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FEELING TOO MUCH? THE EMPATH’S SURVIVAL GUIDE, the Healing Power of Empathy – Judith Orloff M.D.

The power of empathy & intuition will open your heart and empower your life.

Empathy doesn’t make you a sentimental softy without discernment. It allows you to keep your heart open to foster tolerance and understanding. Empathy is the medicine the world needs right now.

Research suggests that empaths may have a hyperactive mirror neuron system in their brains. These are the cells responsible for compassion. Empaths are people who rank high on the empathic spectrum and actually feel what is happening in others in their own bodies.

Empaths share a highly sensitive person’s love of nature and quiet environments. However, an empath’s capacity for highly developed intuition and their tendency to be an emotional sponge who absorbs the stress of the world sets them apart from someone who is sensitive to excessive sensory stimulation.

Empaths can experience deep compassion for others, but they often get exhausted from feeling “too much”.

Empathy is the game changer. It is the trait that will ultimately save the world.

As a psychiatrist and an empath, I am fascinated by how the phenomenon of empathy works. I feel passionately that empathy is the medicine the world needs right now.

Empathy is when we reach our hearts out to others and put ourselves in their shoes. It also means that we can be happy for others during their times of joy. The Dalai Lama says, “Empathy is the most precious human quality.”

During these stressful times, personally and globally, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Even so, empathy is the quality that will get us through. It enables us to respect one another, even if we disagree. Empathy doesn’t make you a sentimental softy without discernment. It allows you to keep your heart open to foster tolerance and understanding. Being empathic might not always be effective in getting through to people but I think it’s the best chance we have for peace in our own lives and on the planet.

. . . Psychology Today

Judith Orloff, MD, is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA

“Our innate capacity for empathy is the source of the most precious of all human qualities.” His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

The Empath’s Survival Guide. Life Strategies for Sensitive People

Judith Orloff M.D


Chapter 1

ARE YOU AN EMPATH?

Introduction to Empathy

I’m a physician with fourteen years of conventional medical training at USC and UCLA. I am also an empath. In my medical practice of over two decades, I specialize in treating highly sensitive people like myself. Though there is a spectrum of sensitivity that exists in human beings, empaths are emotional sponges who absorb both the stress and joy of the world. We feel everything, often to an extreme, and have little guard up between others and ourselves. As a result, we are often overwhelmed by excessive stimulation and are prone to exhaustion and sensory overload.

I’m so passionate about this topic both professionally and personally because I’ve had to develop specific strategies to manage the challenges of being an empath myself. These allow me to protect my sensitivities so I can maximize their benefits, and there are so many!

I want to share with you how to become a balanced, empowered, and happy empath. To thrive, you must learn ways to avoid taking on the energy, symptoms, and stress of others. I also want to educate your loved ones and peers family, coworkers, bosses, parents, and romantic partners on how best to support and communicate with you. In this book, I will show you how to accomplish these goals.

I offer The Empath’s Survival Guide as a resource for kindred sensitive souls to find understanding and acceptance in a world that is often coarse, heartless, and disdainful of sensitivity. In it, I challenge the status quo and create a new normal for how to view sensitivity, wherever you are on the spectrum.

There is nothing “wrong” with being sensitive. In fact, you are about to discover what’s most “right” about yourself. Through this book, its companion audio program, Essential Tools for Empaths, and my workshops for empaths, I want to create a community of support so that you can find your tribe, be authentic, and shine. I want to support a movement of peopIe who honor their sensitivities. Welcome to a circle of love! My message to you is one of hope and acceptance. I encourage you to embrace your gifts and manifest your full power on the empath journey.

WHAT IS AN EMPATH?

Empaths have an extremely reactive neurological system. We don’t have the same filters that other people do to block out stimulation. As a consequence, we absorb into our own bodies both the positive and stressful energies around us. We are so sensitive that it’s like holding something in a hand that has fifty fingers instead of five. We are truly “super responders.”

Research shows that high sensitivity affects approximately 20 percent of the population, though the degree of one’s sensitivity can vary. Empaths have often been labeled as “overly sensitive” and told to “get a thicker skin.” As children and adults, we are shamed for our sensitivities rather than supported. We may experience chronic exhaustion and want to retreat from the world because it often feels so overwhelming. But at this point in my life, I wouldn’t give up being an empath for anything. It lets me sense the secrets of the universe and know passion beyond my wildest dreams.

However, my empathic abilities haven’t always felt this incredible to me.

GROWING UP AS AN EMPATH

Like many empathic children, I never fit in. In fact, I felt like an alien on earth waiting to be transported to my real home in the stars. I remember sitting in my front yard looking up at the universe and hoping that a spaceship would take me home. I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time by myself. I had no one to relate to who could understand my sensitivities. No one seemed to be like me. My parents, who were both physicians, I come from a family of twenty-five physicians said, “Sweetheart, toughen up and get a thicker skin,” which I didn’t want or even know how to do. I couldn’t go to crowded malls or parties. I’d walk in feeling fine and walk out exhausted, dizzy, anxious, or suffering from some ache or pain I didn’t have before.

What I didn’t know back then was that everyone has a subtle energy field surrounding their body, a subtle radiant light that penetrates and extends beyond it a distance of inches or even feet. These fields communicate information such as emotions and physical wellbeing or distress. When we are in crowded places, the energy fields of others overlap with ours. I picked up all of these intense sensations, but I had absolutely no idea what they were or how to interpret them. I just felt anxious and tired in crowds. And most of all, I wanted to escape.

As a teenager in Los Angeles, I got heavily involved with drugs to block out my sensitivities. (I’m not recommending this to you!) Then, with my sensitivities numbed, I could cope. I was able to attend parties and hang out at shopping malls, just like my friends, and would feel fine. What a relief that was! In my memoir, Second Sight, I wrote about how I turned to drugs to shut off my intuition and empathic abilities. But after a near-tragic car accident, during which I went over a 1,500-foot cliff in Topanga Canyon at three in the morning in an Austin Mini Cooper, my parents were scared to death and sent me to a psychiatrist.

Naturally, I fought my psychiatrist the whole way. But, in fact, this angel in human form was the first person to help me realize that to become whole I had to embrace my sensitivities, not run from them. This was the start of my healing and self-acceptance as an empath. Since I was so frightened by my childhood empathic and intuitive experiences, part of my evolution as a physician and a woman has been to learn to embrace these abilities. They are precious and deserve to be nurtured and supported. That’s why I specialize in helping empaths in my psychiatric practice and workshops.

IF YOU FEEL AS IF YOU DON’T FIT INTO THIS WORLD, IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE HERE TO CREATE A BETTER ONE. Author Unknown

Yes, we empaths can flourish! Empathy is the medicine the world needs.

THE EMPATH EXPERIENCE

Now let’s explore in more detail the empath experience. See if you relate personally or have a loved one or colleague who qualifies as an empath.

First, what is the difference between ordinary empathy and being an empath? Ordinary empathy means our heart goes out to another person when they are going through a difficult period. It also means that we can be happy for others during their times of joy.

As an empath, however, we actually sense other people’s emotions, energy, and physical symptoms in our bodies, without the usual filters that most people have. We can experience other people’s sorrow and also their joy. We are supersensitive to their tone of voice and body movements. We can hear what they don’t say in words but communicate nonverbally and through silence.

Empaths feel things first, then think, which is the opposite of how most people function in our overintellectualized society. There is no membrane that separates us from the world. This makes us very different from other people who have had their defenses up almost from the time they were born.

Empaths share some or all of the traits of what psychologist Elaine Aron calls Highly Sensitive People, or HSPs. These traits include a low threshold for stimulation, the need for alone time, sensitivity to light, sound, and smell, plus an aversion to large groups. In addition, it takes highly sensitive people longer to wind down after a busy day because their system’s ability to transition from high stimulation to quiet and calm is slower. Empaths also share a highly sensitive person’s love of nature and quiet environments.

Empaths, however, take the experience of the highly sensitive person further. We can sense subtle energy, which is called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions, and we absorb this energy into our own bodies. Highly sensitive people don’t typically do that. This capacity allows us to experience the energies around us in extremely deep ways. Since everything is made of subtle energy, including emotions and physical sensations, we energetically internalize the feelings, pain, and various physical sensations of others. We often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from our own. Also, some empaths have profound spiritual and intuitive experiences, which aren’t usually associated with highly sensitive people. Some empaths are even able to communicate with animals, nature, and their inner guides. But being a highly sensitive person and an empath are not mutually exclusive: you can be both at the same time.

To determine if you are an empath, see if you relate to one or more of these types.

GENERAL TYPES OF EMPATHS

Physical Empaths. You are especially attuned to other people’s physical symptoms and tend to absorb them into your body. You also can become energized by someone’s sense of wellbeing.

Emotional Empaths. You mainly pick up other people’s emotions and can become a sponge for their feelings, both happy and sad.

Intuitive Empaths. You experience extraordinary perceptions such as heightened intuition, telepathy, messages in dreams, animal and plant communication, as well as contact with the Other Side. The following includes the different types and how they function:

– Telepathic Empaths receive intuitive information about others in present time.

– Precognitive Empaths have premonitions about the future while awake or dreaming.

– Dream Empaths are avid dreamers and can receive intuitive information from dreams that helps others and guides them in their own lives.

– Mediumship Empaths can access spirits on the Other Side.

– Plant Empaths can feel the needs of plants and connect with their essence.

– Earth Empaths are attuned to changes in our planet, our solar system, and the weather.

– Animal Empaths can tune in to animals and communicate with them.

Empaths have diverse and beautifully nuanced sensitivities. You may be one or more of the above types. In future chapters, I’ll also discuss specific kinds of physical and emotional empaths such as food empaths (who are attuned to the energy of foods) and relationship and sexual empaths (who are attuned to their partners’ and friends’ moods, sensuality, and physical health). As you learn to identify your special talents, you will find they can not only enrich your life but also be used for the good of others.

STYLES OF RELATING: INTROVERTED AND EXTROVERTED EMPATHS

Physical, emotional, and intuitive empaths can have different styles of socializing and interacting with the world. Most empaths are introverted, though some are extroverted. Other empaths are a combination of both. Introverted empaths, like me, have a minimal tolerance for socializing and small talk. They tend to be quieter at gatherings and prefer leaving early. Often they arrive in their own cars so they don’t have to feel trapped or dependent on others for a ride.

Many empaths don’t like small talk. It exhausts them.

I love my close circle of friends and mostly stay away from big parties or gatherings. I also don’t like small talk, and I’ve never learned to do it, which is common for the introverted type. I can socialize in groups for usually two to three hours before I feel overstimulated. My friends all know this about me and don’t take it personally when I excuse myself early.

In contrast, extroverted empaths are more verbal and interactive when socializing and enjoy the banter with others more than introverted empaths do. They also can stay longer in social situations without getting exhausted or overstimulated.

HOW DOES SOMEONE BECOME AN EMPATH?

Many factors can contribute. Some babies enter the world with more sensitivity than others, an inborn temperament. You can actually see it when they come out of the womb. They’re much more responsive to light, smells, touch, movement, temperature, and sound. Also, from what I’ve observed with my patients and workshop participants, some sensitivity may be genetically transmitted. Highly sensitive children can come from mothers and fathers with the same traits. In addition, parenting plays a role. Childhood neglect or abuse can also affect sensitivity levels for adults. A portion of empaths I’ve treated have experienced early trauma, such as emotional or physical abuse, or were raised by alcoholic, depressed, or narcissistic parents. This could potentially wear down the usual healthy defenses that a child with nurturing parents develops. As a result of their upbringing, these children typically don’t feel “seen” by their families, and they also feel invisible in the greater world that doesn’t value sensitivity. In all cases, however, empaths haven’t learned to defend against stress in the same way others have. We’re different in this respect. A noxious stimulus, such as an angry person, crowds, noise, or bright light, can agitate us because our threshold for sensory overload is extremely low.

THE SCIENCE OF EMPATHY

There are a number of scientific findings explaining the empath experience that I find fascinating.

The Mirror Neuron System

Researchers have discovered a specialized group of brain cells that are responsible for compassion. These cells enable everyone to mirror emotions, to share another person’s pain, fear, or joy. Because empaths are thought to have hyperresponsive mirror neurons, we deeply resonate with other people’s feelings.

How does this occur? Mirror neurons are triggered by outside events. For example, when our spouse gets hurt, we feel hurt too. When our child is crying, we feel sad as well, and when our friend is happy, we also feel happy. In contrast, psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists are thought to have what science calls “empathy deficient disorders”. This means they lack the ability to feel empathy the way other people do, which may be caused by an underactive mirror neuron system. We must beware of these people because they are incapable of unconditional love.

Electromagnetic Fields

The second finding is based on the fact that both the brain and the heart generate electromagnetic fields. According to the HeartMath Institute, these fields transmit information about people’s thoughts and emotions. Empaths may be particularly sensitive to this input and tend to become overwhelmed by it. Similarly, we often have stronger physical and emotional responses to changes in the electromagnetic fields of the earth and the sun. Empaths know well that what happens to the earth and the sun affects our state of mind and energy.

Emotional Contagion

The third finding that enhances our understanding of empaths is the phenomenon of emotional contagion. Research has shown that many people pick up the emotions of those around them. For instance, one crying infant will set off a wave of crying babies in a hospital ward. Or one person loudly expressing anxiety in the workplace can spread it to other workers. People commonly catch other people’s feelings in groups. A recent article in the New York Times stated that this ability to synchronize moods with others is crucial for good relationships. What is the lesson for empaths? To choose positive people in our lives so that we’re not brought down by negativity. And when a friend is going through a hard time, we need to take special precautions to ground and center ourselves. These are important strategies that you will learn in this book.

Increased Dopamine Sensitivity

The fourth finding involves dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases the activity of neurons and is associated with the pleasure response. Research has shown that introverted empaths tend to have a higher sensitivity to dopamine than extroverts. Basically, introverted empaths need less dopamine to feel happy. That could explain why they are more content with alone time, reading, and meditation and need less external stimulation from parties and other large social gatherings. In contrast, extroverts crave the dopamine rush they get from lively events. In fact, they often can’t get enough of it.

Synesthesia

The fifth finding, which I find particularly compelling, is the extraordinary state called “mirror-touch synesthesia.” Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which two different senses are paired in the brain, for instance, seeing colors when you hear a piece of music or “tasting” words. Famous synesthetics include Isaac Newton, Billy Joel, and Itzhak Perlman. However, with mirror-touch synesthesia, peopIe actually feel the emotions and sensations of others in their own bodies, as if these emotions were their own. This is a wonderful neurological explanation of an empath’s experience.

WHAT AREAS OF LIFE DOES EMPATHY AFFECT?

Empathy can be present in the following areas of daily life:

– Health. Many of the empaths who come to me as patients and in my workshops feel overwhelmed, fatigued, and downright exhausted before they learn practical skills to help them cope with their sensitivities. They have often been diagnosed with agoraphobia, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, migraines, chronic pain, allergies, and adrenal fatigue (a form of burnout). On an emotional level, they may experience anxiety, depression, or panic attacks. We will discuss all of these topics in chapter 2.

– Addictions. Some empaths become addicted to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, or other behaviors in an attempt to numb their sensitivities. Overeating is common since some empaths unwittingly use food to ground themselves. Empaths can easily become overweight because the extra padding provides protection from negative energy. In chapter 3, we’ll look at healthier coping mechanisms.

– Relationships, Love, and Sex. Empaths may unknowingly get involved with toxic partners and become anxious, depressed, or ill. They give their hearts too easily to narcissists and other unavailable people. Empaths are loving and expect others to be that way, which doesn’t always happen. They also absorb their partner’s stress and emotions, such as anger or depression, simply by interacting with them, as well as during lovemaking, a particularly vulnerable time. In chapters 4 and 5, you’ll learn how to have a healthy relationship without getting overloaded, as well as ways to set clear boundaries with toxic people in your life.

– Parenting. Empathic parents often feel especially overwhelmed and exhausted from the intense demands of child-rearing because they tend to absorb their children’s feelings and pain. In chapter 6, empaths who are parents will learn skills to prevent them from doing this. In addition, empathic children can feel overwhelmed by their sensitivities. Their parents need a special education in helping these children to nurture their gifts and to thrive.

– Work. Empaths can feel drained by energy vampires in their workplace yet be at a loss to know how to set boundaries to protect themselves. In chapter 7, empaths will learn to center and replenish themselves in a work environment that may be excessively stimulating or have little privacy.

– Extraordinary Perceptual Abilities. Empaths have high sensitivities that can make them more intuitive, able to sense people’s energy, and open to premonitions, animal communication, and powerful dreams. In chapter 8, we’ll look at how they can become empowered by these abilities in a grounded way.

SELF-ASSESSMENT Are You an Empath?

To find out, take the following empath self-assessment, answering “mostly yes” or “mostly no” to each question.

– Have I ever been labeled overly sensitive, shy, or introverted?

– Do I frequently get overwhelmed or anxious?

– Do arguments and yelling make me ill?

– Do I often feel like I don’t fit in?

– Do crowds drain me, and do I need alone time to revive myself?

– Do noise, odors, or nonstop talkers overwhelm me?

– Do I have chemical sensitivities or a low tolerance for scratchy clothes?

. . .

from

The Empath’s Survival Guide. Life Strategies for Sensitive People

by Judith Orloff M.D

get it at Amazon.com

The Book of Human Emotions. An Encyclopedia of Feeling, from Anger to Wanderlust – Tiffany Watt Smith.

“Our emotions are evolved physical responses, and they are affected by the play of our unconscious minds.”

As early as the 1830s, Charles Darwin was treating emotions as a topic worthy of serious scientific attention.

Is your heart fluttering in anticipation? is your stomach tight with nerves? Are you falling in love? Feeling a bit miffed? Are you curious, perhaps about this book? Do you have the heebie-jeebies?

Some emotions wash the world in a single colour, like the terror felt as the car skids, or the euphoria of falling in love. Others, like clouds, are harder to grasp.

A surge of joy or a nervous tremble is the work of the delicate lattice of our nervous system, at the centre of which is a single organ: the brain.

In the 1880s William James argued that our bodily responses ARE the emotion, and our subjective feeling just follows. While ‘common sense says we meet a bear, are frightened, and run,’ he wrote, it is more rational to say that we feel ‘afraid because we tremble’. The physical response comes first, the subjective quality, the ‘feeling’, a byproduct, he called it an ‘epiphenomenon’, a split second later.

Sigmund Freud later said one had also to consider the far more elusive and complex influence of the mind, or ‘psyche’. He spoke of emotions poetically, as ‘feeling-tones’.

The idea that our emotions take circuitous routes through our minds as well as our bodies has been of profound therapeutic importance and left traces on today’s emotional language.

These Victorians are responsible for two of the most influential ideas about our feelings today: Our emotions are evolved physical responses, and they are affected by the play of our unconscious minds.

The Book of Human Emotions is a gleeful, thoughtful collection of 156 feelings, both rare and familiar. Each has its own story, and reveals the strange forces which shape our rich and varied internal worlds. In reading it, you’ll discover feelings you never knew you had (like basorexia, the sudden urge to kiss someone), uncover the secret histories of boredom and confidence, and gain unexpected insights into why we feel the way we do.

Tiffany Watt Smith is a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary University of London, and was also a 2014 BBC New Generation Thinker. Before beginning her academic career she worked as a theatre director, including as an Associate Director at the Arcola Theatre and International Associate at the Royal Court. She lives in London.

“And how delightful other people’s emotions were! much more delightful than their ideas, it seemed to him.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Look up. Look up at the clouds. Are they grey and solemn in a windless sky? Or wisps floating carelessly on a breeze? Is the horizon drenched in a hot red sunset, angry with desire?

To the painter John Constable, the sky was full of emotion. He called it, in a letter written in 1821, the ‘key note’ and ‘chief organ of sentiment in painting’. it is for this reason that he dedicated much of his time to collecting and classifying the clouds. Walking out from his house in Hampstead, at that time a village near London with a bundle of papers, and a pocket full of brushes, he would sit for hours on the heath rapidly painting the changing shapes above him, the wind rustling his papers, rain drops pooling the colours. Once home, he arranged his sketches according to the latest meteorological classifications, noting the date, time and weather conditions.

Constable wanted to master the language of the sky and when you look at his paintings, it’s clear that he did. But he also lived in an age obsessed with the desire to label and put into categories, a passion for taxonomy that would always sit uneasily with the melting, drifting skies. Clouds are so hard to fix. Arranging them into groups, as the art critic John Ruskin discovered forty years later, was always a matter ‘more of convenience than true description’. The clouds fold into one another and drift away. They switch allegiances until it’s hard to tell them apart.

Look at the clouds, and you might see an emotion colour everything for an instant but then the skies will rearrange themselves and it’ll be gone.

Recognising and naming our emotional weather can be just as peculiar a task. Try to describe exactly how you feel right now. Is your heart fluttering excitedly for the person who’ll be waiting when you step off the train? Or your stomach tight at the thought of tomorrow’s deadline? Perhaps it was curiosity which nudged you towards this book. Or reluctance, studded with giddy defiance, that is making you linger over its pages in the shop rather than returning home. Are you feeling hopeful? Surprised? (Are you bored?)

Some emotions really do wash the world in a single colour, like the terror felt as the car skids, or the euphoria of falling in love. Others, like clouds, are harder to grasp. Plan a surprise for a loved one and you might feel anticipation crinkled with glee and creased at the edges with a faint terror what if they hate it? Storm off during an argument and it might be hard to tell the precise moment at which your indignation ends and your clammy selfloathing begins.

There are some emotions which are so quiet that they slip past before we’ve even had a chance to spot them, like that momentary sense of comfort which makes your hand reach out for a familiar brand at the supermarket. And then there are those that brood on the horizon, the ones we hurry away from, fearing they will burst upon us: the jealousy which makes our fingers itch to search a loved one’s pockets, or the shame that can goad us into self-destruction.

Sometimes it feels more like we belong to our emotions, than they to us.

But perhaps it’s only by paying attention to our feelings, by trying to capture them as Constable did the clouds, that we can truly understand ourselves.

What is an emotion?

Deep inside each of our temporal lobes is a tearshaped structure called the amygdala. Neuroscientists call this the ‘command centre’ of our emotions. It assesses stimuli from the outside world, deciding whether to avoid or approach. It triggers a clatter of responses, raising the heartbeat, instructing the glands to secrete hormones, contracting the limbs or making an eyelid twitch. Recall a sad story or look at a picture of your newborn baby while lying in a brain scanner and the amygdala will be one of the areas that will appear to ‘light up’ on the resulting computer generated image.

With their glowing tapestries of magenta and emerald, studies of the brain can be seductive. They can even seem like the final word on how and why we feel the way we do. But to think of our emotions purely as biochemical fireworks in the brain is, in the words of the writer Siri Hustvedt, ‘rather like saying that Vermeer’s Girl Pouring Milk is a canvas with paint on it or that Alice herself is words on a page. These are facts, but they don’t explain my subjective experience of either of them or what the two girls mean to me.’

More than that, I think, approaching emotions as first and foremost biological facts misrepresents what an emotion actually is.

The invention of emotions

No one really felt emotions before about 1830. Instead, they felt other things ‘passions’, ‘accidents of the soul’, ‘moral sentiments’ and explained them very differently from how we understand emotions today.

Some ancient Greeks believed a defiant rage was carried on an ill wind. Desert dwelling early Christians thought boredom could be implanted in the soul by malignant demons. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, passions were not exclusive to humans, but could work their strange effects on other bodies too, so that palm trees could fall in love and yearn for one another, and cats become melancholic.

But alongside this intangible realm of souls and supernatural forces, doctors also developed a complex approach to understanding the body’s influence on the passions. Their insights were based on a theory of humoral medicine from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, which spread via the physicians of the medieval Islamic world, and flourished ultimately in the writings of the court doctors of the European Renaissance. The theory held that each person had a balance of four elemental substances in their bodies blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. These humours were thought to shape personality and mood: those with more blood in their veins were quick tempered, but also brave, while a dominance of phlegm made one peaceful but lugubrious.

Physicians believed strong passions disrupted this delicate ecosystem by moving heat around the body and rousing the humours in turn. Rage sent blood rushing from the heart to the limbs, readying a person to launch an attack. Once black bile was heated, by contrast, it sent poisonous vapours curling up to the brain and crowded it with terrifying visions.

Traces of these ideas still linger: it’s why we speak of people being phlegmatic or in an iII-humour, or say their blood is boiling.

The origin of our modern concept of emotion can be traced to the birth of empirical science in the mid-seventeenth century. Thomas Willis, a London anatomist who dissected hanged criminals, proposed that a surge of joy or a nervous tremble was not the work of strange liquids and fumes, but of the delicate lattice of the nervous system at the centre of which was a single organ: the brain. A hundred or so years later, physiologists studying reflex responses in animals went further and claimed that bodies recoiled in fright or twitched in delight because of purely mechanical processes no immaterial soul substance was necessary at all.

In a draughty Edinburgh lecture hall in the early nineteenth century, the philosopher Thomas Brown suggested this new way of understanding the body required a new vocabulary, and proposed using the word ‘emotion’. Though already in use in English (from the French émotion), the term was imprecise, describing any movements of bodies and objects, from the swaying of a tree to a hot blush spreading across the cheeks. The coinage indicated a novel approach to the life of feelings, one which used experiments and anatomical investigations to focus on observable phenomena: clenched teeth; rolling tears; shudders; wide eyes.

This provoked a flurry of interest among Victorian men of science in understanding how the body’s smiles and frowns expressed and even stimulated internal emotions. One man in particular stands out: Charles Darwin. As early as the 1830s, Darwin was treating emotions as a topic worthy of serious scientific attention. He sent out questionnaires to missionaries and explorers across the globe asking how grief or excitement was expressed by the indigenous people they encountered. He experimented on himself, trying to isolate the muscles used when he shuddered or smiled. He even studied his infant son, William, meticulously charting his responses: ‘at his 8th day he frowned much when little under five weeks old, smiled’.

In 1872 Darwin published his findings in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and made the audacious claim that our emotions were not fixed responses, but the result of millions of years of evolutionary processes which were still ongoing. As basic and important as breathing or digestion, as much animal as human, our emotions were there because they had helped us survive, preventing us from ingesting poisons, as in disgust, or helping us form bonds and cooperate, like love or compassion.

By the 1880s, the view that emotions were inherited reflexes was so established among scientists that the philosopher William James could argue that the bodily responses were the emotion, and the subjective feeling just followed. While ‘common sense says we meet a bear, are frightened, and run,’ he wrote, it was more rational to say that we feel ‘afraid because we tremble’. He thought the physical response came first, the subjective quality, a byproduct he called it an ‘epiphenomenon’ a split second later.

What is an Emotion? William James, 1884

Not everyone approached emotions in this way. The year after Darwin published his theories on the evolution of emotional expressions, Sigmund Freud began his medical training in Vienna. By the early 1890s however, Freud had abandoned his career as a neurologist, believing that it wasn’t enough to talk about prolonged sorrow or excessive suspicion in terms only of the brain and body: ‘it is not easy to treat feelings scientifically,’ he wrote.

One had also to consider the far more elusive and complex influence of the mind, or psyche.

Although he never set out a comprehensive theory of what he considered emotions to be, he spoke of them, poetically, as ‘feeling-tones’ Freud’s work added depth and complexity to the vision of emotions as biological twitches and jerks. It’s through his work that many of us have come to think of emotions as things which either can be repressed, or else build up and require venting. And that some particularly those urgent terrors and furious desires of childhood can sink down and hide in the deepest recesses of our minds only to emerge years later in dreams, or compulsions, or even physical symptoms like an aching head or cramping stomach.

It’s also from Freud that we have inherited the idea that we might not even recognise some of our emotions, but that our anger or jealousy might be ‘subconscious’, springing up like a jack-in-the-box accidentally (‘Freudian slips’), or in the jokes we tell, or in habits such as persistent unpunctuality.

Although many of the technical details of Freud’s theories have long since been discredited, the idea that our emotions take circuitous routes through our minds as well as our bodies has been of profound therapeutic importance and left traces on today’s emotional language.

In this way, the Victorians are responsible for two of the most influential ideas about our feelings today: that our emotions are evolved physical responses, and that they are affected by the play of our unconscious minds.

Emotional cultures

In fact, the answer to the question ‘what is an emotion?’ lies not only in our biology or private psychological histories. The way we feel is also enmeshed in the expectations and ideas of the cultures in which we live. Hate, anger or desire can seem to come from the most untamed, animal parts of ourselves. Yet they can also be aroused by those things which make us distinctly human: our language and the concepts we use to understand our bodies; our religious convictions and moral judgements; the fashions, even the politics and economics, of the times we live in.

The seventeenth century nobleman Francois de La Rochefoucauld recognised that even our most ardent urges can be conjured by the need to keep up with conventions: ‘Some people,’ he quipped, ‘would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.’ And just as talking, watching and reading can incite emotions in our bodies, they can quieten our feelings too. The Baining people of Papua New Guinea leave a bowl of water out overnight to absorb awumbuk, the gloom and inertia which descend when a much-loved guest departs. The ritual is reported to work every time.

The influence of our ideas can be so powerful that they can sometimes shape those biological responses we think of as the most natural. How else is it possible that in the eleventh century, knights could faint in dismay or yawn for love? Or that 400 years ago people could die of nostalgia?

The idea that emotions might be shaped by our cultures, as well as by our bodies and minds, was enthusiastically taken up in the 1960s and 703. Western anthropologists living in remote communities became interested in the emotional vocabulary of different languages. For instance song, the outrage felt on receiving a less than fair share, is held in high esteem in the cooperative culture of the Pacific islanders of Ifaluk.

It became clear that some cultures take very seriously certain feelings which in English speaking cultures might seem petty. What’s more, some emotions seemed to be so significant that people were fluent in its many subtle tastes and textures, like the fifteen distinct sorts of fear the Pintupi of Western Australia are able to feel. Other emotions which might seem fundamental to English speakers were missing in some languages: there is, for instance, no word which precisely captures the meaning of ‘worry’ among the Machiguenga of Peru.

This interest in emotional languages was intriguing: if different people have different ways of conceptualising their emotions, might they feel them differently too?

Historians had long suspected the importance of passions to understanding the mindsets of the past. However, a decade or so after these initial anthropological studies, they began excavating long-dead emotional cultures in earnest. Of course, they couldn’t interview Roman slaves or medieval lovers about their feelings. But they could uncover the ways people of the past had understood their passions or sentiments by looking at diaries and letters, conduct manuals and medical regimens, even legal documents and political speeches.

They began to ask the questions which have become so familiar to those who work in this field today. Was boredom invented by the Victorians? What made American presidents start smiling in their official portraits? Why did self-help authors in the sixteenth century encourage people to be sad, where today they’d exhort us to be happy? Why, in the eighteenth century, did artists want to broadcast the fact that they’d felt shocked? How could some emotions disappear such as the combination of listlessness and despair the early Christians called ‘acedia’ and others like ‘ringxiety’ suddenly pop into existence? To study the emotions of the past wasn’t only to understand how rituals of love and grief had changed over time, or why in different historical periods some emotions could be publicly expressed, while others were hidden, or restrained through penance or prayer. The new field of study asked how these cultural values imprinted themselves on our private experiences. It asked whether our emotions were entirely our own.

Even accounts of those emotions which are sometimes thought to be ‘basic’ or ‘universal’, such as fear or disgust, vary across times and places. The idea that some emotions are more fundamental than others is a very old one. The Li Chi, a Confucian collection of precepts and rituals which can be dated back to at least the first century BCE, identifies seven inherent feelings (joy, anger, sadness, fear, love, dislike and fondness). The philosopher René Descartes thought there were six ‘primitive passions’ (wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy and sadness). In our own time, some evolutionary psychologists argue that between six and eight ‘basic’ emotions are expressed in the same way by all people. The list usually includes disgust, fear, surprise, anger, happiness and sadness though not ‘love’, whose displays we expect to be tangled up in the rituals of different cultures.

These ‘basic’ emotional expressions are thought to be evolved responses to universal predicaments: a disgusted grimace ejects poisons from our mouths when we stick out our tongues; the rush of energy which comes when we are enraged may help us fight off a rival. But does it really follow that these emotions must feel the same way to all people in all places? Imagine a New York trader on the stock-exchange floor with sweating palms, a thumping heart and a prickling scalp. Then think of the same sensations experienced by a thirteenth-century Christian kneeling in a cold chapel in prayer, or by a Pintupi in Australia on waking in the dead of night with a stomach pain.

The trader might call those feelings ‘an adrenaline rush’ or ‘good fear’ (or, on a bad day, ‘stress’). The second might view them as ‘wondrous fear’, an awestruck terror alerting them to the presence of God. The third might feel ngulu, a particular sort of dread the Pintupi experience when they suspect another person is seeking revenge. The meanings we charge an emotion with change our experience of it. They determine whether we greet a feeling with delight or trepidation, whether we savour it or feel ashamed. Ignore these differences and we’ll lose most of what makes our emotional experiences what they are.

It comes down to what you think an emotion is. When we talk about emotions, I think we need what the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in the 1970s called ‘thick description’. Geertz asked an elegant question: what is the difference between a blink and a wink? If we answer in purely physiological terms and speak of a chain of muscular contractions of the eyelids then a blink and a wink are more or less the same. But you need to understand the cultural context to appreciate what a wink is. You need to understand playing and jokes, and teasing and sex, and learnt conventions like irony and camp. Love, hate, desire, fear, anger and the rest are like this too.

Without context, you only get a ‘thin description’ of what’s going on, not the whole story and it’s this whole story which is what an emotion is.

This book is about these stories, and how they change. It’s about the different ways emotions have been perceived and performed from the weeping jurors in Greek courts to the brave, bearded women of the Renaissance; from the vibrating heartstrings of eighteenth-century doctors to Darwin’s selfexperiments at London Zoo; from the shell-shocked soldiers of the First World War to our own culture of neuroscience and brain imaging. It’s about the different ways our sorrowful, frowning, wincing, joyous bodies inhabit the world. And how the human world, with its moral values and political hierarchies, its assumptions about gender, sexuality, race and class, its philosophical views and scientific theories, inhabits us in return.

Emotion-spotting: a field guide

Today, emotional health, and the necessity of recognising and understanding our feelings to achieve it, is a stated goal of public policy in many countries, from Bhutan to the UK. Turn on a TV or open a newspaper, and there’ll be, somewhere, tips on how to achieve lasting happiness, or why crying can be good for us. The idea that it’s important to pay attention to our emotions is not new. The Stoics of ancient Greece taught that noticing the first stirrings of a passion gave you the best chance of controlling it. Catch the precise moment the hairs on the nape of your neck began to tingle, they thought, and you could remind yourself not to let blind panic set in.

In the seventeenth century the scholar and great anatomist of melancholy Robert Burton also found noticing his emotions helped him, though his approach was rather different. He became curious about his feelings of despair and worry, and tried to understand them in conversation with other writers and philosophers, particularly those of the past. Eventually, his melancholy, which had once seemed so senseless, became filled with meaning and started to loosen its grip.

Today’s enthusiasm for taking our emotions seriously can largely be traced back to psychological research first popularised in the mid 1990s under the catchy heading of emotional intelligence, aka emotional quotient or EQ. Its proponents argued that being able to identify your own and other people’s emotions, and to use them as a guide to making decisions, was as important in determining success as the traditional measure of IQ. Awareness of emotions has been shown to be strongly correlated with greater resilience in times of stress, with improved performance at work, with better management and negotiation skills and with more stable relationships at home. Today EQ, or some version of it, is a concept familiar to educators, business leaders and policy makers alike.

Whether you greet this excitement about emotions with a wide smile or a raised eyebrow, I hope you will agree that there are intriguing connections between our feelings and the words we use to describe them. Some emotions can fade into a smile when you know what to call them, such as ‘umpty’ (the feeling that everything is ‘all wrong’) or matutolypea (a sadness which only strikes in the morning). Some reveal themselves to be a greater part of our experience once we learn their name, such as basorexia (a sudden desire to kiss someone) or gezelligheid (the cosy feeling which comes from being inside with friends on a cold night).

And sometimes, identifying and reading about other people’s emotions can make our own seem less peculiar and isolating. In the course of writing this, many of the stories I encountered offered the consolations of shared experiences. Others resonated for different reasons, helping me to see some of my more wayward feelings from new perspectives. Most of us avoid thinking about some emotion or other. Perhaps you’re ashamed of your resentfulness or scared about your apathy, or struggle with your embarrassment. But given half a chance to think about where our attitudes towards these feelings come from, we might discover they’re not always the bogeymen we’re sometimes led to believe. I hope some of these stories resonate with you too.

But this book is not really about helping yourself become a happier, or more successful (or even a richer!) individual. Though they are full of intriguing curiosities, understanding the cultural stories of our emotions above all helps us uncover the tacit beliefs about what ‘natural’ (or, worse, ‘normal’) emotional responses might be. If our emotions are so important to us today, if they are measured by governments, subject to increasing pharmaceutical intervention by doctors, taught in our schools and monitored by our employers, then we had better understand where the assumptions we have about them come from and whether we really want to keep signing up.

*

from

The Book of Human Emotions. An Encyclopedia of Feeling, from Anger to Wanderlust

by Tiffany Watt Smith

get it at Amazon.com

The Neuroscience of Emotion: A New Synthesis – Ralph Adolphs and David J. Anderson.

Emotions, while ubiquitous across species and one of the most common topics of conversation, are still, it seems, misunderstood.

We know a lot less than we think we know. This is good news for scientists: there is work to be done, interesting and important work.

We aim to provide a fresh look at emotion from the perspective of biology, a perspective that can provide a foundation for the field from which to move forward in a productive, cross-disciplinary fashion.

We believe that emotions are states of the brain, and that the mechanisms that generate emotions can be investigated with neurobiology.

We believe it is critical to distinguish between emotions as internal functional states, and conscious experiences of emotions, often called “feelings”. Emotions and feelings are not the same thing, although they are of course closely related. Most of this book is about emotions, not about feelings.

A science of emotion needs to examine most of our initial intuitions about emotions, sharpen vague questions so that they can be experimentally investigated, and confront both empirical and conceptual problems.

Emotions, while ubiquitous across species and one of the most common topics of conversation, are still, it seems, misunderstood.

Do emotions have biological roots and, if so, where? And how do physiological factors influence how emotions are felt, expressed, and understood?

For Ralph Adolphs and David J. Anderson, developing a comprehensive science of emotions began with trying to create a framework that is scientifically rigorous, inclusive, cumulative, and yet provides clear operationalization of the relevant concepts of emotions.

Their new book, The Neuroscience of Emotion: A New Synthesis, offers a new way to understand emotions, one that will leave you thinking differently about how emotions work and why they are so important.

“If you are most people, you feel convinced that, because you have emotions, you know a lot about what emotions are, and how they work. We believe you are almost certainly wrong,” write Adolphs and Anderson.

We wrongly assume many things about emotion, and gaining insight into emotion means moving past these assumptions. For one thing, there are many more than four primary emotions, and they are not irreducible.

The authors address this, saying, “There is scant evidence that “joy”, “fear”, or “anger” are irreducible and do not share component parts. Equally plausible is an alternative view in which each of these emotions is made up of a collections of components, or building blocks, some of which are shared by other emotions.”

What neuroscience offers is a way to understand what underlying mechanisms generate emotions, and further, to explain them through their underlying mechanisms.

One example is the feeling of disgust, which the authors explain evolved to help animals avoid poisonous or contaminated food.

Emotions, however, go much further than the reflex-like reaction to a noxious food. Often overlapping with other states, such as motivation, arousal, and drive, emotions serve as adaptive functional states that lie somewhere between reflexes, volitional, and deliberate action.

One way to understand emotions more clearly is to separate them into two classes: building blocks of emotions and features of emotions.

“All emotion states have most of the building blocks, and we can find precursors to emotions states in simpler organisms that already show many of the properties of building blocks. Features, on the other hand, are more elaborated, derived, and variable properties of emotions, and not all emotions have them,” write Adolph and A Anderson.

Emotion states can also be related to one another and integrate information from multiple sources over time. One example is what is known as the “drift-diffusion” model, which describes how we reach a decision threshold depending on how rapidly sensory information is accumulated.

Emotions, however, are not generalizable. The authors write, “Given the highly varied and multimodal sensory inputs that can carry information relevant to a particular emotion (for example, predictors of a threat that could induce a state of fear) there is no simple formula that determines which stimuli cause an emotion, let alone which stimuli cause one type of emotion rather than another.”

Similarly, studying emotions means distinguishing between emotion states, called internal brain states, and feelings, the conscious and subjective experience of those emotions.

While we might not agree on whether animals have feelings, we can study their emotion states to help us better understand the function of our own emotions.

The authors write, “Darwin believed, and we agree, that emotional expression (whether produced in the face, the body, or both) was an evolutionary conserved function, and that its particular manifestations in different species provide insights to how emotions evolved.”

Asking questions like: Do flies engage in sex because it is rewarding or reinforcing to them, or simply because they are genetically programmed to do it?, will help us better understand the internal states of motivation, arousal, and drive, as well as our own subjective feelings of love, lust, anger, and rage.

Separating emotion states from the conscious experience of feelings also helps us understand how sensory stimuli can go undetected and still induce an emotion. One example the authors give is fear conditioning in humans, where conditioned autonomic responses emerge which is a form of emotional learning.

Shedding light on the often misunderstood topic of emotions, The Neuroscience of Emotion: A New Synthesis offers a truly scientific approach to understanding emotions, one that is as thought provoking as it is comprehensive.

Claire Nana, Psych Central

The Neuroscience of Emotion: A New Synthesis

Ralph Adolphs and David J. Anderson.

PREFACE

Emotions are one of the most apparent and important aspects of our lives, yet have remained one of the most enigmatic to explain scientifically. On the one hand, nothing seems more obvious than that we and many other animals have emotions: we talk about emotions all the time, and they feature prominently in our literature, films, and other arts. On the other hand, the scientihc study of emotions is a piecemeal and confused discipline, with some views advocating that we get rid of the word emotion altogether.

If you ask scientists, even those in the field, what they mean by an emotion, you will either get no explanation at all or else several quite discrepant ones that seem to be referring to quite different phenomena. We aim to provide a fresh look at emotion from the perspective of biology, a perspective that can provide a foundation for the field from which to move forward in a productive, cross-disciplinary fashion.

Emotions and feelings have been the topic of countless books, some of them detailed technical books (often a collection of chapters from many different authors), and most of them popular books focused on the psychology of emotion. Ours is none of these. It is not intended as a textbook, a popular book, or a monograph of any sort. Instead, our aim in writing this book was to take stock of the field, from a fairly high level perspective, to provide a survey of the neurobiology of emotion, and, most importantly, to provide both a conceptual framework and ideas for approaches that could be used by a neuroscience of emotion going forward.

Our intended audience is any educated reader, but our core audience is students and researchers who are contemplating going into the field of affective neuroscience, or who are already in the field and wondering what path their research should take. We also hope that at least a good part of the book would be accessible and interesting to readers who do not have a strong scientific background. Indeed, it is entirely possible to glean most of the conceptual framework just from reading chapters 1-4 and chapter 11, and skipping some of the more detailed chapters in the middle.

We decided to eschew detailed citations of the papers behind every point and study that we describe, instead choosing to give a more broadly accessible treatment that only cites the most important key papers or reviews (which, in turn, will provide interested readers with a longer list of further references).

Our book differs from most other books on emotion in scope and organization. One of us (Adolphs) investigates emotion in humans; the other (Anderson) investigates emotion in mice and flies. This breadth of different backgrounds, and the presentation of the different species studied, is a critical ingredient of this book, since it forced us to abstract from many details in order to uncover fundamental principles that would cut across different approaches and different species. It also meant that neither one of us is in fact the authority for all of the book: notwithstanding extensive discussions, comments, and cowriting, there are parts of the book that have only one of us as the principal author and expert. Indeed, there are parts of the book on which we continue to disagree!

We do not intend to provide a comprehensive new theory of emotion. Indeed, we don’t feel that we provide any kind of theory of emotion at all. Instead, we describe ways that scientists should think about emotion, and ways that they should use the word emotion consistently in their science, in order to forge a neuroscience of emotion with the maximal long-lasting impact. Our intent was to provide a framework for investigating emotions that would be applicable to those working in animal models; those working with human subjects; those using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electrophysiology, optogenetics, or clinical populations. We even hope that what we have written here would be useful to engineers who are trying to figure out how to build robots that have emotions. In our view, a science of emotion needs to meet two criteria: it should be comprehensive and it should be cumulative.

Forging a comprehensive science means that the encapsulation often evident in papers, journals, and meetings on emotion needs to be overcome. Scientists studying emotion in rats and in humans need to be able to speak to one another, rather than build walls that isolate their research enterprise from the rest. A comprehensive science of emotion also needs to connect with all domains of science that are relevant to emotion: it needs to connect with psychology and with neurobiology. Doing this requires a consistent terminology that makes principled distinctions, and that allows clear operationalization of the different concepts that a science of emotion will use.

We spend some time in the first three chapters articulating such distinctions and outlining the features of emotion that a scientist would look for, whether she is studying emotion in humans, rodents, or flies. This approach necessitates some terminological commitments, and we explain these in the early chapters. We also return to them when we compare our view to some of the many other theories of emotion out there, in chapter 10.

A high-quality science of emotion requires not only clear terminology and operationalization of concepts, it also requires sensitive measures, statistically robust analysis tools, and creative hypotheses. The later chapters take up these issues in the context of a survey of ongoing neuroscience studies. Taken together, these ingredients would enable a cumulative science of emotion, a science in which current studies can build on prior work, and in which the accumulation of many studies over time allows comparisons and contrasts, as well as syntheses and formal meta-analyses. We are currently a long way from having achieved this. Indeed, most meta-analyses of emotion are either extremely narrow, or else hopelessly inconclusive because they mix studies with very different standards or terms.

There is no question in our minds that emotions are real phenomena that need to be explained. We believe that, in addition to humans, many other animals have emotions, both of the authors of this book have cats as pets, and we are convinced that they have emotions. However, intuition and belief are not the same as scientific knowledge, and an important goal of the book is to suggest objective criteria to apply in searching for cases of emotional expression in animals.

Finally, we also believe that emotions are states of the brain, and that the mechanisms that generate emotions can be investigated with neurobiology. Our book is based on these underlying assumptions; we summarize them again in the very last chapter.

CHAPTER 1

What Don’t We Know about Emotions?

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Ralph J. Boorstin

If you are like most people, you feel convinced that, because you have emotions, you know a lot about what emotions are, and how they work. We believe you are almost certainly wrong. In the Field of emotion, as in most fields, familiarity is not the same as expertise. After all, you have a heart, but that doesn’t make you an expert on hearts. You leave that to your cardiologist.

Yet the science of emotion is fraught with this problem: everyone seems to think they know what an emotion is. This is because we all have strong, and typically unjustified, intuitive beliefs about emotions. For instance, some people are absolutely certain that animals have emotions; others are absolutely certain that animals could not have emotions. Neither camp can usually give you convincing reasons for their beliefs, but they stick to them nonetheless.

We cannot emphasize enough the pervasive grip that our commonsense view of emotions has on how we (that is, researchers in the field) frame our scientific questions. We need to free ourselves of our commonsense assumptions, or at least question all of them, if we want to ask the right questions in the first place. This chapter introduces the topics of this book through this important premise and concludes by listing what we ideally would want from a mature science of emotion, and what entries in this list we will tackle in this book.

We wrote this book for two overarching aims. The first aim is to motivate the topic of emotion, to note that it is of great interest not only to laypeople but also to many scientific fields of study, and that it is a very important topic as well. At the same time, we emphasize that we currently know remarkably little about it yet, in particular, we know a lot less than we think we know. This is good news for scientists: there is work to be done, interesting and important work.

The second aim is to provide a summary of what we do know and to sketch a framework within which to understand those empirical findings and within which to formulate new questions for the future. This process is in practice very piecemeal: we need to have a little bit of data even to begin thinking about what emotions are, but then we discover problems with the way prior experiments were done and interpreted.

In the dialectic of actual scientific investigation, both conceptual framework and empirical discovery are continuously revised, and inform each other. However, we have not written our book this way. Instead, we begin with some of the foundations for a science of emotion (chapter 2), what kinds of ontological and epistemological commitments it requires, what kind of structure an explanation takes, and then work our way toward a list of features or properties of emotions (chapter 3), which then finally are the things we look for, and discover, through empirical research (chapters 4-9). We return to the foundations and the questions again in chapters 10 and 11 by contrasting our views with those of others, and by suggesting some experiments for the future.

Emotions According to Inside Out

What is it about emotions that we would like to understand? And what do we think we understand, but in fact don’t (or are mistaken about)? Because emotions are ubiquitous in our lives, and integral to our experience of the world, it is dangerously easy to come up with simplistic views that do not stand up to closer scrutiny, and instead impede scientific progress because they create “the illusion of knowledge.”

The film Inside Out, which won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, as well as a Golden Globe, provides a good example of many common but incorrect assumptions about emotion. As you watch the film, you get a fanciful view of how emotions are supposed to work inside a twelve year old girl, how those emotions are supposed to be integrated with memory and personality, and how they are supposed to be expressed as behavior.

If Inside Out’s view of emotion were right, you would be tempted to conclude that we understand an enormous amount about how emotions work, and, more generally, about how the mind and brain work. But Inside Out’s view of how emotions work is wrong. In examining what, exactly, is wrong with it, we can highlight some of the gaps in our current understanding of emotion. If you’ve seen the film and you already find the view of emotion portrayed by Inside Out silly, you are ahead of the game, but bear with us as we use it as an example for uncovering problematic beliefs about emotion.

Inside Out’s view of emotion takes as its starting premise the idea that all our emotions boil down to a few primary ones: in the film, they are joy, anger, fear, sadness, and disgust. These five emotions are animated as different characters, charming little homunculi that live in the brain of the little girl and fight with each other for control of her behavior and mental state. These homunculi sit at a control panel and watch the outside world on a screen. They react to the outside world, and in response they manipulate levers and switches that control the little girl’s behavior. They are also affected by memories that are symbolized by transparent marbles; moreover, a series of theme parks provide a mental landscape symbolizing different aspects of the girl’s personality. The five emotion characters fight over access to the memory marbles and struggle to keep the girl’s theme park attractions open for business.

From the film’s point of view, the five emotions are the dominant force controlling the little girl’s thoughts, memories, personality, and behavior; thinking, reasoning, and other cognitive activities are relegated to a sideshow. Truly, the little girl is an entirely emotional being. These details of the movie may not represent the way you think about emotions, but they characterize how many people do.

So what’s wrong with the film’s creative, engaging metaphor? Let’s unpack a few of the key ideas about emotions that Inside Out showcases, highlight the errors in their underlying assumptions, and try to articulate the scientiiic questions that they raise. Although science may not yet have the answers, the exercise will help us frame the issues.

Idea 1. There are a few primary emotions. The prevailing view, enshrined in many psychology textbooks, is that there is a small set of “primary” or “basic” emotions: as we already mentioned, these are joy, anger, fear, sadness, and disgust, according to Inside Out.

Different scientific emotion theories offer a big range in the number of basic emotions, anywhere from two to eleven! A second type of emotion is often called “social” or “moral” emotion and typically includes shame, embarrassment, pride, and others. These social emotions are thought to be more essentially tied to social communication than the basic emotions are. But although there are multiple schemes, many classic emotion theories tend to share the idea of a fixed, and relatively small, set of emotions that correspond to the words we have for emotions in English.

The idea of a small set of basic emotions was most notably introduced by the psychologist Paul Ekman, based largely on data from his studies of emotional facial expressions in humans. Ekman argued that facial expressions of basic emotions can be recognized across all human cultures (Ekman 1994); he studied them even among tribes in New Guinea. Ekman’s set of basic emotions includes happiness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, and sadness (although contempt is also sometimes included).

The neurobiologist Jaak Panksepp similarly proposed a set of basic emotions, derived from his observations of animal behavior: seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, panic, and play (Panksepp 1998).

These emotion theories have much to recommend them and stimulated entire lines of important research. But they also suggest two questionable background assumptions (which Ekman and Panksepp themselves may or may not have held).

Questionable assumption 1: Emotions (at least the “primary” ones) are irreducible. A presumption that often accompanies the idea of a small set of primary emotions is that they are irreducible units. According to this assumption, emotions like “fear” or “anger” cannot be broken down into further components that are still emotional. The psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has argued strongly against this assumption, pointing out that it requires belief in some kind of mysterious “essences” of emotions, the belief that there is something irreducible that makes each primary emotion the emotion that it is (Feldman Barrett 2017a). This central assumption underlies the representation of each of the primary emotions in Inside Out as a distinct character.

“Joy” and “fear” do not merge with each other; they are each unique individuals. They have stable, fixed identities and functions, and do not share components (for example, in the movie’s metaphorical language, they do not share internal organs, limbs, and such).

Yet there is scant scientific evidence that “joy,” “fear,” or “anger” are irreducible and do not share component parts. Equally plausible is an alternative view in which each of these emotions is made up of a collection of components, or building blocks, some of which are shared by other emotions. Initial doubts such as these lead to the following set of scientific questions that can serve as a starting point for further investigation:

“Are different emotion states composed of features or dimensions that are shared, to variable extents, across multiple emotions? Are some emotions composed of, or based on, combinations of other more basic emotions?”

Questionable assumption 2: the primary emotions correspond to those for which we have names in English.

Related to questionable assumption 1 is the idea that words like anger,” and so forth in fact pick out scientifically principled categories of emotion. It is easy to see why this is unlikely to be the case. For one, we had these words for emotions long before there was any science of emotion, so why would one expect them to align well with scientific emotion categories? For another, different cultures have different words for emotions, and many of these turn out to be extraordinarily difficult to translate. In German, the word “Schadenfreude” denotes the emotion we feel when we feel happy about somebody else’s misfortune. Should that be a primary emotion, just because there’s a common word for it in German? There are many more such examples, entertainingly cataloged in Tiffany Watt Smith’s book, The Book of Human Emotions (Smith 2016). This poses some important scientific questions:

“How should we taxonomize emotions? How many emotions are there, and what names should we give to them? Are there different emotions in different cultures? Are there different emotions in different species? Can we use a word like ‘fear’ to refer to the same type of emotion state in a person, a dog, and a cat? How and when in evolution did emotions first arise, and how did they diversify?”

Given how little we yet know about these questions, and given that there are good reasons to believe our current emotion categories (“happiness,” “sadness,” and such) will need to be revised, we will say little in this book about specific emotions. We will refer to some emotions (notably “fear”) by way of example. And we will sketch how a future science of emotion might give us better categories or dimensions by which to taxonomize emotions. But this book is primarily about emotions in general, not about specific emotion categories.

Idea 2. Emotions are rigidly triggered by specific external stimuli. In the film Inside Out, all five emotion characters sit lazily around the control panel watching a screen that projects the outside world into the little girl’s mind, and are aroused into action only when an appropriate stimulus or circumstance appears. In the film, some stimuli do not activate a given emotion at all (for example, the “anger” character often sits dozing in his chair and does not react unless something maddening happens to the girl), while other stimuli activate multiple emotions. If the depiction from the film were accurate, we could easily figure out the emotion states of other people (and presumably other animals) by a straightforward list of rules that link specific stimuli to specific emotions in a characteristic and inflexible manner. This picture assumes that emotions are far simpler and more automatic than we in fact now know them to be. According to Idea 2, emotions would be just like reflexes. Some things will make you happy, others will make you sad, and some will trigger a specific mix of emotions, according to a set of rules.

Questionable assumption 3. Emotions are like reflexes. The movie gets it right that emotions are often triggered by stimuli in our surroundings. But what determines which emotions are triggered by which stimuli and under which circumstances? Why would seeing a dog trigger only a minimal emotional response in some people, and strong fear or happiness (emotional responses of opposite valence) in others? What accounts for the extraordinary flexibility with which many different stimuli, depending on the context and depending on the person, can elicit emotions? One can pose the following scientific questions:

“What determines whether an external stimulus will evoke an emotion or not, and what determines the kind of emotion evoked? What role do development and learning play in determining an organism’s response to a given stimulus? How does this process differ from simpler stimulus-response mappings, such as a reflex?”

Idea 3. Emotions control our behavior. The film portrays the emotion characters as controlling the little girl’s behavior by operating joysticks on the control panel. The little girl is but a hapless puppet, with emotions determining her behavior. This central visual metaphor encapsulates the title of the movie: our behavior is controlled, from the “inside out,” by our emotions. This feature is the counterpart to 2 above, with respect to the behavioral output rather than the stimulus input.

Questionable assumption 4. Specific emotions cause fixed and specific behaviors. Our subjective experience of emotion leads to the intuition that our emotions cause our behavior: I cry because I feel sad. Yet not all emotion theorists agree with this assumption. Indeed, the nineteenth-century American psychologist William James argued, counterintuitively, that emotions are a consequence, not a cause, of behavior: I feel afraid because I run from the bear, I do not run because I feel afraid (James 1884). Yet James already had doubts that just observing bodily reactions was sufficient to identify specific emotion categories. If it were true that specific emotions cause fixed and specific behaviors, we could infallibly deduce a person’s emotions just from watching their behavior. If so, then taken together with questionable assumption 3, we wouldn’t need emotions at all to explain behavior, there would simply be a set of rules linking stimuli to behavior.

That was the view that behaviorism advocated in the earlier twentieth century. One reason for the demise of behaviorism was that people realized that mappings from stimuli to behavior were far too complicated, and too dependent on context, inference, and learning, to be formulated as rules.

Emotions, in our view, are internal states that afford a flexible mapping to behavior, as we will detail throughout this book.

This leads to the following scientific questions: “Do internal emotion states cause behavior, or are they merely an accompaniment to behavior? Or might emotions actually be a consequence of behavior? What exactly are the causal links between stimuli, emotions, and behavior? How could we identify emotions in the absence of behavior? After all, we can be angry without punching somebody or showing any other easily detectable behavior.”

Idea 4. Different emotions are located in different, discrete brain regions. The beguiling picture of emotions as walking, talking cartoon characters in Inside Out is closely aligned with the belief that different emotions must correspond to anatomically distinct modules in the brain. Is there a place in the brain for fear, for example? This is a question that has received a lot of attention, including serious scientific investigation!

Questionable assumption 5. Specific emotions occur in specific brain structures. The era of functional neuroimaging with fMRI, as well as the study of patients with focal brain lesions, has led to the idea that emotions are generated in localized brain structures. For example, findings on the amygdala (a brain region studied in both of our laboratories to which we will return in some detail in later chapters) have led to the popular view that “fear is in the amygdala.” Yet more recent work clearly shows that this view cannot be right; indeed, that it does not even make sense, and that emotions depend on a much more distributed set of brain regions. This leads to the following scientific questions:

“How is the processing of emotion carried out across the brain? Are there identifiable functional neural substrates that organize or implement specific emotion states? Or is any given emotion state produced in such a highly distributed manner that it is impossible to assign a function in emotion to any brain region or neuronal cell population? Would it ever be possible to predict what emotion an individual is experiencing purely by examining activity in his/her brain ?”

As we will explain later, modern neuroscience approaches have given us a view of brain function that reconciles a dichotomy inherent in these questions. It will turn out that there are no macroscopic brain structures dedicated specifically to emotions (fear is not “in the amygdala”), but that there is specificity nonetheless. The specificity is at the level of circuits and cell populations, a level of organization that requires modern neuroscience tools to visualize. We spend some time in chapters 4 and 5 explaining these neuroscience tools, since their logic is required to reformulate the questions about emotion.

Idea 5. Emotions are conscious homunculi. The movie illustrates beautifully the idea that the brain is a machine with a little person (or persons) inside, who views the outside world, reacts to it, and then transfers those reactions to us. In other words, our subjective experience of emotion is created and embodied by the subjective experience of a miniature version of ourselves in our brain, a so-called homunculus. (As an aside, it is also interesting that this view, of little emotion homunculi within ourselves, to some extent relieves us of full responsibility for our emotional behavior, as when we say, “my anger made me do it.”)

Questionable assumption 6. Emotions are purely subjective experiences. How the brain creates an internal representation of the external world, and translates that representation into thoughts, feelings, and action, is a central open question in neuroscience. We know for sure that there is no little person sitting inside the brain looking at a screen and pulling on joysticks. The only things that have access to the patterns of neuronal activity in the brain are other neurons in the brain. How neurons “decode” the information represented by other groups of neurons and pass that information on to yet further groups of neurons so as to organize and express thoughts, emotions, and actions, is a deep mystery that we are far from solving.

This leads to the following scientific questions:

“How exactly do emotions arise in the brain? Can we separate the subjective, conscious experience of emotions from the existence of emotion states per se? Do emotions always have to be conscious? If so, how should we study them in animals, who may or may not be conscious and, in any case, cannot tell us how they feel?”

As we elaborate in the next section, we believe it is critical to distinguish between emotions as internal functional states, and conscious experiences of emotions (often called “feelings”). Emotions and feelings are not the same thing, although they are of course closely related. Most of this book is about emotions, not about feelings. We review some of the work on feelings near the end of this book.

The fallacy of the homunculus.

A homunculus, literally “little person,” refers to the idea that inside your brain there is a separate observer, something that can watch and interpret the activity of all the other brain regions in the same way that an external scientist might be able to record from your brain and make sense of its processing.

The idea of a homunculus has a long history in psychology and the philosophy of mind. It fundamentally arises from a confusion between different levels of description. On the one hand, we know that humans and animals have emotions (and many other mental states). On the other hand, we know that these mental states are produced by the brain. It is therefore tempting to conclude that emotions must literally be found in the brain if we only look with sufficiently microscopic tools.

But producing emotions is not the same as having an emotion. By analogy, there are many places in the brain that participate in producing vision, from the retina to the thalamus, to the cortex. But you cannot find vision in any one of these regions, nor does any of them have the experience of seeing. Or to take one more example: you can drive a car. So who or what does the driving? You can no more be driving by yourself (without a car) than a car can drive by itself (unless perhaps it’s a self-driving car). And you can’t take apart the car to look for where the “driving” really is located. Driving, vision, and emotion are system properties: they are not properties of any of the constituent parts, but all the parts work together to generate the property.

The most common aspect of emotion where a homunculus fallacy often arises is with respect to the conscious experience of emotion (or, for that matter, the conscious experience of anything else). Unlike the little characters that Inside Out put inside the mind of a girl, there are no homunculi in the brain for experiencing your emotions. There are brain systems that make you have a conscious experience of emotion. But the conscious experience of the emotion is a global property of a person (or animal), and the mechanisms whereby it is produced do not themselves have that property.

Toward a Science of Emotion

Without further reflection, it might seem that it should be straightforward to investigate emotions, and to discover how emotions work in the brain. But the assumptions and questions sketched in the first part of this chapter show us that a science of emotion faces some difficult challenges looming ahead. A science of emotion needs to examine most of our initial intuitions about emotions, sharpen vague questions so that they can be experimentally investigated, and confront both empirical and conceptual problems.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the major sources of conceptual confusion in emotion science. There is an assumption that different words, concepts, or types of data must refer to distinct things. We will argue instead that one and the same thing can be described with very different words and measured with very different types of data. Consider the thought provoking image on the next page (figure 1.1), produced by neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe at MIT and published in Smithsonian Magazine (December 2015).

Saxe got a mother and her infant child to go into an MRI scanner and obtained these images showing their brains. Saxe writes:

“While they lie there, the scanner builds up a picture of what’s inside their skulls. Often MRimages are made for physicians, to find a tumor or a blocked blood vessel. Scientists also make the images, to study brain function and development. In my lab, at MIT, we use MRI to watch blood flow through the brains of children; we read them stories and observe how their brain activity changes in reaction to the plot. By doing so, we’re investigating how children think about other people’s thoughts.

To some people, this image was a disturbing reminder of the fragility of human beings. Others were drawn to the way that the two figures, with their clothes and hair and faces invisible, became universal, and could be any human mother and child, at any time or place in history. Still others were simply captivated by how the baby’s brain is different from his mother’s; it’s smaller, smoother and darker, literally, because there’s less white matter. Here is a depiction of one of the hardest problems in neuroscience: How will changes in that specific little organ accomplish the unfolding of a whole human mind?

As for me, I saw a very old image made new. The Mother and Child is a powerful symbol of love and innocence, beauty and fertility. Although these maternal values, and the women who embody them, may be venerated, they are usually viewed in opposition to other values: inquiry and intellect, progress and power. But I am a neuroscientist, and I worked to create this image; and I am also the mother in it, curled up inside the tube with my infant son.”

As you were reading the above quote, you probably felt a tension between the colder, internal glimpse of two physical bodies shown in the MRI scan and your realization that these are two real people engaged in an affectionate emotional behavior. The MRI scan shows only tissue contrast, revealing bones, fluid, muscle, and brain. At the same time, we know that this is a mother and child, they are people, with thoughts and emotions. Both our everyday view of people and the view made possible with the MRI are of the same thing.

This is perhaps the most critical realization for a science of emotion (indeed, for a science of the mind in general). You can feel emotions. You can infer that other people are having emotions from their behavior. And you can image and record traces of emotions in the brain. These are very different types of data, very different sources of evidence about an emotion. And indeed, they need to be kept separate if one is studying them in their own right, as we shall see, feeling an emotion, having an emotion state, and attributing emotions to another person engage distinct processes in your brain. Nonetheless, your experience of your own emotion, your attribution of an emotion to another person you might see laughing or crying, and the neuroscientist’s investigation of an emotion from neurobiological data are not about three different things. They are ultimately all about one and the same thing, an emotion state. You can infer the emotion state in another person from observing their behavior, you can investigate the neural mechanisms of the emotion state through neuroscience experiments, and the emotion state may cause you yourself to have a conscious experience of the emotion. The behavioral observation, neurobiological measurement, and personal experience each can provide evidence for one and the same thing: an emotion state.

To flesh this out a little further, let’s view emotion from four different perspectives: the perspective of the behavioral biologist who might be carefully watching the behavior of an animal in the wild or the laboratory (or, for that matter, watching the behavior of a human being); the psychologist concerned with having people talk about and rate their conscious emotional experiences; the psychologist measuring emotional responses in the body, such as changes in heart rate or facial expression (common approaches in the psychology of emotion); and the neurobiologist who is studying (or even manipulating) the function of neurons in the brain (figure 1.2). All four perspectives can be perfectly objective and have an established and agreed upon methodology, but they are rather different data and often do not use the same language to describe the concepts and methods that relate their data to emotions. Yet all four investigate emotion.

Of those four perspectives, it is especially neuroscience that can show you things you could never get from your everyday knowledge of emotions. What kind of drug will work best for curing depression? Why do some people fear dogs whereas others love them? And, first and foremost, what are the underlying mechanisms that generate emotions, how do neurobiological events in the brain cause tears to run down our face when we are in a state of sadness, and how does this emotion state change much of the rest of our behavior, our attention, our memory, our decision-making?

FIGURE 1.2. Emotions can be inferred from severalkinds of data. We regularly attribute them to ourselves based on our subiective experience; psychologists might attribute them to us based on our verbal reports of that experience. We also attribute them to other people on the basis of their overt behavior; ethologists might do the same when they observe animal behavior. We might also use additional tools, such as measures of heart rate orblood pressure in the laboratory, to infer that a person is in an emotional state, even when they do not show it in overt behavior. Finally, as neurobiologists, we might look directly into the brain in order to draw conclusions about emotions. All of these measures are parts of a science of emotion.

These and many other questions like them are important for treating psychiatric illnesses, for understanding everyday human cognition and behavior, and for understanding the cognition and behavior of other animals. You cannot get at them by just thinking about your feelings. The aim of a neuroscience of emotion should be to make transparent how and why specific emotions have the features that they do: to explain them through their underlying mechanisms (this is a topic we discuss in detail in chapter 4).

But although this book will focus on neuroscience, our hope is that our broad and functionally based approach will contribute to an integrated science of emotion, a science that investigates emotions through behavior, psychology, and neurobiology. Such a science of emotion should also aim to investigate emotions across species, from worms and insects, to mollusks and fish, to birds and reptiles, to mice and dogs, to monkeys and to people. It would identify specific instances of emotions . . .

*

from

The Neuroscience of Emotion: A New Synthesis

by Ralph Adolphs and David J. Anderson

get it at Amazon.com