Consciousness and Fear

Friday, February 28, 2020 - 11:35am

Hakwan Lau, Professor of Psychology (Cognitive & Behavioral Neuroscience) & Brain Research Institute, UCLA

Abstract:  Many animals act like they experience basic emotions such as fear. But here I will give a skeptical argument. This is based in part on what we know about conscious vs unconscious vision in humans. Based on such comparisons we know that specific circuits in the the prefrontal cortex are important for conscious perception. The same seems to be true for the subjective experience of fear. I show that activity in subcortical areas e.g. the amygdala, may represent physiological responses to threatening stimuli, which are not necessarily conscious. Using closed-looped neuroimgaging coupled with machine learning, we can also modulate these responses unconsciously; a clinical trial based on this finding is currently taking place. Taken together, although many animals share similar subcortical/limbic mechanisms with us, to the extent that they may not have a prefrontal cortex as developed as ours, it is unclear whether they experience emotions the same way we do.