Where is an emotion?
Davey, Steven Andrew
Background. In 1884, William James asked, “What is an emotion?” and stated that it emerges from perception of the body. Well over a century later, contemporary psychology is still split over what constitutes emotion. The contemporary articulation of James’ “embodied” view of emotion centres on “interoception”: sensing one’s physiological condition. Greater interoception has been shown to increase emotional awareness, improve emotion regulation, and is associated with lower suicidality. “Visceroception” (sensing the viscera, including the heart, gut and lungs), is a type of interoception and of core importance in emotion research. However, interoception is in general dominated by “exteroception” (sensing the external world), hence attention to the physiological condition of the body is largely inhibited. Mitigating exteroceptive dominance using visceroception may disinhibit attention to hitherto unsuspected features of emotion. In particular, no previous emotion study has investigated whether comparisons between different forms of visceroception may reveal localised phenomena in a visceral system (i.e., localised emotion). This poses a new question: “Where is an emotion?” Aims. The overarching aim of this thesis is to advance understanding of the localisation of emotion via interoceptive training and how this may relate to emotion regulation, with a view to laying the groundwork for the development of interventions that could pertain to suicidality. The research questions are as follows: (1) Is emotional/affective feeling localised? (2) Can targeted interoception result in indications of localised emotion? (3) Is the unlocalisability of emotional feeling due to inhibition? (4) What implications does access to localised emotion have for emotion regulation in its relationship with suicide prevention? Methods/procedures. A varied methodological approach was taken, involving laboratory-based reaction time tasks, body-mapping, traditional self-report tools, physiological measurements, systematic assessments of the literature, and conceptual analyses. Three groups were compared over two time points with an intervening visceroceptive training period: a gastroception group (visceroception of the gut); a cardioception group (visceroception of the heart); and a control group. Six studies were undertaken: (1) A philosophical/theoretical analysis of the intelligibility of localised emotion; (2) An integrative review of emotional sensations and physiological measurement; (3) A scoping review of alexithymia and suicidality; (4) An emotional spatial cueing task; (5) An emotional stop/signal task; (6) An analysis of self-report measurements of interoception and emotion regulation. Results. The combination of laboratory and self-report tool findings suggested a set of localised phenomena in the gastroception group. These included increased interoception, slowed reaction times on the spatial cueing and stop/signal tasks, coalescence of body map responses in the lower abdominal area, lower emotional reactivity, and signs of increased emotion regulation. This interpretation is presented in the thesis alongside rival interpretations of the findings. Conclusions/implications. In connection with the evidence bases on suicidality and gut physiology, the findings may suggest a promising role for gastroception in improving emotion regulation, and lowering suicide risk. In reframing James’ original question as “Where is an emotion?”, the final suggestion of the thesis is that the gastrointestinal tract may, in a literal sense, be where emotion is.
Advisor: Bell, Elliot; Halberstadt, Jamin
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Psychological Medicine, UOW
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Visceroception; Emotion; William James; Gastroception; Cardioception; Localisation; Interoception
Research Type: Thesis