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Primary Affects

How our basic feelings work

“I view affect as the primary innate biological motivating mechanism, more urgent than drive, deprivation, and pleasure, and more urgent even than physical pain. ”

– Silvan Tomkins, in Demos, 1995, p. 86

In last month’s newsletter…

…we explored the origins of our emotional life—that is, our earliest feelings. We examined the nine “primary affects” which provide both communication and motivation. These early feelings combine with each other and experience (including reason and self-reflection) to form our more complex emotional life and behaviors. This month we address the question of how our basic feelings work.

Just to review the primary affects, or our inborn feelings:

Positive Affects
Interest | Enjoyment

Resetting Affect

Negative Affects
Distress | Anger | Fear | Shame | Disgust | Dissmell

How Might Feelings Work?

What science is really intrigued with is how feelings work. For ages, Tomkins and others grappled with the following question: How—given the bombardment of external and internal stimuli on the infant—are there only a few discrete responses?

Let’s hear again how Tomkins frames the question:

Consider the nature of the problem... The neonate…must respond with innate fear to any difficulty in breathing, but must also be afraid of other objects. Each affect had to be capable of being activated by a variety of unlearned stimuli. The child must be able to cry at hunger or loud sounds as well as at a diaper pin stuck in his flesh. Each affect had, therefore, to be activated by some general characteristic…common to both internal and external stimuli and not too stimulus-specific…” (Tomkins, III, p. 57, emphasis in original).

How does it happen that the baby has so few specific responses—feelings, affects, whatever—to all the stimuli coming at her? How do all these stimuli get transformed into the very few signals—feelings—which allow the baby and parents to communicate? In other words, what are the mechanisms of actions of these affects?

What are Tomkins’ group’s contribution to this dilemma? Tomkins suggested that triggering these feelings (affect activation) involves the following: stimulus increase, stimulus decrease, and stimulus level (quantity). So what does this mean?

Let’s take a look at three of these feelings, or primary affects: surprise, fear, and interest. These three feelings depend on the speed—the rapidity—of the incoming stimuli.

Surprise, Fear, and Interest

For many of the feelings, the type of feeling (facial expression) seems to depend on the rate of increase (i.e. speed) of the incoming stimulus.

Any stimulus with a relatively sudden onset and a steep increase in the rate of neural firing will innately activate surprise. If the rate of neural firing increases less rapidly, fear is activated. If the rate increases still less rapidly, interest is innately activated.

Let’s take the speed of the stimulus. Any stimulus—sound or light, for example—with a relatively sudden onset will innately trigger the response of surprise-to-startle. If the baby hears a sudden loud noise, she will respond with the characteristic facial expressions: the eyebrows go up, the eyes widen, and the mouth assumes an “O” shape.

Surprise is associated with eyebrows up, eyes wide open and blinking, and the mouth in an “O” shape.

If the sound comes in a bit less suddenly, the baby will show the response of fear: eyes widen and are frozen open, face and body may tremble, skin may pale.

Fear is signaled by the eyes frozen open; skin pale, cold, and sweating; facial trembling, and hair erect.

If the sound comes in even more slowly, the infant will manifest interest: the eyebrows will be slightly up or down, the mouth slightly open, and the baby will be tracking, looking, listening.

Interest is shown with the eyebrows slightly lowered or raised; there is concentrated looking and listening; the mouth may be a little open.

This sequence makes sense with respect to the brain as an information-processing organ (Basch, 1988). The more slowly the stimulus arrives, the better chance the brain has to process the information, resulting in interest rather than surprise or fear.

I recently observed a nice example of this at a sports arena near an airport. As several very young children were approaching the arena, suddenly there was a tremendously loud noise! An airplane had appeared from just behind the arena as it approached its landing. The youngsters first showed the startle response, then quickly the fear response, and then, as they began to realize what it was, they showed the interest response.

We also have to remember that these feelings—affects, or biological responses to stimuli—are very rapid. These facial expressions occur in split seconds—literally milliseconds. High speed films are used to document these reactions.

I remember playing once with a little one-year-old girl. She was quite tired, but she was also fascinated by the ball we were rolling and bouncing back and forth. The affects literally flickered across her face—distress (due to her fatigue), interest, surprise, enjoyment. The rapidity and visibility of the affects were amazing—the distress when the ball was not involved, as the tiredness set in, and the surprise and interest and enjoyment expressions in a very rapid succession when we bounced the ball together.

High speed films are also used in studies of adults. These films show that even when adults try to suppress certain feelings consciously, the biological reactions can still be briefly seen on the face. Thus, the innate, biologic reactions to stimuli are still visible even in adulthood, when experience and development in cerebral cortex lead to greater conscious control over the expression of feelings. Again, think of the poker player or actor or politician who has to control his/her feelings under various circumstances. In this process, one can understand the expressive and motivating force of the basic affects and, with age, the capacity of the cortex to allow for some control over expressions and increased reason over actions and behaviors.

To briefly review—here’s one way to think about our earliest feelings, which then become our more complex emotional life.

Positive: Interest; Enjoyment

Resetting: Surprise (resets the nervous system, to prepare for the next stimulus)

Negative: Distress; Anger; Fear; Shame; Disgust (a reaction to noxious tastes); Dissmell (a reaction to noxious odors)

Distress and Anger

Previously, we showed how Surprise, Fear, and Interest depend on the speed of the incoming stimuli. Let’s turn now to two of the most important negative feelings, distress and anger. We will discuss them in more detail below, but here is an introduction.

How might they work? Whereas surprise, fear, and interest seem to depend upon the speed of the stimulus, the feelings of distress and anger appear to depend on the quantity of the stimulus.

Any sustained increase in the level of neural firing, such as a continuing loud noise, innately activates the cry of Distress. If it were sustained and still louder, it would innately activate the Anger response.

For example, any sustained increase of a stimulus such as a continuing loud noise will innately activate the distress signal and the cry and facial manifestations of the distress feelings. And—this is important, and we will refer to this understanding of anger time and again—if the noise is sustained and still louder, it would innately activate the anger response. In other words, distress is the precursor to anger—distress leads to anger!

Distress, then, is “too much” of something. Anger is excessive distress… really too much. Think of how we express this in everyday language. People are stressed out; they are under stress; there is too much going on, too much bombarding them, disorganizing them. They get irritable. Even more comes down upon them. They get more irritable. They get angry.

As we noted, any excessive—“too muchness”—of a negative affect can lead to distress and anger.

Here’s an example of how fear and distress can transition and erupt into anger. I remember mowing the lawn one day with a power mower. I had no shoes on, only bare feet. Gradually into my awareness came a noise, a voice from my left, louder and louder. I turned—and there was my father, red in the face, screaming at me! He was furious! I stepped away from the mower, and I now heard him yelling at me to get shoes on so I wouldn’t injure my feet.

I only understood later that his anger came from his being scared—Fear! His fear increased, and so did his distress and then anger. As Tomkins notes (1991), any negative affect if excessive—“too much”—can lead to distress and anger-rage.

Distress is the initial trigger, and then excessive distress turns into anger. Practically any stimuli can create this sequence—memories, hurtful words, even other affects, such as too much fear or shame. An example, think about what happens when you stub your toe—as the initial distress increases with the pain and usually accelerates to some anger.

Interestingly, distress and anger are among the most difficult affects for parents to navigate. It is useful to remember that feelings are signals. Negative affects are SOS signals. They convey that something is wrong.

So, Key #1: Try to figure out what is causing the distress and then attend to that. Put water on the fire, not gasoline.

And Key #2: Yes, the expressions of distress and anger (whining, screaming, temper tantrums, etc.) can be upsetting. However, try to remember Key #1. And then address the expressions and behaviors associated with distress and anger: use words—even with infants (Salomonsson, 2014), and help the verbal child put the feelings and problems into words. “I can see you are distressed and angry… try to tell me with words what the problem is and I will try to fix it.”

Complicating the issue is that anger is what is called a contagious affect. An angry child can readily make a parent angry. And, anger in an adult can easily make another adult angry.

Next Month…
This month we explored how Surprise, Fear, Interest, Distress, and Anger are triggered.

Next month we will examine the other four primary affects: Enjoyment, Shame, Disgust, and Dissmell.


Basch MF (1988). Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art. New York: Basic Books.

Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Salomonsson B (2014). Psychodynamic Therapies with Infants and Parents: A Review of RCTs on Mother–Infant Psychoanalytic Treatment and Other Techniques. Psychodynamic Psychiatry 42: 4, 617-640. [Is this it?]

Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.

Children's Book of the Month:

Title: Strange Trees and the Stories Behind Them
Author: Bernadette Pourquié
Illustrator: Cécile Gambini
Date: 2016

Age Range: 7-10 years

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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