Emotions are biological processes with distinct, measurable properties. They function primarily to prepare mammals to do something (broadly: approach, avoid, attack), by sending chemical signals to the muscles and organs of the body.

The trend of evidence about the causes of emotional activation is that they are predominantly biological rather than psychological and influenced more by the body than the mind. Routine variations in your day-by-day feelings and motivations are influenced most profoundly by how well you sleep, eat, drink, and exercise, by fluctuations in room and outdoor temperature, and by how your body metabolizes chemicals like cortisol, elevated levels of which have many causes, ranging from general stress to loud noises to abrupt environmental changes. Emotional experience is also heavily influenced by general immune system functioning, tissue inflammation, and hormonal activity.

Of course, science does not indicate that emotions are all biology, at least not yet. But biological factors should always be ruled out first. Below are examples how to do this with irritability and anger.

Biological Explanation: "I'm irritable because I stayed up too late or drank too much or haven't exercised, etc."

Test: Sleep more or drink less or exercise consistently, and see if the irritability persists.

Biological Explanation: "I got furious at my wife for criticizing my driving, because I blamed her for the enormous spike in adrenalin and cortisol in my blood stream, which I experienced when that other car abruptly cut into my cone of perception, stimulating a threat-response."

Test: Don't blame her for the discomfort caused by a natural reaction to an abrupt change in the environment that had life-threatening potential. (Blame perpetuates the sense of threat and keeps the adrenalin and cortisol flowing.) Without blame, you should return to your normal self in a few minutes, as adrenalin and cortisol levels return to baseline. Then you might notice that her startle was involuntary, and recognition of her fear will invoke your natural compassion.

The Psychology of Emotional Disorders

Much of the psychological contribution to emotional disorders comes from giving biological processes psychological meanings they do not have. For example:

Psychological Explanation: "I'm irritable because my wife didn't look at me when I asked her a question, and my mother did the same thing when I was young."

Test: Notice that even when your wife looks at you, your irritability persists and that you will find something else to blame it on, especially if you attribute its cause to the past.

Psychological Explanation: "I got furious at my wife when she criticized my driving, because my mother criticized the way I colored when I was an innocent child."

Test: Many who were criticized as children do not infer criticism from their wife's startle and many who were not unusually criticized as children do.

Of course there are valid and testable psychological explanations for emotions, but they are more useful in regard to the tacit assumptions the brain makes as precursor to emotions rather than explaining the emotions themselves. That will be the subject of a future post, with more guides to help you understand your emotions by testing your assumptions and explanations about them with evidence.

Approach, Avoid, Attack

All behavior that is not habit has one of these three, usually unconscious, motivations. In approach motivation, you want to get more of something, experience more, discover more, learn more, or appreciate more. Typical approach emotions are interest, enjoyment, compassion, trust, and love. Common approach behaviors are learning, encouraging, relating, negotiating, cooperating, pleasing, delighting, influencing, guiding, setting limits, and protecting. Approach always increases the value of the person or thing you approach.

In avoid motivation, you want to get away from something - you lower its value and worthiness of your attention. Common avoid behaviors are ignoring, rejecting, withdrawing, looking down on, dismissing.

In attack motivation, you want to devalue, insult, criticize, undermine, harm, coerce, dominate, incapacitate, or destroy. Attack emotions are anger, hatred, contempt, and disgust. Characteristic attack behaviors are demanding, manipulating, dominating, coercing, threatening, bullying, harming, and abusing.

From early childhood most people are extremely accurate in reading whether others are in approach, avoid, or attack mode but are far less accurate in reading their thoughts and feelings. Information about the motivation of other people is processed first in the amygdala, the organ in the brain that mediates basic emotion, before it is processed in the prefrontal cortex, where thoughts and language are interpreted and assigned a meaning. The amygdala is a primitive structure in the brain that is common to all mammals and fully developed in a three year-old child. That is why very young children are highly accurate in reading approach, avoid, attack and why even your dog and cat can do it.

Biology vs. Psychology

Motivation as a biological process has more interpersonal influence than psychological processes like goals and intentions. You may have a goal of getting your partner to understand the family’s financial situation and the intention of persuading him or her to cooperate with a certain budget. But if you are not in approach mode, you will naturally ignore or blow off your partner’s perspective—it won’t occur to you to pay attention to it while you’re busy trying to explain your point of view. Feeling disregarded, your partner will get defensive and won’t listen to you. Then you’re likely to undermine, ignore, or devalue his or her perspective, implying that any competent and intelligent person would see things the way you do. Only in approach mode do you have any chance of fulfilling your goals and intentions.

Other people, particularly those in close relationships, respond almost exclusively to your motivations and hardly ever to your goals and intentions. When reacting to your avoid or attack mode, your partner, children, and people in general are unlikely to notice your goals and intentions and even less likely to care about them. People respond to the emotional tone of your motivation—what it feels like on the receiving end. Avoid and attack feel devaluing. That’s why your attempts to clarify your goals and intentions will always fail, unless you change your motivation to approach, to wanting to understand and appreciate his or her perspective, rather than influence, control, or manipulate it.

The Psychology of Emotional Healing, Growth, and Empowerment

The psychological aspect of emotions is a function of the meaning we give to our experience. Hence we can change feelings by changing the meaning we give them. For example, “I’m damaged, because I was abused as a child,” is a possible meaning of my experience. That meaning is likely to produce shame, anxiety, sorrow, disgust, or anger. Emotional healing is the creation of a more benign meaning. For example, “The abuse I suffered as a child has made me resourceful, compassionate, and able to appreciate life and love more deeply. Emotional growth is expanding the boundaries of the self, through learning and experience, in effect, becoming bigger than the injuries we incur. Although emotions are largely biological processes, emotional healing and growth, while dependent on neurological principles (see last post) are predominantly psychological.


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