Psychology Today

By Nicklas Balboa and Richard D. Glaser, Ph.D.
Published in: Psychology Today

Human beings are very unique in that from the moment of conception, we are open to influence. Unlike some organisms that possess automatic responses consistent within their species—for example, the Aplysia gill and syphon reflex—humans possess a wide range of expressions that allow us to communicate how we feel and think, giving others a lens into our perception of reality.

Some of these responses are emotional, some are cognitive, some are automatic, and sometimes we express in multiple forms. Our expressions are the summation of the brain’s response to our environment, leading to the production of various hormones, neurotransmitters, and plastic, functional neural responses beget feelings, thoughts, actions, moods, and even epigenetic changes. One word synonymous with human expression is emotion.

When we think of emotions, what comes to mind? Many of us view emotions as the individual’s subjective feelings about their current state, environment, and social relationships. When addressing an instance of emotion you might ask yourself, how does this make me feel, how important is this, or how pleasant is this experience?

The circumplex model of affect, coined by American Psychologist James Russell, displays a range of emotions that emerge from two dimensions: valence, or the inherent level of pleasure of a stimulus, and arousal, or how intense a stimulus is. It was developed in an attempt to bridge the gap that typically exists in theory, research, and practice (Russell 1980). 

The model is an amazing tool for identifying how certain experiences affect you emotionally and helps to identify basic sets of emotions. It also allows you to engage with your own emotional experiences in a concrete and creative form.

 Roxanne Panero
Circumplex Model of Affect
Source: Roxanne Panero

Emotions are part of a complex process that involves almost every aspect of being; they encompass both physical information as well as the subjective experience. When addressing something as complex as the experience of an emotion, it is important to consider our origins as human beings. We can utilize a Conversational Intelligence® strategy and engage our prefrontal cortex through the practice of visualization. In the following paragraphs we will imagine what the emotional experience of our early ancestors might be like.

Emotions as Adaptations

Over the course of hominid history, an individual would repeatedly encounter certain situations and environments. These repetitions naturally select for adaptations that guide information-processing and behavior relative to the environment’s conditions and demands (Cosmides, Tooby 2000).

If emotions are adaptations, then they must serve a function to the individual expressing them. Take the emotion of disgust as an example. The repeated situation of an individual foraging for food necessitates the ability to distinguish nutritional foods from foods that could potentially make them sick, or even kill them.

The brain’s neural program of disgust (an instance of an emotion) would heighten the individual’s sense of taste and sight in order to store the affective stimuli (sight and taste) of the “bad food” and perhaps activate the vomit reflex to prevent a contaminated food from entering the body. The individual, after repeated encounters, would store the memory of the affective stimuli of the “bad food” in the limbic system to prevent future contamination. 

Since contaminated food could harm an individual’s fitness, the program for disgust would emerge as an adaptation. This is an example of an intrapersonal function of emotions; however, they also operate on a social level.

The social, or interpersonal, function of emotions supports the ability to maintain complex, interdependent relationships amongst groups or tribes of people for the purposes of survival and reproduction. The individual can be strong, however, the ability to communicate, bond, and co-regulate with others creates lasting relationships that gives the tribe a shared strength in numbers and identity in shared culture.

Take the emotion of love, for example. It is beneficial for a mother to care for her child because 1] it promotes the child’s growth and development and 2] promotes the likelihood that offspring successfully reproduce.

How Might Love Have Emerged as an Emotion?

After several repetitions of practicing a caring behavior for an offspring, a mother’s neural program of love would stimulate the neurons of the hypothalamus to produce certain neurotransmitters—such as oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine—in order to release them into the bloodstream via the pituitary gland to create an attachment or generate a feeling of need to care for the offspring. Without a mother and her love program, a child might not survive on its own, thus damaging the family’s fitness.

Emotional neural programs such as love help increase both the individual’s and the community’s fitness through epigenetic activity. Epigenetics refers to mechanisms that alter gene expression in a heritable manner without affecting the underlying genomic sequences (McEwen 2012).

Perhaps our emotions emerged as a set of neural and hormonal responses to the environment that epigenetically altered the human genome in order to better adapt to and express current states. This idea is consistent with a modern, cognitive perspective of emotion as well.

A New Form of Intelligence 

Although we evolved from hunter-gathers, modern man appears to be at the seat of his mind, possessing the ability to reflect upon internal and external information at will and with great intelligence. Modern neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux reveals that the emotional neural programs we inherit from our ancestors are monitored by complex cognitive programs (LeDoux 2017). 

However, there are affective appraisals that precede cognition—focusing attention on a situation in the environment that is crucial to one’s wishes, wants, and concerns without any semantic content (Almada 2013). This type of response is triggered unconsciously by the autonomic nervous system, controlling physiological responses as well as action tendencies, attention, and behavior.

Imagine you are in the woods; it is silent until you hear leaves rustling. Your heart begins racing as your attention shifts to the ground, scanning for a sign of threat, like a snake. The “fast” affective response relays the stimuli information from the thalamus directly to the amygdala, skipping the cognitive functions in the cortex (LeDoux 2002).

The subsequent physiological (i.e. the stress response) and behavioral (attention shift to stimulus) responses occur prior to cognition, allowing the individual to assess the stimuli as an immediate threat or reward. It is better for one’s fitness to be prepared for danger in the face of reward than to dismiss an immediate threat. Cognition would interrupt the speed of this process with complex but unnecessary thought, serving as more of a distraction than an immediate survival reflex.

The second, higher-order level of processing a stimulus can take through the brain is that of cognitive processing. According to LeDoux, the stimulus information travels from the thalamus to the cortex, where cognitive appraisal takes place, and then is relayed to the corresponding emotional response system (LeDoux 2017).

Cognition can monitor as well as modify the instantiated affective inputs. For example, suppose you are monitoring your latest stock investment as it plummets in value. The fear state you experience is in response to cognitively complex information that you label as dangerous. Although the visual input of your stocks falling is not inherently a dangerous symbol, your conscious mind makes an appraisal from the information—determining that the loss of monetary value is obstructive to your fitness—and a fear response is triggered. 

In this example, we can see cognition modifying emotional states, showing that emotions are a result of multiple factors. Rather than manifesting from merely physical and autonomic properties, emotions interact with cognitive functions as well. While affective appraisals adapt the individual to immediate environmental threat/reward situations, cognition betters the individual’s fitness through exposure and the ability to reflect on experiences.

LeDoux’s work gives birth to the simplest form of an emotional process: 1] an initial affective appraisal of a situation focuses one’s attention to the situation’s significance to the organism and causes 2] physiological responses in autonomic nervous system activity, motor response, and behavior, which result in a broad appraisal of the situation, which leads to 3] a more discriminating cognitive monitoring of the situation (LeDoux 2016).

Embodiment

Although our ancestors may have experienced emotions as a bodily urge to express, the modern human brain co-opts these circuits with complex cognitive networks that allow the individual and the society to remain open to influence while creating and maintaining complex relationships amongst ourselves, others, and the environment through acts of expression.

Now that we have a better understanding of what emotions are and how we process them, we can embrace another Conversational Intelligence® practice to bring about healthy, trusting, and positive influences into our daily lives, thus bringing about positive change to our cultures.

Conversational Intelligence®, a methodology developed by the late Judith E. Glaser, creates a trust-based embodiment that affects how we react to stimuli. Based on 30 years of research with executives and Fortune 500 corporations, Glaser proposed that Conversational Intelligence® creates positive, adaptive epigenetic changes.

When living within Conversational Intelligence®, trust is created among our cohorts. This trust triggers the release of oxytocin, our bonding hormone, which activates higher levels of trust and creates a positive virtuous cycle. Rather than ruminate on the negative aspects of your environment, thoughts, and relationships, embrace the resonance that builds when people get together as communities and work towards greater understanding, trust, co-operation, and compassion.

Glaser, an organizational anthropologist stated, “To get to the next level of greatness, depends on the quality of the culture, which depends on the quality of the relationships, which depends on the quality of conversations. Everything happens through conversations.”

 

References

Russell, J. A. (1980). A circumplex model of affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(6), 1161-1178. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0077714

 Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. Handbook of Emotions. UCSB, 2000. NY: Haviland-Jones, 2000. 92-93. Evolutionary Psychology and The Emotions. Web.

McEwen, B. S., Eiland, L., Hunter, R. G., & Miller, M. M. (2012, January). Stress and anxiety: Structural plasticity and epigenetic regulation as a consequence of stress. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3196296/

Almada, L. F., Pereira, A., & Carrara-Augustenborg, C. (2013). What Affective Neuroscience Means for Science of Consciousness. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3653226/

LeDoux, J. E., & Brown, R. (2017, March). A higher-order theory of emotional consciousness. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/114/10/E2016

LeDoux, J. (2002, June). Emotion, Memory, and the Brain. Retrieved from http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/emotion.pdf

LeDoux, J., & Pine, D. (2016, September). Using Neuroscience to Help Understand Fear and Anxiety: A Two-System Framework. Retrieved from http://www.cns.nyu.edu/ledoux/pdf/LeDoux%20Pine%20Two%20Systsem.pdf



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