Our Emotions – Nature, Nurture or Wildcard?
Human emotions are seemingly complex things. Emotions are intertwined with thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and experiences internally; along with cultural norms and expectations from the outside world; all adding to the emotional picture from the day you are born.
Emotions are defined by Wikipedia:
Emotion is a mental state variously associated with thoughts, feelings, behavioural responses, and a degree of pleasure or displeasure. There is currently no scientific consensus on a definition. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotion
Neel Burton, M.D., psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer in Oxford, England writes:
In the 20th century, Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) and Robert Plutchik eight, which he grouped into four pairs of polar opposites (joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust, surprise-anticipation).
It is said that basic emotions evolved in response to the ecological challenges faced by our remote ancestors and are so primitive as to be ‘hardwired’, with each basic emotion corresponding to a distinct and dedicated neurological circuit. Being hardwired, basic emotions (or ‘affect programs’) are innate and universal, automatic, and fast, and trigger behaviour with a high survival value.
There is unlikely to be a subject more debated, misconstrued and misunderstood as how human emotions work. Scientists and philosophers have studied, debated, fought and struggled with being able to confirm once and for all what causes human emotion, how much emotion is determined by our DNA, and how much (of any) is a direct reaction to our immediate environment.
As so aptly discussed in her remarkable book ‘How Emotions are Made’, scientist Lisa Feldman-Barrett takes us on a journey of discovery.
We have all heard of the nature vs. nurture arguments in terms of childrearing; what as parents we are responsible for in the development of our offspring, and what is unchangeable due to the fixed nature of genetics. I have always secretly though there was a third state, that of ‘Wild Card’, where the child does not fit with nature or nurture as described in the books (or perhaps that’s just my children!).
With more recent science being quite clear and outspoken about the adaptable and ‘plastic’ nature of the human brain, and scanning techniques now able to prove that the brain does not in fact have separate distinct parts for separate distinct functions, but recruits a wide spread of neurons from different locations across the brain for tasks, such as forming emotions. No longer is fear or anger stored in the limbic system alone, waiting to be fired up in times of imminent danger where life preservation becomes paramount. No longer are the classic ‘faces of emotion’ set as a blueprint for all humans across the globe.
Everything we were taught in Behavioural Science 101, gone, in a puff of smoke!
Like all information of great pivotal importance, it seems the news is taking its time to filter down into common knowledge, and most of us still pull up the old myths as ‘fact’; both when we are judging another’s emotional state by their facial expression and body language, OR how we are judging our own.
This new paradigm of how emotions are made should make us all sit up and take note, as it has such huge potential for positive societal change.
It is now understood that emotions first start as the brains predictions of what might be going on in your outer world. Essentially it is a ‘best guess’ scenario from the brain. The brain uses your senses, sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch sensation, and matches all this information to your prior experience of a similar situation, to form the ‘best’ prediction. The brain then acts on this prediction causing you to have a ‘feeling’ or emotion, which you will act upon to keep yourself healthy and safe.
The brain also continuously scans your ‘inner’ world to work out the best prediction based on prior experience, what might be happening inside your body, so it can set you into action to attend to its needs.
This is really interesting because it is quite possible that the brains ‘best’ predictions could at times be completely wrong. For example: You wake up one morning with a sore tummy, feeling slightly ‘off’. Are you feeling anxious because of the 9 am meeting scheduled with your boss? Are you feeling ‘seedy’ because of the extra glass of wine you had last night? Or are you coming down with a tummy bug from the left-over chicken you ate?
Each of these emotional states is quite different yet when the brain links the feeling of the sore tummy with its previous experience of when you have felt like this in the past, and decides you are anxious (as the best prediction at the time), it is not much help when you urgently need a bathroom while on the bus to work! Prediction error! It was the chicken!
As Lisa Feldman- Barrett explains, the brain predicts constantly scanning your environment (inner and outer) and putting forward the best emotion to ensure you will take action to ensure you stay alive and well. The brain makes predictions from past experiences and constructs the current situation. It predicts to explain everything you see, hear, taste, smell and touch.
Therefore, if we can make our body internally feel as good and healthy as possible, and if we take care in how we construct the world around us by being consciously aware and making good life choices, then we are in the driving seat to power our emotions. Can it truly be that simple?