The Origins of Emotional Intelligence: The Embryology of Emotions and The Roots of Human Motivation

Bringing feelings, language and intelligence together

Posted Aug 02, 2012

Daniel Goleman, in his wonderful book Emotional Intelligence, highlights the importance of understanding our emotional life. He says the purpose of his voyage is “to bring intelligence to emotions” (p. xii). This is right on target!

And what is “emotional intelligence”? Goleman uses several phrases to describe what he is getting at: self-control, zeal and persistence, the ability to motivate oneself, to rein in emotional impulse, to read another’s innermost feelings, to handle relationships smoothly.

What is so exciting here is that we can help our children achieve “emotional intelligence” much earlier than previously thought. We now have the three pieces of information available to allow us to do that: Feelings, language, and intelligence.

First, we now know what the earliest feelings are and how they work. This is the result of a long tradition of study of emotions: from Darwin and Freud to the brilliant recent work of Tomkins and Ekman. In addition, through these discoveries about emotions, we now appreciate how infants and young children use their feelings to relate and interact as soon as they are born.  

My father was an otolaryngologist—an ear, nose, and throat surgeon. He often helped children who had complex malformations of their air and food passages. He pointed out that this work was possible if one understood the embryology and early formation of these structures. This applies to children and gaining “emotional intelligence”―we now understand the embryology of feelings.

Second, researchers and clinicians have come to appreciate better the power of language in the early years. It turns out that children can comprehend language long before they are able to talk. This permits us early on to put words to children’s feelings, allowing the brain to move from a “pre-symbolic” to “symbolic” state. This in turn leads to greater self-awareness, self-reflection, and increased tension-regulation―at a very young age.

Third, recent studies show how smart infants and young children are, how readily they learn, and how they are understanding and learning long before they can talk. We used to think infants were passive blobs, just eating, sleeping, and pooping as they grew up. We could not have been more wrong.

We now understand much about our earliest feelings and how they work, the power of language before and after children can talk, and how infants and young children are remarkably intelligent and programmed for interacting and exploring.

We can put feelings, language, and intelligence together. Using language and children’s extraordinary intelligence, we can label the feelings of our children early on. Thus, we help them to understand their inner world, their likes and dislikes, their feelings, and the motives behind their actions. That is, we can now help our children to achieve “emotional intelligence” at a very young age.