charles darwin and emotions

Today's selection -- from The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals:

“Toward the end of his career,  in 1872, Charles Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Until recently, most scientific discussion of Darwin's theories has focused on On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). But The Expression of the Emotions turns out to be an extraordinary exploration of the foundations of emotional life, filled with observations and anecdotes drawn from decades of inquiry, as well as close-to-home stories of Darwin's children and household pets. It's also a landmark in book illustration--one of the first books ever to include photographs. (Photography was still a relatively new technology and, like most scientists, Darwin wanted to make use of the latest techniques to make his points.) It's still in print today, readily available in a recent edition with a terrific introduction and commentaries by Paul Ekman, a modern pioneer in the study of emotions.

“Darwin starts his discussion by noting the physical organization common to all mammals, including human beings--the lungs, kidneys, brains, digestive organs, and sexual organs that sustain and continue life. Although many scientists today would accuse him of anthropomorphism, Darwin stands with animal lovers when he proclaims: ‘Man and the higher animals ... [also) have instincts in common. All have the same senses, intuition, sensation, passions, affections and emotions, even the more complex ones such as jealousy, suspicion emulation, gratitude, and magnanimity.’ He observes that we humans share some of the physical signs of animal emotion. Feeling the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you're frightened or baring your teeth when you're enraged can only be understood as vestiges of a long evolutionary process.

"When a man sneers or snarls at another, is the corner of the canine or eye tooth raised on the side facing the man he addresses?" -- Charles Darwin, 1872

“For Darwin mammalian emotions are fundamentally rooted in biology: They are the indispensable source of motivation to initiate action. Emotions (from the Latin emovere--to move out) give shape and direction to whatever we do, and their primary expression is through the muscles of the face and body. These facial and physical movements communicate our mental state and intention to others: Angry expressions and threatening postures caution them to back off. Sadness attracts care and attention. Fear signals helplessness or alerts us to danger.

“We instinctively read the dynamic between two people simply from their tension or relaxation, their postures and tone of voice, their changing facial expressions. Watch a movie in a language you don't know, and you can still guess the quality of the relationship between the characters. We often can read other mammals (monkeys, dogs, horses) in the same way.

“Darwin goes on to observe that the fundamental purpose of emotions is to initiate movement that will restore the organism to safety and physical equilibrium. Here is his comment on the origin of what today we would call PTSD:

‘Behaviors to avoid or escape from danger have dearly evolved to render each organism competitive in terms of survival. But inappropriately prolonged escape or avoidance behavior would put the animal at a disadvantage in that successful species preservation demands reproduction which, in turn, depends upon feeding, shelter and mating activities all of which are reciprocals of avoidance and escape.’

“In other words: If an organism is stuck in survival mode, its energies are focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leaves no room for nurture, care, and love. For us humans, it means that as long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn, and pay attention to other people's needs.

“Darwin also wrote about body-brain connections that we are still exploring today. Intense emotions involve not only the mind but also the gut and the heart; ‘Heart, guts, and brain communicate intimately via the “pneumogastric” nerve the critical nerve involved in the expression and management of emotions in both humans and animals. When the mind is strongly excited, it instantly affects the state of the viscera; so that under excitement there will be much mutual action and reaction between these, the two most important organs of the body.’

“The first time I encountered this passage, I reread it with growing excitement. Of course we experience our most devastating emotions as gut-wrenching feelings and heartbreak. As long as we register emotions primarily in our heads, we can remain pretty much in control, but feeling as if our chest is caving in or we've been punched in the gut is unbearable. We'll do anything to make these awful visceral sensations go away, whether it is clinging desperately to another human being, rendering ourselves insensible with drugs or alcohol, or taking a knife to the skin to replace overwhelming emotions with definable sensations. How many mental health problems, from drug addiction to self-injurious behavior, start as attempts to cope with the unbearable physical pain of our emotions? If Darwin was right, the solution requires finding ways to help people alter the inner sensory landscape of their bodies.

 “Until recently, this bidirectional communication between body and mind was largely ignored by Western science, even as it had long been central to traditional healing practices in many other parts of the world, notably in India and China. Today it is transforming our understanding of trauma and recovery."



Bessel van der Kolk


The Body Keeps the Score


Penguin Books


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