Currently I am reading The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven. This book is a study of what the authors contend is a basic emotional system hard-wired at a fundamental brain level in ALL mammals. In their research, they have identified 7 types of fundamental emotional states: seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, panic/grief, and play. The functions of these emotional organizations is to create an “intention to move,” a concept from which the word emotion derives. The intention is founded in a desire to promote survival and increase comfort. Their argument is that, while we want to believe our emotions are integrated with our cognition, our capacity to think, “from a neuro-evolutionary perspective, that is not correct.” These adaptive brain structures can make us feel what they call “raw emotional feelings,” such as when we become red with anger.
Some scientists have suggested that our feelings are a result of a cognitive understanding of our physical responses, and therefore affective consciousness cannot arise directly from deeper brain regions and, by extension, that our feelings are based on learned experience. Panksepp and Biven, however, believe there is sufficient evidence to show that affective feelings are a distinct form of consciousness. In other words, the origins of our emotional states “can exist independently of the higher mental contexts in which they occur.”
Of course, in any animal, including us, these fundamental affective systems come hardwired with a small number of innate triggers, and as we develop into maturity, we learn by experience and by observation what other environmental cues should set off what emotional states. So the panic/grief system is a response to separation, for example. In infants it is adaptive because it keeps them close to the safety of their caregivers. What attachment research has shown, however, is that this attachment motive remains throughout life.
The bottom line is that our feelings are linked upstream to fundamental survival mechanisms that are common to all mammals. Even though they get connected to different kinds of experience based on our histories, they are honestly come by, you might say. Sometimes it feels embarrassing to have strong emotional responses to something, and we not only suppress these emotions, we try to disconnect ourselves from these experiences. But that is a brutal response to a mechanism that is trying to promote our survival and well-being. Instead we might have compassion for the fact that these most important affects have gotten hijacked by meanings that do not require such a response.
In other words, as an infant, if your mother leaves the room, panic/grief is a smart response. As an adult, if your significant other goes on a business trip, this might be a part of your response, but you can also recognize that it is a triggered survival mechanism, not an accurate reflection of current reality. To the extent that we can be reflective about our affective consciousness, we can enlist our more developed, self-conscious understanding of the world to discern what is relevant to those ancient emotion-generating structures. In other words, we can have freedom of feeling, accepting the important function of our feelings, while using our thoughtfulness to understand both the feelings and the meanings behind them.