How Shallow is Fear? Deepening the Waters of Emotion with a Social/ Externalist account

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In The Deep History of Ourselves, Joseph Ledoux distinguishes between behavioral and physiological responses caused by the activation of defense circuits, and the emotion we call ‘fear’. Although the former is found in nearly all bilateral animals, the latter is supposedly a unique human adaptation that requires language, reflective self-awareness, among other higher-level cognitive capacities. In this picture, fear is an autonoetic conscious experience that happens when defense circuit activation is integrated into self-awareness and the experience labeled with the ‘fear’ concept. In this commentary I will argue against this conception. In the view I favor, fear is an enactment, a skillful activity that we engage in with our whole bodies and minds and that we coordinate with others as our social interactions unfold in time. If this is true, two important conclusions will follow. Firstly, the relevant brain circuits we should be looking for in our theory of emotions are those involved in affective social learning, social cognition, embodied intersubjectivity, and so on. Secondly, emotions may not be uniquely human, and may be present in any creature with the right kinds of social skills required for affective enactments. Therefore, although Ledoux is right to hold that emotions are not as deep as defense circuits, they are not as shallow as other cognitively sophisticated human capacities.
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Archival date: 2022-05-10
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