Pavlovian sadness: a weird morning of somatic feedback

12 06 2016

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 12.25.05 PMOne hypothesis about emotion is that our subjective affective feelings are reactions to the way our bodies respond to positive and negative stimuli (the ‘somatic feedback’ idea). Thus the feeling of fear is a response to the physiological reaction induced by, say, seeing a letter from the taxman.

Now, most data don’t fully support this, backing instead the more intuitive view that feelings correlate with (or even cause) bodily responses – they don’t just arise from them. Nevertheless, there is still evidence that we do learn to have conditioned emotional responses when we experience bodily changes long linked with positive or negative states, and I had that happen to me today. Last night, thinking I was getting ‘pink-eye’, I dosed myself with antibiotic eyedrops — to which I immediately had a violent reaction, going from just mildly pink eyes to tomato red, painfully sore ones. I blinked and blinked, and flushed them out with saline, finally feeling OK enough to sleep. Predictably I woke up with puffy eyes this morning. And here’s the thing: I’ve spent all day feeling sad and craving cups of tea, just as if I’d been crying. It’s just fascinating how powerfully pervasive it is, even though intellectually I know full well what’s going on!

OK, time for more tea…