Goals, wanting, liking (, 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”.  

Our emotions detect the relevance or meaning of object X with regards 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, and consequently take a long time to wither from disuse.  This may also be why some people feel they have an addictive personality: they are just used to wanting a lot.  




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



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 can pinpoint what is going on, you will be in a better position to act.  


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.  

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.  




Combining sources of information


... 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.  

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




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, situation, person, etc.: X, that is provoking the emotion.  
  3. the goal, relative to which, X is either an opportunity or threat.

If you acknowledge the emotion, then potentially, it can go away, since it has done its job of delivering a message.  However, of course, the situation that led to it may be still in existence, in which case the emotion will come back.  

To observe an emotion is to step outside it.  

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.  




Converting an emotion into conscious knowledge

Acknowledging an emotion, by identifying the emotion, its source, and the goal to which it is relevant, means that you are now informed of the message that it has been trying to deliver to your consciousness.  

This means that you are now in a position to consciously do something about the situation it has alerted you to.  This would presumably be some kind of conscious coping mechanism or ego defense.  

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


Mental noting

Telltale Signs That You Lack Emotional Intelligence

Why you need emotional intelligence

The 7 signs of high emotional intelligence




Cognitive reappraisal


If you have an emotional reaction to something, it can be worth taking a few minutes to think the situation through rationally.  In the light of this new information, you might feel entirely differently about things, and potentially save yourself a lot of trouble.  




Observing our emotions: fast and slow thinking

Emotional reflexes are “fast thinking”, “hot cognition”, that engage the more ancient parts of our brains, such as the amygdala.  In an emergency, when we have to act quickly, this is exactly what we need.  

When we observe an emotion with our conscious mind, thereby stepping outside it, we engage the more recently evolved, executive functions of the pre-frontal cortex (“slow thinking”, “cool cognition”).  

This observation and slowing down naturally gives us more self-control and self-awareness.  




Understanding the emotions of others

This falls under the category of “empathy”.  

Probably the easiest way to understand the emotions of another person is to gain knowledge of the situation they are in, and then to imagine what it would feel like if you (or a loved one) were in that situation.  

Ask the other person about themselves.  

It is beneficial to have one's emotions listened to, heard and acknowledged by someone else.  This speaks to the primal, cooperative, human need for connection and support.  

Knowing about our own emotions helps us to recognise the emotions of others.  




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:  




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