There are two main paradigms in the science-based analysis of emotion which currently prevail: a framework viewing emotion as emergent from basic behavioral instincts that can be boiled down further to automatic physiological responses dictated primarily by chemistry of the nervous system, and an opposing account promulging emotion as social construct, an array of conceptualizations superimposed on physical processes, including those of the body, governing expression of instinct in ways capable of varying by culture. Though these outlooks may at first glance seem complementary in that they both locate the origin of feelings in structuring of the brain and its auxiliaries – sensory and motor neurons, sense organs, neurotransmitters – taken to their logical conclusion they result in very different assumptions.
Instinct-centric theories see emotion as innate, preprogrammed or ‘hard-wired’ in a way rendering many human actions ineluctable whenever circumstances they have been evolutionarily adapted to arise; this perspective impugns free will and takes a deterministic stance in relation to social dynamics. We are supposedly slaves to our emotions as a consequence of millions upon millions of years of natural and social selection: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, all affect is rooted in biochemical certainties that, looked at optimistically, exist in near universal and exceedingly predictable forms, but conversely assure that the epidemic discontents of human relationships will be nothing less than ubiquitous and eternal apart from stringent regulation and invasive selection pressures enforced by institutions. The adage that you can’t reason someone out of what they weren’t reasoned into is the idea, and these theorists anticipate stiff resistance to change along with severe oppression in a leviathan jungle of society, with cultured lifestyle being no more than a veneer and science the iron hammer of progress wielded by a utilitarian elite to forge the masses.
Construct-centric theories regard emotion as a product of thought processes molding the expression of instinct into culturally accepted forms by way of environmental conditioning, with emotion being fundamentally conceptual, an interpretation of both internal bodily states and external stimuli, with their unconscious roots, into the personality’s frame of reference. This theoretical perspective proposes a high degree of plasticity in human emotion, substantial levels of ambiguity and flexibility in behavioral responses to our surroundings. While discharge of instinct is supposedly quite malleable, to the extent of empowering no more than a conscientious education to dramatically shift social relations and the effects of institutions, indoctrination can push cultures in divergent directions by way of cognitive discrepancies that make the beliefs of individuals with different backgrounds incompatible, especially by the time mental maturation has reached completion. Crafting of healthy, well-adapted emotion and behavior by authorities does not require coercion, but neither does it have much prospect of becoming universalized without meticulous social planning and even visionary foresight. Proponents diagnose culture as extremely complex, with human nature being of the utmost unpredictability, mutability and corruptibility.
Once again, it seems there is common ground between the two camps as they both treat of phenomena such as conditioning, human nature, institutional structure and culture, but it is not immediately obvious how to synthesize them. Instinct-centrism would point out the way emotions tend to be reflexive, also well-developed and spontaneous in even very young children lacking much ability to make fine conceptual distinctions or complicated decisions. Construct-centrism would parry by saying the wide variety or “relativity” between cultures and subcultures is an undeniable fact, it having been proven scientifically that emotion is an interpretation of experience into the form of concepts that differ by region of the world, as evidenced in divergent linguistic categories. Both ways of looking at emotion have strong merits, so it is uncertain whose opinion about institutions is most accurate: straightforward in application but necessarily draconian, or provisional of peaceability but persistently vulnerable, a delicate matter requiring fastidious assessments. For progress on this subject it would be profitable to take a more detailed look at a particular representative of each theoretical angle.
Neuroscientist Douglas Fields has written a book explaining the emotion of anger as a result of the brain’s “rage circuit”: under traumatic or chronically stressful conditions, he claims humans are predisposed to snap violently as our instinctual tendencies towards aggression are set on a hair trigger. It is not simply a question of whether the individual is a good or bad person, moral or immoral; tolerance for conflict is worn so thin that even horrifying violence is virtually a biochemical certainty. He references many of the most famous violent crimes of the past couple decades, outlines circumstances anyone would recognize as common to everyday life but in these cases of especially acute or prolonged degree, and shows how average citizens became insane with rage for as long as a couple hours or more, enough time to commit atrocities that shocked acquaintances, families, and often left the perpetrators themselves stupefied by their actions. He portrays how building animosities towards authority or difficult contacts and situations radiate out into whole families, and how powerless civilization seems to be when it comes to preventing moral collapse, with communities turning a blind eye until the tragic occurs. The immensity of social pressure with its biting tenderhooks in the individual really becomes apparent as nearly every one of his interviewees proves impotent to make sense of their unsettled or mournful experience of violent crime.
He identifies LIFEMORTS triggers, an acronym with each letter being the first in a descriptive word for a type of stressor that can lower the threshold past which rage is discharged; more than one trigger greatly increases chances of aggression, and many active triggers makes aggression almost assured.
Life/limb: threats to physical safety
Insult: affronts to the ego
Family: those we love and care for at risk
Environment: unstable or distasteful situations
Mate: access to a sexual or romantic partner transgressed
Order in society: violations of laws and social norms
Resource: vulnerability of money and possessions
Tribe: flaunting of a close-knit group’s expectations
Stopped: barriers to meeting one’s needs and goals
A glance at this list and his cursory treatment of the many crimes they have instigated makes it clear how intensely even ordinary social relations goad individuals into contemplating violence, how vulnerable we all are to those around us and even ourselves. At the same time, our impulse to fight protects us during volatile moments of physical altercation and can hardly be dispensed with as we must frequently defend each other and our livelihoods from hostilities, in war and elsewhere.
His authorship becomes more nuanced as he depicts the population’s variation in its ability to act reasonably under duress, differences between individuals that go all the way down to genetics in some cases, those who have the aptitude needed by professionals such as elite combat troops and bodyguards. He also talks of the other side of the coin, a religion such as Jainism that repudiates all violence, achieving an environment of placid but intellectually strong community for more than two and a half thousand years, which Fields investigates firsthand by sitting in at a gathering and interviewing some of its members. He leaves open the possibility of deviations from the typical, but even so it is obvious that civilization is steeped in an enmity with which societies that value freedom barely cope and in which a society of even austere law enforcement can only hope to deter and otherwise clear the damage. It is not a rosy picture; mainstream culture is constrained chaos, and it seems that without institutional intrusion we will always be at risk of fury run amok. Of course heavy-handed social engineering has in fact been embarked upon in some locations, which bodes ominously for our sliver of liberty even as it allegedly lays the groundwork for a permanent civil future.
Neuroscientist Linda Feldman Barrett’s “theory of constructed emotion” presents a stark contrast, asserting that emotion is a phenomenon of culture fashioning instinct via social norms which vary widely between communities and countries with different origins, something we can actually create in the process of consciously regulating our own behaviors. She points out how slight variations have crept into even Europeanized cultures, so that for instance American jurists have regarded an Eastern European defendant as lacking in empathy during a trial when in fact his upbringing conditioned him to appear stoic in the face of danger and stress, preventing him from interpreting the situation demonstratively except when a particular trigger, damage to the family reputation, temporarily evoked outward grief. In this and many cases, it is not lack of remorse but rather discrepancy in cultural standards for displaying and perceiving emotion that leads to critical judgements.
Variations are even more pronounced in cultures of greater divergence, such as between American society and those of some indigenous tribes. Emotion researchers began a few decades ago by formulating a theory of universal emotion, which erroneously proved itself because no matter how different the cultures actually were, scientists taught their subjects “correct” responses – smiling = happy; pouting = sad; baring teeth = angry – and then elicited nothing more profound than their own prejudices. More subtle future research found substantial differences: in some tribes, smiling = laughing, not happy; wide-eyed and open-mouthed expressions = yelling or the test subjects were uncertain, not surprise or fear; baring the teeth = uncertain subjects, not angry. It was clear that gut instincts about emotion could differ by culture (what we could call cognitive milieu), and situations of rapid assessment, snap decisions, or limited exposure (such as trial by jury) are almost certain to produce misunderstandings. This is a serious matter because Western civilization has taught its members that you can read someone’s emotions merely by looking at them, which in a society of factors such as cultural diversity or social conflict can be destructive to relationships or, as in law enforcement situations, trials and war zones, even fatal.
Barrett explains some of the physiology underlying her theory. The human nervous system in this account is not the last link of a causal chain starting in the external world, a passive receptacle for sensations which then mechanistically converts its content into information, but is rather in active exchange with both the external environment of our outside world and the internal environment we call ‘homeostasis’, a process constantly making interpretive adjustments as it balances needs of the body, keeping us safe, responding to demands of the immune system, regulating hunger, thirst, wakefulness and everything else. This homeostatic state of the body is termed ‘interoception’, and is integrated into our so-called “body budget” in a way that can be misconstrued by constrained human minds to extents capable at times of altering or at least coloring our perception of the world, giving us poor judgement about what we sense or intuit. A fever can be confused with romantic attraction, or hunger and sleep deprivation can make an individual ornery and prone to moments of social ineptitude, which in our fast-paced professional and personal worlds where many millions of relationships must integrate flawlessly and unhesitatingly like a perfectly calibrated machine, renders social error epidemic.
At any instant our minds might lapse, but with time and practice we can use analysis of ourselves and our culture to foster the upgrowth of techniques and institutions that master interoception. She terms this cognitive willpower the ‘core network’, a control center of the nervous system and especially the brain, which can be trained to understand the body’s signals with increasing facility. Our biological makeup developed to ever more accurately comprehend ourselves, regulating instinct by the integration of memories and behaviors via reflection, but evolution has not even come close to fully mastering unconscious signals and meanings (there may be contrary forces that hold back this trajection, like the need to forget for purposes of streamlined, coherent thinking, or the necessity of filtering out at least some stimuli). Much advance can be made by introspection, which generates emotion concepts cohering with impulse and what we know as physical phenomena to grant our behavior cultural significations making us more intelligible to each other and our own selves, causing society to simply work better. Studies have shown there is no exact physiological correlate to any reported emotion, as each experienced moment is a synthesis of the whole nervous system and beyond. Emotions are a small slice of the assumedly nondeterministic (at least currently indeterminate) pie, but one of the most influential to social progress and an aspect of what we know and can control as ourselves.
‘Emotion’ is a broad category and the theories of Fields and Barrett do not intersect exactly, but a direct comparison might be possible on the topic of anger addressed by both. Barrett would make the assertion, subordinate to her general interest in cognitive regulation of instinct using emotion concepts, that thought processes alone can radically alter our propensity towards emotional violence, and these thoughts can be regulated and channeled by culture to make social relations more harmonious on a near universal scale. She intimates that institutional reform is capable of teaching humans to be more peaceable, equable and considerate of others. It is a fine ideal, but Fields makes it abundantly clear that danger and violence are intrinsic to human relations, with conflict an institution in itself existing as a result of our innate psychical comportments, presumably a natural outgrowth of evolutionary selection pressures that make some level of lawlessness and discord the default condition. Anger is not only reinforced by society but also proves vital in our combat against corruptive forces and to survival, ensuring that a constant tipping towards disorder of the vessel that is civilization does not capsize the ship.
The essence of this distinction is the view of emotion and consequent behavior as a reason-tempered subsidiary of the human mind vs. the view that emotional behavior is, as instinct, a superordinate producer of something like entropy, intrinsically manifest in human nature, constantly eroding self-imposed restraint and threatening to inundate the reason that must fight this instinct to at best a draw and uneasy truce. The question is to what degree and in what way reasoning controls behavior.
It becomes clear we are presented with a paradox, two equally supportable analyses leading to very different conclusions. It is not, however, a purely logical and thus unassailable form of contradiction because the facts involved are imminently pliant to empiricism. It is simply a case involving such distinct paradigms of theoretical development and assumption that some deliberate effort must be made to pool the diversity of fact into a new fund of material within a common conceptual framework, which would go a long way towards clarifying and perhaps harmonizing general perspectives.
The facts are free-floating like the surface of the sea underneath a cloudy sky periodically storming with frictional force of memetically driven clash, which pulverizes those below at intervals as explosive lightning of social unrest, and while venturing out as sailors in search of new horizons, we can suddenly be caught in these squalls, at the mercy of the elements, the mercuriality of unfathomed human nature. What causes water to evaporate into the expanse of the mind and its culture, precipitate to the surface, an immediate reality where we barely manage at times to stay afloat or shelter the fruits of our labor from destructive deluges, or flow and cycle in unknown depths? Why the interminable tempests? That is what we would like to understand.
We must investigate whether there is some means of bringing order and predictability to the human condition so that we can achieve climate control or at least weather vicissitudes thus far intrinsic to thinking and living in all cultures, a hoped for halcyon resolution brought forth by systematic method in objective practices and realities reaching intellectual maturity as a universalizing scientific rationalism.
A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below. Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.