The Motivated Brain © Kinglizard 2002
What we refer to as emotions are the basic motivations for all human activities. They are necessary for even the lowest forms of life. Even a single celled animal or plant has senses that motivate its actions. An amoeba can be observed to seek sustenance and safety, but who can say if it is what we call "happy" when the simple amoeba is safe, comfortable, and full of food.
We can separate our motivations (emotions) into three categories: primary emotions, secondary emotions, and background emotions. Primary emotions are experienced as a byproduct of a stimulus-response chain of events. These emotional responses became, to a large degree, hardwired in our brains over the course of evolution. Fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, and sex, make up the primary or "limbic" emotions. Some behavioral scientists contend that all other emotions are intellectual byproducts of these simple motivators, since we experience them through our personal self awareness.
What I will refer to as Secondary and Background emotions are most likely our perceptions of neural feedback within the neocortical brain. While the emotions involved in primary emotional reactions can also play a part in secondary and background emotions, non-primary emotions are more likely to be a reflection of a primary emotion. For instance, fear as a secondary emotion might feel more like anxiety, stress, or shyness; secondary emotions related to joy might be felt as ecstasy, pleasure, or amusement; secondary emotions associated with sex might include affinity, empathy, and attachment.
Dr. J. LeDoux, of the Center for Neural Science at New York University, maintains that the list of basic (primary) emotions is nothing other than a straightforward listing of the biological adaptations that are critical for survival.
A simple example is Fear, which helps you react instantaneously to a stimulus you perceive as dangerous (for instance, a snake slithering toward you) and survive the event.
So how does it work?
The Limbic System evolved at least 300 Million years ago and still remains largely unchanged. The large neo-cortex than humans possess covers this older and more primitive Brain. The amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the ancient basal ganglia is involved with aspects of emotion and memory formation. The amygdala allows an instantaneous, unthinking reaction in the face of a threat. Dr. LeDoux says, "When it comes to detecting and responding to danger, the brain just hasn't changed much. In some ways we are emotional lizards." A snake advances, or just wiggles around a bit, and you jump back. Only after this initial reaction do you think about what's going on and plot a more reasonable reaction.
Two main pathways through the brain are involved in a fear reaction. Sensory input, perhaps from the visual cortex, passes over the thalamic pathways, to the amygdala. The thalamic pathways are sub-cortical, they are ancient, part of the lizard brain we all possess. This reptile brain lies beneath our more advanced mammalian brain and is not involved in cognition at all. The thalamus cannot differentiate among stimuli, and this helps the information move as quickly as possible. The message that reaches the amygdala is something along the lines of: "Danger! Danger!" with no specific cause or additional information.
The amygdala sends signals to other regions of the brain, including the anterior cingulate and the basal ganglia. Nerves pulsing their message of fear reach the gut, heart, blood vessels, sweat glands, and salivary glands, causing the stomach to tighten, the heart to race, blood pressure to rise. The feet and hands turn clammy, and the mouth to goes dry. The skeletal muscles react, tense up, and the smooth muscles increase activity, contracting the blood vessels and causing pallor. The pituitary gland sends electro-chemical signals to the adrenal gland and hormones begin coursing through the blood back to the brain to help deal with the stress. In simple terms, you jump out of your skin!
The second pathway takes the sensory input, such as that from the visual cortex, on a relatively leisurely jog over the more modern, more precise, and significantly slower, neural pathways, to the cerebral cortex. The information delivered over the cortical pathways is better defined: Something more like, "Snake! Slithering toward me! Flicking its tongue! At me!" That message is time-consuming, both to send and to interpret; you wouldn't want to depend on your cortex to save you. Once this information reaches your cortex, you can start to formulate your backup plan. Your body and brain have been primed, via the thalamic pathways, and all you need is a little cognitive input, a little thought, to finesse your escape. This second pathway, after a short stopover at the cortex, continues back to the amygdala, where it meets up with the original thalamic pathway.
The amygdala continues to sound the alarm by sending signals to many parts of the cortex ordering them to pay attention to the aspects of the situation that are most relevant to survival. The conscious mind assesses the situation. Is the snake still slithering, and in what direction, what are its beady little eyes focusing on? The amygdala also wakes up the arousal systems of the brain so that brain and body continue to focus completely on the threatening stimulus. You would have a hard time doing math at a time like this, and clearly, if you are to survive, you wouldn't want to. The arousal systems, of course, flood the amygdala along with the other relevant parts of brain and body, and thus the amygdala becomes even more aroused and repeats the feedback cycle of arousal.
At the same time, the body is dutifully sending alarmed impulses back to the brain, reporting on the readiness of the various organs and muscles. Everything coalesces in the amygdala, that grand coordinator of fear reactivity, and you keep leaping over desks until you reach the door... and then you run like hell!
Once the snake encounter has been survived, the emotional memory of your fear and the cognitive memory of the snake become a learned emotional response that allows and motivates you to plan for the next snake encounter. You might approach your next trip into the yard more cautiously, make sure to check your path to the shed isn’t threatened by a serpent. Because you have cognition, you can not only react to the snake to make sure you survive that first encounter, but also act on your knowledge and emotional fear of the snake by plotting future courses of action. Thus a primary emotion moves, through experience and learning, into the realm of secondary emotion.
Evolution has adapted each species to be prepared for certain stimuli, an innate fear of specific predators being the obvious example. In the realm of fear, each species is prepared to react to and be conditioned by stimuli such as specific combinations of largeness, swiftness, loudness, and, of course, the consequences of contact with a threat, such as pain from being bitten.
In a laboratory setting, it is possible to undo some fear conditioning to a degree, so that a rat conditioned to fear a buzzer can be convinced otherwise. However, buzzers are evolutionarily uninteresting, not many buzzers lurked on the plains of yore, and therefore fear of buzzers is easily extinguished. However, being conditioned to fear a more evolutionarily relevant stimulus, such as a predator, is almost impossible to extinguish because prey are evolutionarily prepared to accept this imprint.
Human babies automatically react with fear to a shadow over their eyes for the first few hours after delivery, but soon after they are born, they learn that a shadow is probably MOM and they loose the fear reaction. Some children develop a fear of dogs even though all a dog has ever done was barked at them. For a well-prepared survival system, this could be enough to ensure that an individual will avoid dogs forevermore. Humans are very smart and usually develop rational control over unjustified fear, but individuals vary in their preparedness, so some are more prone to develop phobias that may seem unreasonable in modern society.
Other primary emotions--happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, and sex, do not follow the exact path paved by fear, but the basic principles behind the fear reaction can be generalized for all of the primary emotions.
According to Dr. Antonio Damasio, professor and head of the Department of Neurology at University of Iowa College of Medicine, Secondary emotions, are not reactive but are learned emotional responses that, develop over the course of a lifetime. The list of secondary emotions comprises all the subtle gradations of the primary emotions: ennui, interest, irritation, euphoria, and so on. The stimuli that lead to a secondary emotional reaction is not immediately life-threatening, and so instead of prompting a swift reaction, these stimuli involve a longer, more thoughtful, and intellectually complex reaction.
Secondary emotion is different from primary emotion in that it begins with awareness and cognition then follows a pathway that has been created by learning; images are associated with emotions and events, these images then trigger the pre-associated emotions. Neurologically, secondary emotions follow pathways slightly different from those of primary emotions: stimulus processing begins in the frontal lobe and only then travels to the amygdala to complete the emotional circuit.
An experience of the secondary emotion kind would go something like this: You're sitting in a cafe enjoying your coffee and you become aware of a sitting nearby. She seems to be noticing you, as well. You become even more attentive as a cognitive assessment is made, "Hmmm? She is quite attractive." As you are deciding this, related images from various parts of the brain (visual, auditory, and so on) float about this particularly interesting young lady. You may even recall similar situations from the past, your involvement, and the potential outcomes.
These images do not escape the notice of the prefrontal cortex; here the relation of these images to similar situations and the emotions usually evoked by these situations is recognized. The amygdala and anterior cingulate are notified. At this point, these regions signal the viscera (guts, etc.), skeletal muscles, and endocrine and peptide systems that are involved in the release of hormones.
Your GUT reaction is mitigated by experience. An event similar to the events that generated Response X is currently transpiring. The body amiably recreates Response X, in this case, a warm glow of sexual arousal, and sends the "All Systems Go" signal back to the brain. The brain duly notes the fact that the body is showing signs of arousal. The amygdala and anterior cingulate then activate the brain stem and basal forebrain to release chemicals to the basal ganglia and cerebral cortex, so that, in parallel to the body's reaction, the style and efficiency of the cognitive process is affected. Not only is the body's physical state sending a signal, "Hello, we're having a hot moment here!" your thoughts add emphasis and information about the type of emotion you're feeling. Suddenly you see the morning sun highlights the woman's hair, you become aware that she has a nice figure, and she may be sexually available? The café has become a very romantic place and your thoughts and emotions have conspired to bring you to a decision about what action to take. A very simple and basic emotional REACTION to a female has matured into a romantic glow, thank's to your prefrontal cortex.
WHY Secondary Emotions Evolved?
Secondary emotion may not seem evolutionarily adaptive, but it is. Secondary emotions help the brain associate good and bad consequences with events more subtle than, for instance, being confronted by a predator. A lizard would have no particular reaction to the romantic ambiance of a situation, but a human could use the information about the situation to make some choices: Lust may precede love, but a wise man will look for a wedding or engagement ring. Perhaps he will decide she's worth an approach, or maybe just go home and catch up on his sleep. There is no doubt that past experience can lead to new and improved methods of accomplishing a task, which could lead to greater chances of, survival, which is, of course, evolutionarily adaptive.
Thus secondary emotions help us retain sophisticated information about subtle events in our complex lives. This information helps us make everyday decisions, which is most strikingly illustrated by observations of and experiments with patients with frontal lobe damage.
Whoops! I'm out of control:
Patients with certain types of frontal lobe damage (including surgical removal) do not experience secondary emotions. However, frontal lobe patients do react to stimuli that engage the primary emotions, as shown by studies undertaken by Professor Damasio and Dr. Daniel Tranel, an experimental neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. First, in order to get an objective measure of reactivity, two electrodes were hooked up to subjects' skin to measure the conductivity of a small charge over the skin's surface. Because emotion produces a degree of moisture, the amount of interference in the electrical conductivity easily measures the occurrence of an emotional reaction. A sudden sound was then made near the subject. Frontal lobe patients had the same startled fear reaction as subjects without brain damage. Even though the frontal lobe is damaged, the rest of the brain, including the amygdala and brain stem, is undamaged; therefore there is no obstacle to primary emotion. Conversely, patients with amygdala damage did not show a fear reaction in this situation.
However, when frontal lobe patients are put in a situation requiring thought about a situation, in other words, in a situation where secondary emotions rather than primary emotions would come into play, a marked difference between frontal lobe patients and the control group appears. Frontal lobe patients and a control group, again hooked up to conductance-measuring electrodes, were given the task of watching and remembering a long series of slides, some of which contained emotion-provoking content, most of which were neutral. Viewing emotion-producing slides produced a measurable response in the control group of non-brain-damaged people, but no response in frontal-lobe patients, even though they recalled the content of the slides without a problem. Frontal-lobe patients sometimes know intellectually that they should feel a reaction, but the reaction just is not there to feel.
Although the frontal lobe patients remembered the slides clearly, the damage to the frontal lobe rendered it incapable of calling on the amygdala and limbic system to set to work on the body and brain; therefore these people had no reaction to refer to and interpret as emotion.
This missing link drastically and negatively affects frontal lobe patients' ability to make decisions; because their secondary emotions are not engaged in evaluating the consequences of the numerous choices available when confronted with a decision, even something simple as choosing between making a lunch date on Tuesday or Wednesday, can set their cognitive processes running in circles as all of the pros and cons of each choice are laboriously listed and discussed. Ultimately, no decision is made until someone, (the impatient other half of the lunch date, perhaps) intervenes.
Thinking with Your Gut:
Intuition is the most subtle result of emotion, and a power that frontal lobe patients lack. There is little doubt that a significant amount of noetic awareness is inherited and when combined with secondary emotion's encoding of events, your body reaction can become intuitively associated with that type of situation. Thus, in a similar situation, you may not even need to think about a decision but would make the intuitive or instinctive connection. For instance, when you meet someone you like, your brain encodes the look in their eyes, the way they respond to you, their energy, and their pheromones as a positive somatic marker. The next time you meet someone who feels similar; you instinctively know you are going to like this person. Your brain has sensed the somatic marker applied to this type of situation and applied your genetic knowledge without having to think about it; your gut feeling, your intuition, tells you that this person can be trusted.
A Third Type of Emotion:
Dr. Damasio proposes a third type of emotion: Background feeling. Background feeling is your emotional resting state, your emotional homeostasis. It is what you experience most often, what you feel in between bursts of happiness and anger, interest and despondency. Made up of a general monitoring of the body, background emotion hums along quietly, like a small power generator monitoring the condition of your body and brain as you go about your business.
Our species has evolved into the most social creature on earth and perhaps the most successful survivor. Extreme cooperation allows specialization and adaptability to every climate and situation. The ability to focus our attention upon complex problems, without emotional interference, is critical to our success as individuals as well as the long term survival of our species.
The Feeling of Belonging:
We are "social animals" and we have always enjoyed a pervasive sense of emotional calm and individual worth, these feelings are based upon our attachment to our social group. From our early ancestors' tribes, clans, and families, to the social cliques, congregations, and clubs, of today's world, there can be no doubt that social behavior is a part of our nature and perhaps the very heart of humanity. In order for a person to be committed to social interaction, cooperation, and sharing, we need safety and peace. The secondary emotions we experience as affection, love, and commitment to sharing our space, time, and future with others, cannot be a joyous part of our lives without a background state of mind that is calm and secure.
Human groups form around a common set of ideals and trusted leaders and we instinctively feel attached to our social group. We seek "Kindred Spirits," mutual causes to share, and charismatic leaders to follow. When we find the right group we experience a comfortable state of mind that feels very normal and right to us. I call this emotional condition a sense of "Belonging."
The complex and technological world of the 21st century certainly doesn't force us to face the same challenges to our basic survival our ancestors had. It may seem that the sense of belonging is unnecessary. However, the stress of modern life is difficult to bear and the level of prescriptions for psycho-active drugs indicates that many people have a tough time coping. The resting state of mind is critical as primary and secondary emotions involve expenditure of energy. Clearly, you can't always be in a state of emotional arousal, you need that energy to live your life.
If we were simple reptiles that use primary emotions only, our lives would be so much less complex, and much less rich. The evolution of secondary and background emotions has allowed us to create the sophisticated, sometimes confusing, often exhilarating, lives we lead today. In today's world, danger can be defined as anything from a tornado to a dead-end job, and that is what motivates us to keep pushing ourselves and our horizons. These emotional desires lead to increasingly sophisticated and exciting lives filled with intellectual content, choices, and a consistent effort to achieve happiness.
We pay the price, of course. Not only can we use our emotional and cognitive understanding of danger to avoid it, we are also doomed to worry about which survival plan is the correct plan, whether the plan we choose will succeed, what we haven't planned for, etc, etc. Not only do we intellectual and emotional sophisticates have better chances for survival. We have far more interesting lives for which to survive, we also have worry and stress.
Aren't we lucky...…? I believe we are!