Walks of Mind
Illuminating What Goes on in our Mind
Please enjoy reading this walk. It has been
created by John Cochrane for your interest and, hopefully, benefit.
A Spectrum of Emotion
The Triangle of Motivation
©John Cochrane 2005-2006
What’s the use of emotion? Wouldn’t it be better if we all thought logically and sensibly all the time? Doesn’t emotion just get in the way and distract us? Provocative and tongue-in-cheek questions maybe, but it often seems that there can be something of an internal struggle going on between our best intentions and our emotional responses, between our passion and our reason.
This is a short walk in the sense that it has fewer words than some of the others but it is one with a grand view that is a backdrop to most of the other walks. During our walk we shall begin to pull together some of the threads of understanding that are important to the overall picture of how, and why, I believe we experience life as we do.
The background to the walk is a basic question that, strangely, I have never really found a satisfying answer to: Just what are emotions?
We all know about the experience of emotions, feelings, states of mind, and moods, but how much of our experience is actually the same as that of others and what is it that we are actually experiencing as emotion? I know when I am loving, I know when I am sad or angry, and I believe that for much of the time when someone else tells me that they are in a rage or in love or in despair that I know, through my own experience, what they are talking about.
And I can even describe some of the symptoms. I can talk about the physical feelings and sensations that go with say anger; the tight muscles, the eye-tension, the throbbing of blood, my lips and bottom jaw pushing forward, maybe the feelings of heat. I can describe some of the metaphorical ‘feeling’ that goes with despair; I can describe the weight and the emptiness. I can tell you some of the thoughts that go with elation. It is knowing about these symptoms that helps me to compare my state of mind with yours and allows us to build empathy.
But none of that actually gives me much of a workable idea of what emotions actually are or are for, even the most basic ones.
In this walk we search for clues about emotion that come from our own personal experience. As in other walks, an important starting point is the idea that the things that go on in our mind do so for a reason. By searching out these reasons we also gain insight into the ‘how?’ of the mind at work. We draw these observations together at the end of the walk into a single simple view of the role of emotion that helps us to understand much much more about the way we experience life.
Now isn’t that a walk worth walking?
Where to Start?
A number of modern philosophical thinkers and recent books put forward the idea that there are just two basic emotions: love and fear. Or it may be said that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear.
Studies of facial expressions indicate that there are a relatively small number of emotions that humans show as facial expressions that are recognised the world over.
Various psychological theories claim from two to ten basic emotions that can combine together to form all emotions.
Medical and neurophysical research shows that emotion is associated with some of the oldest parts of our brain and nervous system.
And I’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as emotion, there is only feeling and thought.
Just a small number of emotions, perhaps just two?
Such ideas seem to challenge much of what I have for years taken for granted about emotion. What about all those mental states that we all know so much about that seem to be distinct from fear or love? What about elation, or disgust, or shame, or rage, or despite, or excitement, or enthusiasm, or calmness, or passion? What about joy, or happiness, or grief, or anger, or pride, or compassion? What about those states that seem to be a combination of thought and feeling such as determination, resentment, desperation, shyness, and depression?
How come modern thinking describes such a small number of actual or communicable emotions when personal experience indicates such a large range?
The question of how many emotions we experience is a vital one, but one that has no obvious answer based on personal experience. Before we get to possible answers we have to do a little more exploring around just what emotions actually are. After all, how can we go about counting something that we are not yet clear about what it is that we are counting?
What about Feelings?
Have you noticed that we often describe ourselves as feeling things that are not really feelings at all?
We often describe ourselves as feeling our emotions. And yet, are emotions actually feelings? I know when I am ‘feeling’ angry or sad. Indeed, we certainly do have genuine physical feelings, and actual changes in our physical state, that go along with different emotions but these physical feelings are just a part of what we experience.
Often when I describe myself as feeling something what I am actually doing is describing a ‘state of mind’. When I am ‘feeling’ angry, for example, I know that there is something going on that tends to affect my whole experience of being but it is my state of mind that I am most aware of. The state of mind that I describe as ‘feeling angry’ is very different from when I am in a loving state of mind, and that again is different to a fearful state of mind. An angry person will respond differently to their surroundings, they will interpret things differently, and they will probably make different choices. And I am sure that when we are in these different states of mind there may also be physiological differences detectable in our brain, perhaps chemical differences and different physical parts of the brain may tend to be active.
There are other things that we often describe as feelings. We often describe thoughts and beliefs as feelings when that is not what they are at all. If I say “I feel stuck in my depression” my meaning is that I currently believe that I am unable to shift out of my depression and my feeling may actually be numbness or tiredness. When I “feel unwelcome” amongst a group of strangers, that is again a thought rather than something that I feel and, in this particular case, I might more accurately describe my emotion as anxiety or fear and my feelings as sadness, emptiness, or heaviness.
I know that working to gain clarity on the difference between my physical feeling and my thinking is very useful for getting at what is actually going on for me. It exposes thoughts that are often non-conscious that are vital to my understanding of why I react to things in the way that I do. Also, as a direct personal benefit, by becoming more aware of my true physical feelings I get to experience my life much more fully and spiritually. But this still does not give us a clear concept of what emotions are.
There are, however, some further clues in here.
Firstly, I think that one reason that we tend to use the word ‘feel’ in relation to things that we think is that we are expressing something that is coming up from an intuitional level. We are describing a thought that comes from our subconscious rather than from a conscious analytical process. The thought is one that we ‘sense’, largely because the logic behind it is not in our conscious mind. When we choose to open up to our thoughts we can normally bring more to consciousness than we ordinarily realise is there. In normal everyday life we are often only aware of the end result. Those thoughts that we ‘feel’ are often the result of subconscious thought.
Secondly, from my own experience I notice that when I increase my awareness of my thoughts and my physical feelings, I find that it is often the thoughts that lead on to the feelings. When I think certain thoughts then feelings often follow and seem to be very intimately associated with those thoughts. Some thoughts trigger associated physical feelings.
But how does this relate to emotion? I may think certain thoughts and go on to feel some feelings, but I don’t think of either of these as my emotion.
And have you noticed how particular thoughts tend to come out of a particular state of mind? Or perhaps a particular state of mind will tend to have certain thoughts associated with it, and as feelings follow thoughts so we may also associate particular feelings with particular states of mind.
So, perhaps emotion is just a state of mind? Or a combination of state of mind, thought, and feeling? But this is basically defining emotion by the symptoms of emotion. And, to me at least, this is really not very satisfying as it does not fit with our starting point that the things that go on in our mind are there for a reason. Like it or not, emotions and feelings have a huge impact on all of us, there certainly must be a powerful reason for their presence in our mind. I want our definition of emotion to be more than a description of the symptoms, I want it to include the purpose of emotion.
Let me take you a little further. Emotion seems related to a state of mind, and some particular thoughts and feelings come out of that state of mind.
When we are in a given state of mind, when we are thinking certain thoughts and feeling certain feelings, we will tend to behave in a certain way. We still have freedom of choice, our behaviour is not entirely determined by our state of mind, but there is a definite tendency there. When we are fearful we tend to hold back from action, we may be reserved and careful. If our fear grows we may become increasingly suspicious and we may become physically jumpy and, in the extreme, we shall look for escape routes or places to hide. When we are angry we tend to become physically active (or contained but ready for action), we tend to become confrontational, we are less likely to empathise with others or understand their point of view. When we are sad or depressed we may become inactive and disconnected from what is going on around us. Our energy will seem to be low and we may avoid personal contact.
Behaviour is the key. In terms of survival, different behaviours are appropriate to different situations. When we are faced with danger it is appropriate that we either avoid the danger or confront it, and avoidance will tend to come before confrontation in terms of survival. When we are hungry or thirsty it is appropriate that we get active and find what we need. When we are not well supported by our environment it is appropriate that we seek changes or leave. And at almost any time, and particularly when life is going well for us, it is appropriate for us, as evolutionary animals, to be socialising, loving, and raising children.
Emotions encourage particular types of behaviour. Indeed, I propose that the primary function of emotion is to help to motivate us to behave in ways that benefit us in different situations.
Another point that I want to make here is that emotion is one of those functions of the mind that is not under our direct control. We cannot simplistically choose our emotional state. It can take advanced practice to have any significant ability to change our emotional state at all. Many of us become more or less proficient at numbing out our emotions but few of us get much further than this. When we attempt to control our emotion, (or our feelings), it is not our emotion that we get to control, at best it is our behaviour. Someone that ‘loses’ control is not losing control of their emotion, they are losing control of their behaviour.
Evolution and Feelings
Now the first major piece of the definition is in place. Emotion helps to motivate us to behave in ways that are appropriate to our situation. But how does that explain how states of mind, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours actually work together to motivate us? How does emotion work?
As we have just noted, emotion is primarily associated with our non-conscious mind. From this consideration alone we can probably deduce that emotion is likely to be something that is just as much associated with our primitive beginnings as our more recently developed conscious mind, and this is backed up by research into which parts of the brain and nervous system are active when our emotions are triggered.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to imagine evolution starting with something simple and becoming more complex as time passes. The complex mind and body that we now experience was preceded by simpler versions. I also believe that evolution will make use of what is already in place as much as is possible because this is the most efficient way to develop new capability: through evolution rather than revolution. And so, those earlier and perhaps simpler versions and capabilities are still likely to exist within us in some form or another. My current modern mind may well still make use of the simple solutions that worked in the past.
Our mind is based on our brain and broader nervous system, and a nervous system provides a way for physical events to be sensed and a control route for movement, maintenance, and stimulation. From first principles, there is a benefit to even a simple organism having a nervous system as it allows that organism to coordinate its functions, initially perhaps to make better use of daylight or warmth, or to feed while food is available. A nervous system also enables other evolutionary steps and, once a brain starts to be developed, provides the basic ability that allows movement to become purposeful.
As the nervous system grows, the advantages of a brain, a central control unit, become clearer and clearer. And it also seems logical to me that brain-based activity will make as full use of the growing nervous system as it can. A major purpose of the early brain will be to analyse situations (through sensors provided by the nervous system), decide on appropriate behaviour, and use the nervous system to enact that behaviour.
Any creature with a nervous system has a sensing and feedback control system in place long before any higher-level mind appears and the higher-level mind will make as direct use as it can of that existing nervous system.
Can you see how this presents a problem for the evolution of ‘higher’ brain activity? Simple brain abilities will be evolved before higher brain abilities and these simple brain abilities already have control of behaviour.
There is already a simple centralised control system in place that is using the existing sensor and control network. The simple system provides basic feedback: move away from heat, notice stomach contents and eat when empty, mate when in reach of a mate, shrink back when bitten, become immobile if under threat or if conditions deteriorate, and so on. The higher-level mind (and I use the word ‘mind’ loosely here) can usefully add say a predictive capability, and a memory, and an ability to combine sensor input to build a bigger picture of the environment.
In addition and for the sake of efficiency and simplicity, as the primitive control centre has all the complex sensors and all the complex controls already in place, the higher-level mind will not want to replicate all this, it will just want to make use of what is there already.
The higher-level, and at some stage conscious, mind will continue to add to the pre-existing capabilities of the non-conscious mind, building on top of and extending the mind and brain that already exists. The developing higher-level mind will add strategy to behaviour. The higher-level mind can work out that it will be beneficial to start looking for the next meal somewhat before the stomach is entirely empty.
But how can the higher-level mind take control when the control system is ‘owned’ by the existing simple brain? And of course that simple brain is not quite as simple as it may at first appear, as it will have evolved to be resistant to confusion or misdirection. The early brain may well resist any direct attempt of the new higher-level development to modify its actions. If they are both active at once then they may well contest with each other, which would produce a behavioural mess-up and probably an early death of the primitive organism.
So there must be some means of cooperation, which allows the more primitive elements to continue to function and allows the later developments to have an influence. One of several possibilities is for the higher-level mind to indirectly influence or ‘fool’ the more primitive control centre into action.
The higher-level mind can achieve the control that it wants by tapping into and using the existing sensor system to give the simple control centre an impression that conditions have changed and so new behaviour is now appropriate. For example, by simulating an ‘empty’ signal on the stomach sensor the simple control centre can be fooled (motivated) into triggering a ‘get food’ behaviour. By simulating a ‘hot’ sensation the higher-level mind can motivate the simple control system to move into shade. By simulating a readiness for sex, the higher-level mind may be able to promote behaviour that has the organism hang around with a potential mate until the physical readiness to mate arrives.
In this way the higher-level mind is enhancing the success of the organism whilst making use of what is already there. This would be a highly efficient way to evolve a brain, by layering new abilities on to what already exists. And, if my reasoning is even half way correct, this has happened numerous times as the human mind was evolved and as increasingly sophisticated mental capabilities were developed.
Here is a clear reason for behavioural motivation to work through ‘feelings’ and unconscious thought to be providing a major input to motivation. Emotion – the setting into motion – motivates us through a cascade of sensory simulation from high-level thinking down to low-level feelings and nerve activation. I end up feeling full with love or contentment, I choke with fear, I feel sick with disgust when I can no longer stomach something I have mentally swallowed, I feel pain in my neck and back when I am bearing a heavy load of responsibility, my head aches when I can find no solutions to my many problems – when I lack sustenance. The feelings in my body are evidence of various parts of my mind in action.
This also helps to explain why motivation can be such an issue. My conscious reasoning mind may come to a decision; I’m going to get more exercise, and nothing much will happen unless my conscious mind can influence my unconscious, and my unconscious my subconscious, all the way down to my simple, primitive, action centre. With such a lot of influencing going on and a variety of motivational decisions being made, including my conscious one, there is quite a lot of opportunity for motivation to fail or, at the very least, become confused.
There are two observations that I want to highlight here.
The first is that this way of considering the mind as a layered evolution of activity that is built up from the most primitive nervous system has an important side implication: The mind is experienced in and based on the whole body and not just the brain in my head.
The second observation is that this view of layers of activity built one on another and evolved over time offers a different way of modelling the human mind to the more conventional view of the mind as a form of single supercomputer. Evolutionary layers of mind will result in much more sophistication of behaviour and experience than are likely to be predicted by considering function alone. The mind is not well represented when it is modelled as a single sophisticated entity.
This view is a little like thinking of the mind as a networked multi-computer, one that is actually made up of many sub-computers and each has been designed by a different engineer at a different time, with a different core function, and with knowledge only of the older sub-computers. Each sub-computer has influence over older computers but little in the way of direct control. Such a supercomputer might have considerable capability, but it would also behave in very complex ways.
What we ‘feel’ in association with particular emotions is part of the complex process of internal negotiation and coercion that comes from the way our brains and minds have evolved over time. When I ‘feel’ affront at an injustice, part of my mind has gotten active and is inducing other parts of my mind to prepare for action. I literally ‘feel’ that process going on in my body and I am aware of much activity going on in my mind.
So now we have a basic concept of what emotions are for and what may be going on when we experience emotion. Emotions can be thought of as the way that certain parts of our mind motivate the whole of us to behave and they operate through our feelings and through a cascade of mental activity.
The concept of the mind using emotions to motivate behaviour returns us to one of the points raised early in this walk. If emotion relates to behaviour then what are the primary behaviours and how do these relate to the primary emotions that we experience?
Perhaps if we go back to reconsider one of our starting points. Some modern thinkers suggest just two emotions; love and fear. How does this fit in with the idea of emotion being a behavioural motivation? Well, it actually fits quite well, though it requires another change in our viewpoint to realise the fit. If I think of the symptoms of love and fear then I get nowhere very much; I don’t yet see a direct link between feelings of openness and behaviour that forgives and any particular primary motivation and nor do I yet see how restricted breathing, immobilisation, and a will to run away fit in.
But this is a bit like metaphorically not seeing the wood for the trees. In this case the trees are descriptions of behaviours and thoughts and feelings that I associate with love and fear. The wood is something else, and again there is a clue in thinking about evolution.
The single ‘simplest’ motivation that I would expect to find in any primitive creature would be a motivation to go out and live life. A motivation for individuals to engage with life and to benefit from all that it has to offer. A motivation to find and consume food, a motivation to establish security, a motivation to socialise and breed. And isn’t that a basis for a definition of love? Love is the motivation to engage with life.
But simple engagement has a problem in the reality of life. There are dangers, from predators, from poisons, from natural risks. So right after a motivation to engage with life there will very quickly be required a motivation to disengage and protect, and this will be a motivation that is only needed from time to time. This is fear, and it is much more focussed than love, it is for use in reaction to specific situations only. Fear is the motivation to withdraw from and avoid danger.
So, love connects us to life and fear protects us from danger. But is that enough? Are just two primary emotions sufficient to keep us alive and well?
Well, I think that there is at least a third that is important. There are situations where love and fear, connect or protect, do not offer an optimum behaviour. There are situations where there are threats and dangers where engagement is better than flight. When love is inappropriate and fear is inappropriate there is a need for another motivation that will re-engage us with life, not to connect with it but to fight it. And this is anger. Anger is the third emotion and it comes after fear and after love. Anger is the motivation to engage with and defeat danger.
Under this view, love, fear, and anger form the core emotions and in terms of primary motivational requirements I don’t see a need for much more than this. I can visualise how these may be combined together or modified to fine-tune behaviour to particular situations, and I can visualise additional but minor behaviours to add on top, but these core emotions are the big three:
Love: Love is our motivation to connect with and engage with life and it will tend to be active at all times. Behaviours include gentleness, curiosity, social and sexual love, empathy, wanting, and caring. Love delivers us aspiration and joy. Aspiration is an expression of our wants and joy is our appreciation of living in the moment, our appreciation of being alive. Happiness, euphoria, gratitude are extreme expressions of love.
Fear: Fear is our motivation to protect ourselves from danger and it will be active whenever we are in danger or believe ourselves to be. Behaviours include avoidance, panic, pretence, selfishness, and shut-down. Fear delivers us anxiety and discomfort instead of aspiration and joy. In the extreme we experience petrification or panic, a break down of rationality.
Anger: Anger re-engages us with life to confront it and it will be active when we perceive life as not as we want it or when we have fear but have only a restricted ability to run away. Behaviours include violence, bullying, inconsideration, and detachment. Anger delivers us righteousness, resolve, and a form of confidence. In the extreme we have rage, a belief of personal power, and sometimes triumph, when our anger is still running and we have achieved some form of victory over adversity.
And just before we complete this walk, I think it worthwhile to step back from the crude simplicity of the core motivations to look at what happens when these are running together.
Life has its fair share of complexity and though my aim was to attempt to expose some of the simplicity behind our complex reactions to life, for any ideas about the building blocks of the mind to have value they must go some way towards explaining how the mind can operate as a complete whole.
Will three core emotions combine together to support the seemingly almost endless range of emotions that we experience? This again is where three works better for me than two, where anger is important to complete the whole. Just as it takes three primary colours to give a whole spectrum of light so I can begin to see how combinations of three primary emotions, three primary states of mind, can come together to give a spectrum of emotion. By varying the intensity of each, they combine to create different effects.
When I am wanting to love and yet fearful, I may experience shyness. When life takes the object of my love away I may experience grief as my love and my anger form an uncomfortable alliance. Disgust is what I get when my fear and my anger are equally present. And when all three are equally present, I have no clear way to act or to ‘feel’ and I may call my experience numbness or shame. Shame is the feeling that goes with a belief of self-guilt, where we are angry with ourselves, we want change, and we are still carrying a fear of exposure to society or retribution from society.
The Spectrum of Emotion
With some of these combinations coming to mind I can begin to plot a tentative ‘spectrum’ of emotion. I can begin to place the emotions that I experience in relation to each other:
Here I’ve laid out a very speculative triangle or pyramid of emotion that demonstrates the kind of spectrum that can be built up. This is obviously a very simple model and, like any such model, has great limitations but has value in that it gives us a particular way of viewing what is going on and we can derive further insights from what the model shows us.
The layout above shows love at the top. This reflects some of the more traditional ways of thinking of emotional states of mind. I can easily think of love as being somehow higher or more important than fear and anger, and some of the experiences that come from love are the experiences that I value most highly in life; happiness, fulfilment, contentment, peace, and so on which I also associate with those emotions right at the very top of the chart.
And this chart also tells me something else about emotion. If you want to experience more love and happiness, then the age-old advice still holds; find ways to live life with fewer experiences of fear and anger. Or you can put this another way. If you are not experiencing love then what is it that you are objecting to in life or what are you afraid of?
The Triangle of Motivation
We can also now draw up a model of the behaviours and possible motivations that are likely to be associated with each of these emotions. The Triangle of Motivation:
There are two obvious limitations to this basic model.
Firstly, our basic definition of emotion as being a mechanism for the motivation of behaviour to match circumstance means that drives such hunger, sexual lust, thirst, and exhaustion would be included in with all the other emotions. Though I have no real issue thinking of all human drives as emotions, my implicit argument has been that basic survival drives, our underlying strong motivators, are made use of by those states of mind and body that we normally think of as emotion. In that sense the basic biological drives underpin and support those states that we commonly think of as emotion.
At the other end of the scale, there are also some mental states that are not fully represented in these triangles. These states are associated with the very latest developments in the human brain. Our abilities to visualise, to reason, and to predict provide additional modifications to the basic emotions. These additional states include anticipation, surprise, imaginative creativity, and distrust (a holding-back of behaviour). Again, I have no real conceptual issue including these reason-based states under the umbrella definition that we have been using for emotion. The limit of the triangle model above is that it covers those emotions that are primarily experienced as a response to some current event or circumstance that is external to ourselves.
This walk has considered the fundamental motivations of being alive, and has shown that love, fear, and anger can be defined in terms of those motivations.
I suggest that the emotions that we experience and the feelings that we feel may have come from the way that the brain has evolved and implemented ways of responding to the environment so that these primary motivations are applied more and more appropriately.
By combining these three core emotions it is possible to describe many emotional states and that each emotional state is a state of mind that motivates us to exhibit particular behaviours. We have completed by drawing up a tentative Spectrum of Emotion and from that a Triangle of Motivation.