Valuing what happens: a biogenic approach to valence and (potentially) affect

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2021 Mar 15;376(1820):20190752. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2019.0752. Epub 2021 Jan 25.


Valence is half of the pair of properties that constitute core affect, the foundation of emotion. But what is valence, and where is it found in the natural world? Currently, this question cannot be answered. The idea that emotion is the body's way of driving the organism to secure its survival, thriving and reproduction runs like a leitmotif from the pathfinding work of Antonio Damasio through four book-length neuroscientific accounts of emotion recently published by the field's leading practitioners. Yet while Damasio concluded 20 years ago that the homeostasis-affect linkage is rooted in unicellular life, no agreement exists about whether even non-human animals with brains experience emotions. Simple neural animals-those less brainy than bees, fruit flies and other charismatic invertebrates-are not even on the radar of contemporary affective research, to say nothing of aneural organisms. This near-sightedness has effectively denied the most productive method available for getting a grip on highly complex biological processes to a scientific domain whose importance for understanding biological decision-making cannot be underestimated. Valence arguably is the fulcrum around which the dance of life revolves. Without the ability to discriminate advantage from harm, life very quickly comes to an end. In this paper, we review the concept of valence, where it came from, the work it does in current leading theories of emotion, and some of the odd features revealed via experiment. We present a biologically grounded framework for investigating valence in any organism and sketch a preliminary pathway to a computational model. This article is part of the theme issue 'Basal cognition: conceptual tools and the view from the single cell'.

Keywords: Bacillus subtilis; biogenic approach; computational models; core affect; theories of emotion; valence.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Cognition*
  • Eukaryotic Cells / physiology*
  • Prokaryotic Cells / physiology*