Wired For Emotions


Wired for emotion

Jean Piaget, the developmental psychologist, noted that all children seemed, ‘equipped for the world that they found themselves in.’  In part he was noticing something “pan-culturally,” that was occuring.

I think of my daughter,Maxine (5 years old), who is dragging her bear, “Hearts” around. She’s talking to it, she’s telling stories about it.  She is feeding it, changing it, and giving it a nap. I even had to kiss it goodnight last night. This isn’t simply pretend world. This is Magical Thinking. We see it in her explanation of the moon suddenly coming into view or dissapearing. Amazingly we see this in the Kalahari Bushmen and New York aristocrats alike.

What is this? Who taught her to do this?

From the view of the science of development, Piaget (and a great many others), believe that the mind is composed of content rich mental models.  Imagine a swiss army knife with multiple blades so to speak. There's one mind, but it comes equipped with several built in features. The reality is that these models do not reflect OUR world, but rather the Pleistocein world in which we developed. Cambridge Professor of Archeology and Psychology Steven Mithen states, “Young children seem to have intuitive knowledge of the world in at least four domains of behavior: language, psychology, physics, and biology. Their intuitive knowledge within each of these appears to be related to a hunting and gathering lifestyle that appears long ago in prehistory.”

Mithen is actually just building on Noam Chompsky’s logic concerning the language aquisition device within the mind. This theory has been shown time and again to play out in the same way-- that whatever their cultural background children could not adequately construct language, psychology, physics of biological information from the evidence available to them during the earliest stages of their development.  The researchers conclusion is that “Consequentially these concepts appear to derive from an innate structure.”

Emotional Development

Let's trace backwards a bit: our human anscestors decend from the primal jungles onto the African Savannah, and immediately they're at a disadvantage. In the ancient forests they had been an unremarkable creature--which is in many ways why they left it. But during that 3 million year stint they had developed some interesting adaptations.

“Unlike most mammals with olfactory dominance, primates are visually dominant.  Primate brains are rewired to subordinate sensory inputs—haptic, auditory, and olfactory, to vision.  Seeing enabled us to move rapidly through the trees, dodging predators, and finding prey alike…Additionally there was a decline in the olfactory bulb…allowing for a larger subcortical emotion center in the brain… Additionally an animal moving from the trees, must feel a heightened sense of touch, texture, weight and strength…” (Turner, pg 3)

Heightened sight. Decreased smell. And increased space near the neo-frontal cortecies. Additionally they had an active limbic or responsive (emotional) system. Thus, when aroused, this creature might have given off a noisy response.They could respond quickly--in exaggerated way--and due to the absense of the olfactory bulb and the larger subcortical center, they could remember and project.

By the time they reach the Savannah they are exposed to a world riddled with large mammal predators, which they cannot smell, and in the tall grass are only partially able to see. However, they also have deeply flexible joints, no tails, limbs capable of fast locomotion, flexible arms, wrists, and hands. They also had teeth capable of grinding, holding, and disposing of a wide variety of food.  During this period they adapted to the tall grass by standing upright.  And, their brains had doubled from 500-1000cc.

As they began to explore the savannah, their nimble and hypervigilent mind's made maps of the terrain. They set about to memorizing it in a way that would have been unfamiliar to other species, incorporating the patterns of other predators and prey.“A dozen species of large carnivores and an equal number of powerful ungulates played at the game through the grasslands for 60 million yers. As genera they came and went like substitutes playing on a field. Because of little neural connections our anscestors went well ahead of most of their kin-folk in the swamps, brush and forest in terms of discerning the relationships between clues: the color of droppings, the presence of blood, a thousand other important events that were occuring around them...the game hard already started and we newcomers came to it with our primate scuffling, our chimpanzee sized brains, our social restrictions and a growing taste for meat.” (Shepard, 52)

A distinct disadvantage that this creature had, we know through observation of forest monkeys and apes, is “weak-tie-patterns of social relations.”  Small and individual game was easier to hunt than banded societies. If they were going to survive on the Savannah the early hominids needed to build higher levels of social solidarity. Human emotions are born as a meeting of both the deficits and advances of the apes so far.


Our evolutions sped up as we explored our physical world.  Using our visual senses we were able to intake information. Next we both projected and utilized our physical bodies to communicate non-auditory cues to others (auditory would have meant we would be threatened). These cues could include information about sanctioned elements (threats): fear, aggression, dissapointment/sadness and approval.Additionally, our large brain could make embellishments on many of the interactions socially. We could carry an image of ourself, remember past interactions in great detail, and project future concern.

It's vital to understanding that emotions are adaptive to serve several central purposes:

1.Communication to Self: To readily interpret information in ways that do not require complex rational thought.

Emotions can be signals to check things out.

2.To communicate to others in non-verbal ways

Facial expressions are biologically hardwired to communicate faster than words. Emotions have automatic effect on others. Consider Infant responses to adult smiles or looks of fear--without having words attached, it correlates, instantly, to their emotional impulses. They know what's going on.  Emotional expressions influence others, whether we intend it or not. 

3.To motivate to action

Emotions save time in getting us to act in important situations. If we had to sit around and think about what to do in a Tsunami, we probably wouldn't survive. Or if you're responding to an infant who is crying and you feel distress you shouldn't have to way your options. Your emotion motivates to know exactly what to do.

These three basic functions are found in each of our core emotions. Consider the adaptive function of several of our most basic feelings:

a) FEAR—organizes our responses to threats to our life, health, or well-being. It focusses on escape from danger.

b) SADNESS-Organizes our response to losses of someone or something important to us and to goals lost or not attained. It focusses us on what is valued. It also draws attention to the need to be helped.

c)SHAME-Organizes responses related to personal characteristics or our own behaviors that are dishonoring. It focuses on hiding transgressions and, if these are already public, engaging in appeasement.

e) HAPPINESS—Organizes our response to optimal functioning to ourselves and other we care about, or groups that we are apart of. It models continuing activities that are pleasing or enhancing to us.

While many all mammals are capable of expressing emotions, humans seem to have the largest repetoire, particularly as they enter adolecence.

Adaptive Emotions

All emotions have a biological basis because they are built from body systems activating one or more primary emotion. What function would emotions serve in creating and sustaining a hunter-gatherer/forager population in the African savannah, 250,000 years ago?

  • *Create and sustain cohesion

  • *Be readily interpretable, but not cause threat

  • *Not be overtaxing

In other words they may not bare the unsustained emotional highs that we witness today. “Moderate intensity emotions would be essential to sustaining social continuity. Terror would disrupt the group of hunters, unnessarily. So too, high intensity anger is disruptive and invites counter-anger or fear or avoidance. Mid-level sadness would alert others that help may be required, without making the task hopeless.”  (Turner, 131)

  • Satisfation (Cheerful, friendly, amiable)  versus (joy, bliss, rapture, ecstasy)

  • Aversion (misgivings, anxiety, trepidation) versus (terror, horror, dread)

  • Assertion (angry, hostile, displeased) veresus (loathing, wrath, rage)

  • Dissapointment (sadness, discouraged, grieving) versus (anguish, heartsick, despair)

Emotion Model

Emotions are the physiological response (communicating to self, others, and urge) to our interpretations, based upon our vulnerabilities, of a particular prompting event.

“The manner of primitive peoples forms a science of the concrete...they conceptualize their world in way that is not merely coherent, but the very one demanded where objects are complex….they treat plants and animals as capable messengers….their own emotions as part of the rich fabric of the phenomelogical world, to be listened to, trusted, and acted upon in relationship to others” (Levi-Strauss, 57).

What we find is that humans adapted complex emotional responses to give them the advantage on the African Savannah. It created cohesion among a species that was fairly dispersed prior to this. Additionally, it enabled us to make non-auditory signals in order to motivate action among one another.  However, humans had a range that was far greater than other mammals in these emotions. Their capacity could well extend above average ranges. It would take other features to keep these in check. It would take environments of evolutionary adaptivity.