Broad Cognitive Science Deals with Emotion, Motivation and Moods

English has the largest lexicon of all languages. It is loaded with terms about affect (emotion, moods, motivation). Western culture has produced a panoply of emotion-conveying art that displays the tremendous power of “folk psychology”. Still, it does not equip us to understand and handle emotion as well as we could and perhaps should.

Most university graduates—even some coming out of psychology—have not been taught a modern, coherent, powerful theory of affect. (Below, I will explain part of the problem with the state of psychology.) As a result, they’re at a loss to distinguish between various forms of affect. They’re also ill-equipped to systematically describe their own experience or that of people around them. They fall back on folk psychology.

While, to be sure, we need to leverage folk psychology, to better understand emotion we also need to step ahead of folk psychology. Amongst other benefits, this may help prepare ourselves to deal with major, inevitable emotions, such as grief. Some Buddhists spend a lifetime building equanimity. They prepare for loss and adversity. Cognitive science can play a role here too.

In contrast with their knowledge of psychology, many people emerged from high school knowing how to apply the important concepts of force, mass and acceleration to their every day lives. Of course, not everyone makes the transition from textbook physics knowledge to application. (Some of them tail gate, for instance.) The book, Cognitive Productivity, is designed to help us bridge the gap between knowledge and application.

One would need to run a proper study to verify this, but I suspect that most people who do have some kind of a systematic framework for talking about emotion use a psychoanalytic one (e.g., one of Freud’s). There’s a historical context for this. Behaviorism dominated American psychology for decades. This school of thought treats inner experience as a black box. Then came the cognitive revolution, which projects information processing models inside the box. Unfortunately, Aristotle’s distinction between cognition, affect and volition still holds sway! As a result, some cognitive scientists seem to assume that affective considerations can largely be ignored. It is cognitive science, after all.

However, the core assumption of cognitive science is that cognitive phenomena are essentially information processing. But affective phenomena are also essentially information processing. The same theoretical principles and assumptions can and ought to guide our understanding of all mental phenomena. Motivation, emotion, moods, thinking, reasoning, perceiving, decision making, etc., are all information processing.

So, in my book, Cognitive Productivity, I coined a new phrase “broad cognitive science”. This denotes the same research program as cognitive science, with the same information processing (“computational”) assumption; but it’s larger in that it explicitly says that affective and “volitional” phenomena are in scope. I would call the endeavour “mental science”, but expecting this term to be adopted would be pure lunacy: not just because the term “mental” has a negative connotation, but because of the scope of the enterprise.

“Cognitive” science isn’t the only misnomer in its realm. Compare my comments on the term “Artificial Intelligence” in my previous post.

Most of the research I’ve done, and the products we develop, are in broad cognitive science.

The book, Cognitive Productivity, for example, assumes that in order to master knowledge one normally needs not merely to develop one’s “dry” memory. One also needs to develop new affective ways of perceiving the world. If you truly master the concepts of Eric Ries’s Lean Startup book, for example, then when you plan your new software (or other complex, evolvable product), you really want to first market a minimally viable product. You will want to set the “Target Milestone” of most new features beyond this MVP release. A good book causes you to develop, in your own mind, new “motive generators” (affective mechanisms).

There’s another reason why people don’t tend to use a systematic theory of emotion. Psychology is very far from having a consensus about the major concepts and mechanisms of affect in general and emotion in particular. There are many competing theories. No single theory adequately deals with enough of the diversity of phenomena to explain; hence none can be used exclusively of others. People still don’t agree on what some of the key words mean or ought to mean. Many people explicitly exclude affect from the mental realm. That’s a counter-productive assumption!

For many years, I’ve been using a collection of theories that together are very useful for understanding and describing my own experience and that of those around me. I rely mainly on the framework Aaron Sloman, colleagues and I developed. But (for example) I also use Ortony’s taxonomies of affect and emotion, as well as Thayer’s theory of moods. These theories require a bit of work to comprehend, and they are not perfect; but their sense-making potential is enormous. I described several of these ideas in Cognitive Productivity. I will come back to them on this platform because they bear on cognitive productivity.

I recently accepted to give a talk to an organization. The problem I offered to discuss is: how to understand and deal with “internal perturbance.” “Perturbance” is the name I gave, in my Ph.D. thesis, for higher-order emotions, those that involve a certain loss of control over one’s attention due to insistent motivators. If you’ve ever experienced romantic love or grief, or any other tertiary emotion, then you have experienced perturbance. Spock and Data being impossible, unless you’re a simple piece of software reading this, I’m sure you’ve experienced perturbance before!

I’m writing this post because I have recently started a R&D project that aims to help
knowledge workers understand and deal with perturbance—attentional aspects of emotion. If one can get a handle on perturbance, I believe one can also comprehend and influence other kinds of distractions. That also includes distractions that are less obviously charged with affect, such as being distracted by email, documents and TED talks. But wherever there is distraction, there is affect.

There’s no silver bullet, but I think we can draw from broad cognitive science to develop new idea products and highly innovative software to help manage affect and attention.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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