Basic Affect Theory
''Affect" is the word given to the basic biological component of emotional experience. According to Tomkins, who built on Darwin's work, we are born with nine different affects-seven of which he named with two words to indicate the mild and the intense presentation of the affect: interest- excitement, enjoyment-joy, surprise-startle, distress-anguish, fear-terror, shame-humiliation, and anger-rage. The other two affects refer initially to the hunger drive and he called them dissmell (our reaction to offensive smells) and disgust (our reaction to unpleasant tastes). Each of these affects is associated with typical facial and bodily expressions that are innate and can be seen on human infants throughout the world . Current research also indicates that each affect may evoke a separate and distinct pattern of autonomic nervous system activity and physiological response . Additionally, each affect is linked with specific patterns of intonation, vocal quality, rhythm, pausing, and posture .
Role of Emotions
Since the affect system is innate and connected to every organ system of the body, we must assume that the experience of affect has a far-reaching survival value. Nature does not waste time evolving complex systems without vital purpose. Yet until recently science has devoted little time or energy to researching the causes and effects of affect states. Emotions are one of those aspects of human existence that are so fundamental, so vital, and so pervasive that we fail to even think about them. We tend to notice them only when they are causing problems for us-when they are disorganizing thought, interfering with communication, or propelling negative actions.
At the same time, we appear to crave emotional experiences, as witnessed by our preoccupation with emotion-evoking movies, television, books, and experiences. Depressed people often lose the capacity to experience emotions and frequently comment that a life without feeling is not worth living. So, what are emotions there for? Why did nature evolve such a complicated and troubling system? Darwin pointed out that each emotion readied the organism to act in ways that give it an increased ability to survive and that the non-verbal expression of emotion is universal and independent of cultural training .
Cognitive Role of Emotions
According to Tomkins, affect draws our attention to something, determines what information reaches our consciousness, and motivates our behavior  . Emotions can be seen as a "sensitive mental radar" alerting us to the significance of things that happen to us externally or within our bodies . This has important survival value because without affect, we would be unable to pick out important information from the myriad forms of experience and objects that are constantly surrounding us. It is important that we feel fear in the presence of something that looks like a snake and pleasure when we look at water.
We are biologically programmed to experience pleasure in doing things that are potentially good for us like eating, sleeping, exercising, having sex, socializing with other people, dancing, drawing, singing, playing, pretending. And it is good for us to experience distress in doing things that are potentially dangerous for us like starving, over-fatigue, immobility, lack of sexual behavior, isolation from others, restriction of creative activities, unrelenting detailed and repetitive tasks.
Emotions also play an important role in ordering our environment. Because we have such a powerful need to categorize and arrange information in our minds (the cognitive imperative), and because our memory is dependent on such categorization, we cannot rest as long as something remains confusing or conflictual. It is affect that keeps us aware of this discrepancy, and the emotional arousal does not stop until the conflict has been resolved by our minds. There are, however, conflicts in life that cannot be resolved. If we cannot resolve the conflict, then we must find a way to turn off the emotion. That is when we dissociate.
Social Role of Emotion
Although we are born with all the basic affects, our emotional life is not simply an internal experience, even at birth. The fact that every affect is registered in a distinct and different way, on the face and in bodily expression from the time we are born, indicates that affect plays a vital social and communicative role for affect. Affect is the connecting bridge between the individual internal world and the social external world from birth to death.
Newborns as young as 41 minutes are already imitating the people around them because our “mirror neuron system” is innate – hardwired into the core of our being . Recent work on early child development shows that the infant and its mother comprise a complex caregiver system . The main currency of exchange at this stage of development is emotional information. The infant comes into the world as a broadcaster of emotional information and the infant's primary caretakers are the receivers of this information through a process known as affective resonance or emotional contagion.
Research shows how profoundly influenced we are by other people's affect states, from birth on, how rapidly our interpersonal affective responses occur, and how dynamically our physiology responds to others' affect states . This information is conveyed not through language but through nonverbal communication that makes this system available to us even in the early stages of development. Infants only have nonverbal means of communication available to them. Babies signal their distress by crying and mothers respond to this signal by administering care to the distressed babies. Such information exchange is vital if infants are to survive. But this emotional information exchange, or emotional resonance, does not stop in childhood. We are a supremely social species, and our survival has been dependent on our individual ability to mobilize the group. An individual scout, spotting danger, is able to convey this sense of imminent threat to the group through emotionally charged tone of voice, gesture, and facial expression. The necessity for such a response preceded the development of language and is well-organized, sophisticated, and easily transmitted.
We continue to resonate to each other's emotional experience throughout our lives. How many times have we said to a intimate partner, "It's not what you said that hurt me, it's the way you said it." The nonverbal components of speech (called "prosody") develop in parallel with language and are controlled by the nondominant hemisphere of the brain, the same hemi- sphere that appears to be activated during traumatic recall. But we are usually far less aware of the way we are saying things than what we are saying, although we are exceptionally skilled at perceiving those aspects of language, even outside of consciousness, and at responding to the nonverbal communication even more strongly than we do the verbal content.
We "catch" each other's emotions all the time. The more our attention is riveted on someone else, the more interrelated we are with someone else, the more we are able to read their nonverbal expressions, the better they are at expressing their feelings nonverbally, and the more stressful the situation, the more likely we are to catch other people's emotional experience.
This describes many situations of highly charged group danger in which panic rapidly rises, or in which people appear to "hysterically" catch the symptoms of each other . In such a state of danger, people will be in an altered state of consciousness, able to distort reality, easily susceptible to the contagious effect of emotion, and open to the suggestion of someone else. For similar reasons, people can have an enormous positive influence on a highly aroused individual. If they can maintain clarity and calmness, this too can be contagious, thus reducing the other person's level of arousal both emotionally and physiologically. We actually have an enormous, underestimated, and often neglected role to play in other people's emotional lives.
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from Bloom, S. L. (2013) Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies. New York: Routledge