The James–Lange theory considers emotional feelings as perceptions of physiological body changes. This approach has recently resurfaced and modified in both neuroscientific and philosophical concepts of embodiment of emotional feelings. In addition to the body, the role of the environment in emotional feeling needs to be considered. I here claim that the environment has not merely an indirect and instrumental, i.e., modulatory role on emotional feelings via the body and its sensorimotor and vegetative functions. Instead, the environment may have a direct and non-instrumental, i.e., constitutional role in emotional feelings. This implies that the environment itself is constitutive of emotional feeling rather than the bodily representation of the environment. I call this the relational concept of emotional feeling. The present paper discusses recent data from neuroimaging that investigate emotions in relation to interoceptive processing and the brain’s intrinsic activity. These data show the intrinsic linkage of interoceptive stimulus processing to both exteroceptive stimuli and the brain’s intrinsic activity. This is possible only if the differences between intrinsic activity and intero- and exteroceptive stimuli is encoded into neural activity. Such relational coding makes possible the assignment of subjective and affective features to the otherwise objective and non-affective stimulus. I therefore consider emotions to be intrinsically affective and subjective as it is manifest in emotional feelings. The relational approach thus goes together with what may be described as neuro-phenomenal approach. Such neuro-phenomenal approach does not only inform emotions and emotional feeling but is also highly relevant to better understand the neuronal mechanisms underlying consciousness in general.
Keywords: consciousness, emotion, emotional feeling, insula, James–Lange theory
Citation: Northoff G (2012) From emotions to consciousness – a neuro-phenomenal and neuro-relational approach. Front. Psychology 3:303. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00303
Received: 19 March 2012; Paper pending published: 25 April 2012;
Accepted: 02 August 2012; Published online: 31 August 2012.
Edited by:Lihong Wang, Duke University, USA
Copyright: © 2012 Northoff. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.
*Correspondence: Georg Northoff, Mind, Brain Imaging and Neuroethics Research Unit, Institute of Mental Health Research, 1145 Carling Avenue, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1Z 7K4. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org