On Emotion

by Dorian Minors

July 31, 2020

Analects  |  Newsletter


Emotion is an impossible term to define. Seems important though, so let’s try anyway.

Historically, emotion has been viewed as the enemy of reason. Emotions make us act without thinking. Plato described emotion and reason as the horses that pull us in two directions. The biblical prophet Isaiah encouraged us to come together and reason, rather than act without thinking. A crime of passion was once a legitimate excuse for murder. Characters in literature are often overcome with emotion as a motivation for strange, plot-driving behaviour. Even modern approaches to therapy often position emotion as the enemy of rational wellbeing.

Emotions as social signals

There are other ways to think about emotion though. Darwin (1872; also Alfred Russell Wallace) introduced evolutionary theory into the scientific consciousness. Since then, it’s been necessary to think of organisms against a background of organic evolution and to consider both their structure and function in terms of variation, selection, and reproduction (i.e. fitness).

Traits that make us more successful at reproducing are traits that get passed on. These traits arise from genetic variation, are selected for by the environment, and passed on through reproduction. During the course of his work, Darwin noticed that certain expressive movements spanned across both animals and humans. The face of rage, for example, with teeth bared and brows drawn. He thought that perhaps emotions were an evolved feature from less sophisticated animals that conferred survival advantages. For example, baring teeth and snarling intimidates others and submissive expressions ‘switch off’ that aggression.

In the 60’s and 70’s researchers picked up on Darwin’s thread. They were excited about the idea that, if emotions are evolved, there should be some universality to them. Silvan Thompkins, for example, discovered that even blind babies display basic emotions. Paul Ekman’s work took him all over the world, to communities both familiar and remote. His photos of people in even very remote communities demonstrated that some expressions (and their corollary self-report about their emotions) are clearly recognisable across culture, time and in very different contexts.

These findings, and those that built upon them led us to think that perhaps emotions are evolved social signals. Vocal, facial, and bodily expressions that elicit ‘wired’ responses from others.

Emotions as a motivation to act

But of course emotions are more than just signals. We don’t just simply arrange ourselves into signalling shapes. Emotions are experiences. They are feelings, urges, cognitions, physical responses. This, in fact, is something Darwin himself noted in his work On the Origin of Species, “our emotions are so closely connected with their expression that they hardly exist if the body remains passive”.

The most compelling description of emotion comes from the work of George Mandler. His writings are not particularly easy to come by anymore, but his theory of emotion has a hand in much of our research into affect today.

It’s a return to the historical theme of movement and action. Mandler takes his cue from the notion that emotions, as distinct from, say moods, are experienced. As such, they are conscious––the conscious perception of our internal response to some event.

But, we are not preoccupied with every fleeting event that takes place around us, and our internal system is not constantly in turmoil. Only certain events take our notice, and only some of these are capable of generating emotions.

For Mandler, the core question of emotion was then this: what events are worth our emotions?

Humans, like other animals, are bursting with a complex web of automatic behaviour routines. These behavioural routines are fairly automatic. From the mundane action of ascending the stairs, to the more complex morning routine before work, our routines have a pattern of unfolding that varies only slightly.

For Mandler, emotions were only likely to be generated when these automatic routines were interrupted. When we misstep on the stairs, or find no milk for our cereal, it is here that the emotion is likely to arise.

This is perhaps, not quite groundbreaking. Mandler himself notes that he follows the thinking of philosophers at least back to the 18th Century in this regard. Mandler’s specific contribution is that the emotion comes in two stages: first we feel the interruption. A visceral response of the autonomous nervous system. But then, the feeling is shaped by the context surrounding the interruption. The knife on the television screen is a very different threat than the knife on the street in the dark.

The role of the emotion, for Mandler, is to troubleshoot the interruption, and return to normal functioning. To make our routines whole again.

This very simple explanation helps us understand many seemingly complicated aspects of emotion. For example, why we feel hateful or hurt instead of anger. Or many of the perplexing features of our interpersonal relationships.

Emotions in dysfunction

But perhaps most interestingly, it helps us understand why sometimes our emotions sometimes run rampant. While clinicians typically use a questionable patchwork of models to diagnose mental health issues, Mandler’s interruption theory helps us to understand that, sometimes, out-of-control emotions are uncomplicated. When events interrupt us with great force or persistance, the emotion that follows will be equally impactful. This is not so much ‘out-of-control’ as it is a reasonable response to overwhelming pressure.

Equally, certain patterns of responding may become part of our routines. If we learn, for example, that we have no control over our interruptions, there’s a chance we might just learn to accept the negative emotions that arise as a part of life. We might just routinise negative patterns of responding, and add these to our other behavioural routines.

The origin of our routines are the origin of our emotions

These complex webs of automatic routines that govern our behaviour is a fundamental attribute of living creatures. Predictable events in the world drive predictable responses. But also, the way the world responds to us shapes how we behave. Learning routines, at the core, is about learning the consequences of the world. To know which consequences are important, we must have some kind of impulse or impulses that inform us of what we should consider important.

Consider, for example, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: we might prioritise shelter, food, and safety before things like love and belonging, but we’re fundamentally oriented towards achieving all of these things and so we build our routines accordingly depending upon which needs are deficient and to what extent. We therefore require some method of determining what needs are deficient and when.

Models like Maslow’s are helpful heuristics, but even these over-complicate things somewhat. More simply, certain stimuli or events in the world naturally provide certain opportunities to respond. James Gibson described these affordances as ‘perceived action possibilities’.

These things are easiest to understand at the smallest levels. Bacteria, for example will either wriggle toward nutrients, and away from toxins. Daisies will track the sun across the sky, though vines might follow the shade. Simple worlds provide simple opportunities to respond.

This quality of living creatures is fundamental to life and the reason is obvious. An event (like encountering a nutrient or a toxin) has affective value or ‘valence’–it’s either good or bad. Our bacterial cell, therefore, in a world consisting only of various toxins and nutrients, has only two actions available to it, move toward to nutrients and move away from the toxis. Toward the good, and away from the bad.

The very same motivation drives the daisy to seek out the sun and the ivy to seek the shade. Move toward the good and away from the bad. This is the autopoietic drive that’s built into any system that is successfully capable of reproducing and maintaining itself.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that bacteria and flowers have very simple signalling mechanisms from which they derive their actions.

But, as animals become more complex, the possible good states and possible bad states multiply. So too do the actions available to them to seek out or avoid those states. And perhaps most importantly, so too do the systems or impulses they must develop in order to appraise the goodness and badness of those states. In less sophisticated animals, we call these reflexes and instincts. In humans we call these needs. The need to seek out the good and avoid the bad.

Emotions are very simply, the natural extension of our autopoietic drive.

Autopoiesis determines our goals

Returning again to Mandler, at the core of the interruption model of emotion lies the goal. Our behavioural routines are linked together into chains, designed, consciously or not, to help us achieve our goals. As humans, we have available to us an enormous number of good and bad states that are represented in our goals. A career can help us meet our health and safety needs. A family can help us meet our needs for love and belonging. They might overlap, or be focused. But at our level of complexity, there are almost an infinite number of options to get to some autopoietic endstate. And an enormous number of routines that can be used to achieve them. But at the root of all of this complexity lies the simple concept of autopoiesis: seeking out the good, and avoiding the bad.

And the most important feature of that most basic animal impulse are those ways in which our bodies have prepared themselves to respond to the states of the world.

Nico Frijda’s most recent article, half-finished and published posthumously, takes this perspective to its limit. Frijda has always maintained that emotions are a kind of ‘action readiness’: states of preparedness to respond to the environment. Off the back of Katherine Peil Kauffman’s conception of emotion as a self-regulatory sense, Fridja suggests that emotions are nothing more than the body’s attempt to prepare us to act in a way that will regulate ourselves or our environment.

The notion of action is crucial. To quote myself, “Antonio Damasio…discovered early in the 2000’s that damage to the amygdala left people unable to make decisions. They could describe the courses of action available to them in a given task. They could even identify which actions were more favourable. But they couldn’t pull the trigger. The amygdala is a region crucially involved in the generation of emotions. The idea, according to Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error, is that decisions require emotions.”

And thus, our behaviour is the product of our emotion. And our emotions are simply our body preparing us to respond to an environment that is somehow dysregulated. Impulses that tell us when, and how, to seek out the good and avoid the bad.

The human then, and the environment it is coupled to, are inextricably bound. Emotion is but a very simple mechanism unfolding within a very complex relationship with the world. In this, it sees endless variation. Each new human, and each new history of their coupling with the world will see new patterns of emotion. Many of these will be familiar, because many environments are familiar to us all. But many more will be hidden. From others, but also often from ourselves.

And so, though Peil and Frijda and Damasio take Mandler’s aging interruption theory to new academic peaks, we mustn’t forget Mandler’s crucial addition. We feel the emotion—the visceral, autonomous response. This, any animal experiences. What makes the human emotion so elusive is the point at which we turn that feeling over to the mind. A nest of half-remembered memory traces, complicated wiring, endless biases, and the tenuous notion that this mess is somehow more sensible than the rest of us, when really it is nothing more than an inner reflection of the messiness out there.

The difference, of course, is that at least our minds are subject to no one but ourselves, and no one is better placed to draw the map of it than us. All that’s left to do is set our minds to it.

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