Vincent Van Gogh described emotions as ‘the great captains of our lives’. In his book ‘The strange order of things’, Antonio Damacio argues that feelings are centrally involved in the creation of culture. Advances in all fields, from Medicine to art, are based on affective motivation – the desire to decrease pain and increase pleasure. Feeling and emotion lies at the core of our subjective lives and accompany all meaningful experiences.

Affect, feeling, emotion

What is an affect? How does it differ from feeling and emotion?

Donald Nathanson argues that when an affect has been triggered it means that a stimulus has activated a mechanism that releases a known pattern of biological events. Each affect unfolds according to a precisely written programme. These patterns are part of our evolutionary heritage and are genetically transmitted. Affects are unvarying physiological mechanisms.

A feeling occurs when an organism becomes aware of an affect. Only animals that have higher consciousness can become aware that they are having an affect. Even still, we may be unaware that an affect has been triggered, if, for example, we are focused on something else. If you were brought up in a particular culture that denies certain feelings then you will not be able to recognise them when they arise. Affect is biology, while feeling is psychology.

Each affect gets triggered over the course of a lifetime for an individual and that occurs in a particular context. When you get embarrassed as an adult you get embarrassed in a situation that resembles one in which you were embarrassed before. As a child develops memory becomes linked with affect. An emotion is a complex combination of affect with memories and with the affects they trigger. If affect is biology, emotion, says Nathanson, is biography.

Affect is universal; we all share the same affects. Where we differ is how we each ‘remember’ our experiences of innate affects. Each person’s experience of anger, for example, will depend on their history – past affective experiences with anger. An affect lasts only a few seconds, a feeling lasts long enough to recognise it, and an emotion lasts as long as we keep finding memories that trigger that affect.

The primacy of affect

Iain McGilChrist argues that feelings are not a reaction to cognitions; it is the other way around: Affect comes first, thinking arrives later. When making choices we make an intuitive assessment and then later use cognition to justify these choices. This is called the ‘primacy of affect’. Our affective judgement is based on the right-hemisphere of the brain.

Affect can be understood as our ‘disposition towards the world’, writes McGilChrist. Affect includes emotion but is not limited to it. Affect is a way of attending, relating, or a way of being in the world. Emotion, too, is closer to our being than cognitions. ‘Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings’, wrote Nietzsche. The body and emotion lie at the core of our being. Reason emerges from feeling.

Sue Gerhardt supports this idea. she writes science is beginning to recognise that feelings form the core of the human personality. Rationality and thinking are built on top of this feeling foundation. The rational part of the brain does not work alone but at the same time as the emotional parts of the brain. Cognitive processes (thinking) build on emotional ones and cannot exist without them.

Emotion theory and regulation

Emotion theory makes the claim the emotion is adaptive in nature. It helps us to process complex information from the environment quickly in order to help us take action that helps us meet our needs. Emotions give information about the significance of a situation to our well-being. Les Greenberg identifies three levels of emotion processing, one of which is emotional schemes. Schemes are patterns of neural activation that create an internal field. This provides a sense of internal complexity which the person can refer to.

Regulation of emotions involves satisfying one’s desires and calming fears. This can be done both by self and by others, in mutual regulation. Right after birth the infant feels hungry and organises to such while the breast regulates the infant’s need. Affect regulation is a core part of motivation. People want to have certain emotions while avoiding others – something which evolved to aid survival. A lot of activity is driven by the felt sense of satisfaction. When we meet goals or have harmonious relationships, we experience joy and excitement. Shame, loneliness and anxiety arise when relationships and goals are not going well. Emotions are guides telling us what is good for us and what is bad.

According to Laura Fielding the purpose of an emotion is to motivate an action that seems useful for survival; make you aware of a need that you have; and communicate to your group or tribe what you need. Courtney Armstrong describes the needs and action tendencies embedded within different emotions. The need behind fear is safety and the action tendency is to run away (to fulfil the need of safety). The need for protection and maintenance of boundaries is embedded in anger and the action tendency is to stop someone or to make them move out of the way. Sadness urges us to withdraw, rest or take stock to fulfil the need for healing, respite or care. Disgust urges us to keep something toxic away which serves the need of preserving well-being. Shame urges us to hide or cover up and the need embedded within it is for social approval. Panic and/or grief urges us to reconnect with a loved one in order to fulfil the need for care, connection and belonging. Panic and grief operate under the same brain network, according to Jaak Panksepp, because panic results from the fear of being separated from the tribe.

There are three aspects to emotions: we experience them as sensations in the body, words or images in the mind, and ‘action tendencies’, which refers to an impulse to engage in a particular behaviour. Research shows that positive emotions broaden our sense of what we can do while negative emotions narrow this sense. Our emotional state alters our perspective and colours our perception. A negative emotion is a signal that there is danger present, so we narrow our focus to deal with this threat and try to make it go away. Anger comes from a sense that we or someone we care about has been wronged and feel an urge to attack in order to restore justice. When we feel scared, we want to run away.

Positive emotions open the mind, encourage creativity, make threatening information easier to take on board, and facilitate cooperation. When we experience positive emotions, it is a sign that all is well. As a result, we are safe to begin to explore the world around us. We may feel an urge to try new things, take risks, and pursue opportunities. Positive emotions encourage exploration, expansion and creativity.

Two emotion systems

Joseph LeDoux highlighted the importance of the amygdala in determining the emotional significance of situations. LeDoux describes two emotional response systems in the brain. The first, originates in the amygdala, is the ‘quick and dirty’ system. Responses here happen automatically and are quite crude. The second system involves the prefrontal cortex, which increases our capacity to respond by bringing in a reflective aspect. According to LeDoux there is no single place in the brain where emotion resides.

The first system is known as type 1 – its responses are immediate and is the result of the evolutionary experience of the species. These reactions are not under our control and result from an initial evaluation of a situation. Type 2 responses are specific to the individual. They are based on prior learning and judgement of what experience from the past can be applied to the current situation. These are under our control.

Emotions can occur in the absence of cognition. Even though the neural circuits for both interact they are distinct. A lot of emotional processing occurs outside of awareness. Feelings then, are simply the ‘icing added to the emotional cake’, as Ledoux puts it.

The seeking system

Research from affective neuroscience suggests we have seven basic emotional systems. These systems make an organism an active agent in the world. These systems help us to engage and understand the world.

The first of these systems is the SEEKING system. It is a generalised emotional system that the other systems depend upon, that, in particular, is central to motivation. Sometimes it is misunderstood as the ‘reward system’. While mild arousal of the SEEKING system does feel good, this is not the whole story. The SEEKING system is the source of excitement, a lot of which comes from the pursuit of reward, rather than reward itself. The SEEKING system must be activated for most activities to be done effectively. It is central to learning in education, healing in psychotherapy, and productivity in work.

This system seeks to find new resources, make new discoveries, and learn new things. This system is the source of all our aspirations, dreams, hopes, longings and desires. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘desire’ system. The chemical dopamine charges this motivational system. Panksepp points out that this system is the foundation of what drives our ‘intentions in actions’.

The SEEKING system is an adaptive and healthy orientation. But there is a down side to it. All addictive patterns come from the push and craving of the ‘positively motivated’ SEEKING system. Thought can influence this system but the strong message from this system is to move in goal-directed, ‘appetitively aroused’ ways, moving towards rewards, and safety in times of danger.

Research shows that this system contributes to sexual bonds, loving feelings and even the thrill we get from listening to music. Instead of thinking of this as the ‘reward’ system, Panksepp argues, it is better understood as the ‘well-being’ system.