I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit… My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited… I think that I am superior… in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully... What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.”
                                                                                          — Charles Darwin, 1881

 
"I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
                                                                                           — Albert Einstein, 1952
 

Interest (Curiosity): The Core of Our Existence

All innate affects (“primary affects”—feelings) are important. Again, these affects—reactions to stimuli—ultimately form our more complex emotional life. This happens as these affects combine with each other and with experience, and as they undergo symbolic encoding—i.e. are linked with words and self-awareness, beginning at about 18 months.

Yet, one affect is particularly crucial to the character structure and developmental outcome of humans, and that is Interest.

The affect of interest is important because it leads to learning and adaptation to new situations and information. The human brain is stimulus-seeking. We want to enhance the interest affect, our curiosity, in order to learn, to discover, to adapt. As we will discuss in more detail later, the responses of caregivers to infants and children can either enhance interest or constrict it. Similarly, later in life, teachers or bosses can stimulate or restrict interest and curiosity. Creativity and discoveries come from curiosity—that is, interest-excitement. Reactions such as fear, or surprise, or disgust can be shifted to interest, thus enhancing learning.
 

Back to Darwin

We return briefly to Darwin. Darwin, in his 1872 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, was eager to demonstrate the similarities of emotional expressions between man and animals. He showed how animals seem to manifest expressions of fear, distress, anger, disgust, and enjoyment, among others.

Upon first reading, Darwin appears to have said little overtly about curiosity or interest; neither is even listed in his 1872 index. Indeed, Tomkins stated that Darwin missed the affect of interest. Tomkins noted: “The affect of interest or excitement is, paradoxically, absent from Darwin’s catalogue of emotions. Although Darwin dealt with surprise and meditation, the more sustained affect of interest per se was somehow overlooked” (1962, p. 337).

However, I do not entirely agree with Tomkins on this point. In 1872, Darwin does use the term attention to refer to what might be considered the affect of interest. When speaking of dogs, he noted: “…if his attention be suddenly aroused, he instantly pricks his ears to listen…” (Darwin, 1872 [Ekman, 1998, p. 283]). Darwin then turned to humans: “When the attention is concentrated for a length of time with fixed earnestness on any object or subject, all the organs of the body are forgotten and neglected… Therefore, many of the muscles tend to become relaxed, and the jaw drops from its own weight… Or again, if our attention continues long and earnestly absorbed, all our muscles become relaxed, and the jaw, which was at first suddenly opened, remains dropped. Thus, several causes concur towards this same movement, whenever surprise, astonishment or amazement is felt” (p. 284).

To put these passages in context, it should be noted that Darwin here is wrestling with why the mouth is open during surprise. He considers such possibilities as increased hearing, increased breathing capacity, and relaxation of jaw muscles. However, what he has described is the affect of interest, with the mouth being open somewhat. Tomkins has also linked up attention with surprise, which is consistent with his idea of interest, fear, and surprise all being related: they all depend on the rapidity of stimulus increase. As noted previously, surprise is elicited by the more rapid stimulus increase, fear next, and interest by yet slower incoming stimuli.

Furthermore, even earlier, in The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin was quite explicit about “curiosity,” as shown in this delightful vignette: “We will now turn to the more intellectual emotions and faculties, which are very important, as forming the basis for the development of the higher mental powers. Animals manifestly enjoy excitement, and suffer from ennui, as may be seen with dogs, and, according to Rengger, with monkeys. All animals feel Wonder, and many exhibit Curiosity. They sometimes suffer from this latter quality, as when the hunter plays antics and thus attracts them; I have witnessed this with deer, and so it is with the wary chamois, and with some kinds of wild-ducks. Brehm gives a curious account of the instinctive dread, which his monkeys exhibited, for snakes; but their curiosity was so great that they could not desist from occasionally satiating their horror in a most human fashion, by lifting up the lid of the box in which the snakes were kept” (Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871, 2nd Edition, 1874, p. 73, emphasis in original).

Thus, Darwin clearly described interest to some extent as “attention” and “curiosity” in relationship to surprise, astonishment, and amazement. However, it was up to his successors to explicitly describe the manifestations of interest-excitement, its mode of action, and its importance. It is to these successors we now turn.
 

More Recently: Tomkins, His Colleagues, and Neurobiology

Tomkins and his colleagues now come on the scene. Tomkins, unlike Darwin, is very clear about the importance of interest. “It is interest … which is primary,” he wrote. Interest “supports both what is necessary for life and what is possible” (1962, pp. 342 and 345). Carroll Izard, an early collaborator of Tomkins, has written an overlooked, wonderfully detailed discussion of the history and significance of interest (1977).

As noted previously, Tomkins suggested interest, fear, and surprise were closely related. They are all activated by the rate at which stimulation, or neural firing, increases. In this model, surprise is activated by a critical rate of increase in the density of neural firing. The difference between surprise and interest is a difference in the steepness of the gradient of stimulation. Whether a stimulus activates surprise or interest will depend on just how rapidly the density of stimulation increases.

So, a sudden unexpected gunshot will usually evoke surprise rather than interest. However, depending on the rate of stimulus increase, surprise, fear, or interest might be activated. The brain represents an information-processing system (Basch, 1988). The older the human being, the more experience is linked up with specific stimulation patterns. What matters, then, is not just the rapidity of the incoming stimulus, but the perceptual system with which that stimulus interacts. Therefore, a sudden gunshot might trigger surprise, but, depending on circumstances, experience, and expectations, a gunshot might trigger fear or interest instead. Or, consider the sudden appearance of a face. Depending on the rapidity and familiarity of the face, such an appearance might trigger surprise, or fear, or interest, enjoyment, or some sequence, such as surprise then interest.

There are many different ways to conceptualize and understand feelings and emotional life. Currently, Paul Ekman is one of the best known investigators of emotions. A student of Tomkins, Ekman was encouraged by Tomkins to conduct cross-cultural studies of emotions. Ekman concluded certain feelings were innate and that the expressions of the basic feelings were universally recognized throughout various cultures. Data from infant research support the idea that there are several innate feelings which combine with each other and with experience to form our complex emotional life.

Ekman, however, primarily studied adults. He explores our later, more complex emotional life, and he pays little attention to infancy. This work leads him to see things a bit differently from Tomkins. Ekman suggested interest and excitement were different, rather than excitement being a more intense form of interest as Tomkins proposed. Interest “is largely cerebral, a thinking state, rather than an emotion,” Ekman wrote (2003, p. 193). Excitement, he felt, arises in response to novelty or challenge.

Ekman also differs with respect to enjoyment, although what he calls “relief” is very close to Tomkins’ definition of enjoyment. Relief, wrote Ekman, “is the emotion felt when something that had strongly aroused our emotions subsides” (2003, p. 193). Fear is a frequent precursor of relief, as is excitement, Ekman tells us. Ekman also distinguishes between surprise and startle, suggesting that surprise is an emotion and startle is a physical reflex. Tomkins suggested startle was the intense form of surprise.

As one reads Ekman’s descriptions, it becomes clearer that he is dealing with blends of affects and experience in adults. His basic descriptions of interest and curiosity are very similar to Tomkins.

Neurobiology also has a place in this discussion. Exciting research by many talented scientists has been conducted on the neurobiology of emotions. Names such as Damasio, Lane, LeDoux, Panksepp, and Schore are among them. This type of research has tended to support the idea of primary (innate or categorical) affects, i.e. biological structures and pathways which mediate feeling states such as fear, anger, distress … and interest or curiosity.

Jaak Panksepp (1998, 2004) has done an excellent job of integrating the information on animal models with the interest affect. Panksepp noted that, traditionally, all motivated behavior tends to be divided into appetitive and consummatory components. That is, first one must seek out and approach the material resources needed for survival; and, second, one must consume them once they’d been found (eat, drink, or carry the items home).

Panksepp coined the term SEEKING system (the capital letters are his) to refer to the feeling of interest or curiosity. Panksepp contended that the “SEEKING system appears to control appetitive activation—the search, foraging, and investigatory activities—that all animals must exhibit before they are in a position to emit consummatory behaviors” (Panksepp, 1998, p. 146). Panksepp suggested research shows that the SEEKING system is mediated by dopamine circuits, in particular the medial forebrain bundle of the lateral hypothalamus. This psychobehavioral state can be evoked with localized brain stimulation in this area.
           

Interest and Enjoyment

There is an intriguing relationship between interest and enjoyment. Enjoyment is triggered by a relatively steep reduction of the density of stimulation and neural firing. Tomkins suggested: “In the case of pain, fear and distress, the smile of joy is a smile of relief. In the case of sudden anger reduction, it is the smile of triumph. The same principle operates with the sudden reduction of pleasure, as after the orgasm or completion of a good meal, there is often the smile of pleasure” (1962, p. 371).

Enjoyment and interest can oscillate rapidly. For example, say you are working on an interesting project. There will usually be a series of oscillations between the interest in novel ideas and the enjoyment of thinking them through and solving problems. So long as a combination of new ideas and solutions continues, your interest will remain alive. When you run out of new possibilities, you will lose interest (Tomkins, 1962). In addition, enjoyment can be activated by the anticipation of what has previously given excitement.

The positive affects of interest and enjoyment are also crucial in modulating the negative affects associated with hard work and accomplishments. Consider the pain and suffering, the late nights, the fatigue—affects of distress, anger, fear, etc.—often required to complete a big project, a degree, a trial, and so on. If the interest is not sufficient, it will be difficult to overcome the negative affects.

The reciprocal interaction of the positive affects of interest and enjoyment can be seen to be at the root of sustained interest—our careers, relationships, and so on. As Tomkins noted: “The reciprocal interplay between excitement and enjoyment are of critical significance in the creation of… long-term commitments” (1962, p. 368).

One can also see the relationship between interest and enjoyment in the milliseconds of affects in infancy. Suppose a baby sees a face. Depending on past experience and rapidity of the appearance of the face, surprise or fear might emerge first. Then perhaps interest would be seen, and, if the face is familiar and not scary, one will see the smile of enjoyment because of the reduction of fear or interest as the information processing ceases. Similarly, humor provides another example. It is the sudden unexpectedness of the punchline which both surprises and terminates further increasing information processing.
 

In Summary

We have begun our exploration of what may be the most important affect humans possess: interest. This is no small issue. Whether interest is helped to flourish or is constricted has a huge impact on the child’s future. Next, we will discuss very specific implications of dealing with interest in parent/child interactions and development.
 

REFERENCES FOR INTERESTED READERS

Basch MF (1988). Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art. New York: Basic Books.
 
Darwin C (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray. 1st Edition. The Descent of Man; and Selection in Relation to Sex. 2nd Edition. London: John Murray, 1874. Quotes from 2nd Edition, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.
 
Darwin C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Third Edition, P. Ekman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
 
Ekman P (ed) (1998). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (C. Darwin, 3rd ed). New York: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1872).
 
Ekman P (2003). Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
 
Izard CE (1977). Human Emotions. New York: Plenum Press.
 
Lane R, Schwartz G (1987). Levels of emotional awareness: A cognitive-developmental theory and its application to psychopathology. Amer J Psychiatry 144: 133-143.

LeDoux J (1996). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
 
Panksepp J (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.
 
Panksepp J (ed.) (2004). Textbook of Biological Psychiatry. Hoboken, NJ. Wiley–Liss, Inc.
 
Schore A (1994). Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
 
Tomkins SS (1962). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume I): The Positive Affects. New York: Springer.
 

RECOMMENDED BOOKS OF THE MONTH

Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Enrico Gnaulati, Ph.D.
Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2013

This is a wonderful book! The title describes the content well. It is a must-read for parents with children of all ages!
 
At least, treat yourself to reading the brief introduction and the first five pages of Chapter 2, “The Rush to Diagnose.”
 

A Roadmap for Couple Therapy: Integrating Systemic, Psychodynamic, and Behavioral Approaches

Arthur C. Nielsen, M.D.
NY: Routledge, 2016

This is a terrific book – not only for therapists, but also for parents and their children! It describes the various problems and assets couples may possess, and helps one understand the processes at work and the potential solutions.
 

About Dr. Paul C. Holinger 

Dr. Holinger is the former Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, and a founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy. His focus is on infant and child development. Dr. Holinger is also the author of the book What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

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