Great Kids, Great Parents

Infant/Child Development and the Importance of Children's Feelings

Our Earliest Feelings

The work of Silvan Tomkins and his colleagues.

We are continuing with our series of newsletters dealing with Development and its three major components: Feelings, Language, and Intelligence (cognition).

We are exploring Feelings. There is nothing more important. Feelings cause behaviors. Feelings allow for communication.

Happy Parenting!

Dr. Paul

Our Earliest Feelings

We ended our last newsletter examining the advances made toward the end of the 20th Century. We turn now to the work of Silvan Tomkins and his colleagues.

Tomkins asked the key questions: What are the earliest feelings (“primary affects”) of human beings? And how do they work?

Tomkins defined these earliest feelings, or affects, as biological responses to stimuli. These responses are seen in the skin, vocal apparatus, musculature, autonomic nervous system, and particularly in the face.

The Face

The face turns out to be a remarkable signaling system. It has many small muscles which create nuances of expression. Babies tend to focus especially on the eyes and mouth of the person at whom they are looking. This makes sense, in that so many of the feelings are communicated through the small muscles surrounding the eyes and mouth.
Facial MusclesFacial Muscles
Illustrations of facial anatomy from: Darwin C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Third Edition (P. Ekman, ed), New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pages 29-30.

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Darwin and Tomkins were both intrigued with the evolution of the face, the expression of feelings, and communication. Tomkins also became particularly concerned with the role feelings played in the motivation of human behavior.

What Are The Feelings?

Ultimately, Tomkins suggested research showed humans had nine such innate universal feelings:

  1. Interest
  2. Enjoyment
  3. Surprise
  4. Distress
  5. Anger
  6. Fear
  7. Shame
  8. Disgust (a reaction to noxious tastes)
  9. Dissmell (a reaction to noxious odors)

There are also lower and higher levels of these feelings. Thus, the feelings tend to range from low to high as follows:

  • Interest/excitement
  • Enjoyment/joy
  • Surprise/startle
  • Distress/anguish
  • Anger/rage
  • Fear/terror
  • Shame/humiliation
  • and greater levels of disgust and dissmell

How Are These Feelings Expressed?

What do these “feelings” look like? Remember, at this point in infancy, they are referred to as biological reactions to various types of stimuli. Only later will the person be able to put into words her subjective sense of what is going on inside and link that with a facial expression. So what are these facial, bodily, and  vocal manifestations?


Interest

Interest is shown with the eyebrows slightly lowered or raised; there is concentrated looking and listening; the mouth may be a little open.


Enjoyment

Enjoyment elicits a smile, with lips widened up and out.


Surprise

Surprise is associated with eyebrows up, eyes wide open and blinking, and the mouth in an “O” shape.


Distress

Distress is revealed by crying, arched eyebrows, the corners of the mouth turned down, tears, and rhythmic sobbing.


Anger

Anger is shown by a frown, eyes narrowed, a clenched jaw, and a red face.


Fear

Fear is signaled by the eyes frozen open; skin pale, cold, and sweating; facial trembling, and hair erect.


Shame

Shame is revealed by the lowering of the eyelids, and loss of muscle tone in the face and neck causing the head to hang down.


Disgust

Disgust (a reaction to noxious tastes) elicits protruding lip and tongue.


Dissmell

Dissmell (a reaction to noxious odors) causes the upper lip and nose to be raised and the head to be turned away.

These then are our earliest feelings. They are the embryology of our emotional life.

Next month we will discuss what triggers these feelings—i.e. how they work.

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.  
  • Panksepp J (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.  
  • 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.

Paul C. Holinger, M.D., M.P.H., is a psychiatrist and adult and child/adolescent psychoanalyst. He is author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

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