generosity in supporting and encouraging me along the "Via Dolorosa" of accomplishing and publishing this work.

Please send commentaries, questions or suggestions to email:,il


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