Emotions are ancestral memories guiding us to deal with what's next – Part 1 [56]

Dr. Keith WittNeurobiology

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Famous affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp said in a 2010 lecture that emotions are ancestral memories, guiding mammals and birds to survive and thrive in a dangerous and delicious world.

“Ancestral memories” resonates mythically to me, like a song you can’t get out of your head. “Ancestral memories, ancestral memories…” I have visions of hunter-gatherer tribes, ancient mammalian species, and the first life on Earth.

Humans are the advancing edge of evolution in the known universe. We embody the current penultimate crest of a 13.7 billion year wave of evolution. Our evolutionary legacy blesses us with emotional guidance, and we mostly learn what we like/dislike, fear/desire from our experiences on earth.

Becky smiles and I hug her. A dog snarls and lunges against a fence as I cringe in fear, and then expand in anger. Emotions guide us to the next instant—they tell us to connect, avoid or defend. Unconscious tendencies—habits of feeling, thinking, and acting—arise from deep learning beginning at conception.

To change habits, we need to become more intimate with the emotions that drive them, more aware and interested. I find it very cool that deeper awareness of bad habits helps change them.

Emotions prepare us for what’s up next.
When we:

  • feel fear at potential danger.
  • Sexual attraction at sexy others.
  • Anger at real or imaged attack.
  • Grief at loss.
  • Excitement in happy pursuit.
  • Joyful play.
  • Anxiety at what might happen.
  • Nurturance towards children, family, and beloved others.

our nervous systems are priming us for what to do next.

Emotions aren’t just about reacting to what’s happening, but priming us to deal with what’s happening. Emotions are ancestral memories guiding us to deal with what’s next.