by Dr. Alberto Villoldo: There are many schools of thought about emotions, yet there is no universally accepted theory or taxonomy of the emotions…
Some biologists speak about one set of emotions being instinctual and generated by the amygdala (which is involved in processing the memory of emotional reactions), and another kind as being generated by the prefrontal cortex, and being conscious, cognitive experiences.
Cognitive emotions are conscious, original, and of the moment. It’s natural to feel happy, angry, or sad at different times in life, and often for no reason whatsoever. No amount of positive thinking will keep us from occasional unpleasant feelings. Fortunately, these feelings do not last for long. Cognitive emotions are not burdensome, nor do they take up any space in our awareness, and the very act of recollecting them offers a brief and passing sensation. We might remember our beloved warmly, our childhood sweetheart lovingly, or the school bully fearfully. These emotions are reasoned and make sense with the situation to which they pertain.
Instinctual emotions, on the other hand, are toxic. When we become upset during an argument and remain angry for 20 days or 20 years, it’s a sure sign that we are experiencing an instinctual emotion. When overcome with this kind of emotion, we walk around angry without knowing why; our spouse asks why we were rude to the waiter, and we do not recall being rude; someone stops us to ask a question and we nearly bite their head off for no reason at all. The higher brain functions try to intercede, but they are diverted—and we may relentlessly try to convince ourselves that we were right and the other person was wrong, even years after the event. This results in a refusal to forgive, so that with every recollection of the offending incident, our adrenaline pumps into our nervous system and the body relives the event over and over as if it were happening again. Only with difficulty—sometimes extreme difficulty—will our nervous system settle down.
Instinctual emotions are produced by ancient survival instincts—often coupled with smoldering memories of trauma—that are wired into the brain. Toxic emotions of fear, sorrow, envy, and anger, which are often passionate, sometimes violent, and always draining, are never experiences of the present moment only. In fact, we can think of them as eruptions caused by trauma that was imprinted into the very fabric of our being. These emotions dredge up stories from our childhood that are superimposed onto the current moment. They prevent us from experiencing authentic feelings, here in the now. Everyone we meet reminds us of someone we have known before, and every new situation seems like déjà vu. In that way, instinctual emotions are like ancient viral programs that hijack the brain’s mainframe and cloud our judgement. And they are the nemesis of true spiritual experience.
Because these emotions are associated with the Four F’s—fear, feeding, fighting, and fornicating—they are primitive and instinctual, originating from a prehistoric neurocomputer that we share in common with all mammals. If we experienced physical or verbal abuse in childhood, we are at risk of associating intimacy with danger in the family we create with our spouse. One terrifying experience during a walk in a big city after nightfall can cause us to link large urban communities with peril. In this way, we rekindle the embers of old memories and bring them into the moment, where they burn with great intensity.
Instinctual emotions linger and can take over our entire neurocomputer. These neural networks cause us to waste precious years in an angry marriage or fettered to an unfulfilling and frustrating job. Eventually, we might quit the job or storm out of the marriage, not realizing that what we need to change is the neural networks through which we engage in our current environment and situations.
Neural networks are a plastic, dynamic architecture, a constellation of neurons that light up momentarily to perform a specific task. That is why, as we mull over a particular thought (good or bad) or practice a particular activity (beneficial or detrimental), we reinforce the neural networks that correlate with those thoughts and skills. Each time a situation reminds us of an actual fearful or dangerous experience from our past and instinctual emotions are brought up, that specific neural network is reinforced. We strengthen the toxic emotions and neural networks in our limbic brain and begin to create subconscious beliefs about life. These beliefs drive our actions and reactions in all experiences.
This reinforcement can be done without our knowledge or when we are milking an emotional trauma for sympathy, whether from others or from ourselves. We might say, for example, “I don’t have to act maturely; after all, I had a terrible childhood.” By creating and repeating such a statement, we reinforce neural networks and emotional habits that are as distinct as the postural habits from an old whiplash injury that has affected the vertebra and muscles of the spine. These networks give rise to emotions, then beliefs that keep us favoring past pain, as well as behaviors that continually reinforce the trauma as well as the pity we have learned to so successfully milk.
While such a repetitive patent once served to ensure our survival, it has now given rise to erroneous beliefs about our world and acquaintances, friends, and even family. Because beliefs can be unconscious, they may present themselves in ways that surprise us. We may start an intimate relationship that falls apart when we discover that the person is not really who we thought he or she was, but the situation might actually be the product of our own unconscious belief that we will never find a partner. Likewise, we may have a terrific career opportunity that collapses because deep down we believe that we are not worthy.
For many years, psychology embraced the idea that destructive emotions could be repaired with therapy, a view that is questioned today by some practitioners, who are even debating the legitimacy of psychology itself. Media attention and open dialog have helped many of us understand how the painful evens and trauma we experienced in childhood have shaped our personalities. Yet this understanding has done little to rewire the neural networks in our brain that keep us trapped in these stories.
So, in order to get better, we need to start by healing through neurogenesis.