Emotions, Cognition, and Language

Feeling, thinking, and talking are intimately connected and overlapping.

Posted Nov 30, 2017

It is neither possible nor desirable to study any part of the psychobiological system in isolation from the rest of the system”  
                                        —Silvan Tomkins, 1981 (in Demos, 1995, p. 50)

Over the past many months, we have been exploring the key components of the origins of human development—emotions, cognition, and language. We investigated each one at their beginnings.

Often overlooked, however, is that these three components function as an integrated system, with profound implications for development. This integration creates a powerful synergism; the total effect really is greater than the sum of the parts. In the future, we will discuss how this combination of emotions, cognition, and language helps us better understand a variety of aspects of human development (for example, early verbalization of feelings, education, physical punishment, religion, and bias and prejudice).

Emotions, Cognition, and Language in Human Development

Emotions, cognition, and language are all crucial aspects of development. Much has been written about each of these areas independently. They each have their own scientific literature and history: affect theory, cognition, and linguistics. In addition to their technical literature, some terrific books have been written about them. For example, The Scientist in the Crib by Gopnik et al. nicely describes advances in our understanding of cognition in infants and young children. And Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman is a pioneering work that explores feelings and interpersonal skills, with some combining of affects and cognitive perspectives.

For the most part, however, these areas are considered independently, both in the general as well as technical literature. This is unfortunate, since these areas overlap considerably. When one considers the overlapping and synergy, the potential implications became more apparent. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. As Tomkins pointed out: “The critical point is that the human being has evolved as a multi-mechanism system in which each mechanism is at once incomplete but essential to the functioning of the system as a whole” (Demos, 1995, p. 49).

We have discussed major advances in each of these three domains, which have been made in the past several years. With respect to emotions, psychological and neurobiological studies have greatly enhanced our knowledge. Understanding more about the primary innate affects and the plasticity of the brain has important clinical implications. Cognitive investigations suggest that the brain is capable of complex operations at a very early age, allowing for important learning. Studies of language demonstrate the importance of words and verbalization at a much earlier age than previously thought.

Emotions, cognition, and language also can all be conceptualized as information-processing systems. The origins of emotions—or “primary affects” (e.g., interest, distress, anger, fear, etc.)—are actually a stimulus-response system (as has been described in detail in previous newsletters). The infant’s responses—seen in facial expressions, vocalizations, bodily movements, etc.—are triggered by the rate (speed) and amount of incoming stimuli. These stimulus-response systems are quickly linked with experience to begin to form our more complex emotional life. The cognitive system uses perception, memory, and motor activities to gather information. Language adds a symbolic aspect to connect emotions and cognition, creating a deeper and more sophisticated level of information and meaning.

Cognition and Its Friends—Emotions and Language

The relationship between the affect and the cognitive system is the relationship between two parts of a whole, each of which is not only nested in the whole but is mutually interdependent and also partially independent.”

—Silvan Tomkins, 1992 (Affect, Imagery, Consciousness, Vol. IV, p. 17)

Cognition is closely intertwined with emotions and language, and it is to those connections which we now turn.

Tomkins specifically focused on the interaction between cognition and affect:

The major distinction between the two halves is that between amplification by the motivational system (affects) and transformation by the cognitive system. But the amplified information of the motivational system can be and must be transformed by the cognitive system, and the transformed information of the cognitive system can be and must be amplified by the motivational system (1992, p. 7, emphasis in original).

Tomkins then goes on to describe these processes and connections between affect and cognition in detail (1992).

Stern also notes that “Affective and cognitive processes cannot be readily separated” (1985, p. 42). However, as he discusses very early development, Stern suggests that “affect appraisals” of a situation tend to occur earlier than “cognitive appraisals” (p. 201). In this, he is consistent with Tomkins and others, highlighting the primacy of early emotions, followed by rapid increases of cognition, awareness, and language throughout the first 18 months of life.

Neurobiologists and clinicians (e.g., Levin, 1991, 2003; Gedo, 2005) agree with this model. Early in infancy, the baby is primarily an affectively driven organism, with cognitive and language processes quickly becoming involved.

With respect to language, some researchers suggest that there is no nonverbal period of development (Vivona, 2012). As Bonnie Litowitz comments,

On the one hand, psychoanalytic theories describe the growth of affective attachment and the psychological emergence of the individual; on the other hand, cognitive theories take as their object of study the individual’s accumulation and use of knowledge about the world. Language is a large part of the content and medium of acquiring and using knowledge, and, therefore, linguistic theories and cognitive theories are often imbricated (1989, p. 305).

Emotions, language, and cognition are all important on their own, yet they are also intimately connected and overlapping. To use an analogy: emotions are the motivator, the driveness, the goal, the direction; cognition is the fuel, without which nothing much can happen; and language is the vehicle that connects emotions and cognition, the vehicle by which much can be accomplished.

So in the future, we will discuss the potential benefits of exploring emotions, cognition, and language as an integrated system. Each is important, and all are connected. While at times we will emphasize one more than the other, we will keep in mind the synergy and connectedness in order to highlight the potential of these advances in our understanding of development.

Interestingly, emotions, cognition, and language are not foolproof in terms of providing human beings with accurate and useful information. We shall explore the enigmas surrounding these keys to development next month.


Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Gedo JE (2005). Psychoanalysis as Biological Science: A Comprehensive Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Goleman D (1985). Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Dell Books.

Gopnik A, Meltzoff AN, Kuhl PK (1999). The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Levin F (1991). Mapping the Mind. Hillsdale NJ: Analytic Press.

Levin F (2003). Psyche and Brain: The Biology of Talking Cures. Madison CT: International Universities Press.

Litowitz BE (1989). Patterns of internalization. In Learning and Education: Psychoanalytic Perspectives (Field K. Cohler BJ, Wool G, eds). Madison CT: International Universities Press, pp. 305-328.

Stern DN (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Tomkins SS (1981). The quest for primary motives: Biography and autobiography of an idea. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41: 306-329.

Tomkins SS (1992). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume IV): Cognition: Duplication and Transformation of Information. New York: Springer.

Vivona JM (2012). Is there a nonverbal period of development? Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 60: 231-265.