What subject is as contentious as politics and religion? Your emotions. In his book Emotions Revealed, Paul Ekman peels back the insulation that covers our emotions to write about how we are hardwired and softwired for our emotional responses. Ekman is building on Charles Darwin’s theory that our emotions evolved in the way our bodies evolved, an evolutionary theory rejected by the scientific establishment until recently.
The ways that emotions can go wrong has discouraged scientific studies into their existence, value, and function. As the Matthew advises (18:9) “… if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” That’s been our historical response to the mysterious human emotions that confuse us when:
• We feel and show the right emotion at the wrong intensity.
• We feel the appropriate emotion, but in the wrong way.
• We feel the wrong emotion altogether.
• How we feel an emotion changes with the circumstances, and sometimes we feel no emotion at all.
Ekman suggests looking at emotions by their triggers. Our basic trigger for our emotions comes from our inherited automatic appraisers that constantly scan our environment.
Inherited Automatic Appraisers
When something affects our welfare or person, our emotional response prepares us to deal with an important event, automatically stimulating and controlling parts of the brain (shutting down critical thinking) and body (respiration) by automatic changing bodily functions before we are aware of it. These emotions are hardwired. As an example, Ekman writes about the blind child that can express appropriate facial expressions. Ekman believes these automatic appraisers fit in with the Darwinian Theory of Evolution. Our evolutionary heritage shaped our emotional responses. Emotions were useful to survival of the species when responding immediately and appropriately to danger or challenge were more likely to win the competition for survival
Ekman writes about Swedish psychologist Arne Ohman’s experiment with children’s autoappraisers. Ohman studied how long it takes children to learn to fear snake, spiders, flowers, mushrooms, guns, and electrical outlets. Using electric shock stimulus, he discovered one shock was sufficient to create a fear of snakes and spiders, but flowers, mushrooms, guns and electrical outlets required more shocks to create the fear response. Further, the fear associated with snake and spiders remained, while the fear of the others faded if not reinforced. Ohman’s experience suggests that population specific emotional responses – without applied reinforcement – is not likely.
Autoappraisers can be modified through practice. Do you remember the first time you drove a car? Scary, wasn’t it? With practice, you can now not only drive, but you can text, drink coffee, and read a map while driving. You have learned to manage and accept the risks in driving. Your experiences override your autoappraisers. However, if you have an accident while driving and drinking coffee, your autoappraisers become more evident for all the risks associated with driving.
Ekman writes about other emotional triggers, including reflective appraising, memory of a past emotional event, imagination, talking about a past emotional event, empathy, others instructing us what to feel, violation of a social norm, and voluntarily assuming the appearance of emotion (face manipulation).
I recommend reading Paul Ekman’s Emotions Revealed.