How we conceptualize thought and emotion matters

I have finished Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal.  What a great read about animals’, including humans, emotions and feelings and about how we humans understand them.  I will guess that most people have thought that rationality and its epitome, logic, are ‘superior’ to emotions.   This assumption has been a bulwark of men presuming their superiority over women, western nations presuming their superiority over ‘less civilized’ nations, a logical argument wins over an emotional appeal, and humans are ‘superior’ to other animals because their minds are based upon emotions and we are ruled by rationality.  Over the course of history some few bright people have understood that our conceptualization here was out of balance and the brightest of those have understood that they are not separable—both rationality and emotionality depend upon the other, indeed flow one to another almost inseparably, to operate optimally.

One way to achieve ‘balance’ is to lower our notion of rationality’s importance and reliability.  One example here is the wonderful work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman who demonstrated that even trained logicians fail to follow their logical rules and rely on heuristics the same as all the rest of us (see my post on 10/12/17). Another way to achieve balance is to show that our cognitions are dependent upon our emotions—that is the motivation behind Antonio Damasio’s last few books (see my post s on 5/13/19 & 12/9/18).  Yet another way is to study as did Jaak Panksepp the enormous neural complexity of emotions and affect, neural structures that we share with many animals and virtually all mammals (see post 8/19/17 for example).  Of course Susanne Langer understood that art conveys the ideas of feelings, i.e., we abstract our feelings to reveal the vital import of life experience.  Art, in other words, is a high level intellectual operation using feelings. (An aside:  I am reading a biography of Picasso who famously refused to say what his paintings meant—his art was his statement, all of it and complete. The author there, Patrick O’Brian, cites Isabella Duncan, famous modern dancer, saying, “If I could explain it with words, I wouldn’t have to dance it”.  Exactly).

Another way to right our conceptualization of thought and feeling is, as Frans de Waal does so very well, to show that we humans share the same emotional life as do all other mammals, especially primates, cetaceans, and elephants.  In Mama’s Last Hug he examines various aspects of emotions and feelings; he dedicates chapters to empathy, humor, shame, guilt, disgust, desire for power, emotional intelligence, etc., showing in each one that other animals are quite human-like.  This is important because this distinction of thought and feeling is critical in our culture. I see two major ways we denigrate the mentalities of other animals.  One is the ancient bias that humans are special, you know, at the top of the divine tree of life, and so our abilities are god-like.  That bias has been transformed by science ever since we discovered that the earth was not the center of the solar system, but it still exists in muted forms.  The other way is to see animals as unthinking organisms bent only on survival.  Humans are special evolutionarily because we are civilized (oops!  Go see Auschwitz, read about the Inquisition, review the increasing destructiveness of wars and weapons, study the entrenchment of racism, the destruction of our environment as we subjugate nature to our profit, etc.).  Here we treat other animals as engaged in battle for survival of the fittest and we see nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ to justify our violent quest for power.

The important thing here is that both these views are essentially propaganda (see a final aside below) for certain religious and political schools of thought. Rigorous study of animals shows that, as de Waal writes, they (we) “struggle far more against their environment or against hunger and disease than against each other.”  De Waal cites a naturalist, Pyotr Kropotkin, who asked in 1902, “Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?” and decided it was the latter.  Kropotkin “was way ahead of his time.”

De Waal is especially astute when he explains the research showing that animals have a grounded sense of fairness, right and wrong, and even free will (as best we can know, but then do we have free will?  Consider his quotes:  Isaac Bashevis Singer “We have to believe in free will; we have no choice” and Roy Baumeister “Perhaps, ironically, free will is necessary to enable people to follow the rules”).

De Waal gives example after example of expert observations and experimental results that demonstrate the truth of his thesis.  A couple of favorites:  An American neuroscientist, Jim Coan, believes that emotions are interindividual so that testing a solitary individual does not reveal much.  When he studied an individual’s neural response to a signal announcing a mild electric shock, he saw areas of concern and worry (anxiety or fear) light up.  When, however, the individual was allowed to hold the hand of someone close, e.g., a spouse, the worry response dissipated—the upcoming shock was a minor stimulus.  Brilliant! Another:  When young elephants in southeast Asia are given a bell around the neck to help the humans keep up with them, the elephants stuff the bell with grasses so that they can wander undetected.

De Waal wants all of us, especially scientists, to understand the importance of emotions and feelings.  He cites Antonio Damasio as a fellow champion of emotions, as I have recently in a post on 5/13/19.  De Waal also gives a special mention of Jaak Panksepp and I very much appreciated this portion of the book.  As regular readers will know, I think Panksepp’s book is the best text I have ever read.  What? An astute and very intelligent reader wants to know why I think that.  Let me tell you why:

  • Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotionsis a textbook, not one written for the general reader. Look at the detail of research cited, etc.
  • Panksepp gives a comprehensive yet still detailed review of the research literature.
  • He has integrated this information so that he provides solid generalizations.
  • He is careful to distinguish between data based inferences and more speculative thinking.
  • He takes us on brief excursions into what might be true given this data, extending some ideas into the cultural realm.
  • He writes in marvelously clear prose, sometimes even inspired, about very complex issues.
  • His organization and perspective are enlightening. This is not stultified orthodox science but science pushing for greater understanding.

Enough said?  Now when I previously read his book, and re-read portions, I thought that Panksepp’s ideas were obvious and well accepted.  Oh, no, they were not, I learned from de Waal.

De Waal relates an exchange he had with Panksepp shortly before he passed away. Panksepp encouraged de Waal to be more specific and explicit about animals’ feelings and de Waal says he was right to do so.  Further, he says that Panksepp had to fight for his views all his life, resisting ‘establishment forces’ while placing “human and animal emotions on a continuum” and he was “the first to develop a neuroscience covering all of it” as he himself founded the field of affective neuroscience.  He was ridiculed and had trouble obtaining funding and still he managed to “make animal emotions a respectable topic.”  So Wow!  Now I cherish that book even more.

I could go on for a long while about how much I appreciated finding reinforcement for some of my ideas, e.g., the distinction between sentience and consciousness, the basic properties of all organisms, etc., but I want to move on to emphasize the cultural importance of all this.  We humans seek authority for our beliefs and especially our values. De Waal shows clearly that such authority can be found in our biological heritage.  (As does Michael Tomasello in his book, The Natural History of Human Morality).

My culture, western culture, has valued rationality and logic at the expense of a fuller understanding of the roles emotions and thought play in our intellectual operations.  Rationality and logic are not all that we thought they were and emotions and feelings are much more important than most give them credit for.  This constrains our science, our philosophy and our cultural worldview.  Consider, for example, how females are ignored because some (males?) think they are more emotional.  Ugh!

In my former life as a speech-language pathologist, I gave a popular parent workshop entitled “How to argue with your child”.  Catchy idea, huh?  I had found that much of the standard parenting advice was anemic and while parents might use these tips to help their children behave compliantly, they did little to foster a proper sense of discussion and sharing of ideas.  So I explained that parents should not argue over the inarguable, e.g., limits for safety and health, but should argue appropriately when the topic was arguable.  A good argument happens when both present thoughtful reasons and are passionate about their perspective.  We all need to learn how to argue based on reasons, beliefs and data, and how to maintain our composure when differences become divisive.  I even suggested having silly arguments about the color of the sky, for example, because children love and learn from silliness and they need to win an argument once in a while.  (Don’t we all?)  I still think this advice applies, though when I look at our political discourse, I know some powerful forces are working to derail ‘good arguments’.  My point is that our over-valuing logic and under-valuing emotions is counter-productive; both are needed and important.

Here is my final aside as mentioned above that is relevant in today’s world. Consider propaganda and pornography, both of which manipulate our feelings (and thoughts/behavior) but how? I do not think that they do so simply by virtue of their emotional appeal, but because their emotional appeal is based upon corrupted rationality, e.g. propaganda uses selected distorted and errant facts, pornography uses fictional accounts laundered of critical elements like intimacy or the feelings engendered in a relationship.  James Joyce considered any art pornographic that ended by moving the emotions because true and fine art is achieves stasis, an epiphany from the insight generated through artistic import.  And Hannah Arendt has shown us the pathogenic properties of propaganda and totalitarianism.  Some understand these distinctions and cherish the authenticity of fine art and real political discourse, but all too many have fallen down through the media hole to a world where curiosity focuses on sports and celebrity and the only perspective that matters is the one through personal tunnels. And the sequelae of poor art?—I don’t have the time to go there right now.  Ah, well, the world has gone a different direction, much to my dismay, and there is no way to go but forward.  Travel on and find a better path, one where the intellect based upon respect for both rationality and feelings is the grounded (and orthodox) assumption.  Better pack for a long journey and be sure to follow reliable guides such as de Waal, Damasio, Panksepp and Langer.  See you on the Way.

animal attachment and grief

I have started Frans de Waal’s book Mama’s Last Hugabout animal feelings and making the case that we, humans and other animals, experience many of these in common.  The story of Mama is quite interesting.  She was a remarkable chimpanzee who was the organizing force in her group for many years, not because she was physically formidable, though for a female she was, but because of her personality and social IQ.  Her human researchers came to respect her a great deal and were quite attached, so that when her death was immanent, one of her old human friends came to say good-bye.  Their reunion was heartfelt on both sides and she died some few days later. De Waal uses this story to introduce several facts about chimpanzees, their humans and how research is conducted/interpreted.

Then De Waal goes where few have gone before—he discusses how other animals view death.  What a scientist, doing the research and communicating it to us.   He first recounts what the humans did after Mama’s death.  Breaking with protocol the humans let her body lie in state, as it were, for the other chimps to view.  The males hit and tossed the body as if to wake her up; the females were gentler, lifting an arm or leg and letting it drop, looking into her mouth, etc. When one female tried to move her body, a foster daughter, whom Mama had raised after her friend had died leaving her infant behind, protested and prevented the body being moved.

De Waal recounts another observation wherein a younger chimp came up to an elder female who had been quite sick for some time, looked into her eyes and gave a scream of alarm.  Another chimp, too far removed to have observed this interaction, took up the cry of alarm and others followed.  A few minutes later the sick chimp fell to the floor and passed away.

De Waal gives many more anecdotes about how animals experience the death of another and he cites Barbara King’s 2013 book How Animals Grievein establishing observational guidelines for determining if an animal is grieving, e.g., a marked change in behavior.  Many species, including most mammals and some birds, show such changes.  Animals show awareness that the other is dead and if they were attached, they grieve.  Chimpanzee and cetacean mothers have been known to carry/support their dead offspring around for days.  Elephants visit the site of another’s death and pick up and hold a remnant, e.g., a bone or a tusk, of the deceased (remember this happens repeatedly over a long passage of time) and even pass it around to others in the herd.  And of course, we have many stories of dogs waiting for their dead humans’ return in the spot where their reunion used to occur, e.g., Greyfriar’s Bobby.

Working from a human’s sense of mortality, i.e., our awareness of our own demise, that we cannot confirm in other species, de Waal suggests perspicaciously that these others have at least a sense of finality—that a life is irrevocably over.  Consider how such a sense of finality works when an animal loses someone to whom they are attached.  Jaak Panksepp discusses the biological basis of attachment and loss in a chapter of his wonderful book, Affective Neuroscience.   Two systems operate in an oppositional tandem, one he calls the PANIC system that deals with separation from caregivers and another that inhibits that system in response to renewed social comfort.  The two systems depend upon different neurotransmitters yet still interact quite a bit.

Panksepp makes several interesting points.  The social comfort system is based upon one of the opiate receptor systems and the oxytocin system.  When the PANIC system is aroused, that motivates seeking social contact and comfort, i.e., gregariousness.  When social comfort is obtained, the opiate system inhibits the PANIC system. (Consider the important factor of joblessness and depressed communities in our current opiod epidemic).  Mammals become attached to a home location, so that just being ‘home’ reduces separation distress. (Our mostly warm feelings upon returning to the old home place may be another manifestation of this). Different species and different individuals within a species have different sensitivities to social distress. The famous example of the two voles, one monogamous and one not, show different sensitivities here.  Also, in general males are less sensitive to separation distress, presumably mediated by testosterone, than females (this in most species) and we are all less affected by separation as we age.  All of these phenomena reflect the neurochemical balances in our brains and body.

Panksepp cites research showing that chicks give a distinctive peep when distressed and that putting a mirror in their enclosure or petting them reduces the frequency of those peeps because the chicks ‘see’ or feel that they are not alone.  Most interestingly, listening to music also calms the PANIC system and so represents a form of social comfort.  Panksepp and others have studied how some music gives us ‘chills’, a sign of distress, and also warms us up, a sign of social comfort.  That music operates at such a basic level in our neurological systems is of profound interest.  Remember that Alzheimers’ patients often keep musical memories better than other sorts of memories—our brains preserve this form of social connectedness even as other functions deteriorate.

I always learn something new when I review sections of Panksepp’s book.  In this instance, the social regulation systems, i.e., PANIC and social connection/comfort, are anciently tied to the thermoregulation system that promotes homeostasis (thus all mammals share something of this).  Music, as it interacts with these systems, chills or warms us; it motivates small variations around the homeostatic range, and this feels good (or lovely or beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, etc.).  He finishes his chapter 14 with this, that some music generates “a wistful sense of loss and the possibility of reunion”.  (Hmmm, did he love listening to Americana and Celtic tunes like I do now?)  But also, we animals grieve with loss, knowing the other is finally gone yet still yearning for more contact, and that helps us maintain our homeostatic balance set in place over the years of social comfort with our intimates.  So Greyfriar’s Bobby, that wonderful dog who waited for his human to return from work for years after the human’s death, was listening to the neural music of attachment and grief and keeping it steady as she goes.

I will conclude this post with an observation by Susanne Langer (of course) who said that humans’ distinctive minds began when we realized that our lives are but single acts with a beginning and an end.  Knowing this began a cascade of insight into our existence and understanding of our ownmortality.  And reflecting on this illuminates how this sense/knowledge of our ownmortality lies at the heart of much cultural development, including our religion and philosophy, as we share our feelings about cope with the loss of others and ourselves.  And our science helps us to understand this more deeply.  Travel on.


Old posts ride again . . . .

Old posts ride again about the biological roots of inhumanity as enacted by fascists, racists, gangsters, thugs and other fanatics including ‘true believers’.

Back on 5/11/14 and 5/14/14, I posted about our human capacity for self-righteous indignation and sustained hatred based upon the neuroscience of how emotions affect our thinking and vice versa. The basic point is that we humans with our symbolic capability can construct a mental image that self-stimulates and continues to echo, even reverberate with amplification, some perceived cause and justification for anger, and that maintaining the reverb of a self-made emotion can become an addiction. This is not adaptive both because it prolongs an emotional stance and emotions function best when passing with experience and because such a reverberating loop interferes with reality oriented cognition. I wrote about this in response to violence instigated by Mexican gangs against citizens dedicated to peace and justice (and poetry) and to a deranged man in Kansas City who killed 3 people outside a synagogue in his anger against Jewish people (and none of the 3 were Jewish).

Recent events have again brought these same issues to importance, i.e., the rise into the public forum of groups dedicated to hate, their words and actions against people of color and Jewish beliefs (and all non-Christian beliefs for that matter. That they have not condemned the Dalai Lama I am sure is an oversight on their part), and their murder of a young lady in Charlottesville, VA. With this introduction, then, I will copy from those earlier posts some relevant passages; they will not necessarily flow in a coherent narrative but you can still get the picture given this background. (The original full posts are also interesting to read including about co-opting images to justify violence).

From 4/11/14: [The newspaper story covers] the history of the man accused of shooting 3 people outside a Jewish center in Kansas City.  Wow, talk about a life of hate.  Do we think his blood sugar was low?  At times, sure, but his history illustrates how hate can be sustained over years if the person works at it hard enough.  Emotions such as anger are appropriately fleeting responses to experiences.  The feeling rises and falls and the person moves on to the next experience.  Humans with our symbolic capacity have another option–we can construct mental situations, remembered or imagined, that then generate particular emotions.  I think it is actually more complicated than that.  We have our personal proclivities for certain emotions and at times our mind constructs situations corresponding to the right frame for that emotion to be expressed and then felt.

Sentient animals, like especially mammals, must be reality oriented in order to adapt and survive.  We humans ignore this basic premise at our, and others’, peril.  The Kansas City shooter reportedly self-identified with Nazis and worked at constructing and maintaining a reality commensurate with sustaining that particular brand of hate.  Simon Baron-Cohen gives a detailed picture of what we know biologically about this phenomena in his book, The Science of Evil.  Hate is maladaptive in two very basic ways.  As already implied, it is a feeling without end and that cannot be reality oriented.  Further, such disregard for reality leads to stupidity and failure.  The shooter killed people who were not the objects chosen for his hatred.  The problem with stereotypical, prejudicial thinking is that it is wrong way more frequently than it is right.  Not reality based. The second maladaptation is that hate overrides the basic function of empathy (a deeply biological instinct) which should lead us to understand the other person fully, to see the object whole as it were, and then on to compassion.

Baron-Cohen talks about a science of ignorant, even malicious non-empathic, non-realistic functioning not to negate criminal culpability but to encourage further understanding of how such phenomena come about and then to work to mitigate it.  We have more than 150 years since Darwin and Wallace helped us find this path to understanding our biological selves.  In the first decades of the twentieth century James Papez proposed the Circuit of Papez as the neurological substrate for emotions.

He focused on the hippocampus and the associated structures we now know as the limbic system.  We now know that this circuit has more to do with memory and novelty than emotion but it was a natural mistake for Dr. Papez to make, given the research technology of his time, because the structure central to emotional valence, the amygdala, is next to the hippocampus.


And the amygdala is closely tied to the neuroendocrine system for stress response, including fight/flight, and this is certainly sensitive to blood sugar.  Adaptive, well functioning animals have brains that are stable in energy, reality oriented, and empathic towards the other.  Dr. Papez’s misconception helped us (well, Paul MacLean’s correction really) find a better understanding; that is how science operates.  Unlike hatred, which runs itself and its animal into the dust.  Our capacity to construct a different reality is a two edged sword, one edge which cuts destructively and rather indiscriminately and one which self corrects and follows into the future to find understanding.


From 4/14/14: Now a side trip to the neuroscience of addiction.  In the mid 1950s James Milner and Peter Olds found that rats would press a lever almost interminably even to the point of death to gain electrical stimulation in the lateral hypothalamus and septum.


This area has subsequently been found to be part of a circuit involved in addictive behaviors.  The original idea for many years, still maybe to some, is that these areas are pleasure centers, i.e., that the stimulation was so pleasurable that the animal would keep pressing the lever (or taking the drug) to gain satisfaction.  Jaak Panksepp in his wonderful book Affective Neuroscience (to which I have often referred) cites further experimental work and another interpretation.  Briefly, animals (rats mostly) that engage in pressing the lever for self-stimulation do not show the usual signs of pleasure following gratification such as grooming and other post consummatory behaviors.  Instead these animals continue in appetitive or seeking behaviors, so that rather than seeing this circuit as one of pleasure, it is more one of seeking pleasure.  Thus addiction is always seeking reward but never really gaining it.  Seeking behavior is a remarkable and ubiquitous presence in our mentality and more could be said here.

Now on to righteous indignation.  I have long noticed in my personal life and my old profession as a psychologist that when people experience righteous indignation, they often sustain their anger through imagined moral outrage and use this to justify a range of poor and mostly destructive behaviors.  This is different from the moral outrage, say, of the civil rights movement that is different in many ways as it avoids the irrational and unmodulated anger, the focus on retribution and revenge on individuals, and actions more destructive than remedial.


This shows hippocampal connections to the limbic system but not its cortical inputs and outputs which are also very diverse

Self-righteous indignation is more of a closed loop reverberating with a singular emotion, self-sustaining through stereotyped cognitive inputs, and can lead to actions that are ineffective, destructive, and lack the human touch of empathy, forethought, and perspective. We can simplistically look at the limbic system as that closed loop, operating off of one cognitive, mnemonic set shut off from inputs that would help gain perspective, a rather ugly feedback loop like when the microphone is too close to the speaker and that awful wail ensues until either the mic or the speaker is turned off.  So political demagogues and gangsters run amuck in similar gutters.

Back to 2017: Demagogues, racists and fascists look to sustain their fantasies of power and purity despite our long human history now of inclusive justice and morality extending to all. Their fantasies will never verify just like an addict’s cravings will never relent. That is why government policy is so important to curb the legal theft of our labors by oligarchic capitalists and the espousal of hate by fascists and racists, because they will keep on pushing that lever for more until they die.

Finally, Thank you, Heather Heyer, for your spirit that carries on, and to her mother, who is a wonderfully grounded, moral, and delightfully articulate in a plain spoken way lady. Namaste.

Now we travel on together.