The Nature of Emotions: Part 1


As I sit here and prepare to work on another blog post a pile of school notes and old journals beckon me.  While thumbing through them, a favorite book comes to mind (Silverstein, 1976). Within these piles of material are themes prevalent in my thinking that this book describes so succinctly.  My own missing pieces are at first represented by deep wells of unresolved trauma which are the primary subject my old journals.   Over time, this missing piece perspective has morphed into what Shel Silverstein (1981) describes with his Big O Character .   This emerging 20-20 hindsight has become the byproduct of my own desire for self-understanding.  As I progressed from self-help junkie, therapy client, to student, I’ve had to wrestle with bitter truths that are impossible to ignore.   I now realize, much of my own thinking can be thought of as a “backa**wards flustercuck”.  The solutions aren’t what I thought they’d be, and neither were the problems.  As I’ve bypassed the big “4-0”, I’ve come to two conclusions:  (1) life happens when you’e doing other things and (2) it all adds up to something at some point.  Ironically, reflections of my personal history can be found throughout my school research.  As an individual who processes information verbally, working through this jumbled up mess is much like detangling a knot.   The big dose of reality that I’ve struggled with most is the nature of emotions.  They create a felt value which flavors my own life experiences.   They are the motivational underpinnings of my belief systems and thought processes.  They complicate the nature of reality due to a causal relationship, which more than one-sided.   An inability to wrap my mind around all this is what produces missing pieces in my thinking.  As I ponder this train of thought, I realize it will need to be the subject of a series of posts.  I’m not sure where this train of thinking will end, but it should be interesting.  In this post, I’ll explore the nature of feelings as an essential precursory understanding to insights I gained from a DBT skills class I took several years ago.

Divergent Ways of Being…

As I engage in this metacognitive endeavor, I find it ironic that a diversity of perspectives on emotions can be found in literature as well as my own family. As per usual, I find all this research is causing me to stop and reflect a bit.  My father comes from a neuroscience background which stresses the universal nature of emotions as byproducts of interacting structures in the brain. In contrast, as a student with a background in psychology and sociology, I’ve focused on the appraisal-oriented aspect of feeling. My interest has been in the individual and sociocultural variants of emotional appraisal and expression. As a result of diverging viewpoints, my father and I have very different ways of relating with emotions. Whether internal states or second-hand observations, my father holds feelings at a distance and contextualizes them in terms of brain function.  Preferring to utilize his prefrontal cortex, emotions are seen by byproducts of the limbic system and cloud rational thought.  In contrast, I work through them in an uncertain manner, led by an instinctual drive to see them to their often absurdist conclusions.  In doing so, I attain a clearer perspective on matters.  Along the way, I’ve come to terms with my own missing pieces and discovered new ways of being.  This journey has taught me to respect the differences between my father and I.   It seems the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.

A Neuroscientist’s Perspective…

While I’m not wanting to get too bogged down in details that might bore my readers, I would like to begin by defining the concept of emotions from a neuroscience perspective. Emotions are complex states in which your mind and body become inextricably connected. They are experienced as a series of physiological responses that arise at a preconscious level as we interact with our external environment (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007).  Emotional perception begins with the intake of sensory information when the limbic system works to assess its emotive relevance (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  For example, the hippocampus stores memories of emotional events that can initiate a stress response when we encounter things that trigger these memories, (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  In this event, our amygdala triggers the fight-or-flight system, experienced as an emotional reaction that exists independent of our control or awareness  – at least initially (Franks, 2006). Occurring without the prefrontal cortex’s input, we are at the mercy of the brain’s more primitive components.  The limbic system changes our affective state by initiating a reactive process throught our body with the release of chemicals in the brain. For instance, during a visit home to see my parents one year, I ran into an old childhood bully at the local grocery store. This experience flooded my mind with adrenaline and norepinephrine causing my heart rate and breathing to rapidly increase.  My hands shook uncontrollably as I gripped the shopping cart until my knuckles when white and numb. While attempting helplessly to present a cool exterior, my limbic system continued betraying me.  Hippocampal memories of old traumas caused my amygdala to do my thinking for me.  As I left the store I was perplexed and stunned by both the immediacy and extremity of this reaction, completely out of my control.   I berated myself for this display of insecurity and sat in the car to calm down before making my way home….

…With fresh snow on the road, the drive home was slow, giving me time to think.  Now alone with my thoughts the nature of my affective state began to enter conscious awareness.  My prefrontal cortex was at work engaging in a bit of cognitive reappraisal, (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011). I began thinking through my emotions rather than with them.  My parents’ words of advice echoed in my mind “Remember Kathleen:  Exercise your prefortal cortex”.

Concluding Remarks

Much of what occurs in the brain is a covert operation. While out of view of our experience, these unconscious processes have profound affects on our well-being and lived experience. It seems the Buddhist monkey-mind concept has a neurological correlate in the limbic system.  For this reason, understanding emotions as a felt value we imbue our life with, only scratches the surface of reality.  Therefore, it might not be unwarranted to characterize emotions as matters of self-deceptive bullshit.  The following quote comes from a blog by a psychiatrist that summarizes this idea succinctly:

“If you want to make good decisions or get good advice about them, don’t pay too much attention to your feelings…Most things that make you feel bad aren’t within your control, so sharing your feelings won’t make you feel better for long….And focusing on your bad feelings makes them more important, so you’ll forget other important things in your life…I know, you’ve got lots of feelings about what you can’t change and you’d prefer to ask why rather than accept what you consider as defeat.  But here’s the advice that I think can be most helpful: fuck that shit. You’re never defeated if what’s stopping you is reality.” (Bennett, 2015).

So have I managed to merge this perspective with my own in a way that makes sense?  While thumbing through a book titled “Emotion & Culture”, Ellsworth, (1994) makes a point that “What is needed is a framework that allows a consideration of the general and particular at the same time” (p. 25).   A neurological perspective of emotions provides a general background on the biological components involved in the production of feeling.  From this perspective emotions are evolutionary adaptations from our environment, and exist as primitive byproducts of our earliest ancestors (Franks, 2006).  In this respect, emotions can be considered innate and universal byproducts of hardwired neuroanatomical elements.  In contrast, a psychological and sociocultural perspective describes the unique variants in emotional expression and understanding within individuals and across cultures.  From this stance, the focal point of understanding is how we choose to interpret and appraise our environment (Ellsworth, 1994).  Finally, it is interesting to note the byproducts of these diverging perspectives in research.  For example, some studies assert a universality to emotional expression and understanding by noting commononalities in facial expression and emotional attribution across cultures (Ellsworth, 1994).  In contrast, research indicates variances in emotional regulation and understanding between cultures.  For example, one study I found states that individualistic and collectivist societies vary significantly in how they interpret and handle emotions due to varying belief systems about self in relation to others (Kitayama & Markus, 1994).  As a result, divergent emotional schemas exist between individualstic and collectivist societies (Kitayama & Markus, 1994).  I conclude this post here, by noting it provides only half of the story on the nature of emotions.  In an attempt to leave my posts to a reasonable length, I will discuss the “other side of the coin” on this matter for my next time…

References

Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Encyclopedia of social psychology (illustratition ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.
Bennett, M. (2015). F*ck feelings our Manifesto [Blog Post] Retrieved from http://fxckfeelings.com/manifesto/
Ellsworth P.C. (1994). Sense, culture and sensibility. In S.E. Kitayama, & H.R.E. Markus, (1994). Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (p.p. 23-50). American Psychological Association.
Franks, D. D. (2006). The neuroscience of emotions. In Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions (pp. 38-62). Springer US.
Lambert, K., & Kinsley, C.H. (2011). Clinical neuroscience: The neurobiological foundations of mntal health. (2nd ed.), New York, NY: Worth Publishers
Kitayama, S.E. & Markus, H.R. (1994) Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. American Psychological Association.
Silverstein S. (1976).  The Missing Piece. New York: Harper Row
Silverstein S. (1981). The Missing Piece Meets The Big O.  New York: Harper Collins.

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