The Emotional Dimension to Sensory Perception

In Dimitria Gatzia & Berit Brogaard (eds.), The Epistemology of Non-visual Perception. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press. pp. 236-255 (2020)
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Our emotional states affect how we perceive the world. If I am stressed, annoyed, or irritated, I might experience the sound of children laughing and screaming as they play around the house in a negative manner — it is unpleasant, loud, piercing, and so on. Yet, if I’m in a relaxed, happy, loving mood, the very same sounds might be experienced as pleasant, playful, warm, and so on. The sounds being made by the children are the same in both cases, but how they are experienced differs. The auditory experience is affected by the emotional state that I am in. I perceive the sounds differently depending on how I’m feeling. Although this might at first seem to be a trivial observation, it certainly is not. We take for granted that our perceptual experiences give rise to justified beliefs and knowledge. Thus, if my perceptual experience of an object can differ based on my emotional state, and I take my perceptual experience to justify my beliefs and even lead to knowledge, then we might have a problem. If emotions — which are not fixed and in large part uncontrolled — affect our ability to accurately perceive the world, then they may undermine the justified beliefs and knowledge gained on the basis of our perceptual experience of the world. My goal here is to explore this potential problem. I consider how we might understand the effect that emotions have on the justification of our perceptual beliefs about the world, beliefs that we acquire from a variety of sensory modalities — audition, gustation olfaction, and so on. I take the problem to be associated with one of two forms of perceptual influence: penetration or multisensory integration. In any given perceptual moment there are multiple sensory modalities and mental states at play, each affecting the overall experience. Whether we understand the influence of emotion on perception as a form of non-perceptual penetration or a form of non-visual sensory perception of the inner body — interoception — the potential epistemological difficulties remain: how can we be said to acquire justified beliefs and knowledge on the basis of such influenced perceptual experience. As has been the norm, only the five exteroceptive senses of vision, audition, olfaction, taste and touch are typically discussed in the context of sensory perception. However, as I argue, there is strong reason to accept the claim that emotional experience is a form of interoception, and that interoception ought to be considered when discussing sensory perception. In this way, then, I propose that clarifying the role played by interoception in sense perception across modalities is necessary if we are to make progress on the epistemological problems at hand.

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Lana Kuhle
Illinois State University


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