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!
As 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 an idiot, 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!