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Are emotional states based in the brain? A critique of affective brainocentrism from a physiological perspective

  • Colombetti, Giovanna1
  • Zavala, Eder2, 3, 4, 5
  • 1 University of Exeter, Department of Sociology, Philosophy, and Anthropology, Exeter, EX4 4RJ, UK , Exeter (United Kingdom)
  • 2 University of Exeter, Living Systems Institute, Exeter, EX4 4QD, UK , Exeter (United Kingdom)
  • 3 University of Exeter, EPSRC Centre for Predictive Modelling in Healthcare, Exeter, EX4 4QD, UK , Exeter (United Kingdom)
  • 4 University of Exeter, Wellcome Trust Centre for Biomedical Modelling and Analysis, Exeter, EX4 4QD, UK , Exeter (United Kingdom)
  • 5 University of Exeter, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Exeter, EX4 4QD, UK , Exeter (United Kingdom)
Published Article
Biology & Philosophy
Springer Netherlands
Publication Date
Aug 21, 2019
DOI: 10.1007/s10539-019-9699-6
Springer Nature


We call affective brainocentrism the tendency to privilege the brain over other parts of the organism when defining or explaining emotions. We distinguish two versions of this tendency. According to brain-sufficient, emotional states are entirely realized by brain processes. According to brain-master, emotional states are realized by both brain and bodily processes, but the latter are entirely driven by the brain: the brain is the master regulator of bodily processes. We argue that both these claims are problematic, and we draw on physiological accounts of stress to make our main case. These accounts illustrate the existence of complex interactions between the brain and endocrine systems, the immune system, the enteric nervous system, and even gut microbiota. We argue that, because of these complex brain–body interactions, the brain cannot be isolated and identified as the basis of stress. We also mention recent evidence suggesting that complex brain–body interactions characterize the physiology of depression and anxiety. Finally, we call for an alternative dynamical, systemic, and embodied approach to the study of the physiology of emotions that does not privilege the brain, but rather aims at understanding how mutually regulating brain and bodily processes jointly realize a variety of emotional states.

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