Neuroscience and Clinical Practice

Dr. Robert J. MacFadden

Emotion Basics
© 2013 Robert MacFadden
Robert Sylwester (Sylwester, 2005) p.61) describes emotion as an “…unconscious arousal system that alerts us to the potential dangers and opportunities. … Emotions unconsciously integrate sensory input from within and without and often publicly manifest themselves in facial, body and speech displays.”
Antonio Damasio, a distinguished neuroscientist views emotions as playing out in the theatre of the body. Emotions are bodily responses that evolved to ensure our survival and they are at the core of who we are and that they reflect prepackaged decisions of great complexity (LeDoux, 1996). If something induces fear, for instance, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and a cacophony of biochemical agents, and bodily changes designed to fight or flee occur rapidly. An emotional reaction can occur even before the person is consciously aware of the threat. This immediate, “low road” to arousal has significant survival value. It is extremely rapid and doesn’t require cognitive reflection and delay. Emotions use the brain’s “superhighway” (Jensen, 2008a) to ensure that emotions get our priority. Emotions can overpower cognition as we move from reflection to reaction. A high state of arousal can be a form of “emotional hijacking” (Sprenger, 2007) and make it difficult to remember and to think. Negative emotions, past a point, narrow our scope of attention and thinking (Sousa, 2006).
Damasio views feelings as occurring in the theatre of the mind, after emotional arousal begins. He believes that emotion, feeling and biological regulation are all in the “loop” of high reason. Damasio (Damasio, 2003), describes a feeling as “…the perception of a certain state of the body along with the perception of a certain mode of thinking and of thoughts with certain themes.” These feelings can occur unconsciously or consciously, although feelings which are conscious have longer lasting impacts on the conscious mind. Indeed, we may owe our fundamental sense of consciousness to our ability to be aware of our feelings. Damasio believes we know that we are experiencing an emotion when the sense of a feeling is created in our minds resulting in the sense of a feeling self (Damasio, 1999). And knowing itself is a feeling. And getting to know something can be full of feelings such as excitement, confidence, anxiety, uncertainty and satisfaction.
Biochemical agents called neurotransmitters stamp every element of our experience as good or bad, approach or avoid as it relates to our survival (Rousell, 2007) . Usually these decisions trigger a rational explanation that validates itself. This occurs unconsciously and forms the basis for our unconscious decision-making. These emotional values are like warning or enticement beacons (Rousell, 2007) that focus attention on outcomes of behaviour. These neurological prompts are also called “somatic markers” by Damasio (1999) who believes that emotions are prepackaged decisions of great complexity.
Most decision-making and learning occurs below our awareness and these dispositions help to reduce options that have been unsuccessful in the past and maximize those that have been successful. We couldn’t afford to be consciously engaged emotionally in making choices all the time so our somatic markers or dispositions reflect learnings that help us make decisions unconsciously and efficiently. Values and emotional states are like “guiding hands” (Jensen, 2008) to help us make daily decisions and it is the emotion behind the goals that provide the energy to achieve the goals.
Humans have an inherent bias towards fear which has been developed over thousands of years. Natural selection has favoured those who are quick to react to life threatening circumstances. Our sympathetic nervous system is finely attuned to flee or to take flight. Emotion is thought to have developed before cognition and our brains and body are constructed to react quickly to any potentially threatening or ambiguous stimuli.

Pardoxically, excessive emotion can harm our thinking and not enough emotion can result in flawed thinking and decision-making (Damasio, 1994; Jensen, 2008). Feelings, which result from emotion, can lead us to consciously examine the situation and to develop plans and actions to meet the challenge and to carry these plans out. Thus feelings allow us to go beyond automatic responses to consider a wide variety of options and to increase our ability to survive and thrive.
Damasio believes that except for rare states such as being in a coma or vegetative state, or experiencing a seizure, that we are always in an emotional state and that the most common background emotional states are enthusiasm and discouragement. We experience some kind of modulation of discouragement or enthusiasm from the moment we wake up (Damasio, 2007).
Dan Siegel in Mindsight describes emotion as “energy in motion”. Emotion links the body to the brain and links people in groups and across generation. Siegel views neural integration as central to mental health and relationships. Integration involves the linkeage of different neural and body components.
Emotional distress involves a lack of integration- being stuck or stagnant or chaotic and unpredictable. Or both chaos and rigidity.
For Siegel, emotion is fundamental to all mental activity and operates in the background as well as the foreground of life.
Sue Johnson, the co-founder of emotionally focused couple therapy, views emotion as the most significant force in human relationships. Her therapy involves exploring each partner’s emotions, expressing vulnerability and building significant emotional bonds to each other.
Being connected to another is a fundamental human need. It is the attachment need. When we experience disconnection, we suffer from fear and anxiety and a range of other emotions. Often couple conflict, even though it is aversive, is viewed as a cry for connection. Each partner is thinking about whether the other will be there for them. The cornerstones of safety and trust help to build supportive relationships.

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