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Emotions: Action-requiring neurological programs

April 16, 2011

In my previous post, where I asked you to tell me what you’d like to learn in this year’s online Language of Emotions course, we got a wonderful set of responses. Thanks! I’m already creating a group of learning modules based on your feedback. Thanks everybody!

cover of Self Comes to MindAs I pondered your responses and requests, I kept being reminded of things I had just read in Antonio Damasio’s book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. It’s a good, though quite involved read, in which Damasio is laying out some theories of consciousness, based on his work as a neuroscientist. How does a brain create a mind? How does the mind create a self? What are the connections between wakefulness, consciousness, mind, and self? Can you be awake but not conscious? (Yes, for instance, in epileptic “absence” seizures.)

Interestingly, Damasio puts forth the hypothesis that true self-aware and other-aware consciousness cannot occur without emotions. Wow, I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up in the New Age, emotions were seen as a hindrance to consciousness — because emotions were allegedly “lower” than intellectual or spiritual ideas. I fell for that idea as a pre-teen, but I quickly saw that the idea was deeply flawed. It’s wonderful, after a lifetime of identifying the positive purposes of emotions on my own, to read all of the new research about emotions and their importance to memory, learning, thinking, decision making, and now consciousness and selfhood (and, of course, intellectual and spiritual ideas) … wow.

I saw clearly throughout my time in the New Age that denying emotions (or treating them as problematic) meant that people didn’t learn much about them (except that they were bad). People around me tried to live above, in spite of, and without emotions so that they could be more spiritual or more clear, but their efforts didn’t bear fruit. In theory, living without emotions might seem at first glance to be an interesting idea, but in reality (where emotions are integral to thinking, learning, socialization, memory, and consciousness) trying to live without emotions is just silly talk. However, I’m grateful for that silly talk, because it provided me a wonderful living laboratory for my early research into emotions.

So it was nice to read Damasio’s hypothesis: Full functional, interactive consciousness requires emotions. Huzzah!

Damasio also puts forward the idea that emotions are “action-requiring neurological programs,” which is such a wonderful way of putting it. So, for instance, fear requires that you take action to orient to change and novelty, or to avoid physical harm. Anger requires that you take action to protect or restore your sense of self or your standpoint (or the selves and standpoints of others, if your anger is related to social justice). Shame requires that you take action to avoid injuring others or yourself (if the shame is authentic to you. It’s important to first identify whether the shame has been applied as a control mechanism from the outside). Sadness requires that you take action to let go of something that isn’t working anyway, and grief requires that you actively mourn something that is lost irretrievably. And so forth.

Each emotion is an action-requiring neurological program, and in The Language of Emotions, I worked to explain what each emotion is for and how to work with it as itself (rather than trying to pretend it’s something else, or that you don’t have it). On that topic, here’s an excerpt from Self Comes to Mind [I’ll bracket my explanations of Damasio’s terms]:

“Emotions are present even in cultures that lack names for the emotions … The universality of emotional expressions reveals the degree to which the emotional action program is unlearned and automated. The execution of the same emotion can vary from occasion to occasion but not enough to make it unrecognizable to the subject or to others. It varies as much as the interpretation of Gershwin’s “Summertime” can change with different interpreters or even with the same interpreter on different occasions, it is still perfectly identifiable because the general contour of the behavior has been maintained….

The fact that emotions are unlearned, automated, and predictably stable across action programs [emotional responses] betrays their origins in natural selection and in the resulting genomic instructions [human genetic inheritance]. These instructions have been highly conserved across evolution and result in the brain’s being assembled in a particular, dependable way, such that certain neuron circuits can process emotionally competent stimuli [anything that evokes an emotion] and lead emotion-triggering brain regions to construct a full-fledged emotional response.

Emotions and their underlying phenomena are so essential for the maintenance of life and for subsequent maturation of the individual that they are reliably deployed in early development [all normally-developing human infants are born with specific emotions intact, and all develop further emotions at dependable stages].”  From Self Comes to Mind, pp 123-124 [emphasis mine]

As I was reading through your responses about the online class, I really thought that this information might be helpful. So many emotions are pathologized, and we’ve got endless instructions about how not to have the allegedly negative ones, or how to have the allegedly positive ones all day long. But that’s all bunk. It’s much more helpful to approach emotions as necessary aspects of socialization, intellect, memory, learning, interpersonal skill, consciousness, and self hood.

I’m finding it so helpful to understand emotions as action-requiring neurological programs, because it means that I get to decide which action (out of thousands) I want to take. It also really lifts away the stain of pathology that has been placed on emotions for so many centuries. Emotions are necessary, and they’re reliable. Snake crosses your path, fear program starts. You take action to avoid the snake (or pick him up gently and get him out of harm’s way, or any number of other responses), and the fear recedes.

Someone calls you a jerk, and your anger program starts. You take action to repair the damage: you could yell, but that would just start a war; you could ignore him if that’s the best idea; you could lean into the relationship and ask him to explain his behavior (if you want the protect his sense of self and move the relationship to a new place); or you could laugh and defuse the intensity. Whichever action you take will complete the program (okay, fighting back will require a new and stronger anger response, and you could get into trouble, but we talk about that in my book).

You move toward a bad habit or you’re about to say something really insensitive, shame program starts (this example involves authentic shame). Shame brings its own action; it fills you with heat, flushes your face, and stops you cold, because you’re about to do something potentially injurious. Your job is to check in, think about your next move, and hopefully stop yourself from doing it. If you don’t, your shame program may intensify, or other emotions may come up, depending on your relationship to shame (depression, apathy [I don’t care; I do what I want!], fear, and so forth).

Each emotion has its own action-requiring program, and though there’s a tremendous amount of nuance and individual tweaks to how each of our emotions work and interact, they are “perfectly identifiable,” as Damasio writes.

In my above examples, I purposely chose simple instances where the emotions were appropriate to the situation. As we all know, this isn’t always the case. In my book, I talk about each emotion in terms of its purpose, your possible responses, and how to know if the emotion is out of kilter. For instance, if you have fear all the time, even when nothing new, novel, or dangerous is near you, that’s something that needs to be checked out. Fear programs aren’t supposed to be running all day long; it’s exhausting!

Or if every blasted thing makes you angry, even if no one is specifically insulting you, that’s something that needs to be checked out. Your anger program shouldn’t be running all day long. Actually, no emotion should be running at full mood speed all day long. Each of your emotions has its own job to do, and the jobs are very specific. I talk about the job of each emotion in my book, I write about it here, and we’ll focus on it in our online class (the class will start on September 28th, and I’ll announce it here, on Facebook, and in my newsletter).

One thing that Damasio doesn’t cover in any of his work is something analogous to my conceptualization of the gifts in each emotion. If you’ve read my book, you know that each emotion chapter opens with a list of the gifts each emotion contributes to you. I also organize each emotion into its flowing state, where it’s monitoring your environment and your behavior so subtly that you don’t even know it’s there; to its mood state, where pretty much everyone can identify it; and also to its raging rapids state, where the emotion has gone to Defcon 1 and is ordering nuclear strikes. 😉

I’ll talk more about these distinctions in my next post, because I think it will answer some of the questions you posted here and on my Facebook page. Thanks again! My happiness and contentment programs are running and prompting me to offer gratitude for your support. I appreciate you!

11 Comments

Patricia Yager Delagrange April 22, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Very interesting theory about emotions, especially when you say that you can have an appropriate emotional response but if that response is going on all day long without any specific “reason” behind what’s causing it, that emotion should be “checked out”. That made me really ponder my “fear” when I ride horses. It grabs me and hangs on even when it should have dissipated…..hmmmm

Karla April 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Hi Patricia, thanks for your response. I changed the sentence that used to say “checked out medically,” to “checked out,” because with fear, you can check on it yourself, or work with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. It’s only if these two things don’t work that it might be good to see a doctor and maybe consider an anti-anxiety med. Mood-state or raging rapids fear can really wreak havoc throughout the body, because its purpose is to orient you and get you ready for action, just in case there’s danger.

That’s great when there’s danger, but if there isn’t anything dangerous going on, too much fear can be very destabilizing, and it can wear out your adrenals.

I’d check in with the horseback-riding situation. Is the fear trying to tell you something, for instance, that maybe you have a balance problem and are in danger of falling, or that the horse might do something kooky and endanger you? My first question with any emotion is, “Okay, this is what this emotion is for. Is there any external reason why it’s being activated so often?” When we know what it’s responding to, we can either complete the action, or find a way to address the situation that’s sent the emotion into a feedback loop.

This post on the difference between feelings and emotions may be helpful, and this post about anxiety might be helpful as well.

Patricia Yager Delagrange April 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Thank you for taking the time to write to me. I appreciate that a lot. I know about the “flight or fight” syndrome which keeps my adrenalin in overdrive and is bad for my body. Several years ago I bought the tapes made by Luncinda Bassett on Anxiety and WOW I have to say after the MANY counselors I’ve seen over the years, she was the only one to help me. I’m doing much better now and this horse “anxiety” is different from the day-to-day anxiety I was living with and still struggle with off and on. I wish there was an equine psychotherapist but I don’t think so. Although I live in the San Francisco Bay Area you’d THINK there should be someone, but according to my friend who sent me your website, I guess not.
I like what you write and found some of it really hit home.
Thank you again.
Patti Yager Delagrange

Emotion Theater! « Karla McLaren June 30, 2011 at 4:19 pm

[…] is a physiological experience (or state of awareness) that gives you information about the world (emotions are action-requiring neurological programs), and a feeling is your conscious awareness of the emotion itself. I hadn’t really understood […]

sean July 31, 2011 at 3:17 pm

I was given a link here from a friend. I am a martial artist and am seeking to increase my skill which requires a certain level of relaxation. the issue i’m having is an emotional response, or reflex if you will. when i’m in a bad situation, I find myself tense and hard for a fraction of a second, causing me to lose. I tried many things to figure out why, and correct it, but cannot. was wondering if you could give guidance? thank you.

Karla August 1, 2011 at 6:04 am

Hi Sean. When you say tense, do you mean fear, or anger? And are you losing your relaxation, or losing the bout?

Shame: The excruciating, exquisite, and indispensable emotion « Karla McLaren August 1, 2011 at 6:00 am

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Jane Jones December 17, 2011 at 3:07 am

Dear Karla: Wow! Incredible! I’ve always thought (and felt!) that the emotions were highly under-rated in our society as well. Not only are emotions so misunderstood (until now with your amazing research) they were so easily dismissed. To think that emotions do have such an amazing and dramatic impact upon our innermost and deepest parts of soulful being. As we can now properly gauge their impact on the entire spectrum or range of emotions. I find it so very interesting that there is a base emotion that takes form as various moods, etc, and how this plays and interacts into the huge spectral field of emotional language. I am also fascinated with how emotions effect our hormones (endocrine system, etc), and how hormones effect our emotions, and vice versa.

Now it is becoming much easier to fully understand how to work with our emotions by understanding them, and how very vital this information is for overall emotional health. The guess-work is taking out of the equation; thanks to your ground-breaking work! Also, the idea of Consciousness as it gives rise to thought-feeling forms and concept of self. Seems that emotions mirror or try to mirror an inner truth, allows us to uncover all the bs through emotional expression, to get to the vital truth, which to me is LOVE, the reason for the emotions; to balance the LOVE equation in our lives. Also, I find it most interesting that you do not see love as an emotion. Yes, there is love and then there is LOVE, and I sense it is an entity-energy (some may call it God, Divine Feminine, Sacred Masculine, whatever!) which does require a presence at all times in our lives or the emotions will create an upheaval. And for LOVE to say “pay attention, don’t let me, this entity known as LOVE get messed up, please don’t, for it is me, LOVE which absolutely needs to flow, grow and glow. Here is an emotion to help deal with this need I have, as LOVE to be here and now. And to do just this I absolutely need to be present in the now. So please give LOVE a wide berth always, let it flow or experience an unpleasant emotion which will only get better once more love is allowed to flow. And when love is allowed to flow all the time, you will be in a most blissful state of LOVE you will need nothing else! As LOVE I need to be fully alive in LOVE so please let LOVE grow and develop within the inner self and the outermost projection of beingness as naturally as the heartbeats”. Thoroughly enjoyed!

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[…] When things are going well, all of your emotions (even the raging rapids ones) will respond to you and will resolve when you’ve paid attention to them and made whatever corrective actions they require. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “emotions are action-requiring neurological programs.” […]

Do Emotions Exist? December 7, 2013 at 6:48 am

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