Posts Tagged ‘Pleistocene’

If Emotion is so Central to Human Nature, Why Can it Be Harmful?

March 7, 2018

The answer is the same as why some of us tend to be overweight. In earlier stages of human development when starvation was commonplace, it was advantageous to eat foods that would load the body with fat. That time has passed and there is no longer a need to load the body with fat.

So in spite of social constraints, passions overwhelm time and time again. This is due to the basic architecture of mental life. The basic neural circuitry of emotion that we are born with is what worked best for the last 50,000 human generations not the last 500 generations. Goleman writes in his book “Emotional Intelligence,” “The slow deliberate forces of evolution that have shaped our emotions have done their work over the course of a million years; the last 10,000 years—despite having witnessed the rapid rise of human civilization and the explosion of the human population from five million to five billion—have left little imprint on our biological template for emotional life.” Given this explosive increase in population, the need for emotional intelligence has greatly increased. Unfortunately, our appraisal of every personal encounter and our responses to it are shaped not just by our rational judgments or our personal history, but also by our distant ancestral past. “In short, we too often confront postmodern dilemmas with an emotional repertoire tailored to the urgencies of the Pleistocene.”

Goleman continues, “All emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us. The very root of the word emotion is “motere”, the Latin verb “to move,” plus the prefix “e-“ to connote “move away,” suggesting that a tendency to act is implicit in every emotion. That emotions lead to actions is most obvious in watching animals or children; it is only in “civilized” adults that we often find the great anomaly in the animal kingdom, emotions—root impulses to act—divorced from obvious action.”

Emotions have distinctive biological signatures:

*Anger— blood flows to the hands. This makes it easier to grasp a weapon or strike at a foe. Heart rate increases and crush of hormones such as adrenaline generates a pulse of energy strong enough for vigorous action.

*Fear—Blood goes to the large skeletal muscles, like the legs, making it easier to flee. This makes the face blanch as blood is shunted away from it (creating the feeling that blood “runs cold”). Simultaneously, the body freezes, if only for a moment, perhaps allowing time to gauge whether hiding might be a better reaction. Circuits in the brain’s emotional center trigger a flood of hormones that put the body on general alert. This makes it edgy and ready for action. Attention fixates on the threat at hand to better evaluate what response to make.

*Happiness—Here the main biological change is an increased activity in a brain center that inhibits negative feelings and fosters an increase in available energy, and a quieting of those that generate worrisome thoughts. There is no particular shift in physiology but a quiescence, which makes the body recover more quickly from the biological arousal of upsetting emotions. This configuration offers the body a general rest, as well as readiness and enthusiasm for whatever task is at hand and for striving toward a great variety of goals.

*Love—Tender feelings and sexual satisfaction entail parasympathetic arousal, which is the physiological opposite of the “fight or flight” mobilization shared by fear and anger. The parasympathetic pattern dubbed the “relaxation response,” is a bodywide set of reactions that generates a general state of calm and contentment, facilitating cooperation. [Entering “relaxation response” into the search block for the healthy memory blog will produce many posts on the relaxation response, to include how to induce the relaxation response, and the many benefits of the relaxation response]

*Surprise—The lifting of eyebrows in surprise allows the taking in of a larger visual sweep and also permits more light to strike the retina, allowing more information about the unexpected event, making it easier to figure out what is going on and concoct the best plan for action.

*Disgust—An expression of disgust looks the same around the world and sends the identical message: something is offensive in taste or smell, or metaphorically so. The facial expression of disgust—the upper lip curled to the side as the nose wrinkles slightly—suggests a primordial attempt, as Darwin observed, to close the nostril against a noxious odor to to spit out a poisonous food.

*Sadness—A main function of sadness is to help adjust to a significant loss, such as the death of someone close or a major disappointment . It brings a drop in energy and enthusiasm for life’s activities, particularly diversions and pleasures, and, as it portends an approaching depression, slows the body’s metabolism. This withdrawal creates the opportunity to mourn a loss or frustrated hope, grasp its consequences for one’s life, and, as energy returns, plan new beginnings. This loss of energy might have been kept saddened and vulnerable early humans close to home, where they were safer.