The Logic of Emotion
“... a little boy likes to pretend that he is a giant because he is afraid of giants, for he knows all too
well that his feet are much too small for the boots he wears in his fantasies.” Erikson, E
Emotions as Tools
Emotions are not deep, dark unfathomable mysteries. You only need some clues to unlock what has been made mysterious into something that makes clear sense. Why do you want to do this? Because we have been told we have little control over our emotions, that we are seemingly helpless to stop the rampages of rage or the urgent stimuli of fear. Or that emotions like love and empathy are magical and will cure all. As with all myths, there is some truth to each, but basically, in order to take ownership of your emotions, you must dispel these myths.
Blanchard and Blanchard, scientists at University of Hawaii, describe an emotion as a pre-programmed neural event - that is, your nervous system is pre-programmed with the emotional response, which it is, though certainly not all emotion is. Cheyne, like many ethologists (animal behaviourists), likes to call emotion a ritual display. This comes closer but is far from the totality.
Let’s keep it simple. Emotion is the name we give to a sensation in our body which signals a feeling. The feeling will have one or more ‘tell’ [term used in poker] to indicate to the observer that we are sharing a particular feeling, or emotion. These ‘tell’ (in poker parlance) are, for the most part, the same across cultures. This was studied intensively by Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt at the Max Planc Institute. He and his students documented ‘tell’ (ethograms) across cultures and found that human (primate) infants are born with two emotions intact - anger and joy, each with accompanying signals. They concluded that these facial and bodily signals must be pre-programmed because right at birth the infant uses them. Anger - crunched up red face, crying, screaming, fists, tight body - that indicates a need for physical attention, right now. No please about it. Joy, on the other hand, is the smile, the gurgle, the cuddly coo - which should engender touching and teaching and fun interactions.
Himba: raising of eyebrows ("eyebrow-flash"); series filmed through a right-angle lens by
Prof. Dr. Eibl-Eibesfeldt in 1990.
Courtesy of The Film Archive of Human Ethology Film Archive of Human Ethology
The most famous of Dr. E-E's ethograms. It shows the en face between
mother and child which is used by all primates.
Very quickly, the infant learns what results happen with which emotional signals. Infants are born learning. Getting attention is everything. You knew, perhaps before you were born, how to get Mom’s attention. You reacted to her behaviours by imitating the human and animal creatures around you. Almost instantly you picked up the reflection of the caretakers’ signals and did what is known as affiliate. Very important, babies imitate to make themselves seem like the parent in order to be accepted. Affiliation is what the hostage does in a captive situation in order not to be killed. (Stockholm Syndrome) It’s instinctual.
Anger and Happiness
As I said, babies are born with two emotions, and their ‘tell’ intact. That is, they are born with two chemicals already coursing through their bodies: noradrenalin (anger) and endorphin (happiness). One of the ways the midwife knows the baby is healthy is if the little guy howls with ... yes, anger. The howl forces air in and out of the lungs. Noradrenalin is related to the histamine / immune process; by reacting with what we adults call anger to the outside world, right first off, the baby is assured of blood rushing through the body, out to the skin (the skin turns from the pale blue-white to red), and to the muscles - all that thrashing around. If you object to calling this reaction anger, let’s say it’s determination.
Endorphins are replete in the neonate as painkillers and surge as birth occurs. It must hurt like the dickens to be squeezed out a narrow tube! Which is why most babies come head first, the scalp being the best way to push through. Babies are born sort of stoned, that is, not feeling a lot of pain, and the ‘tell’ for the endorphin is the smile, and hopefully, hunger.... the sucking reflex. These may take an hour or so to appear, after the noradrenalin (anger) wears off.
Over the next three months, the baby watches avidly. Soon, the little one catches on how to combine the two emotions to indicate likes and dislikes. The scrunched up face when offered mushed peas, or the giggle and smile when given sweet carrots, the howl of irritation at a wet diaper and the warm cuddles when nursing.
Babies do not experience fear or grief or shame for the first couple years. What might be interpreted as fear is actually a natural instinct called the startle response. This is accompanied by a clutch response. Human infants reflexively startle and clutch just as the other primate infants do. The clutch response is also similar to the nursing reflex of other tiny mammals, like kittens.
Shame and Empathy
At around eighteen months, almost all babies develop the third and most important emotion. Because English is a poor language to describe these sensations, the best words that can be used are guilt or shame or empathy. They are the same biochemical reaction.
Feeling shame, or more intensely, guilt, is absolutely essential in a group dwelling creature. If an infant cannot be shamed, cannot be made to feel guilty usually by gentle, or not so gentle teasing, this youngster will not be able to fit in. Teasing is far different from bullying. Teasing and laughing are part and parcel of all cultures and is even highly structured as to how and why they can be employed. For example, in the Navaho culture, a guy better beware of ever teasing his mother-in-law, mainly because the children’s maternal uncle is the head of the family and last names come through the woman’s side of the family.
Watch any social animal and you will see joking around, invitations to play, chasing and ‘hide and seek’, plus any number of other engaging behaviours. To watch how discipline (shaming) is done, observe a momma dog and her pups. Or tune in for Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer and see him demonstrate exactly and beautifully how the pack relaxes once a pack leader takes charge. Empathy comes from this sensation of feeling for and respecting others, and feeling safe within a trusted structure. The intricate and powerful sensation of shame-empathy is brought on by a substance called oxytocin.
Because all the higher emotions, signals, we humans and other social creatures exhibit, depend on the production of oxytocin, its absence can be disastrous. Evidence is now emerging showing that sociopaths did not get this third biochemical influx, and even if given oxytocin, cannot process it in their system. Think: Alex in Clockwork Orange or Diane Downs who killed her own children.
The Cycle of Emotions
And it’s not just one or another emotion. The toddler quickly discovers there is a cycle to the emotions / signals being employed by the caretakers. Essentially, when one emotion tool doesn’t work, the next one is used until a response is obtained. For example, a mother might use anger on her child to get his attention when he’s done something naughty. Then shame. Later in the day, teasing, love and compassion will be given. All of these signals are part of the nurturing complex of behaviours (touch, feeding, grooming, teaching). Hopefully this isn’t counterfeit nurturing. More on that later.
The cycle becomes more than habitual; it becomes unyielding because the sequence will take on biochemical responses triggered by any of the behaviours / emotions in the cycle.
“In the Sept. 2003 issue of Scientific American (Taming Stress) Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky PhD writes at length about the vicious biochemical cycles of stress. He explains how an actual or perceived threat activates specific areas of the brain, including the amygdala (a structure associated with both fear and aggression). The amygdala then releases a neurotransmitter called corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system via the spinal cord, prompting the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and glucocorticoids, two hormones that act on the heart, lungs and muscles to prepare them for fight or flight. These same hormones effectively suppress or shut down nonessential functions such as digestion and growth. If stress becomes chronic, Sapolski explains, the constant supply of glucocorticoids eventually induces another tiny part of the brain (the locus coeruleus (also spelled locus caeruleus or locus ceruleus) to get involved. It releases norepinephrine that signals the amygdala to produce more CRH, thus reactivating the stress pathways all over again.
“Unfortunately, as Sapolsky points out, the amygdala can be activated by the mere sight or memory of something frightening - or even an abstract thought - and can also be triggered subliminally by sensory information that we don’t even register as scary. In other words, we can be put into a physiological state of fear without intellectually being aware of it. And on any given stressful day at work, commuting, rushing around doing errands or dealing with unpaid bills, chances are good that it happens a lot.”
And more than that example of ‘stress’, it could be a compulsion to talk to a parent about some childhood event, when really it’s the urge to do the cycle. You will never lose this cycle. The very best you can do is recognize it and, if needed, diminish its imperativeness by using WREMS (Fillmore) to go into CALM. When the cycle comes from counterfeit nurturing and is self destructive or destructive to others, for example - rather than re-experiencing sexual abuse or having to kill someone on the battlefield (both results of the maximum of counterfeit nurturing), often the individual chooses the non-emotion, confusion which over time develops into a NUMB sensation. Self medication with addictive drugs comes in here, which is why NUMB and drug addiction are so very difficult to come out of. Although WREMS will do it eventually and then can take care of the helter-skelter of emotions that flood in as the NUMB wears off.
The Higher Emotions
From the combination of anger / determination, happiness / pleasure, shame / empathy come all the other emotions we identify. To paint a clear picture of the structure of our emotions, let’s assign them colour because like colour, emotions are not actually delineated. They are a continuum. They flow one to the other even within the one emotion itself: for example - anger goes from positive - light (determination) to negative - dark (rage).
Chart – Emotions Chart illustration from Master Your Emotions – Waking WREMS State
The name for a particular emotion is the demarcation we use to describe one segment of the sensation, just as we have chosen a name to describe the specific hue of one range of colour on a vast spectrum of colours. Art, math and music all work similarly. Colours could be notes on a scale, which have mood. Musical notes are also arbitrary delineations in a fluid process. But we are all much more familiar with colour names.
To understand emotion by using colour, let’s look at Itten’s COLOR SPHERE.
Johannes Itten's Colour Wheel
Johannes Itten was a famous art teacher and his colour charts and wheels are today
used by multitudes of designers, students, teachers.
Note that there exist three primary colours (red, yellow, blue). All other colours are combinations of red, yellow, and blue. This matches, amazingly, the way our emotions are structured. Now the entire range of higher emotions begin to have a stunning logic.
Anger, noradrenalin = red
Happiness / pleasure, endorphins = yellow
Shame / empathy, oxytocin = blue
By combining anger and guilt / empathy, you feel grief. By combining joy and shame / guilt, you get fear (or fear of loss, of harm, or death). Fear does have a positive side, the more endorphin side, and that is called thrill, which humans and animals alike adore. The negative of fear is terror and freezing still. We humans are NOT a flight / fight animal, like a lion. We are a flight / freeze animal. In moments of sheer terror, we freeze. Only through intense training, or, in the case of a parent, to protect a child, will we fight.
Different cultures have slightly different ‘tells’ for higher emotions. For example, all infants, even blind infants, are born with the instinct to smile. In the West, adults smile to indicate friendliness (head up), invitation for fun (more open mouth), submission (head down) or to veil embarrassment (head down and turned). Japanese culture for example uses the smile is to indicate indecision and to show embarrassment and humility. In the animal world, dogs and dolphins smile in an open-mouthed grin to signal full acceptance and pleasure, plus humour.
Nurturing, Counterfeit Nurturing and Altruism
What happens when all the emotions are combined? That becomes nurturing and altruism / self sacrifice. Or its dark side: counterfeit nurturing. To fit into our colour code, we’ll give it brown which is a combination of many colours. How nurturing is done is highly culturally determined, but involves, naturally, very basic behaviours to ensure the survival of an infant and the maintenance of relationships, including managing the ‘pack’, the tribe and community.
Remember how that smart baby learned to manipulate the two original emotions of anger and happiness to signal like and dislike to the caretakers? Now the toddler begins serious affiliative behaviours to learn how to interact and be accepted by the caretakers and social structure around him or her. The boy learns to be a man and the girl learns to be a woman. In the USA, today, we seem to have reverted to snips and snails and puppy dog tails for the boy and sugar and spice and everything nice for the girl. The girl who acts strong and independent is called a tomboy, and in some subcultures is highly disrespected. The boy who plays with dolls, who shows overt use of his empathy emotion, is remonstrated as not being manly. Within these subcultures, as well as in the general population where it is individually learned from parent to child, are the behaviours which encompass counterfeit nurturing. Only humans behave this way. Done to an animal - even to a gold fish, they reject it or go crazy.
There was a movie called Mommie Dearest that demonstrated how nurturing behaviours such as feeding and grooming are used to punish. I recommend it for any course on how to spot child abuse. Counterfeit nurturing creates highly confused adults who are NUMB or possibly, in imitation of their abuser, very violent and without compassion. When the nurturing behaviours of feeding, touch, grooming and teaching are used to abuse and harm, the child’s entire emotional, and physiological, signalling is skewed due to constant, though inconsistent threat combined with affection. The child who is desperately confused is painfully uncomfortable. Again, I refer back to the biting, frantic dogs Cesar Millan is called upon to help.
Because these behaviours are programmed into the child as part of their biochemical sequence, they are hard to break - it can be done - but sadly, often, the sequences are part of a cultural belief system where the strongest, most threatening counterfeit nurturing adult is venerated. Having been ingrained, this destructive confusion is then exploited. It can be a church (heavy shame and strict prejudicial beliefs, followed by rewards) or by our material culture (buy, buy, buy). We have counterfeit nurturing being practised by big corporations on entire provinces and countries. We are seeing this happen all over the world. Enough, let’s go to something positive.
The Pinnacle of Emotion - Grief
When asked what the highest emotion is, the pinnacle of emotions, most everyone would say love. What is this ephemeral, magical thing then? Or as Tina Turner sang, “What’s love got to do with it?”
If you refer back to the COLOR CHART, you’ll see that the social tool of LOVE is part of the learned response of a three month old, part of the LOVE - HATE signal which combines the two primary emotions of ANGER and JOY. As in, “I love (really like) chocolate pudding.” I don’t think this is what ‘everyone’ means when they say love is the pinnacle of emotion.
Instead of magic thinking, let’s describe our highest of all sentiments. When experienced, it is an all-encompassing lightness of being that transforms humans and animals alike. It feels nurturing, peaceful and accepting. We achieve it by years of meditation, or it can occur in a wrenching flash. All cultures have means of achieving this exalted sensation. In our study of emotions as signals, which fit this description?
We would go immediately to the lightest end of the emotion sequences. First, the SHAME/ EMPATHY sequence to find COMPASSION, and the JOY sequence to find RAPTURE and FEAR to find THRILL, and the non-emotion CONFUSION at its best becomes CLARITY, white. Still we’re short. So maybe it has to be all of the emotions combined, which would be ALTRUISM. Yet, anyone who has experienced what the Buddhists call ENLIGHTENMENT or the Christians call the GRACE of God, will say the sensation is far more than that. Where is the total PEACE and ACCEPTANCE?
We must look at the GRIEF sequence. PURPLE. Within the range of PURPLE, there are some truly magical hues including INDIGO which hovers near dark blue. All sentient creatures experience GRIEF - humans, dogs, elephants, even crows have been observed gathering above a deceased member of the family. What makes up PURPLE? Red - anger / determination and Blue - Guilt/ empathy.
There is a feeling below the depths of guilt, down in the pitch dark blue and it is called Survivor’s Guilt. Only by coming through survivor’s guilt, then guilt and into empathy and compassion (from inside oneself to outside oneself), does the clarity of one’s existence take shape. Which brings on a sense of magic - thrill and finally, acceptance and peace. What happens when you reach enlightenment?
The Buddhists ask, “What do you do after enlightenment? Why, the same as you did before; chop wood, carry water.”
From my own experience with enlightenment, I can truthfully say this is true. One of mine came during the winter. Shaken, awake as never before, wanting more and yet totally at peace, still it was cold in the house and I had to hurry and chop some wood for the wood stove and ‘carry water’ to make tea for breakfast!
So, what about the Logic of Emotion? How does the logic help?
From here we can take apart and put together a cognitive and comprehensive explanation for the many faux ‘illnesses’ that are being treated with destructive medications. For example, the infamous PTSD or battle fatigue - it is a Fear Process. If you are subjected to intermittent moments of sheer terror in situations where causality is beyond understanding, you’ll go into that stress sequence at maximum output. Not good. But treatable with WREMS. Giving SSRIs [Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors] shuts down the mind's ability to dream through the horrors and ‘fix’ the terror sequence.
Or domestic violence? Think - hostage situation, the woman (or man) being beaten, then rewarded, is sucked into a counterfeit nurturing situation that is highly addicting. Once identified, it can be remedied.
You see? Once you understand the logic, you understand everything. You are aware and you can change the intensity of the sequence with WREMS (http://wakingrem.com ) and realize you no longer have to experience the old outcomes.
To reach peace and acceptance, now you know you must re-experience deep GRIEF and SURVIVOR’S GUILT (for goodness knows, we all should be grieving the loss of our planet and our cultures). Next comes COMPASSION and ENLIGHTENMENT.
Just remember, you still have “to chop wood and carry water”.
Beacon, Clara, Emotional Biochemistry
Erikson E. Childhood and Society, Norton, NY 1993.
Fillmore Ann PhD. Mastering Your Emotions, Positive Health, Issue 92, 9/03 www.positivehealth.com/article/mind-matters/mastering-your-emotions-waking-wrems-state
WREMS: Waking REM State Http://wakingrem.com
Itten Johannes. The Elements of Color. Van Nostrand Reinhold, NY. 1970.
Millan Cesar and Melissa Jo Peltier. Cesar’s Way. Three Rivers Press, NY 2006
Cesar Millan using his technique to teach young children EMPATHY
Nijdam Niels A. Mapping Emotion to Color, Human Media Interaction http://hmi.ewi.utwente.nl/verslagen/capita selecta/CS Nijdam Niels.pdf
Ou Li-Chen. What’s Colour Emotion?
Oxytocin (wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxytocin
Pert Candice. The Molecules of Emotion. Scribner, NY. 1997.
Sapolsky Robert PhD. “Taming Stress”. Scientific American. Sept. 2003.
Ann Fillmore said..
Okay. I am ready to start writing a follow-up article on PTSD (Fear Process). All suggestions are welcome. In addition to the basic structure of the process, are there specifics that readers want addressed?
For example: the best treatments? The side effects of TBI? Do children of PTSD sufferers 'inherit' the symptoms similar to Holocaust survivors' children?
Email me-- tell me more.
Mike Howell said..
Tasty piece. "Please, Sir, may I have some more?" Most interested in neonatal and early early childhood neuro/bio/psych programming of PTSD. Pretty please?