The Head Trip; consciousness and affect

I’ve been reading Jeff Warren’s The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness, basically on the recommendation of Erik Davis. It’s a good pop-science-cum-therapy book, which explores basic modes of conscious experience, both nocturnal and diurnal, and combines accounts of what scientific researchers and therapists are actually doing with a narrative of Warren’s own subjective experiences with such modes of consciousness-alteration as lucid dreaming, hypnotic trances, meditation, neurofeedback, and so on. Warren maps out a whole series of conscious states (including ones during sleep), and suggests that consciousness in general (to the extent that there is such a thing “in general”) is really a continuum, a mixture of different sorts of mental activity, and different degrees of attentiveness, including those at work during sleep. These various sorts of conscious experience can be correlated with (but not necessarily reduced to) various types of brain activity (both the electric activity monitored by EEGs and the chemical activity of various neurotransmitters; all this involves both particular “modules” or areas of the brain, and systematic patterns running through the entire brain and nervous system).

The Head Trip is both an amiable and an illuminating book, and I really can’t better Erik Davis’ account of it, which I encourage you to read. Erik calls Jeff Warren “an experiential pragmatist in the William Jamesian mode,” which is both high praise and a fairly accurate description. Warren follows James in that he insists upon conscious self-observation, and looks basically at what James was the first to call the “stream of consciousness.” Like James, Warren insists upon the pragmatic aspect of such self-observation (what our minds can do, both observing and being observed, in all its messy complexity), rather than trying to isolate supposedly “pure” states of attention and intention the way that the phenomenologists do.

At one point, Warren cites Rodolfo Llinas and D. Pare, who argue that consciousness is not, as James claimed, “basically a by-product of sensory input, a tumbling ‘stream’ of point-to-point representations,” because it is ultimately more about “the generation of internal states” than about responding to stimuli (p. 138). But this revised understanding of the brain and mind does not really contradict James’ overall pragmatic style, nor his doctrine of “radical empiricism.” James’ most crucial point is to insist that everything within “experience” has its own proper reality (as opposed to the persistent dualism that distinguishes between “things” and “representations” of those things). Not the least of Warren’s accomplishments is that he is able to situate recent develops in neurobiological research within an overall Jamesian framework, as opposed to the reductive dogmas of cognitivism and neural reductionism.

Nonetheless, what I want to do here is not talk about Warren’s book, but rather speculate about what isn’t in the book: which is any account of emotion or of affect. Shouldn’t we find it surprising that in a book dedicated to consciousness in all its richness and variety, there is almost nothing about fear, or anger, or joy, or shame, or pride? (There’s also nothing about desire or passion or lust or erotic obsession: I am not sure that these can rightly be called “emotions,” but they also aren’t encompassed within what Warren calls “the wheel of consciousness”). There are some mentions of a sense of relaxation, in certain mental states; and of feeling a sort of heightened intensity, and even triumph, when Warren has a sort of breakthrough (as when he finally succeeds in having a lucid dream, or when his neurofeedback sessions are going well). Correlatively, there are also mentions of frustration (as when these practices don’t go well — when he cannot get the neurofeedback to work right, for instance). But that’s about it, as far as the emotions are concerned.

The one passage where Warren even mentions the emotions (and where he briefly cites the recent work on emotions by neurobiologists like Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux) is in the middle of a discussion of meditation (pp. 309ff.). The point of this passage is basically to discuss the difference between how Western rationalism has just tried to repress (in a Freudian sense) the emotions, whereas the Buddhist tradition has instead tried to “cultivate” them (by which he seems to mean something like what Freud called “sublimation”). Warren oddly equates any assertion of the power of the emotions with evolutionary psychiatry’s doctrine that we are driven (or “hardwired”) by instincts that evolved during the Pleistocene. The existence of neuroplasticity (as recognized by contemporary neurobiologists) effectively refutes the claims of the evolutionary psychologists — this is something that I am entirely agree with Warren about. But Warren seems thereby to assert, as a corollary, that emotions basically do not matter to the mind (or to consciousness) at all — and this claim I find exceedingly bizarre. Warren seems to be saying that Buddhist meditation (and perhaps other technologies, like neurofeedback, as well) can indeed, as it claims, dispose of any problems with the emotions, because it effectively does “rewire” our brains and nervous systems.

What is going on here? I have said that I welcome the way that Warren rejects cognitivism, taking in its place a Jamesian stance that refuses to reject any aspect of experience. I find it salubrious, as well, that Warren gives full scope to neurobiological explanations in terms of chemical and electronic processes in the brain, without thereby accepting a Churchland-style reductionism that rejects mentalism or any other sort of explanatory language. Warren thus rightly resists what Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.” Nonetheless, when it comes to affect or emotion, some sort of limit is reached. The language that would describe consciousness from the “inside” is admitted, but the language that would express affective experience is not. I think that this is less a particular failing or blind spot on Warren’s part, than it is a (socially) symptomatic omission. Simply by omitting what does not seem to him to be important, Warren inadvertently testifies to how little a role affect or emotion plays in the accounts we give of ourselves today, accounts both of how our minds work (the scientific dimension) and of how we conceive ourselves to be conscious (the subjective-pragmatic dimension).

Some modes of consciousness are more expansive (or, to the contrary, more sharply focused) than others; some are more clear and distinct than others; some are more bound up with logical precision, while others give freer reign to imaginative leaps and to insights that break away from our ingrained habits of association. But in Warren’s account, none of these modes seem to be modulated by different affective tones, and none of them seem to be pushed by any sort of desire, passion, or obsession. Affects and desires would seem to be, for Warren, nothing more than genetically determined programs inherited from our reptilian ancestors (and exaggerated in importance by the likes of Steven Pinker) which our consciousness largely allows us to transcend.

Another way to put this is to say that Warren writes as if we could separate the states (or formal structures) of attentiveness, awareness, relaxation, concern, focus, self-reflection, and so on, from the contents that inhabit these states or structures. This is more or less equivalent to the idea — common in old-style AI research — that we can separate syntactics from semantics, and simply ignore the latter. Such a separation has never worked out in practice: it has entirely failed in AI research and elsewhere. And we may well say that this separation is absurd and impossible in principle. Yet we make this kind of separation implicitly, and nearly all the time; it strikes us as almost axiomatic. We may well be conscious of “having” certain emotions; but we cannot help conceiving how we have these emotions as something entirely separate from the emotions themselves.

It may be that consciousness studies and affect studies are too different as approaches to the mind (or, as I’d rather say, to experience) to be integrated at all easily). Indeed, in this discussion I have simply elided the difference between “affect” and “emotion”: the terms are sometimes used more or less interchangeably, but I think any sort of coherent explanation requires a distinction between the two. Brian Massumi uses “affect” to refer to the pre-personal aspects (both physical and mental) of feelings, the ways that these forces form and impel us; he reserves “emotion” to designate feelings to the extent that we experience them as already-constituted conscious selves or subjects. By this account, affects are the grounds of conscious experience, even though they may not themselves be conscious. Crucial here is James’ sense of how what he calls “emotions” are visceral before they are mental: my stomach doesn’t start churning because I feel afraid; rather, I feel afraid because my stomach has started churning (as a pre-conscious reaction to some encounter with the outside world, or to some internally generated apprehension). The affect is an overall neurological and bodily experience; the emotion is secondary, a result of my becoming-conscious of the affect, or focusing on it self-reflexively. This means that my affective or mental life is not centered upon consciousness; although it gives a different account of non-conscious mental life than either psychoanalysis (which sees it in terms of basic sexual drives) or cognitive theory (which sees non-conscious activity only as “computation”).

There’s more to the affect/emotion distinction than James’ account; one would want to bring in, as well, Sylvan Tompkins’ post-Freudian theory of affect, Deleuze’s Spinozian theory of affect, and especially Whitehead’s “doctrine of feelings.” Rather than go through all of that here, I will conclude by saying that, different as the field of consciousness studies (as described by Jeff Warren) is from cognitivism, they both ultimately share a sense of the individual as a sort of calculating (or better, computational) entity that uses the information available to it in order to maximize its own utility, or success, or something like that. Such an account — which is also, as it happens, the basic assumption of our current neoliberal moment — updates the 18th century idea of the human being as Homo economicus into an idea of the human being as something like Homo cyberneticus or Homo computationalis. For Warren, this is all embedded in the idea that, on the one hand, our minds are self-organizing systems, and parts of larger self-organizing systems; and on the other hand, that “we can learn to direct our own states of consciousness” (p. 326). Metaphysically speaking, we are directed by the feedback processes of an Invisible Hand; instrumentally speaking, however, we can intervene in these feedback processes, and manipulate the Hand that is manipulating us. The grounds for our decision to do this — to intervene in our own behalf — are themselves recursively generated in the course of the very processes in which we determine to intervene. The argument is circular; but, as with cybernetics, the circularity is not vicious so long as we find ourselves always-already within it. This is in many ways an enticing picture: if only because it is the default assumption that we cannot help starting out with. And Jeff Warren gives an admirably humane and expansive version of it. Still, I think we need to spend more time asking what such a picture leaves out. And for me, affect theory is a way to begin this process.

One thought on “The Head Trip; consciousness and affect”

  1. Thanks for this very informative review, which motivated me to go out and buy and read the book. I’d agree that more on affect needs to be included in order to make what’s otherwise a fun and educational read more satisfying – I was thinking that to some extent it’s Warren’s evident amiableness and good humor that was getting in the way of a more dynamic picture of the emotions, but as you indicate it may be a more socially symptomatic omission instead.

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