The History of the Study of Feelings: 20th Century

Discussing the nature-nurture controversy within the context of feelings

Posted Aug 29, 2013

We continue exploring the dramatic advances in understanding human nature and personality formation – what we call The Revolution in Infant and Child Development, and its three pillars of Feelings, Intelligence, and Language. We are immersed in feelings – Nature’s Guideposts.

Happy Parenting!

Dr. Paul

Let’s pick up where we left off, discussing the nature-nurture controversy within the context of the universality of feelings.

There was a reaction to the idea of universality of feelings: the development of cultural relativism. Darwin had suggested that certain expressions were universal, innate, biological responses. Around the middle of the 1900s, the anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Ray Birdwhistell began arguing that emotional expressions and social behaviors were culture-based and malleable. (Paul Ekman (1998) has done a marvelous job of presenting this controversy.) Science was beginning to contribute more to our understanding of the impact of upbringing. Nature vs. Nurture: Universal Feelings vs. Cultural Influence

In this nature-nurture controversy, Mead, Bateson, and Birdwhistell were pushing the pendulum far toward the nurture pole, denying that emotional expressions were universal as they attempted to reject the inherited basis of emotional expression. However, current scientific data seem overwhelmingly to support the evolutionary and inherited roles of expressions of emotions (Mayr, 2001; Panksepp, 1998; Ekman, 1998, 2003).

In a sense, though, Mead and the others were both right and wrong. They were mistaken in their insistence on the lack of an inherited basis of emotional expressions. They were correct, however, in their conviction about the effect of upbringing and culture. It turns out that the innate expressions of affects are very brief—milliseconds. As the brain develops, the cortex can override the expression of certain feelings. That is, one can, at times, consciously suppress the expression of feelings – e.g. trying not to smile or laugh or cry. However, research using high-speed film has shown that even when efforts are made to suppress expressions, the brief innate expressions can be seen in the film.

In retrospect, it may be easier to see why Mead and others confused the impact of upbringing with biological universals. In particular, there were two sources of data they did not possess: infant and child development (e.g. Stern, 1985) and modern neurobiological studies (e.g. Panksepp, 1998). Much of the rest of this series of newsletters deals with the implications of these types of studies.

In summary, then, let’s highlight two issues. First, the infant development studies and neurobiological research compellingly demonstrate all human beings have built-in, universal, neurologic pathways which result in a discrete number of facial expressions and responses at birth and early infancy. These become our feelings. Second, the environment (caregivers) quickly has an impact on the emotional expressions of infants and on the development of their feelings and personalities.


This, then, brings us to the second half of the 20th Century, a time which saw an explosion of research and information on feelings, infant and child development, and the neurobiology of emotions. Silvan Tomkins, about whom we will hear much more later, pushed Darwin’s work ahead exponentially, fleshing out not only the discrete number of universal innate feelings shared by humans, but also how these feelings work.

Several of Tomkins’ colleagues and students contributed to this field. Paul Ekman studied in detail the facial musculature, facial expressions, and feelings. Ekman’s recent book, Emotions Revealed (2003), is a masterpiece as it describes the complexities of the adult emotions and the facial expressions which convey these feelings. Ekman and Carroll Izard also conducted compelling cross-cultural research supporting the universality of emotional expression. Virginia Demos contributed important studies of feelings in infant and child development. Donald Nathanson explored the clinical implications of Tomkins’ work. 

Tomkins and his colleagues’ work occurred in the context of great advances in infant and child development and the neurobiology of feelings. Researchers and clinicians such as René Spitz, John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott, Selma Fraiberg, Daniel Stern, and Stanley Greenspan changed and enhanced our understanding of infant and child development. Those immersed in neurobiology – names such as Damasio, Le Doux, Levin, Panksepp, and Schore – have begun to clarify what parts of the brain seem involved with our unconscious as well as conscious feelings, and they have begun to outline the pathways and structures of these feelings.

Summing Up

This brief discussion is not meant to convey total consensus in these areas. Indeed, there are important scientific controversies running throughout these fields. And yet, there is a theme—that human beings are born with a set of expressions which relate to our feelings, that these feelings are used for communication and motivation of behavior, and that much information about feelings is available to us.

If we would only be more aware of this information about feelings, we would better understand ourselves and have greater control over our future.

References for Interested Readers:

  • 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 (2003). Emotions Revealed. New York: Henry Holt and Company.  
  • Mayr E (2001). What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books.  
  • Panksepp J (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.  
  • Stern D (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books