Affects, Language, and Cognition

Verbalization of Affects, Physical Punishment, Education, and Religion

Posted Jul 30, 2015

The critical point is that the human being has evolved as a multimechanism system in which each mechanism is at once incomplete but essential to the functioning of the system as a whole.”

  – Silvan S. Tomkins, 1981

Affects, Language, and Cognition

For many months, we have been exploring the three pillars of human development: Affects (Feelings), Language, and Cognition. We have tried to make the case that there is a revolution in our understanding of human development. I have suggested that this revolution has tremendous potential for enhancing development.

However, we have also noted that this revolution has gone largely unrecognized—that the implications and benefits of this advance in knowledge are in danger of being overlooked.

Affect (feelings), language, and cognition are all crucial to development. Much has been written about each of these areas independently. They each have their own scientific literature and history: affect theory, linguistics, and cognition. In addition to their technical literature, some terrific books have been written about them for the general public. For example, The Scientist in the Crib by Gopnik et al. nicely describes advances in our understanding of cognition in infants and young children. And Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman is a pioneering work exploring feelings and interpersonal skills, with some combining of affects and cognitive perspectives.

For the most part, however, these areas are considered independently, both in the general as well as technical literature. This is unfortunate. These areas overlap considerably. When one considers the overlapping and synergy, the potential implications became more apparent. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

Advances in each of these three domains have been made in the past several years. With respect to affects, psychological and neurobiological studies have greatly enhanced our knowledge. Understanding more about the primary innate affects and the plasticity of the brain has important clinical implications. Studies of language demonstrate the importance of words and verbalization a much earlier age than previously thought. Cognitive investigations suggest the brain is capable of complex operations at a very early age, allowing for important learning.

Affect, language, and cognition are all important on their own, yet they are also intimately connected and overlapping. To use an analogy: affect is the motivator, the driveness, goal, direction; language is the vehicle, the vehicle by which much can be accomplished; and cognition is the fuel, without which nothing much can happen. So in this section we will discuss the potential benefits of exploring affect, language, and cognition as an integrated system. Each is important; and all are connected. While at times we will emphasize one more than the other, we will keep in mind the synergy and connectedness in order to highlight the potential of these advances in our understanding of development.

We will explore four major issues within this overarching context of the integration of feelings, language, and cognition.

  1. Verbalization of Affects: The first area involves the linking of affects and words. This process underlies much of tension-regulation, self-soothing, self-awareness, learning, formation of character structure, and psychological treatment such as psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Deficits in linking feelings and words lead to much of psychopathology.

  2. Physical Punishment: The second issue is that of physical punishment. We can no longer avoid the data that physical punishment of children is terribly destructive. Aspects of feelings, language, and cognition demonstrate why physical punishment is so problematic and how to provide alternatives.
  3. Education: Third, we will explore education. To shine the light of affect, language, and cognition on development and education is, forgive me, particularly illuminating. Issues of bias and prejudice will be considered here as well as in the next section on religion.
  4. Religion: Fourth, we will examine religion. While obviously a huge topic, our understanding of the assets, liabilities, meanings, and motives of religion can benefit from using a developmental perspective. This is especially important given the violence, wars, and terrorism associated with religion past and present.

Verbalization of Affects: Putting Words to Feelings
Putting words to feelings may be one of the most important aspects of the affects-language-cognition interaction. It turns out that children can link words and feelings much earlier than thought—with tremendous benefits.

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Source: Stock Photo

 I was taking a walk one day and happened upon a little boy (about 3-4 years old) and his father. They were chatting with a woman who was walking a very small puppy and a larger dog who was the puppy’s mother. “Just look at that,” Dad said to his son, “Only a few months ago that little puppy was inside his mother’s tummy!” And his son said, “Uterus, Daddy, uterus!” Wow! Now, granted, it turned out that this little boy came from a medical family in which medical terms and anatomy were commonplace. But what a wonderful example of cognitive and verbal capacities. I later learned this little boy could readily express some synonyms for being excited. He would playfully say: “I am elated, exuberant, ecstatic!”

Why is linking words with feelings so important? Because verbalizing feelings leads to tension-regulation, self-soothing, self-reflection. As Anny Katan (1961) said: “[V]erbalization leads to the integrating process… If the child could verbalize his feelings, he would learn to delay action” (p. 185-6).

How does the child gain the capacities for tension-regulation and self-soothing? Both nature (“temperament”) and nurture (environment—i.e. the parents and caregivers) contribute. With respect to nurture, a calm and empathic caregiver is more likely to impart these qualities to his/her child than a volatile and abrupt caregiver. Children tend to internalize and use the patterns provided by the parents. Some parents intuitively understand feelings and how to respond. Some parents are able to label accurately the feelings involved, which helps even more. As we discussed in the section on language, confusion can ultimately occur in the child if these feelings are labelled inaccurately. In terms of neurobiology, it appears that the amygdala is the seat of feelings, and the verbalizing is accomplished by the cerebral cortex. Some describe psychotherapy—talking therapy—as enhancing these amygdala-cortex connections.

Consider also feral children—children who have very little human contact prior to adolescence. The potential for language, particularly language which connects feelings and words, appears to begin to decrease in early adolescence. This is one reason feral children are so action-oriented, with their tensions unregulated. Not only have they not been socialized, i.e. internalized ways of behaving in usual human interaction, but they have not had the advantage of the power of words as these words relate to their visceral sensations.

Early Words

One might argue that one cannot do much with words before children are about 1-1/2 to 3 years old, when they begin speaking. Yet, as we saw earlier, children understand words long before they speak. In fact, as Vivona (2012) suggests, we need to rethink the idea of any “preverbal period.” The child is picking up tone of voice and words even before they are born. Children demonstrate the nine innate feelings immediately: the “primary affects” are manifested in facial expressions, vocalizations, and bodily movements. A knowledgeable parent can begin to label these feelings with words very soon after birth. As noted previously, infants are much smarter than we used to think, so these cognitive capacities make the word-feeling linkages possible quite early.

In the long term, psychopathology can be decreased and positive aspects of character structure increased by utilizing the child’s cognitive capacities to link words and feelings. The benefits include understanding their own internal world, elevating their behavioral decision-making, and enhancing their interpersonal skills. All the talking therapies (psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and so on) utilize two major elements: the relationship with the therapist, and this link between feelings, words, and cognitive capacities. This word-feeling connection has been shown to be very beneficial in clinical work with children and adults (Gedo, 2005; Tyson, 2010; Yanof, 1996; Holinger, 2015; Lieberman, 2007; Kircansky et al., 2012). This entire area—“how talking cures”—has received increasing attention recently as the role of early language becomes better understood (Vivona, 2014).

The use of early words is not only helpful with emotional growth, but intellectual growth as well. Children in a higher socioeconomic status (SES–a research term relating to economic and professional variables) hear and use more words than their cohorts in lower SES. This leads to a greater vocabulary, an advantage which persists over time regardless of educational intervention.

The use of feelings, words, and cognition is also of great use in validating the existence of the internal emotional world of other human beings. At stake here is the issue of empathic understanding of fellow humans. This is important in terms of parenting, interpersonal skills, and clinical work. I recall seeing a little girl coming into her daycare center with her mother. The little girl began to take off her sweater, saying “I’m feeling hot in here.” Her mother replied, “No you’re not… it’s not hot in here. Keep your sweater on.” The mother could not appreciate her daughter’s own inner world of her own feelings and sensations. Peter Fonagy and Mary Target (1998) have has done some wonderful clinical work which focuses on helping the patients focus on the existence of another person’s internal world. This he calls “mentalization.” It is related to the capacity for empathy (Basch, 1983). Many psychological problems are caused by this inability, which seems to involve an early developmental arrest.

Interest (Curiosity)

Of particular importance is the focus on the affect of interest (curiosity). We so often try to impose our own interests and standards on to our children—we forget that what really matters in the long run is what they are interested in. It is allowing them to feel that validation of their interest—and unleashing their own curiosity—will lead them to good choices in profession and love. This linking of affect-language-cognition around the feeling of interest (curiosity) is hugely important. If the infant is intrigued with something—a pretty ribbon, a toy car, and so on—the parent can say: “You are interested in that! You are excited! That’s great!”

This interaction provides five crucial functions. First, it creates a shareability of feelings between parent and child, as Daniel Stern describes (1985). Second, it helps the parent realize that the child has his/her own internal world and feelings, and it helps the child understand that her parent “gets” her. Third, this interaction validates for the child the legitimacy of his/her feeling of interest. Fourth, this type of labelling and interaction begins to put words, symbols to this feeling. The child is then better able to understand and define his/her own feelings of interest and communicate them. Fifth, this interaction leads to greater focus on the content of items and issues which intrigue the child. Ultimately, this enhances the capacity to choose a profession, love, and avocations. This is consistent with Winnicott’s notion of True (authentic) and False Self (1965). The overall benefit involves increasing the curiosity and learning and exploratory activities, and decreasing the inhibition of such activities.

In Summary

What is striking about this integration of feelings-language-cognition is how early one can start it. The benefits are enormous with respect to the character structure of the individual. These include: increased tension-regulation and self-soothing; increase sense for the child of their own internal world and the feelings which motivate their behaviors; an increased sense on the part of the parents for what “makes their child click,” i.e. that their child has his/her own feelings and inner life which need to be recognized; increased and more accurate communication between child and the external world, leading to greater interpersonal skills; and an overall sense that the parents listen to the child’s interests while at the same time they help to socialize the child.

References for Interested Readers

Basch MF (1983). Empathic understanding: A review of the concept and some theoretical implications. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 31: 101-126.

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.

Fonagy P, Target M (1998). An interpersonal view of the infant. In Psychoanalysis and Developmental Therapy (A Hurry, ed). Madison CT: International Universities Press, pp. 3-31.

Goleman D (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Dell Books.

Gopnik A, Meltzoff AN, Kuhl PK (1999). The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Holinger PC (2015, in press). Further considerations of theory, technique, and affect in child psychoanalysis: Two prelatency cases. International Journal Psychoanalysis.

Katan A (1961). Some thoughts about the role of verbalization in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 16: 184-188.

Kircanski K, Lieberman MD, Craske MG (2012). Feelings into words: Contributions of language to exposure therapy. Psychol Sci 23: 1086-1091, 2012.

Lieberman MD, et al (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychol Sci 18: 421-428.

Stern DN (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Tomkins SS (1981). The quest for primary motives: Biography and autobiography of an idea. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41: 306-329.
Tyson P (2010). Research in child psychoanalysis: Twenty-five year follow-up of a severely disturbed child. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 57: 919-945.

Vivona JM (2012). Is there a nonverbal period of development? Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 60: 231-265.

Vivona JM (2014). Introduction: How does talking cure? Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 62: 1025-1027.

Yanof J (1996). Language, communication, and transference in child analysis. I. Selective mutism: The medium is the message. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 44: 79-100.


Dr. Holinger's Recommended Children's Book of the Month

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Source: Stock Photo

Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go to Sleep
Author: Joyce Dunbar
Illustrator: Debi Gliori


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Source: Stock Photo

2015 Disney-Pixar

> Watch movie trailer

This movie uses five of the innate, universal emotions (“primary affects”): joy, fear, sadness (distress*), anger, and disgust. Paul Ekman, one of Silvan Tomkins’ many prominent students, was a consultant for this movie (Ekman, 1998, 2003).
* “Distress” is actually the innate emotion, not “sadness.” Sadness occurs when distress is later linked with the experience of loss.

Paul C. Holinger, M.D.
Source: Paul C. Holinger, M.D.

About Dr. Paul Holinger 

Dr. Holinger is the former Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis 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 acclaimed book What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

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