Emotions are ancestral memories guiding us to deal with what's next – Part 2 [58]

Dr. Keith WittNeurobiology

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In Part 1 of this series we talked about emotions as ancestral voices guiding us in dealing
with the unique world we’re each born into. These ancestral voices are central in learning and
practicing habits of feeling, thinking and acting with people, objects, and inner experiences.

Emotionally driven learning keeps us adjusting to the world.

We’re born with the ability to feel an infinity of emotional nuances, but to a large extent
we learn exactly what we want, fear, love, hate and so on through experience and memory.
Brains monitor people, the world, and our inner psychological/physical/social natures, looking
for patterns and understanding–leading to emotionally driven responses encoded into deep
memories which arise when cued by similar situations. Smelling chocolate chip cookies in the
oven evokes warm feelings of security and pleasant craving (in me anyway). If the tall dark-
haired boy next door bullied you, you might feel uncomfortable and insecure around tall dark-
haired guys.

When we’re born, we have a hundred billion neurons, but only 18% of them are hooked up
into neural networks. Our inherent emotional capacities are mostly objectless—not much tied to
specific people or experiences.

On the other hand, we do have emotional predispositions such as:

  • Infants yearn to see and touch Mother’s face and body.
  • Masculine people are drawn to competitive dominance and the female form.
  • Feminine people yearn towards intimacy and to be seen as light.
  • We’re born fearing snakes (yes, fear of snakes is a genetic predisposition).

Our predispositions plus our constantly evolving learning generate the emotional
soundtracks of our lives—automatic guides to avoid (like fear of spiders ) or approach
(like joy at the sight of a beautiful sunset). They alert and guide us the way the scary
music lets us know something bad is about to happen in a movie, and the uplifting music
tells us something wonderful is occurring.

Near the base of our brain, the hypothalamic areas can elicit at least seven primary
emotions:

  • fear,
  • panic/separation distress,
  • anger,
  • joy/play,
  • surprise,
  • seeking/searching,
  • lust.

Run an electric current into one of these spots, and mammals experience that specific
emotion. Jaak Panksepp and other neuroscientists have determined these specific sweet spots in
or around the hypothalamus generate seven basic emotional control systems—what Jaak
calls “emotional endophenotypes.”

I’m certain that additional emotional control systems will be discovered. For example, I
suspect special brain circuits exist for spiritual exaltation, shame, disgust, and perplexity.

Just as kaleidoscopes of colors are derived from combinations of the primary colors red,
green, and blue, emotions are thousands of combinations of basic emotional control systems
blended together by the brain/body in response to instinct, learning, and current experience. They
evoke memories and associations constantly throughout the day–continually pointing, warning,
and guiding.

I look out the window and enjoy the beautiful Santa Barbara Channel Islands, but the mist is a
little depressing, and I didn’t get enough sleep last night, so I’m kind of cranky. These feelings
are encoded to prepare me for what’s about to happen. “Depressed” slows me down and makes
me cynical, “cranky” readies me for conflict, “sleepy” demands rest. Brains generate emotions
and impulses to protect us from danger, promulgate our genome, and deliver what we crave. The
main way brains determine what’s safe or unsafe—with corresponding pleasurable or painful
emotional guides—is through learning.

Learning and emotion.

Emotional control systems mostly learn to attach emotions to experiences. Brains constantly
hook up emotional reactions with all kinds of sensations, behaviors, thoughts, people, impulses,
and objects. We have instincts to fear, but we aren’t born fearing much. We have instincts to be
angry, but we aren’t born angry with much. We are born with incredible tendencies to learn, and
beginning in utero our nervous systems are learning–for example, especially in the last
trimester, an unborn infant hardwires capacities for stress management through how effectively
Mom soothes herself when upset.

At birth, watch out! Avalanches of learning create increasing capacities to move, feel, think,
react, and relate—everything emotionally driven.

Usually learning expands and empowers us. Hunger leads us to food, fatigue craves rest, anger
demands attack, and loneliness seeks contact with safe and known others.

Sometime learning takes a sharp turn into crazy, and we can’t step on cracks for fear of
breaking mother’s backs, or get aroused unless she’s wearing high heels. When such learning
turns into habits of being, it’s fiendishly difficult to change, but that’s what therapy, recovery,
self-help, and social support are for—to help turn bad habits (self-destructive learning) into good
habits (self-constructive learning).

In our final installment, Emotions are ancestral memories guiding us to deal with what’s
next–Part 3, we’ll discuss emotions and self-awareness, anxiety as a result of being able to
consider the future, the fable of the Monk and the Tiger, and how presence can guide us to

harness our emotional reactions rather than be overwhelmed by them.