Great Kids, Great Parents

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

Our Earliest Feelings: Enjoyment, Shame, Disgust, & Dissmell

The functioning of inborn feelings.

We are continuing with our exploration of infant, child, and adolescent development and the three major developmental topics—feelings, language, and cognition. This month we examine the last four of our nine earliest feelings: enjoyment, shame, disgust, and dissmell.

Our Earliest Feelings

In the past several months we have explored our earliest feelings: interest and enjoyment (positive feelings); surprise (a re-setting feeling); and distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell (negative feelings). Babies have the capacity to respond to their surroundings with these nine signals.   Our recent newsletters have discussed the functioning of the following inborn feelings: interest, surprise, distress, anger, and fear. This month we look at the last four signals: enjoyment, shame, disgust, and dissmell.  

Enjoyment

How about enjoyment? What triggers the big smile and bright eyes of joy? By the way, the bright eyes are no illusion—the “gleam in the eye” is quite real. Darwin noted long ago that the expression of enjoyment was characterized, in part, by brightness in the eyes due to slight fluid secretion by the lacrimal glands.

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So what does trigger this joy response? It appears to be a rapid decrease in stimulation. If excessively high levels of sound or light are suddenly decreased, the infant will respond with a big smile. Or recall the relief you feel when something scary or painful stops. Rapid decreases in feelings such as distress, fear, and shame can trigger the smile response of enjoyment.
 

Any sudden decrease in stimulation which reduced the rate of neural firing, as in the sudden reduction of excessive noise, would innately activate the smile of enjoyment.

Shame

How does one understand shame? Many are surprised that shame is considered a built-in, universal response. Does shame have facial and bodily manifestations? Absolutely. The response of shame includes lowering of the eyelids, lowering of the head due to the reduction of muscle tone in the neck, and a tilting of the head in one direction.  

How does shame work, i.e. what triggers shame? Shame is called an affect auxiliary because it always involves other affects, namely interest and/or enjoyment. Shame is triggered when the affects of interest and/or enjoyment have been activated and then interrupted. Shame can then inhibit interest or enjoyment or both.  

How does this look in real life? Say the one-year-old baby is in a high chair with a cup of milk in front of her while father is making her some breakfast. Father leaves the room briefly. The baby goes to pick up her cup, bumps it, and some splashes out. The milk smells and tastes good and the splashes make neat patterns. 

She picks up the cup and more slops out, making interesting noises as well as patterns. This is getting exciting! Now she raises the cup way up, and slowly pours the milk out all over, with wonderful noises, splashes, tastes, patterns. Her interest and enjoyment are clearly in full gear.

At this point, Dad comes back in and sees all this. “What in the world are you doing?! Look at this mess!” he says somewhat irritably. The interest and enjoyment are now interrupted, with the typical shame response resulting: lowered eyes and head, drooping shoulders, and averted face.   Another way to look at this example is that a mismatch is created, a mismatch between the expectations of the infant (that her interest would be appreciated and validated by her father) and the actual response from the environment, i.e. father.  

As emotional life develops, the basic feeling of shame may manifest in additional ways, e.g. guilt, shyness, and discouragement. Shame is about inferiority, interruption of interest, mismatch, and guilt about moral transgression; shyness about strangeness of the other; and discouragement about temporary defeat (see also Tomkins, 1991).

Disgust and Dissmell
 

The last two feelings to consider are disgust and dissmell. Disgust and dissmell are biological responses to noxious tastes and odors, respectively.  

Disgust is a reaction to items that taste bad to the infant, and one readily sees the infant protrude her tongue and spit out the offending material.

Dissmell is a made-up word—a neologism coined by Tomkins, for which he apologized! It refers to the characteristic way in which an infant reacts to odors that smell bad to her: she wrinkles her nose and raises and turns her head away.

Disgust and dissmell are reactions designed to protect the baby from dangerous substances. These reactions achieve psychological standing later on: consider the phrases “that meeting left a bad taste in my mouth” or “this situation stinks.” Contempt is a later feeling which relates to disgust and dissmell.  

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. Oxford: 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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