from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007


Understanding Emotions

Most humans throughout history probably thought relatively little about emotions. They were more concerned about the outside world. Objects are self-evident, while emotions very often are not. To identify exactly what an emotion is, and how it can influence behavior, requires a degree of effort that often does not come easily. Additionally, to ignore an emotion may be easier (and more desirable) than to ignore external reality. The external world is what one has to perceive if one wants to survive and function. As a consequence, reason may be applied more to external reality than to internal reality. Unfortunately, one’s internal reality may become increasingly difficult to understand the more one avoids awareness of it.

Though emotions are an enormous part of every human being, they can seem intangible or vague at times. From our present context, let us examine the nature of our emotional mechanism. An emotion is a psycho-physical reaction to, and reflection of, an assessment of some aspect of reality (internal or external) being beneficial or harmful to oneself and/or one’s values.10 Emotions are signals or indicators of what we consider good and what we consider bad for us—in much the same way as physical pain and pleasure. I use the term “consider” to underscore that we are capable of making false assessments—unlike, for the most part, our physical pain/pleasure mechanism (at least for a healthy neural system).

Emotions really entail two components, each of which may be a larger or smaller part of the experience. On one end are subconscious (or conscious) evaluations, thoughts that indicate and assess one’s particular predicament. On the other end are physiological responses, such as fluctuations in blood pressure, breathing and heart rate, tactile and visceral sensations, and so on (which can also be called feelings).

The evaluative component of an emotion may occur so fast and be so vague and seemingly ungraspable that it may go undetected. All that sometimes seem to be experienced are the feelings, the physiological responses. In turn, these physiological responses may linger for a time after the evaluative aspect has come and gone.

For example, suppose you experience and assess an event as dangerous or frightening. Anxious responses can be the result of many different specific evaluations, which usually can be identified after one reflects on the experience. With performance anxiety, for instance, thoughts such as “I can’t do this,” “What will others think of me?” “What if I make a mistake?” “I’m not good at this,” “People will laugh at me,” “I’m going to look ‘stupid’,” may come to mind quickly. One might also find, after some introspection, that more existential evaluations are driving these misgivings. The two most potent ones are “I’m not good enough” and “I’m unfit to exist.”

Of course in correlation with this feeling of anxiety (in truth giving rise to it) the approximate physiological sequence can also be roughly outlined. In terms of the brain pathways, the visual association cortex reports to the temporal cortex, then to the amygdala and thalamus, and then to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus immediately activates the sympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system, and signals the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland stimulates the release of hormones (e.g., epinephrine and norepinephrine) that travel through the circulatory system. These hormones augment (in a matter of a few minutes) such sympathetic nervous system symptoms as rapid heart beat, perspiration, and so on. The orbitalfrontal cortex and the hippocampal formation are also probably involved, because the information of this event is interacting with these regions of thought (as well as other more specific brain regions).

Physiological explanations are important in various scientific contexts. Subconscious activity in general and emotional super-rapid appraisals in particular result from extremely complex brain activity. Brain activity is responsible for subconscious functioning, of course (which is an aspect of mind we will address shortly).

Yet, we can easily lose the meaning of an emotion if we rely on physiological explanations for psychological understanding. We are never aware of the amazingly integrated neural synapses occurring in our brains at any given moment of awareness, let alone when we are experiencing emotions. Therefore, we will avoid the physiological perspective in this discussion and focus on our mental experiences in the holistic (rather than neurological) manner we experience them. This is the most pertinent model for us.

A feeling such as anxiety is triggered by a sum of evaluations that indicate something wrong or dangerous. Cognitive therapy holds a similar view about the emotional mechanism: the positive aspects of an anxiety-provoking experience fade into the background while the negatives are blown out of proportion to what is reasonable.16

Although as a rule anxiety is not rationally founded, once produced it cannot be successfully fought against. Resisting stressful emotions usually just exacerbates them. Thus, we need to accept feelings of this sort, instead of reject them. They are, after all, an important part of how one presently judges a situation. With self-acceptance comes self-understanding, which thereby facilitates emotional changes.9

Psychiatrists have prescribed medication for years to diminish uncomfortable emotional responses—to help individuals feel less anxious, less depressed, and so forth. Many studies have revealed the efficacy of such drugs (in alleviating depression, for instance). Yet in the long run such efforts can be greatly misguided. They attempt to alleviate only one side of the problem—the feelings, which are the result of our evaluations.

Because of the nature of human evaluation, strong placebo effects can occur from psychotropic drug use. Real changes in thought, mental outlook, and behavior that have nothing to do with the actions of the drugs themselves—but rather with the belief that they are helping—happen frequently. The human brain is so multifaceted in the way it gives rise to thoughts and evaluations that the creation of a “magic mood pill” is enormously doubtful. And a drug to change personality and the way we think about ourselves is still more unlikely.

Ultimately, our volitional mechanism is most responsible for changes in our character structure, personality, and the thoughts that drive emotional and physical responses. Although at times our particular moods may seem out of our control, we are also ultimately responsible for even these transitory feelings (e.g., irritability, laziness, apathy, and the like). Acknowledgment of this bolsters our capacity to deal with and change our moods, if need be.

In order to promote authentic changes, we need the inestimable psychological benefit of making changes ourselves. This is an inherently emotionally fulfilling and self-esteem-enhancing process. Again, the primary way a rational organism can alter the contents of its mind is through volitional processes, those that involve all the limitless choices offered to us every day of our life.

The truly important aspect of any emotion is the appraisal, not the physical response. This can be evidenced by noticing the differences in feeling between two similar physiological events: the physical effects of extreme anxiety, and the effects of physical exercise. Both induce similar responses, such as rapid breathing, rapid heartbeat, and perspiration. But, we do not feel anxious when we exercise, only when we have anxious emotions. Without a negative evaluation of the event, the physiological response itself has little cognitive meaning or significance (other than what we ascribe to it). The only thing that matters is what we tell ourselves about the situation concerning such things as our capability, worth, and value.

In technical terms, emotions emanate from the subconscious. The subconscious, as the word implies, is the contents of mind not in direct, conscious awareness.10 One main aspect of the subconscious serves as a repository, and the other main aspect serves as a function. As a repository, the subconscious is the sum of all experiences (sensations, perceptions, and conceptions), which include all memories, assessments, thoughts (both verbal and sensory images, such as visual and auditory). As a function, or process, subconscious material constantly projects either into direct awareness or into the periphery of awareness.

At any given moment one's conscious mind is interacting with one's subconscious. Conscious mental awareness contains primary focal material, such as whatever one is directly thinking, speaking, experiencing, interpreting, or reflecting on. It also contains, depending on the type and intensity of focus, peripheral (subconscious) material that one can choose to make more or less noticeable.

Of course, what is in the periphery of awareness often remains in a lower state of awareness, because a human mind—being a finite entity—can only attend to so much material at any given time. That which is in conscious focus necessarily limits the amount of all other possible mental experiences. However, we are still capable of shifting and spanning the mental depths of peripheral mental contents with amazing speed and efficiency with practice——especially when we perceive it beneficial to do so. Much of creative thinking, for example, involves this rapid utilization of subconscious assumptions and thoughts.

We can also access the part of our subconscious that produces particular emotions. The fact that we are having feelings means that we are evaluating something subconsciously, and this can be focused on and brought into conscious awareness.

This explanation of the subconscious is different than Sigmund Freud’s (and, generally, psychoanalytic theory’s) notion of the “unconscious.” Freud’s idea of the unconscious pertains to mental material that is forever outside awareness. Hence, the laborious and often inefficient task of psychoanalysis is to formulate hypotheses (usually by a therapist) about certain feelings and behaviors. Since alleged unconscious processes are unknown and nongraspable, they can only be interpreted indirectly through signs and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and so on. This in turn leads to all sorts of extravagant and frequently unwarranted inferences about “fixations,” “Oedipus complexes,” and so forth, which supposedly stem from early blocked or thwarted desires and needs.

Because the unconscious is unknown, it implies that one can never grasp part of one’s mental world. This means that it is not just unknown, but unknowable—which basically means that one has selective amnesia. Yet interestingly, only those parts of mind that are most emotionally threatening and disruptive are cut off from awareness. They are labeled the “Id,” one of psychoanalytic theory’s areas of self that contains all of one’s so-called drives and impulses (the other two areas are the Ego and Superego).

The main contradiction with this view of “the unconscious” involves the belief that one cannot access—with one’s conscious mind—experiences and assessments that have been placed into one’s mind. In actuality, since our experiences were all experienced consciously (barring dreams, which are quasi-conscious experiences), they can be accessed consciously. This assumes, of course, that we can remember them.

If experiences were not properly focused on and placed in memory effectively, then they may be lost. And, depending on how we evaluated them, we may have strong interests in keeping certain remembered experiences out of conscious awareness. Ingrained habits of evasion, repression, and rationalization (three defense mechanisms insightfully identified by Freud) are sometimes difficult to overcome. The person has utilized them to essentially disown parts of his or her experiences, evaluations, and self-assessments. So, the choice to recognize and own these parts may have become unthinkable.9

For humans, any kind of assessment made of reality—any kind of emotion in the broad sense—is derived from a process of identification and evaluation. We first need to conceive what something is before we can accurately judge it to be either good or bad for us. The ability to reason provides the invaluable advantage of understanding what is felt to be good or bad, and why. For other animals, such a process cannot occur. Other animals react to present experiences in relation to past experiences, thus evidencing learned behavior. Many of the responses they elicit are due mainly to their hereditary predispositions, which are structured to avoid certain things and be attracted to others.

Although it can be correctly argued that other animals have emotional responses, or feelings, these are non-conceptualized reactions. The kinds of emotions humans experience are intricately connected to their conceptual faculty. The enormous complexity and range of human emotion is a result of conscious and subconscious conceptual value-judgments (abstract assessments of things being beneficial or harmful). The feelings of other animals (and even human infants) can be explained as reactions and responses to what is sensed good or bad according to their biological structures.

Inevitably, what distinguishes the emotions of developed human beings from other animals is both our ability to evaluate in the abstract sense and our capability to be cognizant of particular emotional states and examine—all by means of concepts—what has caused them. A reasoning mind can identify value-judgments, make them explicit and, therefore, link emotions with the ideas that underlie and color them.

Yet evaluations that we form about certain situations (or people) may be ingrained strongly in our subconscious. At times, these feelings may feel like conditioned responses, almost like reflexes. We may wonder about whether we have any choice as to how we can respond to particular circumstances, especially unpleasant ones. Fortunately though, we are capable of gaining insights into the reasons for these feelings. We are also able to take mental and physical action to change our circumstances as well as our feelings, when deemed necessary. This is, in fact, part of the technology of psychotherapy.

Further emotional differences between us and other animals can be demonstrated. Time spent with animals allows us to draw some important conclusions. For example, a cat that purrs after climbing onto one’s lap to nestle and be petted, or a dog that eagerly awaits a toy to be thrown so that it can fetch it and repeat the same episode, or a horse that cheerfully gallops away and tosses its head and kicks when released after a long day’s ride, all show us that animals experience positive feelings. We can certainly relate to such feelings of arousal and excitement. It is the main reason why we can become so endeared to animals. Animals can also show us a degree of emotional spontaneity that is absent in many people.

But these sorts of behaviors are salient in our mind because they are so positive. Much of the time, most animals are in a neutral emotional state. From our conceptual standpoint, a great deal of their lives is completely filled with boredom. To spend a life alongside an animal—or to live an animal’s life—if this were at all possible, would soon lead a conceptual being to severe depression or utter madness. Our emotional mechanism differs from other animals in that we must choose and pursue conscious values to make life worth living.

A value is defined as that which one acts to gain and/or keep. Virtues are the ways in which one acts to gain and/or keep values.76 For humans—in fact for any organism—the fundamental issue is survival. Logically then, primary values relate to our dealings with reality and ourselves; they must ensure mental and physical benefit and health.

Values such as reason, logic, genuine self-esteem, enlightened self-concept, active mind, brilliant sense of life, and purpose can be considered crucial to our lives as rational beings. Other essential values, such as happiness, romantic love, and friendship, can be viewed as the outcomes of holding and striving for primary values; they can also be seen as their compliments.

Virtues represent how we sustain and improve our values. Rationality, integrity, independence, responsibility, honesty, productivity, and so on, are key virtues. Other virtues pertain especially to how we deal with others, for instance kindness, generosity, benevolence, empathy, goodwill, and understanding. In addition to all these mental (or spiritual) values and virtues, an endless variety of material values promote happiness and help make life safer and more pleasurable.

However, this is only a brief description; it cannot describe the complexity and variation in how our values are to be sought and upheld. All reality-oriented values and virtues mesh and interact as the sum total of what a human being deems essential about his or her life. Nonetheless, clarity about essentials is important. In the field of ethics, the field that deals with values and virtues, clarity is desperately needed. (Ethics will be addressed more in later sections.)

In addition to conscious valuing, another unique aspect of our emotional mechanism is that we can experience positive emotions virtually anytime we desire—although this may require some practice. We do not need the experience of positive external stimuli to do this (though it is an added bonus). Basically, we can have, or eventually develop, a state of mind in which we make ourselves happy. Others or other things do not have to create this feeling in us. The greatest example is perhaps when we ponder the awesome fact that we are alive; it should elate us. Our everyday experiences, achievements, and hopes for the future can also uplift us as we reflect on them.

Evolution has granted us a reasoning capacity, but not the ability to automatically utilize it in the most beneficial way. Evolution also has granted us an emotional capacity but, again, not the ability to automatically utilize it beneficially. Essentially, we are born with a biologically adaptive function (a volitional, reasoning mind) that can take maladaptive actions.6 This unique model of consciousness, as explained earlier, confounds many of the theories of modern psychologists and evolutionists. Free will can throw a wrench in their mechanistic models. Many theories neglect the fact that we are capable of choosing the exact opposite of what they predict. The human mind is capable of choosing to act based on principles, instead of responding unthinkingly to stimuli.

Obviously, we take many more adaptive actions than maladaptive; otherwise, the volitional function itself would not be adaptive and selected by nature. The reason for this phenomenon is relatively simple, and it does not imply that our capacity to choose is tainted, diminished, or biased in the direction of acting solely for our well-being: Adaptive actions typically yield positive physical and emotional results, for either the short-term or long-term. Emotions are tied to our physiology, so we are geared to choose actions that benefit us at least in physical ways (i.e., that produce good feelings). However, at any time we can choose otherwise based on other emotional factors, which reflect the values we have accepted or rejected. This can produce harmful, if not fatal, results (such as suicide).

Our emotions are no better or worse than the evaluations we have made. And, our evaluations are no better or worse than our identifications, which yield these evaluations. This, of course, is part of our greatness as human beings. Our emotional capacity gives us the ability to experience joy. And, our reasoning capacity provides limitless possibilities for this experience by making accurate identifications and evaluations.

With the ability to reason comes the acquisition of knowledge that advances an organism beyond the common restrictions of evolutionary adaptations. These restrictions typically allow an organism to function only in an environment suitable for that particular adaptation. Because of this, organisms are confined by the particular limits or parameters of their adaptations. They are most fitted for the particular environment in which they were formed. When their environment changes significantly, their behavior may appear useless, unnecessary, or detrimental. For example, an animal being domesticated may continually try to run away or bite its caretaker; it has trouble adapting to its new environment. Another familiar example is a herd of deer caught, mesmerized, in the headlights of an oncoming automobile, or a rabbit running desperately down the road in front of a car instead of moving to the side. Their adaptive functions carry them only so far (they were not designed for highways and automobiles).

Still another case in point is the species of dinosaurs that became extinct when their environment changed, be it geographically, from new viruses, or otherwise. The most compelling evidence tells of an asteroid or comet roughly 10 kilometers in diameter that struck Earth at the Yucatan Peninsula. The impact drastically altered the climate and life for dinosaurs and other creatures. Interestingly, if this episode had not occurred, our species might not have arisen. Higher mammals did not evolve until after dinosaurs left the scene. Such adept and ferocious predators as dinosaurs made it difficult for most mammals except small rodents to survive.

To be like all other forms of life, to be endowed with just automatic or “built in” traits, would limit our functioning. An adaptation with a set mode of functioning lacks the flexibility required for surviving when environmental conditions change significantly. Human thoughts and emotions cannot, at the outset, be automatically suited to a particular environment or situation. They do not automatically guide us along the most beneficial and proper courses of thought, feeling, or action. To desire them to do so is to misunderstand the glory of our own unique faculty.

The faculty of reason and its corresponding ally, emotion, rely on the automatic faculties of sensation and perception. From there we can identify, integrate, and evaluate, but no sooner. In order for the wishes of automatic knowledge, innate ideas, and desirable emotions (i.e., automatic happiness) to become reality, they would first have to circumvent a great contradiction: perception and conceptual integration would have had to occur before birth. Obviously, choices cannot be made in the womb.

Conceptualization can only occur when a mind can cognitively shift its focus of awareness to identify and integrate units in reality, and one has to be in reality to do this. Although many professional (as well as armchair) philosophers have dreamt otherwise, without anything to experience, no choices can be made and no emotions can be formed.

Furthermore, a rational being is a finite being (this term is actually a redundancy; any being must be finite to exist). We are necessarily limited to what we can focus on. Therefore, we are susceptible to all sorts of errors in the integration and selection process. This leads to the next topic, which concerns the method by which we can avoid such pitfalls.

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