Saturday, March 13, 2010

Paul Thagard's "The Brain and the Meaning of Life"

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy, with cross appointment to Psychology and Computer Science, Director of the Cognitive Science Program, and University Research Chair at the University of Waterloo, Canada. His many books include Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science and Hot Thought: Mechanisms and Applications of Emotional Cognition.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Brain and the Meaning of Life, and reported the following:
Page 99 of this book is about emotion, which is a central part of my account of how brain operations generate human needs that can be satisfied by the pursuit of love, work, and play, which therefore constitute the meaning of life. In philosophy and psychology, there have been two main competing theories of emotion. The oldest theory takes an emotion to be a kind of judgment in which people evaluate a situation with respect to how well it accomplishes their goals. Then emotions are cognitive appraisals. A newer, more biological theory takes emotions to be responses to bodily changes such as increases in heart rate, so that emotions are physiological perceptions. I defend an integrated view of how emotions occur in the brain through processes that combine both cognitive appraisal and physiological perception, providing a synthesis of the two previously competing theories.

This view of emotion has many important implications about decision making, wisdom, and the meaning of life. People are sometimes told to be rational, not emotional, but attention to psychological and neurological processes shows that even the best decision making is inherently emotional. Wisdom is knowing what matters, why it matters, and how to achieve it; all these kinds of knowledge are imbued with emotion. My defense of the claim that the meaning of life is love, work, and play is based on psychological studies of people’s activities and values, and also on neural accounts of how the brain’s emotional operations generate needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy. The pursuit of love, work, and play helps to satisfy these needs, which are biological as much as psychological.
Read an excerpt from The Brain and the Meaning of Life, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

Visit Paul Thagard's faculty webpage and blog for Psychology Today.

--Marshal Zeringue