Reflections on Day 4 – Emotion, Attention & Memory

Today the talks shifted to a focus on emotion and its relation to attention and memory.

Dr. Liz Phelps from New York University began the morning by talking about how emotion is defined in the western scientific tradition and why we have them.  Liz noted that emotion means many different things, and is defined as consisting of many different components, including a subjective feeling, a bodily response, expressions in the face and voice, a motivational tendency to act, and various facets of appraisal that are critical in the generation of particular emotions.  In the most basic sense, Liz noted that emotions signal the presence of various opportunities or harms, things that are important, in ourselves and the environment. She then went on to talk about how emotion amplifies focal attention and enhances confidence in memories, if not actual details. This was an effect, she said, of the amplification of attention on focal but not peripheral details of emotionally-charged experiences.

 

Liz Phelps on Left

Liz Phelps on Left

The discussion centered around the definition of emotion in both scientific and Buddhist traditions. Richie Davidson and Matthieu Ricard discussed their work in trying to bring together these traditions by positing a 2 x 2 typology of emotions. One dimension is valence (pleasant, neutral, unpleasant) and the other is the “wholesomeness” dimension (unwholesome to wholesome).  The operationalization of the notion of “wholesomeness” was hypothesized to depend on the effect of that emotion on the health of the mind and body and social relationships over time. That is, a functional, pragmatic approach to defining this dimension was posited. The importance of the 2 x 2 typology was seen as necessary because some people find unwholesome emotions pleasant in the moment (e.g., greed), whereas sometimes unpleasant emotions are wholesome if they are in the service of attaining a greater good over a longer time period (e.g., confusion and dismay on the spiritual path).

 

Himalaya

Himalaya

The discussion also moved to the issue of whether or not it made sense really to separate out notions of “cognition” from “emotion.”  As Richie Davidson said – “The brain does not respect the dichotomy of passions (emotion) and reason handed to us by the Greek tradition.” That is, there is nowhere in the brain that is purely “emotional” or “cognitive.”  

Another important aspect of the overall discussion this week has been that the training of compassion and emotion regulation is dependent upon the same attentional mechanisms that are essential for the training of shamatha and vipassana. The mechanisms of attention are central to both cognitive and emotional functioning.  Cliff Saron, in a wonderful presentation on the Shamatha project, described some of these same ideas and presented data on them.

Today is the final day wherein we try to tie together some of these concepts related to attention, memory and the mind.