Aspects of Cognition v. Emotion

Human beings are expected to make decisions daily, mostly based on moral reasoning. Unlike other species, human beings are faced with moral and ethical challenges that demand logical and moral reasoning. People make different decisions in similar circumstances, an issue that has been a debate for many years. The question has been whether the cognitive functions solely determine logical reasoning or whether emotions are a crucial part of the moral cognitive process. The interdependence of emotion and cognition has been a subject of debate since two centuries ago when Aristotle claimed that cognition is a critical part of emotions implying that the two are interdependent. Many scholars have attempted to unravel the connection between cognition and emotion, looking at which comes before the other. Some claim that cognition is superior to emotion, while others hold the opposite opinion. In all instances, the cognition v. emotion debate is a continuous elaboration on the functional roles of each and the intricate connections between them.

Cognition can be described as how people think and the influence it has on their actions. For many years, people have believed that cognition is responsible for rationality and that people reason, solve problems, and draw from their memories all because of their cognitive abilities. Proponents of cognitive theories argue that, unlike emotions, the brain processes information based on facts and conscious actions (Bellmund et al. 676). Now that cognitive abilities are said to control much of human reasoning and actions, does that imply that it is superior to emotion? Can a person’s moral judgment and behavior be judged merely on cognitive abilities, or is there an interconnection between emotions and cognition?

In reference to the above questions, the study of neural mechanisms explains that different parts of the brain are responsible for different emotions. For instance, the Amygdala and fear emotions have been cited as an example that illustrates how emotions are controlled by certain parts of the brain in contrast to others(Fox and Shackman 60_. For this reason, it would be logical to argue that human emotions and cognition are two different parts. Also, it can be shown that the brain controls most human emotions. For example, people fear something based on what they already know about it. This implies that memory comes first to affect how people perceive things and consequently affect how they emotionally react.

Some scholars have looked at the relationship between emotions and reality and concluded that emotions should always be preceded by rational and conscious thinking. This is because all emotions do, is tell you that something evokes some feeling in you but does little to identify the cause of the feeling, whose origin is the brain (Li et al. 2). This points to the need for introspection, a deep understanding of a person’s inner states, which only relies on the cognitive functions s opposed to emotions. For decades, this reason has been applied in propagating the theory that emotions should be overlooked whenever a person needs to make a logical reason or an important moral decision. Emotions do not always reflect the proper response to facts known in reality, an argument that further proves the theory that cognition superseded emotion.

Many scholars and philosophers who subscribe to the naturalistic theories hold that cognitive abilities are modern as opposed to emotions, providing flexibility on approaching any new challenges. In contrast, emotional responses are believed to be primitive, prompting conditioned responses that offer no adjustment or flexible approaches to diverse circumstances (Finn et al. 116828). The lack of modification on emotional responses has been described as a major drawback, especially in today’s fast-paced environment that requires dynamic responses to different instances. Since emotions are conditioned and unmodified, they are most likely to mislead a person when they need to make fast and logical decisions and quick moral judgments.

Modern scholars who rely on neuroscientific evidence and less naturalistic claims believe that emotions play a crucial role in cognition, without which human beings would not behave logically. Emotional processing is believed to be a central part of cognition which is controlled by brain parts such as the insula, ventral striatum, ventral medial prefrontal cortex, and amygdala. These structures contribute significantly to moral reasoning and decision-making. This necessitates some questions to be asked in response to the superiority of emotion over cognition. Is it possible to replace these emotional processing structures with purely cognitive ones? If so, would it be possible for humans to behave reasonably and make better moral judgments?

Scientists have discovered that the human brain parts and functions are not as simplistic as those of other species. Cognitive neuroscientists have established that the prefrontal cortex, which is predominantly involved in cognitive functions, is connected to the limbic system (Dolcos et al. 580). One evidence given to show the interconnection between cognition and emotion is the influence of feelings on attention and memory. The level of concentration an individual gives to a concept depends highly on the feelings they have towards the speaker. In schools, emotions play a crucial role in student’s subject understanding and retention capacity. In addition, the emotional state of an individual determines how much they can keep in their memories, further proving that emotions a crucial in cognition and that without these responses, logical reasoning may not be possible.

Scientific evidence backed up by empirical studies, and fMRI results show that emotion and cognition interact in the insula and the lateral prefrontal cortex to a large degree. According to the study conducted by Song et al. (2), cognitive-emotion conflict handling proves that emotional interference hinders cognitive conflict handling. This limits the effectiveness of conflict resolution through moral judgment and logical reasoning. In their test, Song et al. (2) conducted an ALE (Activation Likelihood Estimate) analysis using 330 participants in 16 studies on neuroimaging. In their study, they defined cognitive conflict as the distraction of cognitive control through the introduction of potent distractors, in this case, emotional responses. Their results showed that there is a connection between emotional stimuli and cognitive responses. This shows that emictions can not be removed from human cognitive abilities as this would severely hinder moral judgment and logical reasoning. Since emotional interference is unavoidable in daily routines, it follows that both emotions and cognitive functions must work together.

Contrary to the theory that emotions should be disregarded in decision-making, research has shown that beliefs based on emotions can overshadow facts and have significant consequences on individuals’ health and psychological wellbeing. According to Ford and Gross (76), chronic emotional responses are controlled by beliefs that are engraved in people’s brains and the memories retained therein. This also hints that there is a connection between facts and beliefs and that both influence human responses to diverse situations. Essentially psychological health is determined by both emotional and cognitive responses, further showing that the two are connected and that separating emotions from cognition is practically impossible. Moral cognition is also believed to be the basis of social behavior, which also depends on moral emotions (Baez et al. 175). Thus said, the question on the superiority of emotions over cognition has been answered, showing that cognitive abilities depend on emotions.

In conclusion, human beings are complex, with their behaviors and social cognition being different from those of other species. For nearly two centuries, people have relied on the naturalistic theories that propose the dominance of cognition over emotions. In many cases, humans have ignored their emotions in times when they felt that considering them would be a distraction. However, research has shown that emotions and cognition work together to reinforce moral reasoning in human beings. From the evidence shown on the functioning of the insula and the lateral prefrontal cortex, it is clear that emotions ignite certain cognitive responses. It has also been shown that emotions have a significant impact on concentration, memory retention, and psychological health. A combination of these issues reveals that contrary to earlier theorists who believed in the existence of separate, distinct functionalities, cognition and emotions work together. The debate on whether the two are separate and which one is superior has been ongoing for decades. Although scholars and philosophers have attempted to explain the connection in many diverse ways, neuroscience has given the answer revealing that the two are connected and that in human beings, it would practically be impossible to separate one from the other.


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Song, Sensen et al. “The Influence Of Emotional Interference On Cognitive Control: A Meta-Analysis Of Neuroimaging Studies Using The Emotional Stroop Task”. Scientific Reports, vol 7, no. 1, 2017. Springer Science And Business Media LLC. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. "Aspects of Cognition v. Emotion." September 5, 2023.