The Role of Emotions and Feelings in New Experiences

The pervasiveness of emotion in our development and subsequently in our everyday experience connects virtually every object or situation in our experience, by virtue of conditioning, to the fundamental values of homeostatic regulation: reward and punishment; pleasure or pain; approach or withdrawal; personal advantage or disadvantage; and, inevitably, good (in the sense of survival) or evil (in the sense of death). Whether we like it or not, this is the natural human condition.


crowd in my head

So, in part one of this “Knowing the Machine” series, we established a broad biological explanation for self-identification with the body by tracing our experience of conscious self-awareness back to its origins in the sensory mapping processes of the lower brain structures. We argued that because, in some rare cases, we can use this conscious self-awareness to purposefully reflect a more accurate picture of the Unified Ground of Being that underlies all apparent things, there is some divine purpose to be found in our sublime struggle against our own mortality.

In this second part, we are going to tighten our focus a bit more and clarify the difference between feelings and emotions, describe how they relate to each other, and hopefully get to know the man-machine better in the process. As you may recall, we made a critical distinction in our last article between what we call emotions and what we call feelings.

Emotions are particular patterns of behavior that have proven over time to bring about positive outcomes in certain situations. By saying these behaviors bring about “positive outcomes,” we mean to say they seem to be advantageous when it comes to the three drives: 1) having sex, 2) avoiding injury, and 3) seeming important. Emotions are typically triggered automatically by conditions in the environment. These conditions are called inducers. Happenings (inducers) are assigned emotional value in the brain, and when the collective state of happening at any given time peaks the emotional value meter far enough in one direction, corresponding emotions are triggered.

What happens next for most mammals is that the brain images the emotion in a particular way. It re-presents the emotional response in the mind’s eye and creates an internal felt experience. This is a feeling, and it is always in some way relative to the three drives. For most mammals this is where the train stops: with a mostly fleeting, perpetually updated, moment-to-moment felt experience of the emotionally charged world and how it threatens or aides survival. For humans, however, the story gets more complicated.

Our sophisticated neocortices allow us to store these felt experiences in memory and recall them subsequently. As we grow and this skill becomes more developed, our brains eventually take ownership of these feelings. Instead of just taking note of feelings happening, there arises this suspicion in the mind that they are “your” feelings. And who are you? Yep, you’re that fleshy body that carries your brain everywhere. That’s the hint half-hinted, but we covered that already in part one.

Returning to the discussion at hand, feelings allow for finer nuances of interpretation than straight emotions. It is your feeling brain that allows you to properly react to sarcasm, for example. Let’s say a friend of yours directs some snide comment your way, that to some objective observer would seem cruel and insensitive. If your feeling about the person tells you he’s really just messing around with you, however, then you’re more likely to react appropriately with humor than with fear or anger. Of course, you would have to have some relative history with this person in order to make that call with any real confidence. This means these nuances depend heavily on memory storage and retrieval.

Over time, your feelings and emotions work together to build a library of expectations about the world. You constantly take notes about how certain conditions “make you feel,” and about what behaviors make you feel “better” or “worse.” When you find yourself in a particular situation as an adult, you quickly search through your mental card catalog for past felt experiences that seem to match in terms of emotional content. The more matches you find, the more emotional content comes up, and the more likely you are to respond mechanically in a way that you have already decided is advantageous.

This is the emotional-feeling system at work. It’s goal is to collect enough thoroughly cross-references data about the world that you enter every situation knowing exactly what you need to do to “feel better.” What this amounts to is a total lack of any new experience beyond, say, 25 years old. Even if you find yourself in a situation you’ve never been in before, chances are you have enough of an immediate emotional-feeling picture to trigger some pre-determined response before you even realize it.

This may seem like a bleak picture of human life, but remember, it looks like a great plan from the perspective of the man-machine. See, this whole process is a sophisticated way to increase the likelihood that your body will survive long enough to pass on your DNA. Seriously, your body would be perfectly fine if you never made a real choice in your life. It’s built to do what it does, and it really doesn’t need your help. I’m telling you, it doesn’t care if you feel happy, or you feel sad, or you miss your mother, or you love French fries, or whatever, just as long as it lives long enough and meets just enough people to give it a decent shot at reproducing its DNA.

So you must be wondering by now, What’s the point of it all, then? Why should you care about any of it, right? If it’s all just a mechanical script robbing you of any genuinely novel experiences, then why are we even wasting our time starting up this blog?

The answer is simple: Because you do have a say in the matter … you can make a choice.

Technically, you don’t have much choice over what your emotional-feeling system does. That is largely determined by your experiences early in life and by the examples set for you by others during that time. You can, however, become aware of those pre-conditions, and in that awareness, a real decision can be made. The choice you have is simply, What am I going to pay attention to?

Are you going to attend to the mechanical script and get wrapped up in life in totally predictable ways, or are you going to entertain some other possibility? If you choose to sit with your feelings and not react immediately in some pre-determined, knee-jerk fashion, you have stumbled upon genuine creativity.

This is the driving force behind creative evolution. Gurdjieff called it the struggle between yes and no. This struggle sets up a certain kind of friction between what is expected of you by the mechanical script of human nature and what is your actual state. This is the real transformative force that drives creative evolution, and it begins with a simple question: What are you going to pay attention to? So in our next installment of the “Knowing the Machine” series, we will look specifically at the transformative nature of attention.