Saturday, April 3, 2010

Affect. A Trilogy. Part 2. Affect as Process

In his foreword, Lichtenberg offers this guidance: “Affects as Process is a book that merits study but must be read. By this I mean that the book is packed with information about the organization and processing of information and the nature of symbolization – all in reference to emotion... Affects as Process calls for perusal with pauses for reflection. It reflects the author’s having spent years of tussling and puzzling with the unresolved conundrums of cognition, affect, and behavior; of information processing, intercommunication, and motivation; of subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and objectivity.

Lichtenberg continues, “…[for example,] the reader may have only limited knowledge of the…literature on information processing in pre-symbolic and symbolic forms that are key to all of Jones’s assumptions about the role of affects. Consequently, when asked to entertain [a particular] hypothesis…the reader may have an acute attack of terminological shock. I can only advise: Hang on. There is a point to be learned here, and, once mastered, a new, more empirically based view of infant development will be your reward.”

On a personal note, what Lichtenberg describes is what I experienced on the initial reading of both Jones’s Affects as Process and Orange’s Emotional Understanding and her subsequent books. I would always hope there would be enough time until the next contribution for me to assimilate the richness of their work. Of course, there never is…!

In the first post of this trilogy, I indicated that Freud retained Descartes’ hypothesis of the divided mind but said that the critical dualism was not between affect and thought, but between two types of information processing – primary process (the instinctual drives) and secondary process (thought). Freud’s theoretical shift from affect to drive stripped affect from its process role and assigned it to the drives (primary process). The conundrum of affect was thus established.

If our capacity to use symbols (thought) emerges at approximately 15 to 18 months of age, how then do we process information until the arrival of thought?

Affects are easily observable in animals which are presumed to be unable to think, and in infants before symbolic abilities come on line. “Affective information processing - an analogic system - is what we share with the rest of the animal kingdom.” Jones describes six types of emotional experiencing: impulses that regulate physical movement; sensations (thirst, hunger), which give us information about our body; simple moods with which we can process only a single environmental event at a time during the first 8 weeks of life; complex moods which appear after 8 weeks because of brain maturation (the ascendancy of limbic circuitry) and with which we can process multiple environmental events; simple emotions (fear, joy, anger) beginning at 8 weeks when the limbic system comes on-line; and complex emotions which appear with the arrival of thought and represent the integration of affect and thought (love, futility, hatred, compassion, serenity).

Jones argues that if affects are process, then the experience of any affect is itself cognitive because the affect adds to our knowledge of our body or the world. If one thinks in terms of a process theory of affects, then affects are not composites [Freud’s (1916-1917) original formulation, perpetuated by Bruner (1964) and Horowitz (1972) in the cognitive theory of emotions], “they are simply part of the cognitive process.”

Affects are non- symbolic signals that convey and process information, our first means to process information. Affects are our primary process, that is, the first to arrive. They form a non-symbolic ‘vocabulary,’ they are our first language, our first way of knowing. As non-symbolic ‘vocabulary’ they simplify a vast complex of neurophysiologic data into relatively simple, easy-to understand signals.

Affects are also the language of motivation. Etymologically, motivation comes from the Latin movere, and its past participle motivere. Affects or emotions can be understood as something that moves us to action, as in e-motion. Affects serve as signal to the self and to others indicating under what motivation we are operating.

Jones defines affects as “the experiential representation of a non-symbolic information-processing system that can serve as the central control mechanism for all aspects of human behavior, including the control of physical movement, memory, and all interactions with the environment.” Say what…!? Terminological shock, indeed, but one that, hopefully, will stimulate our curiosity.

Implied in Jones’ formulations is the notion that human development can be conceptualized as taking place in two broad phases. The first phase occurs before the arrival of thought and is concerned with the progressive unfolding of pre-symbolic affect. The main developmental task during this period is to learn to use our body.

The second phase of development takes place after the arrival of thought and comprises the emergence of thought itself, the development of our intellectual functions, and the integration of thought and affect. The emergence of the capacity to use symbols leads to the fork in the road where we become a very different kind of animal.

Jones proposes that thought emerges through the differentiation of the positive and negative valence of affects to form the yes/no algorithm which is fundamental to the process of categorization. Language - the naming process - creates the categories with which we think; we then manipulate categories through the process of symbolic logic. Symbolic functioning, akin to a digital system, must be layered upon and eventually integrated into the analogic, pre-symbolic affective information processing of infancy. We see the manifestations of the initial integration of these two information processing systems in the rapprochement crisis, the ‘terrible twos.’

Piaget et al. have amply documented the development of our intellectual functions. The use of symbols, with spoken language being perhaps the best example of thought in action, gives rise to a new type of affects. These affects, which I have called ‘complex emotions,’ transcend their origins as biological signals because they are integrated with thought and thus have acquired meaning. Love, futility, hatred, compassion, serenity are but a few examples. They are what we most often associate with the term affect. Affective-symbolic integration is a progressively sophisticated process which evolves over the rest of our life span. The main developmental task here is to learn to use our mind, that is, to think with our heart.

Jones’s notion of affective-symbolic integration finds validation in recent neuroscientific work. In a review of the subject, Luiz Pessoa (2008) writes: “Historically, emotion and cognition have been viewed as separate entities… Research in the past two decades has shown that such view is deficient and that, if we are to understand how complex behaviours are carried out in the brain, an understanding of the interactions of the two is indispensable… Central to cognitive–emotional interactions are brain areas with a high degree of connectivity, called hubs, which are critical for regulating the flow and integration of information between regions… As stated by Gray and colleagues, “at some point of processing, functional specialization is lost, and emotion and cognition conjointly and equally contribute to the control of thought and behaviour.””

Jones (1995) has constructed an all-affect information-¬processing model of the mind in which thought emerges from affect, and behavior can be determined by affect and thought. In other words, Affect ➔ Thought ➔ Affect AND Thought➔ Action (behavior). His process theory clearly establishes the centrality of affect in psychological life as the subtitle of his book aptly indicates.

Ernesto Vasquez, MD
April 2, 2010

Jones, J.M. (1995), Affects as Process, An Inquiry into the Centrality of Affect in Psychological Life. Hillsdale, NJ, The Analytic Press.
Pessoa, L. (2008), On the relationship between emotion and cognition. Nature Rev. Neurosci. 9: 148-155.

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