Mixed feelings

Is the character of our experience purely a function of our attention and, if so, what determines it? Can we experience a mood subconsciously and what would that mean? My friend Scott brought up an example of someone who appeared happy from external physical cues but was surprised to hear that when asked about it. What is going on there? It seems like some part of our mind may be reacting to physiological stimulus yielding behavior that we pattern match to specific emotions, while another part of our mind may be experiencing something else entirely. It is unclear whether attention is rapidly moving back and forth between these experiences of a different character or whether our “background” mood is somehow “coloring” our attention-moderated foreground experiences — perhaps these are two ways of saying the same thing.

When a background emotion is aversive, such as sadness or grief, we often find ourselves seeking to drown it out with a positive stimulus — the proverbial sad person eating ice cream on the couch. Alternatively, you can have different “processes” within the mind fighting over large physical movement rather than merely internally experienced qualia (small movement). A poker player in an intense hand will be physically displaying a mixture of excitement/fear driven by his primal emotional response to the expected win or loss — anything from an elevated heart rate to a nervous tic and vocal changes. At the same time, his reasoning process will be trying to command attention towards trying to counteract these emotional signals — it predicts them to be self-defeating. The subjective experience is one of a battle for stabilizing attention — a feeling of tension or contradiction.


Also published on Medium.

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