Emotion and Perception



Perception and Emotion



Everyone knows that sensory qualities are associated with emotions, though the manner of association is obscure. Colors suggest emotions (red passion, blue sadness); sounds are perceived emotionally especially in speech and music; tactile sensations are felt as pleasant or unpleasant; smells can be appetizing or revolting; tastes delicious or nasty. It is a question what establishes these associations–whether they are innate or cultural, the result of arbitrary conditioning or of a perceived intrinsic connection. They seem to bypass explicit belief: it is not that we are of the opinion that screeching noises are irritating, or that rotten food tastes disgusting, or that green is soothing. Artists and musicians, not to mention chefs and masseurs, know how to exploit these emotional resonances. The sensory faculties are clearly hooked up somehow to the affective parts of the brain. We sense feelingly. The same must be true of other animals, even when cognition is not at the human level. Imagine how birds see colors or cats and dogs hear sounds (the bat may thrill to its sonar perceptions). These sensory qualities clearly have affective, motivational, and appetitive connotations for the animals that sense them. They are not emotionally neutral.

It is noteworthy that all the sensory qualities mentioned so far would be classified as secondary qualities, i.e. qualities originating in the mind (or brain) and projected onto the world. Let’s call these qualities subjective: then we can say that subjective qualities are apt to have an intimate connection to emotion. What we project we resonate to; what comes from us excites us in this way or that. But is the same true of primary qualities, particularly size and shape? Here we seldom hear talk of emotional associations, and scientific studies of possible such associations are few and far between. What is the emotional meaning of a straight line as opposed to a wavy one? Are circles evocative of different emotions from rectangles? Does size matter emotionally? Maybe some sort of affective meaning can be conjured up by remembered resemblance, but it doesn’t seem natural or intuitive (geometers might feel differently about circles and squares). So the following generalization suggests itself: objective qualities don’t have the emotional associations of subjective qualities. That is, the perceived qualities of things that are discovered not invented, received not projected, lack emotional resonance—or if they have it, it isn’t in the same way subjective qualities do. What doesn’t come from us doesn’t move us in the way what originates internally does.  Emotion-laden perception is confined to projected subjective qualities. Proponents of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, past and present, have not noticed this difference, but it appears to exist—and it is not altogether surprising on reflection. For secondary qualities have been manufactured biologically as a tool of survival, so they are likely to have conative significance; but primary qualities exist in the world anyway, whether relevant to organisms or not. They might be relevant to survival, adventitiously so, but they are not guaranteed to be, unlike secondary qualities. The absolute conception is not emotionally imbued, save per accidens.

One can envisage an extreme reaction to this point, namely that secondary qualities are emotions, projected outward. To be red, say, is to be imbued with passion. That would be pretty crazy, to be sure, but it brings out an interesting point: perceptive and emotive theories are not necessarily opposed. In ethics people have discussed whether moral qualities are perceived or are merely reifications of our emotions: but they can be both. Maybe we perceive moral qualities and at the same time, inextricably, feel certain things (a rush of approbation, a surge of indignation). If perception is essentially emotional, it won’t be surprising to find that moral perception has a characteristic type of affect associated with it. And it is surely true that moral impressions (for want of a better term) are heavily emotion-laden, as well as motivating—which is what we would expect if they are perceptual in nature. It might even lend support to the idea that moral qualities are manufactured by the mind and projected outwards, not found among the objective features of the world, though perceived there. The indicated theory might thus be labeled “perceptive emotivism” or “emotive perceptivism”. This seems like a pleasant resolution of an old dispute.

It must be admitted that the connection between perception and emotion is far from pellucid. Why particular colors have they associations they do is puzzling and not at all self-evident; and it is not plausible that we are somehow taught to make these associations. Clearly that is not so for taste and smell. The mind is so configured that the senses and the emotions are coupled to each other in multiple and complex ways. Nerve fibers spanning cortical regions must be the basis for this, and these neural connections must have been established somehow. Why is the Blues called “the blues”? Why are we said to “see red”? Why are cowards described as “yellow” and novices as “greenhorns”? But some semblance of intelligibility arises from the observation that the sensory qualities with pronounced emotional meaning are mental projections—they come from the same place that emotions come from. Emotions are not objective qualities of external things—potential subject matter for physics—but neither are secondary qualities. The perceived world and the emotional world are inextricably intertwined, both having their origin in the subject. The objective world of primary qualities, by contrast, is emotionally neutral and not a mental projection. It has nothing intrinsically to do with the needs of perceiving organisms.[1]


[1] It is good for organisms to have accurate perceptions of primary qualities, but the qualities themselves are not reflections of the organism’s own nature—hence the lack of emotional punch. Subjective qualities, by contrast, are bound up with the inner life of the organism. It is as if they are emotions distilled and objectified.

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