By Gunnel Minett

Emotions are often seen as being ‘less important’ to consciousness. David Hume, for instance, described emotions as “the slave of passions”. Today’s science has however shown that emotions play a much bigger role. 

The role of Emotions

Some parts of the brain, in particular in the limbic system operate at a much faster speed than neocortex that handles rational thinking (the functions that traditionally have been closely linked with consciousness). Limbic processing also includes unconscious information and forms ‘a bridge’ between conscious and unconscious processing. The end result of this often reaches our awareness in the form of emotions that act as a type of analog message (like modern ikons, emojis or symbols we all can interpret regardless of languages). One reason for these emotional message is that they stem from a period in our evolutionary development when we needed very fast reaction to survive (versus being eaten by a tiger) and did not have language to communicate with. So rather than being there to just give some extra colouring of life, or to express passion, emotions should be seen as a form of non-verbal communication directly from our unconscious. And, even if we are not aware of the unconscious, it plays a vital role in our understanding of ’the world out there’. This inner communication may originate from a previous phase of our evolution, but this type of fast emotional signalling is still very useful for us to send quick inner responses to handle external everyday life situations.

Tools for Living

According to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp: “Emotions are evolutionary tools for living”. Jaak Panksepp was a Neuroscientist who presented some radical new thinking for human emotions and psyche (in particular in his book Affective Neuroscience). He identified what he called seven primal emotions; ‘PLAY’, ‘PANIC/GRIEF’, ‘FEAR’, ‘RAGE’, ‘SEEKING’, ‘LUST’ and ‘CARE’ (he wrote them with capital letters). He based these on studies of animals and his conclusion was that these emotions are so deeply rooted in us that we share them with other mammals, in particular with those with strong social groups. These emotions are ’tools for living’ which means that we have them to help us create the optimal living conditions which ultimately means a better chance for survival. 

Although ‘PANIC/GRIEF’, ‘ FEAR’ and ‘RAGE’ do not sound as the most desired emotions to have (and are often rejected for ‘moral’ reasons), they are equally important since they all express (in a fast and clear way) reactions to things happening to us in our outer environment.  ‘PANIC/GRIEF’, for instance, is what we feel when someone close to us disappears (or in the worst case passes away). In particular if you are very young, old or dependent on others for you wellbeing, to lose someone can be experienced as life-threatening (hence the PANIC). When we overcome the immediate panic reaction of being without an essential connection with someone near to us, we may start to also miss the positive feeling of having someone you love near you and move in to what we call GRIEF. 

FEAR is perhaps the most obvious feeling to recognise in all mammals (even children will usually identify their pet’s reaction to fear). RAGE you could say is fear taken a step further and a very intense emotion, strongly connected with survival. 

Panksepp’s emotional systems are immediate, subjective reactions (we sometimes talk about raw emotions, Panksepp talks about ‘affect’). They are clearly subjective and so clear that we do not need to think or analyse their content. Just as seeing red (the famous example of what it means to see a colour in many consciousness discussions) we do not need to analyse its components to arrive at the conclusion ‘red’. It is there as a ‘given’ straight away.

Accessing the unconscious

To access unconscious parts of the brain is not impossible but may require special techniques.The unconscious parts are layered in such a way that some of our basic functions such as breathing and digestion are not accessible, for the very reason that they are mainly mechanical (but essential to maintain for our survival) so therefore ’ surrounded with special protection from interference’. Unconscious material acquired during our earliest part of life is different. There are various techniques (meditation, breathing exercises, psychotherapy, hypnosis, psychotropics etc) that can help with this. When it comes to accessing such memories, this is more a question of being able to access implicit memories from our earliest childhood. Here it is a question of accessing the unconscious parts of the brain.They are closely linked with emotions, since the unconscious parts of the brain tends to communicate via emotions. 

Common reactions for all mammals 

Any cat or dog owner will probably agree that their pet can display all the emotions on Panksepp list, (although expressed their individual animal way). There is one difference between pets and their owners though. Animals are more direct (honest) in their emotions than we are. With our added analytical capacity (neocortex) that gives us our special edge when it comes to survival skills, we have much more flexibility to adjust our behaviour than other mammals. As we know this has given humans a great advantage and (at least in our own words) put us on top of animal hierarchy. But, as even the story of the garden of Eden (so nothing new) is trying to tell us – our ability to think, analyse and adjust our behaviour can also be seen as a curse. 

Past, present and future

Unlike other mammals that mainly recognise past and present, humans have also learned to project the past and present into future scenarios. We are more able to learn from our experience to adjust our behaviour in the future. The downside of this is that we also have increased our ability to worry about the future, which can be bad for both body and psyche. Still, this added thinking capacity improves our ability to ‘manoeuvre ’ in our everyday lives, to create the best possible life for ourselves. 

For social animals like us, it has always been important to learn social behaviour. This is where religion traditionally has played a big role – to teach us what we call ‘moral values’, how to ’treat others like we want them to treat us’. For earlier generations religion had a much stronger role to make sure we all lived ‘by the same social rule book’. Religion also helped us deal with the fear of potential risks in our environment that we had no explanation for. For obvious reason it was easier to have religion as guide for social rules when people lived in smaller towns and villages for generations, and to the most shared their religious beliefs (willingly or by law). Today we are faced with a very mobile global population. Rather than knowing our neighbours from generations back, we live side by side with people we hardly know, from very different cultures and religions. In addition science has helped us understand many of the previously inexplicable risks in our environment and consequently made our need for religion less obvious. 

Social skills

To some extent this new mix of people from different cultural background has a negative effect on our social skills. A typical example is the COVID panic buying and unwillingness to follow guidelines for self-isolation. Ultimately, this lack of social responsibility is strongly linked with our sense of being ’seen and heard’  by others and in particular by our democratically elected leaders (a sense of belonging, which is absolutely essential for all group living). Unfortunately there has been a negative reaction to this perceived lack of ‘belonging’ in many countries that has put a big dent in most people’s trust in politicians. (Incidentally, science has shown that politicians who are ‘polishing the truth’, use the same brain functions as a chameleon uses to change their colours to blend in with the background. This is a survival strategy, where humans use parts of their neocortex to ‘verbally adjust’ to fit in with their environment.)

 Adding to our problems to maintain social skills, is the way we tend to behave towards future generations. Many children are offered the internet as a substitute for direct parenting, often in combination with ‘over-protective” parents (in Sweden, for instance, they are called ‘curling parents’ since they try to sweep ‘the path’ clean of all obstacles for their children). Children are not given many chances to learn social skills as they grow up. But, as Panksepp points out, children need play. In particular what he calls rough and tumble play. They need to learn from their peer group what is acceptable social behaviour (both good and bad). Although some may see it as old fashioned thinking, but children need to learn that not everyone can be the leader, and not everyone can get exactly what they want. This does not mean of course that we need authoritarian leaders and/or bullying, but as social beings – if we are able to unite and pool our resources in a good way (as we are asked to do now during the ongoing pandemic) it will help us as a group.

The new normal

The current pandemic has also forced everyone on the planet to stop and reflect on the future. Rather than just focusing on creating a future based on new technology and virtual reality, we also need to be reminded of what we already have and perhaps even take a step back to previous closer forms of group living. As COVID has shown, there are a growing number of voices around the world arguing, that, in particular the rawer forms of capitalism, may face an abrupt end. And, as we have seen, in certain situations borders are pointless and ‘taking back control’ is a rather meaningless statement. We have come to see that when the world around us change by some form of disaster, we tend to change focus very quickly. The first change is most likely that we realise what is really important in our lives. For most of us it is caring for our near-and- dear-ones and to make sure that we do our best to contribute to the welfare of our society. So the current situation, that is genuinely global, has probably done more than all the talks and summits between countries in the last generations. Not to mention that pressing the pause button for the whole the planet may help us avoid the climate crisis that may be just around the corner. And even if this virus situation is tough, at least we can hope that it is just a matter of time before we have come up with a solution, whereas a climate crisis may be much more difficult to deal with. So even if PANIC/GRIEF may not be the best way forward to deal with life threatening situation, to understand and follow our emotions will certainly help us a long way.

Keywords; emotions, consciousness, brain research

For more on this topic see also; Brain Development and the Origins of our Worldview and The Origins of Mind and Consciousness in Infancy

© Gunnel Minett 2020

Gunnel Minett is a psychologist and author of books such as Exhale, an Overview of Breathwork and How to Grow a Healthy Mind