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A related concept to emotional processing is that of emotional awareness. Damasio summarises the construct ” … I believe we can separate having feelings from knowing we have feelings. Feelings only become known when they are made conscious “. (Damasio 2002, p 21, italics in original)
Why not simply operate on an unconscious level?
As human beings, we are aware of our emotions and also aware of the fact that we are aware. It is perplexing how and why this should be so and tempting to ask ‘couldn’t we operate just as successfully without awareness of emotions?’. Damasio (1994), working from an evolutionary perspective, assumes that the existence of consciousness of emotions indicates it confers some benefit over non-conscious emotionality. He suggests that advantages include being able to control emotional responses, to plan ahead, avoid certain situations and make generalisations to similar but unfamiliar situations.
Conceptualisation and measurement
Emotional awareness has been conceptualised in terms of levels of awareness. These levels can be thought of as representing skills that are acquired through a developmental process that is similar to that described by Piaget.
Five levels of emotional awareness posited by Lane & Schwartz (1987):
blends of emotion
blends of blends of emotional experience
The levels of Emotional Awareness Scale
In an attempt to measure emotional awareness, Lane, Quinland, Schwartz & Walker (1990) developed the Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale (LEAS). The scale is a performance measure of the ability to put feelings into words. Twenty hypothetical vignettes or ‘scenes’ are posed that elicit emotional responses of self and others. The responses are scored using specific structural criteria.
Are there neural correlates of emotional awareness?
There is some evidence that a particular part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, appears to be involved in emotional awareness (Lane, Reiman, Axelrod, Yun, Holmes & Schwartz 1998). It has been hypothesised that the rostral anterior cingulate is responsible for phenomenal awareness, whereas the dorsal anterior cingulate is involved in reflective awareness (Lane 2000). The phenomenal experience refers to the direct, primary conscious experience of emotion, such as the conscious experience of seeing the colour red or the direct experience from touching velvet. Reflective awareness is a kind of meta-awareness, or awareness of awareness.
Gestalt Therapy derives from the work of Frederick & Laura Perls formulated in 1951 by Frederick Perls, Ralph Hepperline and Paul Goodman in ‘Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality’. It combines elements of psychoanalysis, existential philosophy and Gestalt psychology. Frederick Perls was a Berlin trained psychoanalyst who in the 30s himself received analysis from Wilheim Reich which directed his attention to the important role of bodily awareness in therapy. Awareness is a central construct of Gestalt Therapy. Perls went so far as to say: “Reality is nothing but the sum of all awareness as you experience it here and now” (Perls 1969).
Gestalt therapy focuses on the patient’s here and now experience rather than trying to understand connections with past events. Awareness is crucial in therapy. This includes not only awareness of emotions but awareness of sensations, thoughts and in particular, the links with bodily feelings. The Gestalt therapist aims to increase the patient’s awareness of current experience using a number of experiential awareness techniques, such as being asked to give troublesome bodily sensations a ‘voice’. Latner (1992) suggests five phases in awareness – contact, sensing, exitement, figure formation and Gestalt wholeness.
Emotional Processing Model
Our model ( LINK TO MODEL ) of the psychological components involved in emotional processing specifies that emotional experiencing involves three elements – awareness of emotions and bodily sensations, labelling emotions and linking the emotional state to causative events. This model was used to inform the selection of items for the emotional processing scale. Although we entered several items on awareness into factor analysis, such as awareness of emotions, feelings and bodily sensations and awareness of negative and positive states, ‘awareness’ did not emerge as a single cohesive factor in the final factor structure. Rather awareness items were spread out amongst three factors denoting core attitudes to emotion (egodystonic, attunement or somatic/external).
Emotional awareness can be thought of as a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful emotional processing to take place. It would therefore be one element in a wider field of emotional processing. It seems reasonable to suggest that the more information one has available about one’s own emotions, the greater the potential becomes for using this information to one’s advantage. However, simply being conscious of emotions is likely to be the beginning and not the end of emotional processing.