pnas | Emotional states of consciousness, or what are typically called emotional feelings, are traditionally viewed as being innately programmed in subcortical areas of the brain, and are often treated as different from cognitive states of consciousness, such as those related to the perception of external stimuli. We argue that conscious experiences, regardless of their content, arise from one system in the brain. In this view, what differs in emotional and nonemotional states are the kinds of inputs that are processed by a general cortical network of cognition, a network essential for conscious experiences. Although subcortical circuits are not directly responsible for conscious feelings, they provide nonconscious inputs that coalesce with other kinds of neural signals in the cognitive assembly of conscious emotional experiences. In building the case for this proposal, we defend a modified version of what is known as the higher-order theory of consciousness.
Much progress has been made in conceptualizing consciousness in recent years. This work has focused on the question of how we come to be aware of our sensory world, and has suggested that perceptual consciousness emerges via cognitive processing in cortical circuits that assemble conscious experiences in real-time. Emotional states of consciousness, on the other hand, have traditionally been viewed as involving innately programmed experiences that arise from subcortical circuits.
Our thesis is that the brain mechanisms that give rise to conscious emotional feelings are not fundamentally different from those that give rise to perceptual conscious experiences. Both, we propose, involve higher-order representations (HORs) of lower-order information by cortically based general networks of cognition (GNC). Thus, subcortical circuits are not responsible for feelings, but instead provide lower-order, nonconscious inputs that coalesce with other kinds of neural signals in the cognitive assembly of conscious emotional experiences by cortical circuits (the distinction between cortical and subcortical circuits is defined in SI Appendix, Box 1). Our theory goes beyond traditional higher-order theory (HOT), arguing that self-centered higher-order states are essential for emotional experiences.