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Published January 2017 | public
Journal Article Open

How should neuroscience study emotions? By distinguishing emotion states, concepts, and experiences

Adolphs, Ralph


In this debate with Lisa Feldman Barrett, I defend a view of emotions as biological functional states. Affective neuroscience studies emotions in this sense, but it also studies the conscious experience of emotion ('feelings'), our ability to attribute emotions to others and to animals ('attribution', 'anthropomorphizing'), our ability to think and talk about emotion ('concepts of emotion', 'semantic knowledge of emotion') and the behaviors caused by an emotion ('expression of emotions', 'emotional reactions'). I think that the most pressing challenge facing affective neuroscience is the need to carefully distinguish between these distinct aspects of 'emotion'. I view emotion states as evolved functional states that regulate complex behavior, in both people and animals, in response to challenges that instantiate recurrent environmental themes. These functional states, in turn, can also cause conscious experiences (feelings), and their effects and our memories for those effects also contribute to our semantic knowledge of emotions (concepts). Cross-species studies, dissociations in neurological and psychiatric patients, and more ecologically valid neuroimaging designs should be used to partly separate these different phenomena.

Additional Information

© The Author (2016). Published by Oxford University Press. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/), which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Received July 9, 2016. Revision received July 9, 2016. Accepted October 11, 2016. First published online: October 19, 2016. I thank Laura Harrison, Bob Spunt, Damian Stanley, Julien Dubois, David Anderson, and Ajay Satpute for helpful comments on the article. Conflict of interest. None declared.

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August 22, 2023
August 22, 2023