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.
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:
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.
THEORY OF PERCEPTION
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.
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”.
Those organisms which are more adapted to their environment are more likely to survive
Those organisms which make the most of their environment are more likely to survive
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
physical feelings (bodily sensations)
psychological feelings (emotions)
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.
physical (bodily sensations)
These include hunger, pain, visceral thrills.
Meaning (emotional): the emotional meaning of X is the way that X is relevant to
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.
... 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
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.)
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.
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.
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.
observing and acknowledging emotions
self-regulation, empathy, social skills
Emotional intelligence is the ability to use emotions to inform thoughts and thought
to inform feelings.
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
the emotion itself (e.g. sadness, jealousy, hope, joy).
the thing X, that is provoking the emotion.
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:
the message of the emotion is delivered to consciousness, thereby cooling the power
of the emotion.
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
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.”
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
what it is
the goal to which it is relevant
the accompanying emotion (if any)
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
Recognising emotions in ourselves, and knowing how we ourselves work, allows us to
recognise these in others.
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
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
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
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
If there is something missing in your life, it’s probably you.
These steps would seem to go together:
note and describe your emotions
accept that this is how things appear to be
practice gratitude for what is good
make the most of things
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.
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,