Monday, December 28, 2009

Regarding a Theory of Human Emotions

Humans are endowed with a life of the mind that encompasses the unique ability to reason and a diverse range of emotions. It is the emotions that provide the drive and motivation to act in the world as well as imbue an individual existence with both color and spirit. Emotions project the individual’s reaction to personal experience. They are felt internally and are an external manifestation of a person’s response to external conditions.

I believe it is reasonable to assume that the emotions have a neurological basis; it has been well established that the area of the brain referred to as the amygdala, located within the limbic system, is the site where neurological activity associated with the emotions is found. Over the millions of years of human evolution, the neuronal infrastructure of this section of the brain was assembled in order to improve the survivability of the species in an essentially hostile environment.

In my mind, the panorama of the emotions can be conceptually divided into two distinct categories. Within one subset, I place those emotions that are elicited in response to a perceived and imminent threat to the safety and integrity of the individual or group. These emotions include fear, anger, hatred and rage.

Humans are gregarious by nature and have a natural affinity towards others. This socially-oriented proclivity has immense ramifications in regards to the fate of human populations. There exists in all of us what is perceived as a need for a sense of “connectedness” that drives this movement towards others. It is the state of health of this connectedness that is the source of the emotions I place in the second category. The sense of belonging can either be enhanced or diminished. The emotions that reflect this enhancement are love, joy, delight, happiness and elation. Those emotions that are elicited as a result of the feeling of diminishment of belonging are grief, sadness, sorrow, depression and despair.

This innate need for feeling connected not only applies to others in the human family but to the natural world as well. This reality is reflected in the richly textured myths of early human societies. Native American populations viewed themselves in a context of connection to all that surrounded them including the inanimate world. Life in the modern technological era has deprived us of this sense of belonging to the greater world. I have concluded that it is this schism that is at the heart of anxiety that drives so many to distraction.

The internal and overwhelming sense of isolation that is the hallmark of the modern world has diverted humans from their true nature. Collectively, humans are neurologically wired to be an integral part of all that surrounds them. This desire for “oneness” lies at the heart of so many of the world’s religions. It is this state of harmonious relationship that so many seek, especially in form and texture of their god(s).

We are essentially a tribal species. It is this need for fully participating within the fabric of a social environment that is so often thwarted by the hard-edged structures that are imposed by the exigencies of modern life.

I am convinced that it is possible to retain the benefits of technological progress while seeking to soften our rigid social structures and permit a greater sense of openness and inclusion. The significant threat that human activity poses to the health of the natural environment may provide an impetus for a change in the way we have come to perceive others and the natural world. We should seek to enhance and not curtail the internal desire for wholeness, while utilizing and maintaining our higher faculties as well.

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