Where do our feelings come from? And why do we have them? Lots of time, we might wish we didn’t…feeling deeply sad or rageful or terrified are not comfortable ways to be in our bodies. We might wish those feelings away. So why were we made or evolved to have them, anyway?
Okay, those are a couple of Big Questions. If you have been reading here, you know I have a fondness for the way that Antonio Damasio explains the whole “feelings” thing. He gets right down to the molecular level and talks about how the body works continuously to keep us alive, to maintain blood chemistry that is compatible with life, to keep our behaviour within limits that will keep us alive, and to activate systems to make dramatic changes when necessary for our survival.
But are our emotions necessary for our survival? He says probably yes. We apparently cannot even make the simplest decision without our capacity for feelings. Emotions are a movement in the body-mind (not his term) that result from an accumulation of smaller movements of energy and information, many of which have to do with keeping the body alive. Emotion is an “image” in the body-mind (he uses that term broadly, to mean any thought, idea, picture, or felt sense) and when we become aware, in our consciousness, of that emotion, then it becomes a feeling. Everyone doesn’t use this same set of definitions but it is useful to separate emotion and feeling when we are trying to figure out what’s going on with us personally.
Dan Stern talks about categorical emotions but he means feelings. These are the usual: happy, sad, angry, afraid, disgusted. He also talks about “vitality affects” which refers more to the overall energy level you may be experiencing. You may be low in vitality early in the day, but your overall feeling may pick up somewhat. We experience these overall “feelings” much more consistently than we have categorical emotions. Both vitality affects and emotions (feelings) are important, but we tend to ignore the everyday vitality stuff unless it is markedly out of our usual realm.
The point of all of this talk is this: we have emotions/feelings and we have overall vitality affects, which some people will refer to as ‘mood.’ We have these experiences because they are related to keeping our bodies alive. But, because we are human beings, we actually make a whole lot more use of our emotions than just staying alive. Emotions, including both categorical emotion and vitality affects, give our lives colour. They help us to make decisions, to approach or avoid situations or people, to engage in particular behaviour or react when certain stimuli are present. We also influence our emotions consciously. We choose a lot of our activities for the effect we expect them to have on our emotional experience. For example, we go to movies to be excited, to feel good, to get scared, or to enjoy being with a friend while sharing this emotional experience. We watch TV because we are ‘bored’ or because we need to be distracted from our thoughts. We call a friend when we need contact to feel different than we do. We call our mothers because we need to stop feeling guilty. Many of our behaviours are motivated by a desire to change our feeling state.
The interesting thing is this: we THINK that we are in control of our emotional lives, and in fact, we do influence our feelings a lot. But the connections between what we think, do and feel is part of a hierarchy in the nervous system. This part, the conscious and modifiable part, is higher on the phylogenetic scale than the part of the system that is just about sustaining life. That’s probably obvious….feeling happy isn’t a requirement of life, but an adequate oxygen-CO2 balance in the blood is. So even though we think we are making all kinds of changes to our ‘feeling’ life, the essential and essentially unknowable substrate is how our body is keeping us alive.
So why did I start out talking about chickens and eggs? This post has taken on a life of its own…I was originally going to compare Al Lowen’s assertion that all thoughts have their beginning as a feeling or sensation in the body to the cognitive behavioural tenet that our feelings are the product of our thoughts. I guess I still have that post to write…another day.