The Unique Human Capacity for Emotional Awareness: Psychological, Neuroanatomical, Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives

  • Horst Dieter SteklisEmail author
  • Richard D. Lane
Part of the The Science of the Mind book series (The Science of the Mind)


We propose that the ability to be consciously aware of one’s own and others’ emotions is a unique human capacity. Emotion may be divided into implicit (visceromotor and somatomotor) and explicit (conscious feeling and reflective awareness) components. Based on a brain model of implicit and explicit emotional processing and an evolutionary perspective on the frontal lobe and human cognition, it is proposed that human emotion has a visceromotor and somatomotor foundation that is likely shared with other mammals. What may be unique to human cognition is the ability to engage in shared intensions and collaborative activities, which includes a species-unique motivation to share emotions, experiences and activities with other persons. The capacity for shared emotional experiences (knowing that you and the other person are experiencing the same feelings) likely requires mediation by a mentalizing network that includes the medial prefrontal cortex. We review evidence that humans appear to be unique in being able to reflect upon their own emotions, to generate a complex range of differentiated experiences, to appreciate complexity in the emotional experiences of other people, and to intentionally and knowingly share emotional experiences with other people. However, individual differences in this capacity among people are considerable. Although emotional awareness promotes self-regulation and adapative social behavior, impairments in this function can lead to social isolation, mental illness and adverse physical health consequences. We propose that the unique human ability to be emotionally aware requires mediation by the medial prefrontal cortex (BA10), a structure that is far more developed in humans than in other species, but also requires advantageous ontogenetic experiences. Such experiences include a particular type of mentalizing (accurate cognitive empathy) by parents and other caretakers, mediated in part by this same medial prefrontal cortical structure, in order for the full function of this capacity to be realized.


Medial Prefrontal Cortex Autobiographical Memory Conscious Experience Emotional Awareness Cognitive Empathy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We are grateful to Netzin Steklis for her contributions to many stimulating discussions on the topic of emotional awareness in primates, for her thorough reading of the manuscript, and her constructive suggestions for improvement.


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© Springer Japan 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departments of Psychology and Family Studies and Human DevelopmentUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Departments of Psychiatry, Psychology and NeuroscienceUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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