On Emotion

July 31, 2020

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


What are emotions? Most people would say that they're "feelings", but that isn't really an answer. We've just recreated the problem–what's a feeling? In the academic literature, there are literally hundreds of definitions. There are some threads though, that start to surface.

Emotions as the enemy of reason

For example, historical views of emotion have centred around ideas of ‘passion’ or of movement, with a particular emphasis on how emotions are the antithesis of reason. Emotions make us act without thinking. Plato described emotion and reason as the horses that pull us in two directions. The biblical prophet Isaiah encouraged us to come together and reason, rather than act without thinking. A crime of passion was once a legitimate excuse for murder. Characters in literature are often overcome with emotion as a motivation for strange, plot-driving behaviour. Even modern approaches to therapy often position emotion as the enemy of rational wellbeing.

Historically, emotions have been seen as the enemy of reason.

Emotions as social signals

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

Traits that make us more successful at reproducing are traits that get passed on. These traits arise from genetic variation, are selected for by the environment, and passed on through reproduction. During the course of his work, Darwin noticed that certain expressive movements spanned across both animals and humans, and he gathered a collection of photos and images from around the world and from psychiatric institutions. He thought that perhaps emotions were an evolved feature from lower (less sophisticated) animals that conferred survival advantages. For example, baring teeth and snarling intimidates others and submissive expressions ‘switch off’ that aggression.

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

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

Emotions as a motivation to act

But of course emotions are more than just signals. We don't just simply arrange ourselves into signalling shapes. Emotions are experiences–feelings, urges, cognitions, physical responses.

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

It's a return to the historical theme of movement. Mandler describes emotions as a motivation to act. Humans, like other animals, are bursting with a complex web of automatic behaviour routines. When these routines are 'interrupted', we feel an emotion. The role of the emotion is to troubleshoot the interruption, and return to normal functioning and so, the form of the emotion is shaped by the context surrounding the interruption.

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

Emotions in dysfunction

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

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

The origin of our routines are the origin of our emotions

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

Consider, for example, Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs: we might prioritise shelter, food, and safety before things like love and belonging, but we're fundamentally oriented towards achieving all of these things and so we build our routines accordingly.

But even considering these needs might be over-complicating things. Certain stimuli or events in the world naturally provide certain opportunities to respond. James Gibson described these affordances as perceived action possibilities. It's easiest to describe when we consider the tiny world of the bacteria, E. Coli. Known for making us ill, E. Coli is a fascinating microcosm of all animal behaviour.

E. Coli lives in a very simple world, comprised only of different chemical concentration gradients. As such, its repertoire of behaviour is similarly tiny. It can either wiggle its flagella to move forward, or it can tumble itself into a random, new direction. The affordances of the bacterium's world are thus to either keep going, or to move in a different direction.

E. Coli will move towards nutrients like glucose, or away from toxins like phenol. The reason for this is that the event (encountering one of these concentration gradients) has affective value or ‘valence’–it’s either good or bad. E. Coli moves toward the good, and away from the bad. This is the autopoietic drive that's built into any system that is successfully capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. Matenura and Varela spoke of 'unities' and regenerations, but we can understand it as any organism subject to Darwin's evolutionary pressure to reproduce: organisms seek to attain states that support survival and reproduction, and avoid that which might obstruct those states.

Organisms seek to attain, or maintain certain states of the world (seek out the good) and avoid that which might obstruct those states (avoid the bad). Importantly, these states are constrained by their environment—they are only as sophisticated at the world they live in.

In the case of bacteria this environment is very basic indeed, as are the actions afforded to it–an impulse that produces an approach or avoid response. Or consider flowers. Many flowers, like sunflowers, move in order to maximise their position in relation to the sun; a property known as phototropism. While in some cases the property appears to be purely mechanical, phototropism can be quite complex, involving multiple signalling pathways, photoreceptors, and hormones to coordinate differential growth gradients. Even in the relatively static world they live in, flowers seek out the good and avoid the bad.

We can imagine autopoiesis at a more sophisticated level. Events produce a response. These are shaped very often by evolution and are expressed in the form of reflexes and instincts. But at a certain level of sophistication, these are shaped also by an organism’s experiences of the world and its needs. More complex organisms live in more complex worlds. Humans can't possibly evolve a response for everything we encounter and can’t evolve a response to every kind of event. So we must develop systems to appraise the affective value that these myriad events may hold.

Homeostasis is one example of this. Homeostasis refers to the idea that our body needs to remain in equilibrium in order to function. For example: we need a certain amount of water in our cells. When there is not enough water, we get thirsty and we drink. We need a certain amount of oxygen in our blood, so when the oxygen level is too low we get breathless and we breathe. We need certain nutrients, so when these get too low we get hungry and we eat. The body signals to us the affective value of the affordances in our world. When we're thirsty, water gains value. When we're sated, that value disappears.

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

Autopoiesis determines our goals

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

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