The 2,063rd Meeting of the Society

October 18, 1996

Evolution of Consciousness as Emotion

Ayub K. Ommaya

Professor of Neurological Surgery, George Washington University


President Coates called the 2063rd meeting to order at 8:20 p.m. on October 18, 1996. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2062nd meeting; there was one question and the minutes were approved. Mr. Joseph Foreman, Program Chair elect, announced some proposed changes for the format of programs in 1997. Mr. Coates introduced Ayub K. Ommaya of the George Washington University Medical Center to discuss “Evolution of Consciousness as Emotion”. What is consciousness? Modern approaches to this question attempt to model consciousness beginning with neurophysiological principles, from the bottom up. This is the computational or reductionist approach. The brain produces the mind but the mind, consciousness, resists this reductionist analysis. The brain is the one uniquely developed organ that has allowed man to adapt to almost any environment. Consciousness must be an emergent phenomenon from the evolution of neural structures and mechanisms. A typical presumption is that such emergent biological traits evolve through adaptations for efficiency. Consciousness may well have evolved for efficiency of mental function. An alternative approach to the question is to investigate the biomechanism of nervous system trauma and the resulting disintegration and reintegration of consciousness. A “centripetal” theory has been advanced to account for the observed patterns of physical and mental damage following head trauma injuries. The more severe injuries progress more deeply along the radial fissures of the brain down to the central connection between the frontal and temporal lobes. Paradoxically, milder traumas generally cause more severe behavioral problems. This is thought to be because more severe physiological damage may mask mental problems. This damage may block responses to external stimulation, by causing a failure to perceive the stimulation or to integrate a response. There has been much speculation on the role of emotion in consciousness. Darwin in his final book discussed the expression of emotion in the face, and recent studies have confirmed the rapid, almost subconscious, transfer of emotional information in facial expressions even across wide cultural boundaries. However, it is popularly assumed that emotions are disruptive of cognition. Current opinions tend to separate emotions from cognition despite extensive data which emphasize a fundamental inseparability. Five crucial steps in the evolution of consciousness may be described. First, the mechanism for the reflex approach and avoidance reactions developed. Second, the mechanism for information transmission and transformation, including both electrical and hormonal routes, evolved in the brain. Third, the sensory inputs were merged in multisensory neurons and assemblies in the mesencephalon. Fourth, interactions formed between omnisensory and limbic systems responsible for memory formation. Fifth, specialized neural centers developed in the thalamus as relays between the sensory and motor centers. Scanning techniques are now capable of detecting the mental activity that precedes action, the formation of intent, and reveals the involvement of the emotional centers in these events. We believe that emotion colors every piece of information that enters the brain. Emotion precedes cognition and without emotion, there could be no consciousness. Emotion motivates the focus of attention. This analysis of the role of emotion in perception also suggests that humans may be unable to reason without bias, and explain the recurrent history of unwise socio-politcal decisions supported by elegant post-hoc rationalizations, such as those documented in The March of Folly. Mr. Ommaya kindly answered questions from the audience. Mr. Coates thanked the speaker on behalf of the Society. Mr. James S. Ohlmacher, Membership Chair, discussed the membership situation and invited non-members to sign the guest book and take applications. Ms. Eloise Agger, Program Chair, announced the speaker for the next meeting. Mr. Coates mentioned the parking policy, and adjourned the 2063rd meeting at 9:40 p.m. Attendance: 39 Temperature: 14.4°C Weather: raining Respectfully submitted, John S. Garavelli Recording Secretary