To continue from our last newsletter: We are exploring what we call The Revolution in Infant and Child Development and the three pillars of this revolution: Feelings, Intelligence, and Language. We are currently immersed in examining feelings.

Feelings are nature’s gift to us. They motivate us to act, and they provide a means of communication.

Happy Parenting!

Dr. Paul



What Are Feelings?

However, right away we run into a problem: what are feelings? Feelings, emotions, affects – these have had many different meanings to many different philosophers, researchers, and clinicians. Do they refer to our subjective experience? Or behavioral manifestations? Conscious or unconscious? As Knapp (1987) noted: “This literature encompasses a wide variety of definitions, approaches, and data…psychology as a whole speaks about emotion in many different tongues” (p. 205-6).

Some of the subtle differences in terms may emerge as we discuss the history and research of emotional life. But, for our purposes here, I suggest we use these words interchangeably in their everyday meaning. “Affect” is a more technical term than the others. Affect tends to refer to the earliest preverbal manifestations of feelings which are biological responses to stimuli (such as specific facial expressions seen in the preverbal child). Yet, even the term affect is used widely to refer to aspects of our more complex emotional life, that is, blends of feelings. So, again, for the most part, these terms will be used here interchangeably in their everyday meaning.

The History of the Study of Feelings

How does one make sense of the history of the exploration of feelings—the ancient as well as more recent philosophers, the development of psychiatry, the expression of emotions throughout literature and art? In many ways, the questions were similar to the ones we ask today: What are feelings? How are they triggered? How are feelings related to bodily sensations? What substances in the body and structures in the brain result in what we call feelings?

However, the problem for those studying emotions prior to the mid-1800s was a significant one, namely, the absence of data. In particular, early and current philosophical literature on emotions is stunningly limited due to this absence of data, especially data on infant and child development. For those readers who want a roadmap with which to begin exploring the earlier work in more depth, authors such as Plutchik (1962), Knapp (1987), Panksepp (1998), and Cavell (2003) do an admirable job of starting to fill in this history from philosophical, psychological, and neurophysiological perspectives.


The picture changed significantly in the second half of the 19th Century. At that point, two giants emerged who forever changed the way we look at our external and internal world: Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

Charles Darwin

In 1859, Darwin published Origin of Species in which he presented his data on evolution. In 1872, he published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. In this book, he built on his evolutionary data and suggested that the expression of emotions of humans was quite similar to the physiologic expressions and reactions of animals. Darwin was privy to some emerging technology in the study of facial musculature in humans, and he explored in minute detail the facial expressions of humans and animals, blood flow, bodily movements, and other behaviors.

The chapters in Expression include topics such as weeping, anxiety, grief, dejection, despair, joy, devotion, ill-temper, sulkiness, disdain, disgust, surprise, fear, horror, shame, and blushing. Darwin’s point was that, while of course we can only assume what animals might be experiencing, the external manifestations and behavioral reactions of animals are often quite similar to what one observes in humans—humans who can subjectively report their emotional experiences. Darwin thus points the way to an inherited, built-in system of emotional expression.

 Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud, who was aware of and influenced by Darwin, was interested in feelings and in the pathology which seemed related to these feelings. In particular, Freud’s work led him to appreciate the importance of feelings which were outside of an individual’s awareness, i.e. unconscious feelings. By focusing on conflicting feelings, both conscious and unconscious, Freud was able to make sense of a variety of everyday phenomena (slips of the tongue and pen, dreams, forgetting, and so on) and psychological disorders, such as phobias, obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, and conversion reactions (e.g. paralysis of an arm with no neurological basis).

Early in the 20th Century, for the first time, doctors were able to successfully treat people with phobias, conversion reactions, and compulsive behaviors—by talking with them and helping them to understand their feelings. At the same time, a group of psychological pioneers began having similar success working with children and their feelings. These pioneers had names like Hermine Hug-Hellmuth, August Aichhorn, Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter), Melanie Klein, and, a bit later, Margaret Mahler, René Spitz, and Donald Winnicott.

Freud’s work also demonstrated the importance of the early years in forming the personality structure. In his time, Freud suggested conflicts around sexuality and anger were most responsible for the types of illness he treated. It was up to later clinicians and researchers to help us understand with greater sophistication the variety of feelings which exist, how feelings are related to biological drives (such as sexuality, hunger, etc.), the impact of early experiences, the relationship between conscious and unconscious processing, and the neurobiological structures and pathways responsible for feelings.

This short summary takes us well into the 20th Century. In our next newsletter, we will complete our brief overview of the history of the study of feelings. We will begin with an aspect of the nature-nurture debate as it played out between the universality of feelings and cultural relativism.

References for Interested Readers:

  • Cavell M (2003). The intelligence of the emotions: A view from philosophy. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 51: 977-994.
  • Darwin C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Third Edition, P. Ekman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Freud S (1901). The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Standard Edition, Volume VI. London: The Hogarth Press.
  • Knapp PH (1987). Some contemporary contributions to the study of affect. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 55: 205-248.
  • Panksepp J (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Plutchik R (1962). The Emotions: Facts, Theory and a New Model. New York: Random House.  

DR. PAUL HOLINGER'S BOOK What Babies Say Before They Can Talk

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