The Human Spark

The science of human development

The Force of Feelings

Detected feelings are the foundation of emotional words.

Natural scientists are fond of saying that nothing about living things makes any sense without an understanding of evolution. The properties of human nature make no sense without an understanding of feelings. Feelings are the conscious perception of the sensations originating in  kinds of bodily activity that activate select brain sites. Feelings have two distinctly different origins. One set comes from activity in heart, gut, lung, and muscles. The second source is an external event that produces a taste, smell, touch, sight, or sound.

Although brain states are the foundation of feelings, an altered brain state is not always  accompanied by the conscious perception of a change in feeling. Most feelings are difficult to ignore and  invite an interpretation that, on occasion, motivates a behavior that would not have occurred if the  thought were bleached of feeling. Nathan McCall, an African-American writer, captured the power of feelings. “The heart is a stubborn thing, It don’t give a shit what you tell it to do. It does what it wants and it can’t be trained to do otherwise.” The integrity of a strip of cortex in the anterior portion of  the brain, called the insular cortex, is one of the important sites that contribute to the  conscious experience of a feeling, even though it is not required for all feelings.

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Each person possesses a dominant feeling tone, or mood, which represents the background pattern of bodily sensations that is typically ignored during most of the day unless the person  stops to attend to it. These moods are usually described with words like relaxed, exuberant, mildly tense, excitable, apathetic, or vigilant. The ancient Greek terms sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic were moods. Although we do not know all the processes that create a mood, the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic arms of the autonomic nervous system represents  one contribution. A balance that favors the sympathetic arm is accompanied by a higher heart rate and a less variable rate, meaning  little variation  in the time between successive heart beats. Individuals with this property are usually tense and vigilant. A balance favoring the parasympathetic arm is associated with a lower and more variable heart rate and a relaxed mood. The variation in the balance between the two systems is subject to genetic control. Most males have a lower and more variable heart rate than most females and the most relaxed, sociable, fearless males have lower and more variable heart rates than tense, shy, timid males.

An acute feeling, on the other hand, is an unexpected, often brief, change in the usual, or dominant,  feeling tone that is sufficiently intrusive  to recruit attention and invite a  guess as to its cause. These feelings vary in pleasantness, intensity, duration, familiarity, and  perceived origin  in or on the body. The individual can assign the cause of a feeling to a preceding thought, an outside event, or a change in the  body. The cause selected influences the emotional word chosen to describe the state. The immediate setting is always a determinant of the  emotional term chosen. The words  fear, sad, happy, angry, pride, love, shame, guilt, nostalgic, jealous, disgust, and their synonyms  in other languages, are  chosen  most often   to name a  feeling in a context. A perception of increased warmth in the face accompanied by a rise in heart rate can occur when a person is insulted, spills food in public, or receives unexpected praise. The context and accompanying thoughts determine whether the word selected is anger, shame, or pride.

Support for this claim is seen in a study of women observed several times across their menstrual cycle. A woman’s report of pain to electrical stimulation of a nerve in the ankle at a time when estradiol and progesterone levels were high depended on the context. If the women were looking at mutilated bodies they reported high levels pain but reported lower levels when they were looking at erotic scenes. The higher sex hormone levels created a special brain state, but the psychological consequences of that brain state were determined by  the woman’s thoughts in a setting.  Anger provides a more persuasive example. The quality and intensity of the feeling that follows being struck across the face by a friend are unlike the feeling state evoked when the victim reflects on that incident a week later.

This fact has implications for the laboratory studies of emotion because most of the time the origin of the feeling in the lab is a thought rather than an actual experience. Psychologists more often ask participants to think about a past incident when they were happy, sad, or angry rather than create the situations that might induce the feelings that occur in typical environmental settings. Thinking about events that ought to evoke anger,  disgust, or sadness, or seeing photos of faces expressing these emotions, generates feelings that are not identical to the feeling of being struck across the face,seeing a dead cockroach on a plate of fruit, or watching a child die of a rare disease. Therefore, the brain patterns and psychological responses should be different too.

The specific words that are interpretations of similar feelings change with time. The 19th century writer Thomas Hardy was fond of  the words temerity, muddled, and equanimity. Contemporary authors are more likely to use anxious, confused, and serene.  In the books published in English from 1800 to 2000 the term happy occurs more often than joyful, anxiety more often than afraid, and angry more often than mad, peeved, or irritated. Some emotional words are novel additions to a language.  The emotional word “anomie”, for example, does not appear in English language books until the 1960s.

Czeslaw Milosz, a celebrated European poet,  experienced an uncomfortable  feeling  during the time he  was a  visiting faculty member at  the University of California.  After returning to Europe he described his feeling in a letter to Thomas Merton. “ Ten years ago I just escaped  from America, being afraid  of a life without  purpose and of acedia.” Acedia was Milosz’s interpretation of the feeling as one of  terror in the face of spiritual emptiness. Marc Liebovich, a journalist who wrote  “This Town”, apparently experienced a similar feeling when he was stationed in the nation’s capital. He told Bill Moyers that he was afraid of being swept into Washington’s adoration of celebrity, power, and money.    

The world’s languages have many more words that  are interpretations of feelings than words for feelings because the body sensations have a fuzzy quality that is hard to describe. There are two reasons for the fuzziness. The sensations from heart, stomach, lung,  and muscles have fewer receptors and send their information to the brain  more slowly  than the  receptors in eye, ear, nose, tongue, ear, and skin. Therefore, the feelings that originate in the former sensations are more ambiguous.In addition, these sensations are more fully elaborated by the right hemisphere, which is biased to process sensations a little more slowly. The words for emotions are more fully elaborated by the left hemisphere, which registers the detailed features of feelings that often last for a briefer interval.  

These observations mean that some feelings are like photographs taken out of focus that invite more than one interpretation. Although infants respond to their feelings, adult often respond to their interpretations and, therefore, are apt to select an emotional word  that does not always reveal the  correct origin of the feeling. Most adults correctly interpret the sudden feeling of relaxation that follows drinking a glass of wine at the end of the day. But there is more than one reasonable interpretation of a sudden rise in heart rate while sitting in a chair. Many contemporary Americans and Europeans are biased to interpret this feeling as anxiety if they cannot assign it to illness or something they ate. Members of other cultures, however, might interpret the same feeling as meaning they  are fatigued. Schizophrenics often report hearing voices telling them what to do because they misattribute to an outside entity the origin of the private speech that all normal adults experience.  

Since feelings are private and extremely difficult to measure accurately, scientists assumed that most inferences about feelings were correct and the words used to describe the feelings carved nature at its joints. If this premise were true each of the emotional words in the world’s language should correspond to a particular feeling and speakers of different languages using the words that in English meant  anxious, happy or angry should experience the same feelings. This assumption is deeply flawed. English speakers use the words angry or mad to describe a variety of frustrations that provoke distinctively different feelings. Losing one’s keys, reflecting on a silly error made on an exam the previous day, being the target of a slur, or seeing a neighbor throw garbage on one’s lawn evoke dissimilar feelings, but many English speakers would use the same word- mad or angry-  to describe how they felt. Other languages invented distinctive names for  the different feelings evoked in these settings. The Utku Eskimo of Hudson Bay invented four words to differentiate among the distinctive feelings that English calls loneliness. A problem plaguing English speakers  is that they have only the words fear,  worry, or anxious to describe the feelings generated by conditions that range from the future health of an infant born with a heart defect, to losing one’s job, to having an illicit sexual affair discovered. The brain states accompanying these experiences are likely to be different, but speakers do not have the words needed to differentiate among the many types of anxiety linked to varied circumstances.   

 Languages are inadequate vehicles to describe most psychological states. A person’s vocabulary for their psychological states can be likened to a palette containing onlysix pigmentsbelonging to an artist who wants to paint the all the flowers in a large  garden in late May. Humans invented languages to communicate facts about the environment, state moral rules to follow, and teach skills. Languages were not intended to describe private feelings because it is not always adaptive to reveal one’s anger, guilt, or lust. Finally, languages do not have many words that describe blends of feelings. A young, unmarried woman who is about to drown her newborn infant experiences a feeling blend  provoked by the thought that she should have used contraception to avoid the pregnancy, anger at the boy who abandoned her, and guilt over the act she is planning. Brains favor a single state over an average, or blend, and the mind favors the one best word that describes an  ambiguous feeling.

These facts point to a serious gap between feelings and the words that are intended to describe them, as most writers understand. Blends of feelings are coherent states rather than additive combinations. Like the irrational numbers Greek mathematicians invented, feeling blends mar the beauty of a view of nature as a  collection of elementary states named with single, unambiguous words.    

Although the evidence for sex differences in dominant, or usual, mood is too weak for strong conclusions, I suspect that the different physiologies of males and females generate  slightly different feeling tones.  It is likely that the effects on the brain of the male sex hormone, testosterone and  the female hormone, estradiol, along with their receptors, make a major contribution to the dominant moods of males and females. Only the male fetus secretes testosterone which masculinizes the brain and contributes to a collection of features that include greater muscle mass, a broader face, and more frequent homicides and rapes, but less frequent fear or anxiety.

The surge of prenatal testosterone also results in a slight elongation of the ring finger and, therefore, the ratio of the length of the index over the ring finger is smaller  in males than females ( .95 to .97 for males  versus .98 to 1.00 for females). This anatomical feature is correlated with a variety of physical and psychological properties. For example, men with very masculine ratios are stronger and engage in more high risk activities than men with less masculine ratios. Women with masculine ratios are more likely to engage in competitive athletics and have faces that men judge as more likely to be sexually unfaithful.   

A combination of higher testosterone concentrations and a larger number of opioid receptors that mute feelings of pain is more characteristic of  men than women. By contrast, the female hormone estradiol enhances pain in select internal organs. Boys and men smile less often, but report less stress  than girls and women. Males are three times more likely than females to report a wish to be the opposite sex and  the small proportion of girls who were born with higher than normal concentrations of male hormone are likely to display masculine behaviors as children.  

The rare  infants who were born genetic males (they had one X and one Y chromosome) but raised as girls because they had female genitals developed typical masculine interests during adolescence after receiving injections of  testosterone. The rapid development of male psychological properties, despite 12 years of socialization as a girl, implies a biological contribution to slightly different feeling tones in males and females. This claim is supported by the fact that the genes that come from the mother make a major contribution to the growth of the convoluted cortex, which is responsible for thought. The father’s genes  make a more significant contribution to the formation of the hypothalamus, which is the origin of molecules that control  acute feelings, chronic moods, and sexual arousal. It appears that Athena, not Venus, is the more appropriate model for women.     

 A team at the University of Pennsylvania studying the brain’s connectivity patterns found that   males have more tracts connecting sites within each of the cerebral hemispheres. This fact suggests that men should find it easier to manipulate schemata free of semantic networks and coordinate perception with action. Females, by contrast, have more tracts connecting the two cerebral hemispheres. This arrangement implies that women should find it easier to combine the semantic networks of the left hemisphere with the feelings that are more elaborated by the right hemisphere. As a result, females should find it easier to be emotionally aroused by meaningful events.   

 Sex differences in the brain’s concentration of the molecule dopamine may help to explain why males  are more attracted to high risk activities that promise to provide novel experiences. The brain secretes a brief surge of dopamine when an infrequent desirable event is imminent or occurs unexpectedly. The brains of monkeys, for example, secrete dopamine when they see a signal promising a desired food reward that they did not expect. This surge contributes to the conscious feeling of pleasure that accompanies such events. The female brain normally functions at a higher level of dopamine activity, partly because the female sex hormone stimulates  dopamine secretion and interferes with  absorption of excess dopamine from the synapses. Therefore, the surge of dopamine to a desired event  should  have a proportionately larger effect on the brains of males compared with  females because most male brains are operating at a lower level of dopamine activity . As a result, males should experience a more salient sensation of pleasure to the thought or receipt of an infrequent  experience  that  promises a  moment of pleasure, such as high stakes gambling, investing large amounts of money in risky equities, sport parachuting, climbing glacier covered mountains, drag racing, or illicit sexual intimacies. Stated a little too simply, the biology of males pushes them to seek out improbable or risky sources of pleasure. 

Feelings are often the foundation of rationalizations  for decisions about marriages, purchases, and ethical choices. A fair number of Supreme Court decisions are logically coherent arguments defending  decisions that rest on a feeling provoked by a reluctance  to oppose the sentiment of a majority of America’s citizens. Three lines by the poet E. E. Cummings reflect his delight over the fact that feelings often trump reason.

                                        Who pays any attention

                                       To the syntax of things

                                       Will never wholly kiss you.                    

Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the field of developmental psychology. His latest book is The Human Spark.

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