April 9, 2009

Today, Liz Phelps and Cliff Saron presented. The morning session involved engaging discussion concerning what emotion is. How to define it from both the Western cognitive neuroscience and psychological perspective and from the Buddhist perspective. Richie Davidson indicated that emotion can be operationalized in two ways:

1. Detecting stimuli that signal importance to the organism

2. Generating affective responses (that may motivate action).

Liz showed data that indicated that emotion increases confidence for emotional events, but not accuracy of the details. So in some sense, emotion is acting more as a time stamp that collects the “gist” of the context in which emotion occurred. Where you were when the twin towers collapsed on 9/11/2001? You may be able to report the gist of where you were and never forget the “gist” of that memory, but you are actually no better at remembering the details of the event and that day compared to a neutral event, like what you had for breakfast this morning.

From the Buddhist point of view, here is Robert Thurman:

Robert Thurman on Emotion

Robert commented on the Tibetan concept, Vedana, which is typically translated as “feeling”. He stressed that it should rather be translated as sensation, the physical process. The translation typically confuses sensations of pain and pleasure and the associated mental reactions with emotional reactions, which are more vague and higher level in terms of conceptual processing. There remained to be a clear category for the vague “feelings”

Richie stated later in reference to a discussion on wholesome (beneficial) and unwholesome (hurtful/harmful) types of distinction in emotion,

“The Brain does not respect the dichotomy that the Greeks have handed to us”

and His Holiness states, “For one whose heart is pure, there is no negative act”