What if emotions are more than a stimulus for song, poetry and drama where poets bend and sway their audiences’ emotions up and down, as a roller coaster excites and thrills for the pleasure, or dismay of its breathless riders? What if emotions are an evolved biological system – like the muscular, skeletal, or nervous systems – and are functionally closely related to the sensory systems?
Is it possible to think of emotions as being separate from the evolutionary process of the human species? If emotions have been run through the evolutionary mill, i.e., not separate from the evolutionary process, what would some characteristics of the resultant design be? Is it possible to use the ideas and concepts found within evolution to form logical deductions and conclusions about emotions and feelings as they pertain to biological functions?
The notion that species develop by naturally selecting attributes that are advantageous for survival is the cornerstone of the theory of evolution. If any human is to live or even thrive to maturity where offspring will continue the survival of the species, might there be an evolved link or correlation between emotions and an individual’s cognitive activities and the body’s physiology? The following is a discussion to put forward the types of correlations that must exist.
2.1 The Mind/Body/Emotion Correlation: Evolution’s Impact
The following scenarios are indicative of evolution’s impact on the development of an emotional guidance system:
- If feeling good correlates with a well-balanced and physiologically-vital body then feeling good while climbing a tree to gather food or while balancing on slippery rocks in a rushing stream to fish may not be hazardous. But if feeling good were to correlate with a weakened and lethargic physiology/biochemistry, such challenging actions would tend to be deadly. Such a false/positive correlation between emotions and physiological biochemical vitality would be disadvantageous to survival.
- How would a genetic line survive if feeling good correlated with (1) a cognitive knowing of strength, vigor, and adeptness with (2) an actuality of weakness and ineptitude? Such a correlation has a limited survivability when climbing trees or foraging across the savannahs in search for food or, in a modern example, when in an inebriated state, a person confidently gets behind the wheel of a car to navigate through rush hour traffic. And where is the motivation to act when there is an actuality of vitality, vigor and strength but emotionally there is a feeling of illness, lethargy and weakness? It is logical to conclude that, evolutionarily speaking, feeling good correlates with vitality, vigor, and strength and feeling bad correlates with illness, lethargy, and weakness.
- Imagine that such basic life behaviors as breathing or eating were so emotionally painful – or the lack thereof were so pleasurable – as to bring about suffocation, starvation and death. Such an emotional/ physiological correlation would lead to the demise of an individual and his or her genetic line. Whether this were a genetically predisposed or an inherited condition, or whether there even existed a genetically developed predisposition to learn such a behavior, such a false/positive correlation between emotions and physiology would hinder personal and genetic survival. Therefore, there is a natural correlation between feeling good with healthy physiological behavior and the way the body functions.
From an evolutionary perspective, feeling good means there is a positive correlation between the neural networks that activate (1) a cognitive awareness of strength, vigor, and well-being, (2) an actualization of a physiology of strength, vigor and well-being, and (3) the neural networks associated the emotions of pleasure. Biochemistry, both at the molecular level and the neural network level, must sustain the correlations between (1) the cognitive knowing of, (2) the actualization of, and (3) the feeling of strength, vigor and well-being. Simply put, if these correlations did not exist in this way a person would have a low probability of survival.
2.2 Cognitive Imagination and Evolution
How would a genetic line survive (1) if the body’s need for water did not stimulate the mind’s imagery of obtaining water or (2) if this imagery of obtaining water correlated with negative emotions? If the body needs water, this need must correlate with the mental act of imagining water and correlate with positive emotions associated with finding and drinking water. That is, there is a correlation between imagining the necessities of life and positive emotions. If, instead, there was a correlation such that the imagery of food, water, and shelter brought about negative emotions, then these basics of life would be avoided, leading to an evolutionary dead end. So, for the survival of the species, there must be an evolved correlation between (a) the evolved neural networks of the cognitive brain of imagination and (b) the neural networks of the emotional system such that it (c) feels good when (d) the individual’s imagination dwells upon the presence of the food, water, and shelter, which (e) is wanted and desired by the body in order to survive.
A person dwelling upon the presence of that which is wanted triggers a healthy physiological/biochemical condition within the body which activates an emotionally positive neural network. A person dwelling upon the lack of that which is wanted triggers an unhealthy physiological/biochemical condition within the body which activates an emotionally negative neural network.
How would a genetic line survive if the idea of not obtaining food, water, and shelter correlated with feeling good? Or, how would a person (and his or her genetic lineage) survive if cognitive imagery dwelt upon that which is not wanted and this mental activity did not correlate with negative emotions? A person dwelling upon that which is not wanted triggers an unhealthy physiological biochemical condition within the body which activates an emotionally negative neural network perceived by consciousness. There must have been an evolutionary development that resulted in these correlations or we wouldn’t have survived as a species.
To succeed, and even thrive, in life comes from bringing a “healthy attitude” to life and its daily, moment to moment decisions, especially with those cognitive choices that are made about what to think, imagine and dwell upon. “Healthy attitude” means having the desire and intention to choose cognitive activities (ideas, thoughts, beliefs, concepts, awarenesses, deductions, reasons, dreams, and imaginations) that feel good. People who are successful and enjoy life are such because they have made a decision to use emotionally negative cognitive activities as motivation to find, allow, develop, and dwell upon those emotionally cognitive activities that feel better. Physical health and well-being are dependent upon cognitively working towards better and better feeling thoughts until cognitive activities that feel good dominate one’s internal conversation. Mental health and well-being depend upon having the motivation, intention, and ability to cognitively work at emotionally feeling good. But problems occur when a ‘what feels good is good’ attitude doesn’t reflect a self that lives with strength, vigor, adeptness and a compassion for others to realize the same.
When factoring in evolution, the emotional perception of physiological and biochemical states of the body become an integral part of the brain’s neural network for maintaining the body’s health, strength and vigor. Emotions bring another attribute of awareness to a person’s consciousness as to the nature of his or her cognitive and physical activities. For simplicity, emotions can be divided into two areas of awareness: those emotions that feel good and those emotions that feel bad. Because of these evolved mind/body/emotion/consciousness correlations, feeling good or feeling bad has a significant meaning as to the biological health of an individual. Cognitively activating the physiological neural networks pertaining to strength, vigor, adeptness, and well-being activates an emotional positive neural network. The perception of negative emotions is a warning signal that the continuation of such cognitive and physical activities is having a negative impact on the physical health and genetic survival of the individual.
The simple arguments above are constructed to illustrate how evolution brings about specific relationships between the mind, body, and emotions and consciousness. Many more complex scenarios can be developed for the variety of relationships people have with their physical and social environment. Also, the element of time and the relativity of strength and vigor are not discussed but easily can be factored in for added layers of complexity. The
moral and ethical debate of a ‘feels good is good’ behavior guide has been going on for thousands of years and will continue for thousands more, but ultimately it is an individual debate that continues throughout a person’s lifetime of experiences and, hopefully, a lifetime of continual growth and greater understanding.