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In the late fifties/early sixties, a psychologist named Silvan Tompkins created a model of human cognition and motivation called Affect Theory. A psychiatrist named Donald Nathanson has helped to revive interest in Tompkins’ work by publishing “Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self”.

Tompkins’ discovery, like most really cool discoveries (see Special Relativity, Michelson-Morely Experiment) came from noticing the obvious. In Tompkins case, the obvious was noticing that his infant son made the exact same emotional displays when crying that an adult does—without having an extensive library of associations to guide him. Tomkins then hypothesized that there is an affect system that is hardwired into the human nervous system. He hypothesized this before the revolution in brain science had hit full stride. As such, his work is an incredible display of deductive reasoning that seems to have withstood an onslaught of empirical brain research.

Here was Tomkins’ dilemma: If infants do not have extensive associations to guide them in terms of what events should trigger which emotions, yet at the same time they can show the flexibility of displaying the same emotion (e.g., despair/crying) appropriately in different contexts , what does trigger the release of emotions?

Tomkins observed the facial expressions and behaviors of infants extensively. Sometimes he filmed them using high speed photography to reveal the most subtle changes in expression. The basic theory he devised is as follows….

Affects are hardwired sequences of neurophysiological events that are triggered by changes in the density over time of perceptual stimulation. For example, if exposed to a rapidly increasing, dense source of stimulation, the affect of startle is released. Under steady, intense stimulation, the affect of despair is triggered. At a higher level of intense stimulation, the affect of anger is expressed—infants with diapers which have become wet, cold, and stinging express despair. If there is no relief (so the intensity of their discomfort rises and reaches steady state), anger is triggered.

Tomkins identified nine pure “affects” Two positive ones--enjoyment-joy and interest-excitement. Enjoyment-joy is preceded by steadily declining intensity and density of perceptual signals. Think of the feeling of relief created by putting your tired feet up after a long day or the indescribable joy which accompanies scratching an itch. Interest-excitement is produced by a slowly increasing intensity and density of stimulation (a baby smiles at the mobile over her crib that has just been gently moved by a stray breeze). If the stimulation increases very quickly, the neutral affect of “surprise-startle” is generated, the “resetting” the individual’s attention to other stimuli. There are six negative affects: fear-terror, distress-anquish, anger-rage, dissmell, disgust, and shame.

Affects are not experienced directly. They are not recognized until they trigger changes in various receptor sites located in the body (for example, the experience of nausea or muscle tension). Those experiences are described as “feelings”. Pattern recognition of similar events and memory retrieval of past associations of specific events and affects, creates the subjective experience of “emotion”. If the looping of realtime perception, affect, feeling, and emotion continues for a significant period of time, a “mood” is generated.

I couldn’t possibly do justice to the whole theory here. Tomkins also addresses the relationship between the drives (sex, hunger, thirst, respiration) and affects. His most powerful observation IMHO is that the affect system is a kind of “thinking” that tells our ordinary rationality what is important to attend to by amplifying perceptual signals—“affects make good things better and bad things worse” (Nathanson). A great deal of his theory addresses the reinforcing (positive and negative) characteristics of affects and their extensions, and the stereotypical behaviors/cognitions assembled to increase the probability of experiencing positive affects and decrease the probability of negative affects (“scripts”). Addiction can be seen as a kind of problematic complication of the affect system and it’s associated scripts.

What I find fascinating about Tomkin’s theory is it’s ability to reconcile psychological, neurological, and biochemical theories of behavior and illness. For example, a mood disorder like major depression can be seen as a sort of disorder in which the “gain” of the system is turned down—not enough ummph to power interest-excitement or decrease the sensitivity of distress-anguish. The complex phenomena of “low self-esteem” can be analyzed in terms of the affect of shame which is based on pattern recognition in which the expectation of a positive experience is suddenly seen to be wrong or faulty. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder could be seen as the effect of extreme levels of startle-surprise and fear-terror on memory consolidation.

So what is love? Why does it wax and wane, or leave so suddenly?

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