We continue on with our series of newsletters dealing with The Revolution in Development – and its three pillars: Feelings, Language, and Intelligence. We are examining Feelings—Nature’s Gift.
Our Earliest Feelings: The Embryology of Our Emotional Life
We finished our last newsletter discussing the tremendous advances in understanding feelings made in the latter half of the 20th Century. These advances include both psychological and neurobiological aspects. There is a large literature on these issues (e.g. see the newsletter from July, 2013).
To review: Why this focus on feelings? Two reasons in particular. First, feelings motivate us. Feelings lead to action. Feelings cause behaviors. Second, feelings are crucial because they allow for communication.
Back to Darwin
We must return to Darwin for a moment. In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin explored various expressions of emotions and concluded that some were innate and universal. He made the case that these universal expressions of emotions were present in homo sapiens and evolved from animals.
As Paul Ekman noted:
“I believe most scientists consider the universality of facial expressions of emotion to be well established… Darwin’s central point is well established: a number of emotions have a universal expression. This would have pleased Darwin, for he acknowledged that not every emotion has an expression, let alone a universal one. But to find evidence of universals for six to eight emotions is consistent with an evolutionary view” (1998, pages 390-391, emphasis in original).
The data supporting universal, inborn expressions come from a variety of sources: infant development, anthropology and cross-cultural studies, and neurophysiology. As children develop, they may be able to control their facial expressions to some extent, although high-speed film will still document the original expression. In addition, cultural differences can affect the later expression of emotions. For readers interested in these nature/nurture issues, Paul Ekman’s Foreword and Afterword to Darwin’s 1872 book are well worth reading.
What Feelings Are There?
And How Do They Work?
So, now we turn to Silvan Tomkins and his colleagues. Tomkins has been especially helpful in pushing ahead our understanding of feelings. Tomkins was born in 1911. He studied and worked at a variety of educational centers: University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Princeton, City University of New York, and Rutgers. He published extensively, with most of his writing contained in a four-volume work titled Affect Imagery Consciousness (1962, 1963, 1991, 1992). He was diagnosed with cancer in 1990 and died in 1991, shortly after his 80th birthday. His younger collaborators are all important contributors in their own right. They include: Virginia Demos, Paul Ekman, Carroll Izard, and Don Nathanson.
Tomkins said essentially this:
“There seem to be a small number of built-in feelings, and I want to tell you what they are and how they work.” Or, in the extended version: “I agree with Darwin, the neurobiologists and the infant researchers who suggest there are a discrete number of inherited, innate feelings with corresponding facial and bodily expressions. These feelings link up with experience and combine with each other to form our more complex emotional life and personality. I think I can tell you what these earliest feelings are and how they operate.”
However, a few caveats before we start. There is lively scientific controversy about how many of these earliest feelings exist, and even about how to conceptualize and think about them. So we do not need to get too hung up on whether there are six or eight or 10 of these earliest built-in feelings. It is the larger picture – seeing these feelings and appreciating them as the embryology of our emotional life – which is important. Tomkins himself shifted from eight to nine later in his life.
Also, Tomkins was well aware of the distinctions between conscious and unconscious feelings, between cortical cognitive processes and subcortical processes, and between drives and feelings. Some of this is important technically and clinically and is discussed elsewhere (e.g. Izard, 1977). But, for our purposes here, we need to focus on these built-in feelings, how they may work, and how they motivate human behavior. And those issues we will address in the next newsletter!
References for Interested Readers:
- Darwin C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Third Edition, P. Ekman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.
- Izard C (1977). Human Emotions. New York: Plenum Press.
- Nathanson DL (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: WW Norton.
- Tomkins SS (1962). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume I): The Positive Affects. New York: Springer.
- Tomkins SS (1963). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume II): The Negative Affects. New York: Springer.
- Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.
- Tomkins SS (1992). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume IV): Cognition: Duplication and Transformation of Information. New York: Springer.