Emotion Systems

Last week we looked at the mammalian evolution of caring for individual offspring. The strength of the parent and child bond was emphasized by mentioning the surrogate mother experiments designed to weigh the relative importance of touch and food. There is much more to say about the nature of the life forms most closely related to ourselves and how at times their adaptations can throw light on human behavior. It is as if we are looking at ourselves in an ancient mirror. However the conversation is going to shift a bit now. The pieces are in place for rooting our understanding of compassion in a context other than ethics class or the Sunday faith that becomes Monday’s “it’s-only-business” dismissal of kindness where and when it really counts. Building on this evolutionary knowledge as our contextual background we will begin to examine our human psychology more directly.

This week we come to one of those core insights from modern science that can help us understand the work of the contemplative: a model of our emotional regulatory systems. This model is explored in more detail by Dr. Paul Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind and in the 2005 paper A Neurobehavioral model of affiliative bonding: Implications for conceptualizing a human trait of affiliation by Depue and Morrone-Strupinsky.  One value of this particular model is in directing our attention to the larger picture that includes the full range of possible emotional experiences. In the model we find a whole system our culture tends to ignore, take for granted or dismisses as irrelevant to the tasks of society. It is this very system contemplative practice is designed to nurture and enhance, but that is getting ahead of our story.

Affect-regulation-systemsThese emotional regulatory systems are the deep seated biochemical solutions evolutionary selection has found for promoting survival and reproduction.

Through feelings it is possible to guide the behavior of an organism, to organize it in such a way that they seek after some things while avoiding others. By making an organism feel pleasure or pain, fear or contentment, anxiety or excitement as they encounter a variety of conditions, those organisms will naturally seek after some things while avoiding others. Emotions provide the energy behind the moment by moment decision making that chooses which behavior to perform. Each of us understands intimately how feelings provide the juice to do what we do.

This is most obvious in the emotional fight or flight reactions to threats. This emotional regulation system increases stress levels providing an immediate readiness to deal with danger. The hormones cortisol, vasopressin and adrenaline surge through the system with all the physiological reactions each of us know well; the racing heart and twisted stomach caused by a redirection of blood flow in preparation for violent muscular activity. The sympathetic nervous system kicks off these changes. The effect is to run or fight but can also cause the organism to freeze, submit or stop doing particular things. Evolution designed this system to protect us. In fact, the brain gives priority to handling threats over pleasures; it’s the nature of the beast as we say. Remembering that the anger, anxiety or disgust we might feel are ancient survival signals can aid us in experiencing them with mindfulness.

The other obvious example of an emotional regulatory system is the emotional patterns that support our efforts to work hard at obtaining status and resources for ourselves and our loved ones. We are constructed to find it pleasurable and satisfying to be able to harvest the earth’s bounty in a way that directly supports the continued survival of ourselves and our kin. In mammalian societies, including ours, access to resources is bound up with one’s status. We see this play out in countless ways in our hyper-competitive times from the husband able to purchase an SUV for his wife through to the university diploma mills that have arisen since alternative means of entering the middle and upper classes have been, for the most part, moved offshore.

This achievement emotional regulatory system is the one that colors all the elements of life related to success and failure, achievement, striving to reach goals and accomplishing things. We feel good when we get an A on the test or a promotion at work. Obversely, losing a job or flunking out of a class can make us feel worthless, cut off from full participation in the society of which we are a part. This system is how culturally valued traits are also valued by us as individuals. Of course, it is possible to belong to a culture who has a value system opposite that of the dominate culture, where getting an A on a test, for instance, is verboten.

This achievement emotional regulatory system is the one most recognized as a source of happiness by the over-developed cultures. Our most popular stories and mass media messages cluster around the great satisfactions available to the rich consumer. Getting ahead is worth any sacrifice since it opens the door to the cornucopia of consumer goods. What has gotten lost in this monomaniacal onslaught is that there is in fact two forms of happiness our emotional systems are capable of experiencing. The second one, it turns out, is in direct competition to this achievement system. It is designed to provide a rest from its dictates in support of the overall homeostasis of the organism’s emotional regulation. Sadly, the hyper-capitalism of our time has more often than not seen it as a threat to its continued domination and poured not a few resources into obscuring its role and denigrating its value for a life well lived.

What is this system so repressed as to become a knowledge most often encountered in our culture’s byways? The parasympathetic nervous system is the other half of the story, the emotional regulatory system that allows us to “rest and digest.” Consider the physiological state that results from the sympathetic nervous system firing off the fight or flight response. That is not a state that is sustainable as it shuts down the digestive processes and generally primes the body to increase its speed and strength at the expense of every other physiologically necessary system. It needs a counterbalancing system.

This is the system that allows us to experience a sense of peacefulness, a soothing quiescence. The inner calm that the contemplative encounters through their practice of meditation is related to allowing this system the time and space it needs to pervade the body and mind. It is an important system for sensing how we are connected to others. It plays a crucial role in acts of affection and kindness.

The second form of happiness which our emotional makeup makes available is summed up rather well in a single word: contentment.

Dr. Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind explains: “Contentment means being happy with the way things are and feeling safe, not striving or wanting. It is an inner peacefulness that’s quite a different positive feeling from the hyped-up excitement of ‘striving and succeeding’ feeling of the incentive / resource-seeking system. It is also different from feelings that are often associated with boredom or a kind of emptiness. When people practice meditation and ‘slowing-down’, these are the feelings they report: ‘not-wanting’, an inner calm and a connectedness to others.”

Thinking about my acquaintances, friends and family, about the messages my culture produces and the things it promotes and celebrates, I am struck by how little contentment anyone seems to display. When was the last time you were able to take a lazy summer afternoon just to enjoy being alive? Do you often feel satisfied with what you experience without a nagging urge to do more? Can you be content with what you have and what you are or must there always be an ongoing scheming to get and become ever more and more and more? Can you recall when you last felt secure and satisfied enough to let the future take care of itself?

If you felt no threats or fears and you were satisfied with your responsibilities and accomplishments, would you not wish all beings well?

Contentment is of course the one emotional state that people in a consumer society are never supposed to feel for long. All advertising is witness to the need for consumers to always feel less than satisfied with their existing circumstances. Ironically, in advertising we also see a backhanded compliment to the role of this emotional regulatory system in so far as the great, elusive promised outcome of every purchase is to finally allow the buyer to be – content.

The outline of this model can be summarized in a few key neurological facts. The fight or flight system involves the brain’s fast acting amygdala, the sympathetic nervous system and the stress hormone cortisol. The reward and incentive system involves the brain chemical dopamine and the brain’s pleasure circuits. The soothing system involves the parasympathetic nervous system with serotonin and often the hormone oxytocin. All three systems work together to keep an organism balanced.

The value of this rather simple model is to remind us that while we have the dark sufferings of fear, pain and loss, we also have the happiness of achievement and the happiness of gratitude. The model makes explicit the way in which human happiness comes in two flavors and draws our attention to the one which we have let atrophy as individuals and as a society.

What research has shown is that the parasympathetic nervous system is not stimulated and engaged by climbing over others in a race to the top, nor by any of the status symbols that accompany the climb. Nor is it stimulated by the willingness to engage in violent acts, threatening others and spreading fear. It is instead stimulated by being held, by the soft caresses of a caring individual, by the tactile encounter with cloth instead of wire and wood.

All three emotional regulatory systems are needed and each plays a critically important role in the continuation of the species. Though the systems may at times strike us as rather crude and prone to maladaptive responses to the modern world, even perhaps being the Achilles heel by which we may be manipulated into our own destruction, none-the-less they are the factors of our lives that will ultimately determine whether our experience of being human is basically positive or otherwise.

I think this is important.

Those who find life worth living will work to preserve their planetary home which made it possible. The overflowing goodwill it inspires encourages a desire to share the good fortune with everyone, future generations included.

Those who do not find life worth the suffering and fear that accompanies it are capable of watching the destruction of the planet from the sidelines. For most in this camp it is not that there is an active hate seeking to destroy as much of the earth as possible, they simply lack the strength of motivation to actually change their lifestyles in response to the needs of a sustainably flourishing future.


I think this is the question of our time.

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