Goals, wanting, liking


anti-goals, not wanting, not liking



A phylogeny of emotions





From the primal capacity of one-celled organisms to move away from excess heat, dryness, acidity or salinity, natural selection has gradually differentiated a host of responses to cope with different kinds of threats.  

Anxiety motivates escape and future avoidance, and it can serve as a warning to others.  Disgust also motivates escape, prepares the body to make escape more likely, and motivates future avoidance.  

... the threat that involves the possible loss of a mate’s fidelity arouses emotions that are aspects of jealousy... . If the threat involves a risk of loss of social position, the specific emotions are humiliation, pride, etc.  

Our brains could have been wired so that good food, sex, being the object of admiration, and observing the success of one’s children were all aversive experiences.  However, any ancestor whose brain was so wired would probably not have contributed much to the gene pool that makes human nature what it is now.  Similarly, if there were someone who experienced no upset at failure, no anxiety in the face of danger and no grief at the death of a child, his or her life might be free of suffering but also would probably be without much accomplishment, including having offspring.  These evolved preferences for pursuing certain resources and avoiding their loss are at the very centre of human experience.  It is not surprising that bad feelings are reliably aroused by losses, threats of losses, and inability to reach important goals ...  

Randolph M Nesse – Natural selection and the elusiveness of happiness


The Smoke Detector Principle negativity bias


Because many defences are inexpensive compared with the harm they protect against, false alarms are both normal and common for many defences.  For instance, if successful panic flight costs 200 calories but being clawed by a tiger costs the equivalent of, say, 20000 calories, then it will be worthwhile to flee in panic whenever the probability of a tiger being present is greater than 1%.  This means that the normal system will express 99 false alarms for every time a tiger is actually present; the associated distress is unnecessary in almost all individual instances.  Blocking the tendency to panic would be an unalloyed good.  Except, that is, for that 1 time in 100.  This has been called the ‘smoke detector principle’ after our willingness to accept false alarms from making toast because we want a smoke detector that will give early warning about any and every actual fire ... .

Randolph M Nesse – Natural selection and the elusiveness of happiness


Evolutionarily, it makes sense to be more alert to negative information than positive information, because harmful things can prevent us from surviving.  


The brain detects negative information faster than it does positive.  We are drawn to bad news.  

... but when you direct it at yourself, it can bring you to your knees with depression.  

Ruby Wax – “Sane New World – taming the mind”




Emotions and perception

The function of emotions falls into the category of “detecting information”.  

An emotion is a message alerting us to an opportunity or a threat.  

An emotion detects the relevance (meaning) of object X with respect to goal G.  

In other words, goal G is something we want, and if X helps us to achieve G, then we like X.  If X thwarts us from achieving G, then we dislike X.  



Liking and wanting

Liking and wanting are treated very differently within the brain.  “Wanting” is something we have for goals: we want to achieve some goal, or not to achieve some “anti-goal”.  “Liking” is either when we achieve that goal or when we move towards it (opposite for anti-goals).  Liking is when we get more of what we want.  

When we like something, a very small area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, the “pleasure centre”, is active.  The brain area for “wanting” consists of massive pathways, and because of this, it takes a long time to give up “wanting” something even after we do not chase it any more.  This is why we say that somebody is an alcoholic or drug addict for life: their “wanting” pathways have grown large by being used all the time.  It may or may not be possible for these to shrink back down to normal size through neuroplasticity (the pathways growing smaller through disuse).  

This may also be why some people feel they have an addictive personality: they are accustomed to wanting a lot, and their wanting pathways have grown very active.  

The main evolutionary function of the wanting circuits is to make us acquire food, sex, and other necessaries of life, which is why they are so biologically large.  

Wanting and self-care  

If wanting means a lacking of something, and a desire to get up and find it, then self-care seems like the opposite – staying still and giving things to oneself.  



Emotions and affect

We may schematise consciousness as four levels:  


  1. bodily sensations
  2. affect
  3. emotions
  4. thoughts


Each level provides more detail than the one before.  

“Affect” means the positive or negative valence of feelings, felt in the body.  For example, hunger or pain would lead us to experience a negative affect.  A negative affect can cause us to have negative emotions, thoughts and opinions about the experiences we have while we are feeling negative in affect.  Correspondingly, a positive affect can positively colour our emotional- and thought-information processing.  




Why, and how, we seek information.  


WHEN VIEWED FROM an evolutionary stand point, human hearing has become what it is because it is a survival tool.  The human auditory sense is very effective at extracting every possible detail from the world around us so that we and our ancestors might avoid danger, find food, communicate, enjoy the sounds of nature, and appreciate the beauty of what we call music.

The world beyond 20 kHz


A bat sees a sheet of glass that is transparent to light as something flat and opaque, because its vision consists of audio echo-location like radar – bouncing its own squeaks and chirps off surrounding objects in order to “see”.  



Why we seek information

Organisms experience a pressure to survive and thrive.  

Those organisms which are more adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and thrive.  

Those organisms which make the most of their environment are more likely to survive and thrive.  

In order to adapt to, and make the most of, its environment, it is helpful for the organism to have INFORMATION about its environment.  

Therefore, every organism is a detection machine.  

Knowledge is power, and if you know what is going on, you are in a better position to act.  In Buddhism, ignorance or delusion is known as one of the “three poisons” and therefore an action based on it is unsatisfactory or flawed from the start.  


How we detect information


Senses:  sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch.  Also, for example, a “sense” of something, such as a sense of fair play (recognising fair play when we see it), or gaydar (detecting whether someone is gay).  

Mind:  we perceive or see things in the mind.  We perceive intellectual information about objects or situations, and the way that these objects and situations are related.  


These include hunger, pain, visceral thrills.  

Meaning (emotional): the emotional meaning of X is the way that X is relevant to our goals.  

Meaning (symbolic): “meaning” also means “signifying”; something is a sign or symbol of something else.  For example, if we feel hungry it means we have not eaten; a word has a certain meaning.  

Some kinds of meaning are a combination of these two.  For example, if something is important to us, we say it is “significant”.  

Attention:  the focus of our awareness.  We attend to what is relevant to our goals.  Our visual attention is drawn to those things that are relevant to our goals.  




People have a right to their (genuine) feelings

All of this implies that people are allowed to have feelings – in the same way that someone can’t help seeing what they see, they can’t help feeling what they feel.  





It seems obvious that intelligence can help us to make the most of our environment.  Intelligence is as much a matter of habit as raw native ability: we can all learn to think well, observe with humility, and ask questions.  




Emotion is necessary for rationality


It is emotion that allows you to mark things as “good”, “bad” or “indifferent” ... literally in the flesh.  

When you are making decisions, any day of your life, and of course the options you make are going to produce a good or a bad outcome, or something in between, you do not only remember what the factual result is, but also what the emotional result is.  And that tandem of fact and associated emotion is critical.  And of course most of what we construct as wisdom, over time, is actually a result of cultivating that knowledge of how our emotions behaved, and what we learned from them.  

Antonio Damasio – “When Emotions Make Better Decisions”


... it is impossible to actually separate “rational thought” from emotion.  Even the most sophisticated decisions and analyses require positive or negative emotion; otherwise, it is impossible to determine which choice or idea is “better” and which isn't.  Valuing anything – even an idea – as “good” or “bad” requires feeling.  

Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D Perry MD, PhD – “Born for Love”


... the perception of truth is possible only for a mind free from prejudice and passion.  

P. Lakshmi Narasu – “The Essence of Buddhism”


In general, the information we detect tends to come bundled together from multiple sources or inputs.  

We require emotions in order to make choices between different factual situations.  

Any of the information we perceive is not necessarily factually accurate.  




Perception and attention have evolved to be goal-oriented

When computer scientists like Marvin Lee Minsky first started studying artificial intelligence, they found that there are infinite ways to interpret the available information about any single physical object or situation.  

For example, a pen can be seen as a stick, a coloured stick, plastic, hard, good for writing with; etc.  In order to settle on one way of perceiving the pen, it can be seen in terms of its required function, or, alternatively, one’s goal(s).

Nature shows us what we have evolved to need to see: that which has relevance, saliency, and meaning for us; and the rest may be ignored.  

This selectivity of perceiving some aspects of reality to bring to attention, and the consequent neglect to include other things into conscious awareness, can be seen as a limitation of living things, or alternatively, a strength of living things.  




Each person’s attention is on slightly different things

If we attend to what is relevant to our goals, and each person’s goals are individual to them, it follows that each person attends to aspects of the same reality slightly differently.  




Semantic network  

A hypothesis states that each person carries in their mind a “semantic network” or network of associations of meaning.  This network varies over time, and each person’s is slightly different, depending on their goals and experiences.  




Modular view of consciousness  

Some researchers see the mind and attention as being controlled by competing brain modules, each adapted towards a different goal, and all coordinated in the final outcome of behaviour (there can only be one behaviour because there is only one body.)  

Robert Wright & Leda Cosmides discuss.  

.mp3 recording  

YouTube video  

Attachment to ideas  

We may be attached to a point of view for emotional reasons.  In this case, we reject information that conflicts with this point of view, because we do not want to see it.  We will look for, and only want to see, whatever accords with our existing view.




Attribution error

We may attribute an “essence” to X – make an intellectual judgement that X is a certain way – based on our emotional feelings towards X.  This attribution may be an error.  




Rationalising emotions

Although we might like to think otherwise, many of our thoughts are merely the puppets of our emotions.  There are times when we may rationally think whatever our emotions tell us to, and assume that these thoughts are perfectly clear and rational.  




Emotional intelligence



Emotional intelligence is the ability to use emotions to inform thoughts and thought to inform feelings.  

Peg Streep


An emotion is a message: your body is trying to tell you that X is an opportunity or threat relative to your goal(s), the things you want or don’t want.  This message will, effectively, hammer at the doors of your consciousness until you either listen to it or suppress all conscious knowledge of it (making it subconscious).  

An emotion therefore has three aspects, which it is necessary to acknowledge and identify:  

  1. the emotion itself (e.g. sadness, jealousy, hope, joy).  
  2. the thing X, that is provoking the emotion.  
  3. the goal, relative to which, X is either an opportunity or threat.  


Acknowledging an emotion

You can say out loud in your mind, “I feel [emotion E] because of [reason X] that is relevant to [goal G].  This has two effects:

  1. the message of the emotion is delivered to consciousness, thereby cooling the power of the emotion.
  2. the emotional system in the brain is connected to the conscious decision-making and emotion-regulating system of the pre-frontal cortex, through the use of words and conscious recognition.  

If you suppress the emotion, then it will not go away, and will still exist.  Since its existence is below the level of consciousness (in the subconscious), then it can make you do things without you knowing it.  Also, since it still exists, you will still be feeling the emotion, but you won't realise it.  

For example, you might say to yourself, “my face feels tense, and I feel anxious, because I might be late for my job interview, which is relevant to my goal of getting a job”  or even, simply, “I feel anxious because I have a job interview.”  


Recognising emotions

Emotions can often be recognised by their qualities, and by their effects on you, perhaps on your body: perhaps anger makes you feel “wobbly” with adrenalin; sadness feels like a pain in your heart; joy makes you cry.  Perhaps an emotion feels tense or light-hearted.  Each will have its hallmark effects that you can learn to recognise.  


Reaction and evaluation  

The amygdala, a small organ at the back of the brain, registers salience: it allows us to take notice of what is relevant (mostly negative, but not always).  The prefrontal cortex is a higher part of the brain that is the seat of reason, logic, language and executive decision making.  If the one can be well connected to the other, then more emotional regulation and less emotional reaction are possible: the mind can consciously calm the situation down and take time, if it is available, to make skilful and ethical decisions for the long term based on the emotional information, rather than blind reaction in the short term.  


Mental noting (naming) and Vipassana meditation

The most efficient way to connect the amygdala (“alarm bell”) with the prefrontal cortex (“control centre”) is mental noting or naming: thinking to oneself, I feel “this” emotion (sadness, happiness, anger, jealousy, interest etc.).  

The most efficient form of mental noting is within meditation, and here it is known as an aspect of Vipassana or insight meditation.  In a calm state, with eyes closed, concentrating on breathing and bodily sensations, for each entity that enters your consciousness, notice:

  1. what it is
  2. the goal to which it is relevant
  3. the accompanying emotion (if any)
  4. or, how it arrived in your attention through your semantic network of meaning.    

If emotions are painful, then this process may be traumatic, and should be stopped.  Place the attention back on to the breathing and bodily sensations.  

This process can feel like weathering a storm at sea and then being washed up on a beach.  



Recognising emotions in ourselves, and knowing how we ourselves work, allows us to recognise these in others.  


Mental noting and self-regulation

When labelling an emotion quiets it  

Cognitive reappraisal  

Telltale Signs That You Lack Emotional Intelligence

Why you need emotional intelligence

The 7 signs of high emotional intelligence


Using brain imaging, Lieberman and his colleagues have provided some insight into the neural basis of affect labelling. When people in an fMRI machine are shown photos of faces expressing strong emotion, for example, their brain signals show greater activity in the amygdala, which is involved in generating emotions, especially fear. When asked to label the emotion, however, the subjects show less activity in the amygdala, and greater activity in a region of the right frontal lobe known as the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (rvlPFC), a region involved in vigilance and discrimination.  

When Labeling an Emotion Quiets It – Tom Valeo


The pre-frontal cortex has a vast range of different functions and occupies almost a third of the surface of the brain.  But it is best known for its function in cognitive and emotional control.  [Dr] Frederick [Ahs, Karolinska Institute in Stockholm] describes its role here as the rider of a horse.  ‘You could think of the pre-frontal cortex as being the rider and the amygdala as being the horse.  Sometimes the horse gets spooked but sometimes the rider is still able to control the horse.’  ...  Here we see communication between two different brain areas.  What we’re seeing is bravery.  

Secrets of the Human Body– Chris van Tulleken, Xand van Tulleken and Andrew Cohen


Stoic literature ... features a story ... told by the Latin author Aulus Gellius, who writes about a Stoic philosopher experiencing a severe storm while on a ship.  Gellius noticed how the philosopher became pale and trembled in the midst of the storm.  Once things had calmed down, he asked the philosopher how come his Stoicism had not prepared him better to withstand those frightening moments.  His response is illuminating:

When some terrifying sound occurs, either from the sky or from the collapse of a building or as the sudden herald of some danger, even the wise person’s mind necessarily responds, and is contracted and grows pale for a little while, not because he opines that something evil is at hand, but by certain rapid and unplanned movements antecedent to the office of intellect and reason.  Shortly, however, the wise person in that situation ‘withholds assent’ from those terrifying mental impressions; he spurns and rejects them and does not think that there is anything in them which he should fear.  

 “Human nature matters” – Aeon



Emotions, morality, and the ego

Emotions are one of the sources of information that the ego uses in order to help us make decisions, whether conscious or unconscious.  It is said that an immature or untrained ego will tend to give way to the emotions automatically.  



If we are vulnerable to cravings, attachments, confusion, or hatred, it is better to think about “what is right for me to do” rather than “what I want to do”.  

Tulku Thondup – “The Healing Power of Mind”



It is important from a moral point of view that we are aware of our own emotional motivations.  The subjective, emotional information that we receive is important, but there may be other, separate considerations involved, such as objective reality, the needs of other people, and the long term outcome.  




Emotions and ego defenses (coping mechanisms)

An ego defense follows the logic of emotion, in that the purpose of any ego defense is to transform painful or uncomfortable feelings into pleasant successful ones.  

These emotional manoeuvres may be done subconsciously, and therefore invisibly, below the level of consciousness, and in what may therefore appear to be a strange and irrational manner.  The subconscious mind may not be in contact with those parts of the ego which regulate behaviour in a sensible, adaptive direction, such as the conscious mind, and super-ego or social conscience.  

Ego defense can also be done in a more deliberate and considered way: under the control of the conscious mind.  Examples include creative art (bringing the unconscious into consciousness), humour, stoicism, getting used to things, or trying to fix a bad situation.  






If there is something missing in your life, it’s probably you.  

Andy Cope


These steps would seem to go together:  






Equanimity is a balanced state of mind where we are not shaken by strong emotion.  Because we are not shaken, we are in a position to take skilful and ethical action in response to events – action with the best possible long term consequences.  




The Alchemy of Acceptance


Emptiness can be a bleak vacuum

cold and hostile, dark with danger;

Or emptiness can be radiant space,

warm and welcoming, soft with stillness –

and the only difference between them is acceptance.


Any task can seem tedious

a chore to rush through reluctantly;

Or any task may seem rewarding

a process to relish, with an attentive mind

that reveals more richness, the more present you become –

and the only difference between them is acceptance.


Pain may seem unbearable

searing through you from a sharp, concentrated point

so that you have no choice but to resist

to try to escape, or to push away the pain;

Or pain can be a sensation

that you can move towards and merge with

that no longer has a centre, and dissipates through your being

until it becomes soft and numb, no longer a pain at all –

and the only difference between them is acceptance.


Trauma can break you down to nothing

destroy the identity you spent your whole life building up

like an earthquake that leaves you in ruins;

Or trauma can transform you

break open new depths and heights of your being,

give rise to a greater structure, a miraculous new self –

and the only difference between them is acceptance


Life can be frustrating, and full of obstacles

with desires for a different life disturbing your mind;

or life can be fulfilling, full of opportunities

with a constant flow of gratitude for the gifts you have;

and the only difference between them is acceptance.  


Steve Taylor




The Forest


They say that the forest is dangerous –

so thick that sunlight never touches its soil

and so wild and dense that no one ever finds their way back out again.

They say that there are animals, wolves and bears prowling hungrily

and other stranger creatures, ghostly shapes and shades

lurking in the darkness.


And so you make sure you keep your distance

from that shadowy mass of trees.

There were times long ago when curiosity got the better of you

and you crept up and glanced inside:

you saw a melee of shifting sounds and shapes

the jostling of a thousand different forms,

an unfamiliar darkness and coldness

full of strange forces and energies.


And even now, although you try to close your ears,

at night you can hear the murmurings

of those sinister forest creatures.


So you spend your life outside the forest

skirting its edges, watching your steps,

looking away and trying to forget

that you’re always in its shadow.


But listen closely:

those sounds aren’t the whispers of ghosts, or the howls of animals;

it’s the voice of your deepest self, calling you back home,

telling you that it’s time to turn inside.


So step into the forest.


At first you might be startled

by the swirl of unfamiliar noises

and the wrinkled twisted barks and stretching branches.

But don’t turn back – be courageous.

This is only a surface discord, like roaring waves above the stillness of the sea.


A few steps further and a hush descends.

The fresh stillness of the forest engulfs you, and enters you,

spreading slowly through your being, like a foaming mist.

And the further you go, the more stillness you sense –

an atmosphere of ease, an energetic calmness,

a sentience that both soothes and enlivens you.


And finally, right at the heart of the forest,

you’ll step into an open space, a golden glade of lush grass

where sunlight streams down from a clear still sky.


This is the core, where the roots of every tree meet,

which gives sustenance to the whole forest.

And here you can lie down and rest,

at the radiant source of being.


And then you’ll wonder why

you were ever afraid of yourself.


Steve Taylor