Emotions and Motivations

I have written a series of posts about emotions and personality and regular readers will know my fascination and commitment to the eight basic emotions perspective. I have also written about the four fundamental drives/ motivations; as a matter of fact my Psychology Today blog was titled The Fundamental Four. Today I wish to connect the dots.

Till today, I myself was confused as to what is a motivational subsystem and what is an emotional subsystem and if my blog posts conflated the two and created confusions, I apologize. I have now come to believe that emotions are the reading by our mind of how our body is doing. This needs some unpacking.

The somatic marker theory of Damasio, and others, is inline with this formulation that there are brain areas that keep track of how the body is doing and if the body is say geared to flee a predator- then a corresponding feeling of fear may be felt by the mind. Feelings are conscious emotions and the subject of this post. The eight basic emotions to recap are Interest, Fear, Lust/ Wonder, Disgust, Love, Anger , Joy and Sadness. The emotions may even be conceptualized as indicators of bodily needs: eg. Disgust signifying the need of the body to close off / get away from source of disgust.

Motivations, or the basic fundamental drives, on the other hand are drives that help us cope with problems in living: These are to SURVIVE , REPRODUCE, TAKE-CARE-OF-YOUNG-ONES and to THRIVE. All the steps are essential to pass on our genes to the next generation- if say we don’t take care of our young ones then our genes do not live on. So evolution has built in these four basic drives in us. These drives are action-focused: they are intentional and *about* the world; they are mechanisms via which we get our needs met. They are primed action tendencies that tilt us to act one way or the other, out in the world.

Most of us when we think about motivation think of Maslow’s needs. They are conceptualized at a higher level- the level I am taking about is the most fundamental, the most basic. Panksepp has talked about that level, but he wrongly called such neurocircuits as affective subsystems, while they should be called drives/ motivational systems to reduce confusion.

Lets unpack this a bit. SURVIVE system in an ideal world should be about finding food and nutrition to grow and maintain ones’ bodily composition. Of course we don’t live in an ideal world, so predators loom large and survival also becomes about avoiding them. However the underlying drive/ need is the same to preserve, maintain and grow ones body. Some people have focused on maintaining bodily integrity or avoiding dangers/ predators as having primary significance and thus focused more on FEAR ; I however think that’s mistake. The drive is primarily about finding nutrients for self and because in the search for food, you are likely to come across predators, secondarily about avoiding them once you encounter them.

Thus the primary neurocircuit for SURVIVAL is the SEEKING system: it is primary in the sense that it is the default program of the self when it comes to survival. It primarily enabled foraging behavior, but since then has been coopted for finding knowledge (learning) etc too and is marked by curiosity, exploration, learning, pattern finding, meaning making etc.

While searching for food (either hunting or gathering) you are likely to come in contact with a predator; at that time only the FEAR/predator avoidance system kicks in and focuses actions and body for that specific task. At least that is the purpose for which this system evolved.

The primary neurocircuit for REPRODUCTION is LUST/Seducing system. When one is in the grip of this circuit/drive one flirts, seduces, and tries to mate with conspecifics.

While trying to copulate with as many con-specifics as possible, a danger of getting infected with STD looms large. My hunch is that DISGUST evolved as a means to avoid STD’s/ be picky and selective while choosing.

The primary neurocircuit for TAKE-CARE-OF-LOVED-ONES is CARE. It evolved so that parents can take care of their children, but sine then has been coopted for taking care of all vulnerable entities.

The secondary neurocircuit comes into play because of cuckolding. While one wants to take care of ones genuine offsprings, one doesn’t want to be cuckolded and displays aggression towards the weakling which in not of self. This is the RAGE circuit.

The primary neurociruit for THRIVING is PLAY. It evolved so that we can form social bonds/ rise up the hierarchy by building coalitions and alliances.

While playing and rising up the social ladder, there is a risk of aggression by the alpha male or the risk of losing existing ties and suffering losses. This manifests as the PANIC/ separation distress system.

How do the (eight basic) emotions and the (eight basic) motivations interact? It might be tempting to assume that each motivational circuit is associated with one emotion/ feeling; however that would be a mistake. We first need to understand that emotions come in pairs (interest-fear, wonder-disgust, love-anger and joy-sadness) ; we also need to appreciate that the motivational circuits form opponent processes such that if FEAR is activated, SEEKING is suppressed etc. with that background lets forge ahead.

Feelings modulate motivations/drives. They either initiate and sustain the corresponding motivational circuit or suppress and stop it. Thus they are either inhibitory or excitatory in their effect.

Take SEEKING. If your body is feeling interest (is in a state of interest) it is more likely to explore or activate the SEEKING system. On the other hand if the body is feeling fear, it will suppress the SEEKING system. And how does the body gets into a state of interest/ fear? In the most general case its by cognitive appraisal of outside events/ stimulus. Lets take novelty, say a rat placed in a novel environment. The rat can either see that novel environment as interesting and thus get curious and explore; or it can see the novelty as frightening, get fearful and stop exploring. Thus the cognitive appraisal we make induce emotions that either inhibit or excite the motivational circuits.

Lest take another example: Take PLAY. Feelings of joy will increase likelihood of playing; while being in a sad mood will decrease playful behavior. Or take PANIC: feelings of sadness will tilt the probability of panicking , while being in a joyful mood will buffer against panic.

Or take CARE . Appraising a vulnerable dependent/weakling as in group leads to feelings of love and compassion leading to activation of CARE; appraising the same person as outgroup leads to feelings of anger over why I need to support him/her and lead to suppression of CARE.

Or take LUST. Thinking someone as attractive leads to feelings of wonder about what the person is like and activate flirting/seducing behavior aka LUST. However, thinking of the person as unattractive/ugly leads to feelings of disgust and deactivation of LUST system.

I think by now, it should be clear how the emotions and motivations are connected. In the next post I will be extending this emotions/ motivations linkage forward to personality traits and psychological disorders.

I was inspired on this line of thought while doing the FutureLearn course ‘What Is A Mind’ by Mark Solms and would like to express my gratitude to him as well as the late Jaak Panksepp.

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