The goal of this chapter is to understand emotion as a fundamental aspect of a more general information-processing system. Many accounts of information-processing structures, mechanisms, and functions have depicted the human organism as a cold, calculating chunk of hardware; indeed, the common analogy has been to a computer (Dodge, 1986; Simon, 1967). In this chapter, however, I propose that this analogy ignores the varying arousal states of the organism and fails to embed the cognitive activities of the organism in an individual ecology that includes arousal regulation, goal construction, affective experience, and discrete emotional expression. The human information processor is an interactive part of his or her environment, experiencing and transforming stimulus information as well as receptively processing it. My thesis does not posit a separate emotional system that is distinct from the information-processing system (such as Zajonc, 1980, argued). Likewise, I do not believe that some information-processing is emotionally laden and other processing is nonemotional. Rather, borrowing from Piaget (1962, 1973) and Cowan (1978, 1982), I propose that all information processing is emotional, in that emotion is the energy level that drives, organizes, amplifies, and attenuates cognitive activity and in turn is the experience and expression of this activity. There is no such act that is nonemotional; rather, emotion is a descriptor of experience and processing activity (such as “anxious” vigilance or “detached” problem solving).
Even though emotion cannot be divorced from the information-processing system, we commonly refer to aspects of emotion as separate from other aspects of information-processing, such as the feelings we experience in response to the perception of events (e.g., feeling afraid of the dark) and the effects of emotion on attention (e.g., being distracted by anxiety related to an upcoming exam).