Emotions are Action-Requiring Neurological Programs

When I wrote The Language of Emotions, I had not yet found a concise definition of emotions anywhere, so I sort of tap-danced around the issue and dove into my own empathic view of emotions as unique messengers that carry specific gifts. But I read a wonderful book last year that presented the perfect definition: emotions are action-requiring neurological programs — and I relied upon this definition in my newest book, The Art of Empathy. It is an absolutely magnificent frame through which to view emotions!

Cover for Self Comes to Mind by Antonio DamasioThis definition comes from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. It’s a good, though quite involved read, in which Damasio lays out some theories of consciousness, based on his work as a research scientist. 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, where you can be walking around but have no conscious awareness of anything you’re doing, and no memory of anything you did during the seizure.)

After he walks us through many different conceptualizations of consciousness, Damasio puts forth the hypothesis that true self-aware and other-aware consciousness cannot occur without emotions. It is only when we feel emotions and have emotional awareness of our surroundings, Damasio asserts, that we can be said to be conscious. Otherwise, we might just as well be sleepwalking.

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. Only joy and happiness were supported — everything else was trouble. I fell for that idea as a pre-teen, but I quickly saw that the idea was deeply flawed, and that people can’t actually function at all if they try to live above, without, or in spite of their emotions. Emotions, I felt, were central to every aspect of thinking and behavior — but I was completely alone in my view, and I needed to study interactions, emotions, and empathy for many years in order to flesh out my impressions and hypotheses.

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 self-hood (and, of course, intellectual and spiritual ideas) … wow.

I saw clearly throughout my time in the New Age that denying nearly all emotions (or treating them as problematic) meant that people didn’t learn much about them (except that they were to be avoided). 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 wonderful to read Damasio’s hypothesis: Full functional, interactive consciousness requires emotions. Yes!

Because emotions are action-requiring neurological programs

Damasio also puts forward the idea that emotions are “action-requiring neurological programs,” which is such a wonderful way of approaching them. And in my work, I had already done just that! 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 transcend or avoid it). In this excerpt from Self Comes to Mind, Damasio talks about the universality and reliability of emotions [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 [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 then develop further emotional responses at dependable stages].” From Self Comes to Mind, pp 123-124 [emphasis mine].

This information is so wonderful. 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 memory, learning, socialization, interpersonal skill, intellect, consciousness, and self-hood.

It’s so helpful to understand emotions as action-requiring neurological programs, because it means that you get to decide which action (out of thousands) you 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, they’re intrinsic to cognition and behavior, and they’re reliable.

Emotions also arise in different intensities

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 three levels of intensity (there are many levels of intensity for each emotion, of course, but I created three large categories for simplicity’s sake). So each emotion has a “lite” or flowing state, where it’s monitoring your environment and your behavior so subtly that you often won’t even know it’s there; a mood state, where pretty much everyone can identify it; and an intense state, where the emotion is highly activated. (See this free Emotional Vocabulary List for excellent ways to describe these states to yourself and increase your emotional awareness.)

So let’s look at some emotions as they move into your awareness — in terms of the gifts they bring you, the actions they require, and the states they move through.

A snake crosses your path, and your fear mood-state 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 your fear recedes. The action has been completed, and there’s no longer any reason for fear to be present in its mood state. It can down-regulate to its calm and watchful flowing state (where you probably call it your instincts and intuition) until you need it again.

Or perhaps some guy 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 more intense anger response , and you could get into trouble, but we talk about that in my book). When you’ve completed your anger program, your anger will down-regulate to its flowing state, where it subtly helps you maintain your voice, your standpoint, and your self-image without offending against others.

ShameOr perhaps you move toward a bad habit or you’re about to say something really insensitive, so your shame program moves into its mood state (this example involves authentic shame — which means that it tracks to something you honestly feel ashamed about; this shame is not an aspect of enforced social control).

Shame brings its own actions; 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 forward, depending on your relationship to shame (such as depression, apathy [I don’t care; I do what I want!], fear, and so forth). When you complete the correct action for your shame and amend your behavior, it will down-regulate to its flowing state, where it subtly monitors your behavior and your treatment of yourself and others.

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, every emotion is “perfectly identifiable,” as Damasio writes.

Reliable, but not always simple

In my above examples, I purposely chose simple instances where the emotions were appropriate to each 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 an emotion is out of kilter. For instance, if you feel mood-state 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 at their mood-state 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, too. Your mood-state 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. If you need some support with emotions that are requiring actions from you all day and all night (!), this post may be helpful: How much emotion is too much?

My happiness and contentment programs are delightfully activated by Antonio Damasio’s work on consciousness and action-requiring neurological programs. His work and his wonderful definition made the writing of The Art of Empathy so much easier!

17 Responses

  1. Leo
    | Reply

    I saw clearly throughout my time in the New Age that denying nearly all emotions (or treating them as problematic) meant that people didn’t learn much about them (except that they were to be avoided). 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.

    It’s amazing the degree that statement applies to a large part of the secular non-religious community as well. I blame the ancient Greeks for this particular cultural contagion.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yes, I see the same distrust of emotions in these communities you speak of — and I observe these groups’ continual internecine warfare problems, which arise reliably when emotions are routinely trampled over as immaterial. Certainly, this distrust of and ignorance about the purpose of emotions in conscious cognition makes outreach as deeply dysfunctional as the internal politics and clique-ishness are.

  2. Dietlinde
    | Reply

    Thank you, Karla, for your latest post. I devoured Damasio’s, as well as your insights and find them very true, and helpful. I am in my late seventies, and for most of my life have been afraid to express my anger. But when I turned 70, I suddenly felt that “now it’s my turn to live!”, and within a year and a half I found the courage to express my anger, as well as one particular deep and ancient wound. And my life has become so full of love and happiness, I can hardly believe my luck!

    I hope you keep up your good work!

  3. Ravi Kumar G
    | Reply

    Thanks Karla for your insights and spreading them here. I believe they are truly helpful for many others as they are to me.

    I was going through an interview of my favourite author and philosopher Ayn Rand (which was given in 1964!) and this is what she says about emotions…
    “An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man’s value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man’s reason and his emotions — provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows — or makes it a point to discover — the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify
    them somehow — then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he
    will achieve nothing but destruction — his own and that of others.”

    Isn’t this in perfect agreement with the scientific view of emotions? That emotions are like the outputs of a computer to the external stimuli and we need to understand why we feel the way we feel rather than listening to them totally or avoiding the responsibility to act on them.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Ravi — thanks for posting this. I had never read any Rand, but someone a few years ago compared me to her, and I didn’t understand the connection at all! Now I get it!

      She did a pretty good job identifying emotions back in the day, but the more current understanding is that there isn’t a dichotomy or separation — there isn’t a dualism of mind over body, or mind over emotions — but that all of these can be looked at through the lens of the larger category of total cognition. So her final piece about immorality, that’s just her riffing philosophically about her particular point of view. She got a lot of it, but she also missed a lot — like everyone!

  4. strollingturtle
    | Reply

    Another good article on these rich but, tragically, undervalued resources that we all have but fail to utilize sufficiently. I have been looking for the kind of information, insight and operating instructions on emotions that you are making available for pretty much my entire adult life. I am 53 so it’s been a pretty long haul. Part of my distrust of the whole new age movement was exactly what you’ve described about their treatment of emotions. That ALWAYS rang untrue for me! Discovering your work has been like a much needed “gift from the universe”. Thank you. A little FYI..strollingturtle is my blogging alias. I’ve liked your facebook page and on fb I go by my real name (Helen) . Thanks for your work Karla.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Helen! I have to give a blessing to the New Age, because it was essentially an unregulated experiment in how NOT to work with emotions. I could see clearly in the lived experience of myself, my family, and our community, that this approach to emotions was absolutely unproductive — and usually caused more suffering and confusion than it alleviated. Being surrounded by people who were trying to suppress, repress, dissociate from, and rise above their emotions helped me understand how absurd that idea is! Thank you, broken ideologies!

  5. laura fraser
    | Reply

    Karla please come to London and do a workshop! Your work is so important and I am only a few pages into your book and am fascinated both by how profound the work is and how immediate. To bring the focus back to working with one self, rather then looking for the teacher outside, this is a great gift. Thank you

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Laura! I’m glad the book is useful for you. About travel — I’m caring for a disabled family member, and don’t generally travel far or for longer than a week. I do appreciate your interest, though!

  6. Debra
    | Reply

    I LOVE this Karla, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and LOVE. What I’ve come to see is that we wouldn’t be so afraid of feeling “negativity” if we weren’t scolded, abandoned or punished for having those feelings when we were little beings. Also, in the “spiritual community” spiritual bypassing is what they teach, but by doing so, we become even more fragmented, not whole. We have feelings and emotions for a reason, it’s our internal guidance system, when I work with clients I help them feel, process, listen to and express their emotions, most often those “negative” feelings are just our inner child saying “please LOVE me.” I can go on and on, but what I really want to say is thank you, we need more teachers like you, what you’re sharing is so important as far as helping “emotional maturity.”

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Thanks Debra! I grew up in the spiritual bypass community, and WOW does that not work! I’m so glad to be free to feel.

      Viva la emotions!

  7. Young
    | Reply

    Dear Karla, A friend referred me to you. Thank you for writing this article and shining a light (for me) on emotions. I found it very helpful in better understanding them. Previously I had learned through Marshall Rosenberg’s books how anger can serve as a gift and an alarm to wake up and pay attention to the thoughts in the mind. Thanks to your writing, it seems that that understanding can be extended to all emotions where any emotion can serve as a call to wake up and start paying attention to the thoughts. That they might arise at varying levels of intensities seems analogous to the volume level of an audio alarm or the various colors used to classify safety alert levels. Thank you again 🙂 Young

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Welcome, Young.

      Yes, each emotion has a very specific reason for arising, and each one brings us unique gifts and skills that don’t exist anywhere else.

      They are a magical treasure chest of abilities and awarenesses!

  8. Young
    | Reply

    That is so heart-warming for me to read. As if each emotion that arises were a friend, teacher or loved one. And to think that I had been endowed with this magical treasure chest unbeknownst to me all these years. I’ll be paying more attention to them henceforth. Thank you Karla! Young 🙂

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Welcome, Young!

  9. Julianne
    | Reply

    I came looking to see if there was an update to your language around shame – as opposed to the language I tripped across in: The Language of Emotions. (Which I started reading today.)

    I’m very much in the school of Brené Brown. Simply put – guilt is I did something bad, shame is I am bad.

    I like the wording in the article above: 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).

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Julianne,

      I edited your comment because it was working from incorrect information and it was also a bit impertinent.

      Yes, Brene’s work has brought to light a very old and prevalent idea about the supposed difference between guilt and shame, but I don’t agree at all. I did write a update about shame in my 2020 book Embracing Anxiety, and this is from the Shame and Anxiety chapter:

      “In my book The Language of Emotions, I make a case for moving the concept of guilt out of the way so that we can focus on the emotion of shame properly. I don’t need you to erase the word guilt from your vocabulary, and I know that my approach is unusual, but it helps me work with shame more effectively.

      Quickly stated, many people believe that guilt is a lighter and more manageable emotion than shame because guilt allegedly arises when you did something wrong, while shame allegedly arises when you are something wrong. I don’t agree.

      I see guilt as a fact: you’re either guilty because you did something, or you’re not guilty because you didn’t. Shame is the emotion you feel in response to your guilt, whether it’s for wrongdoing or “wrong being.” To my empathic eye, what people call guilt is actually shame about something they did, while what they call shame is shame about something they are.

      Many people separate guilt from shame because they assume that feeling ashamed about what you are is not survivable. I could not disagree more strenuously. Working with shame about what you are (or what you have become) is something people all over the world and all throughout history have done magnificently.

      This powerful work of shame is the work of transformation and soul-making, profound poetry, epic dramas, deep ecology, and the evolution of human nature itself. Feeling shame about what you are can be excruciating, but it is often a necessary pain. Certainly, there are aspects of shame that need to be managed skillfully, such as shaming that is used as a control tactic by authority figures, peers, or the media — but shame itself is a vital and essential emotion.

      Burning Contracts is a specific practice for shame, and it works when you feel shame about something you did, something you are, or something you’ve been coerced or manipulated into feeling ashamed of (such as shame about unchangeable aspects of your core self).

      Shame keeps a close eye on your behavior and your agreements, and it makes sure that you don’t disrespect yourself or others. Shame keeps you upright, ethical, and answerable for your thoughts, ideas, and actions. If you’ve done something wrong, your shame should arise to help you apologize, make amends, and learn to do better next time. If you’ve become something wrong, your shame should arise to help you apologize, change your behavior and your approach, make amends, and evolve as a person.

      And if you’ve been shamed or told that essential parts of you are broken or unacceptable (such as your body, your skin color, your intelligence, your sexuality, your emotions, your ancestry, or any other core part
      of you), your shame may upload those abusive shaming messages. Hopefully, your anger will arise in response to these abusive messages and set boundaries around them, but in many cases, it won’t be able to.

      Though working with abusive shaming messages is outside the scope of this book on anxiety, it’s important to understand when your shame and anxiety are responding to abuse. For instance, if your shame reminds you to take care of yourself and eat a good breakfast because you tend to jump right into your work and forget to eat (hello, anxiety), that’s a healthy shame response, even though it may feel annoying to be slowed down in the morning. But if your anxiety ramps up when you even think about food, and your shame jumps in with endless rules about perfect foods, evil foods, and strict rules about how your body needs to look or no one will ever love you — yikes! You’re dealing with abuse.

      When your shame is acting in service to abusive messages, it will feel and be abusive — but that’s not the fault of shame. That’s not shame’s true nature. When your shame has ingested the abusive messages you’ve agreed to (or been coerced into), it’s simply doing its job, which is to keep a close eye on your behavior and hold you to the ethics and morals you’ve agreed to (or been shamed into accepting).

      The healing practice is not to erase your shame; it’s to get to the root of any abusive messages or agreements and change them into something worthwhile that you and your shame can be proud of upholding. Therapy can certainly help you heal from abuse, and there are also several supportive shame practices in DEI (beyond Burning Contracts). Each of these practices recruits the boundary setting genius of anger to help you separate yourself from abuse.

      Shame is a powerful emotion because it needs to be; its work is crucial for your social survival and the health of your relationships. Your sense of shame should develop in infancy, and if it doesn’t, you won’t develop empathy properly because you won’t have a clear sense of your effect on others or how to relate to them. Shame monitors your behavior and makes sure that you act in ethical, caring, and respectful ways.”

      Research on shame makes clear connections between the presence of shame and the development of empathy. To throw shame away in favor of guilt is not helping anyone. In fact, it weakens people, and that’s a shame.

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