Thursday, 11 December 2014

Evolution and Purpose of Emotions

Why do we have emotions? What is the purpose of emotions? What do they do for us? They certainly have a significant effect on us, but what is it all for? These are some of the questions to which this article attempts to answer.
In my last article we discussed what emotions are and how the brain and body systems that process emotions are intimately connected with the hormonal apparatus, the nervous system, and in particular the immune system.
So now let's now understand emotions in three distinct time frames - Past, Present and the Future.


Life on earth developed from simple molecules that could replicate, or copy, themselves. Over many millions of years these molecules joined with other molecules, becoming gradually more complex and dependent on each other. The process of evolution by natural selection eventually led to all of the different living things that we see on Earth today. Human beings have expressed the evolutionary character of transforming from a fish phase, into an amphibian phase, followed by a reptile phase, bird phase and lastly, a mammal phase - when brain developed the limbic system to process emotions. Basically all organisms are capable of carrying out the same functions at different efficiency levels. Every system we have, e.g., digestive, respiratory, excretory, reproductive, nervous and immune system among others, is present even in single celled organisms. Interestingly, where we have organs to carry out a function, unicellular organisms have organelles (miniature organs) carrying out the same functions. However the main difference between all organisms is not just in the complexity but also its awareness. The more evolutionarily advanced an organism is, the more awareness it possesses. Scientists generally consider the degree of “awareness” as the primary measure of evolution. "Awareness" is the primary trait offered by our nervous system. The differentiated cells comprising the nervous system are designed to acquire awareness about the world (environment) and use that information to direct the fate and activities of each of our cells and thus our entire body. We humans experience our world not through just what we think but especially through how we feel, emphasising that emotions were shaped by natural selection to help us deal better with adaptive challenges and maximize our chances for survival. That is, emotions (and associated intuitions) are sets of instructions refined over millions of years of evolution, designed to guide behavior.

So how did emotions arise and assume their distinctive structures? The ancestral world posed recurrent information-processing problems, such as What substances are best to eat? How to hunt successfully? How to avoid a predator? Or What is the relationship between others' facial expressions and their mental states? These repeated encounters involved conditions, contingencies, situations, or event-types that recurred innumerable times in the evolutionary history. For better adaptations to such recurrent situations, there arose a need for set of superordinate programs that guided information-processing, behavior and the body. This coordination is accomplished by our emotions through simultaneous instructions for our physiology, behavioral inclinations, cognitive appraisals, or feeling states, as well as other mechanisms distributed throughout the human mental and physical architecture. The speed of our emotions is faster than our thoughts hence it enables us to emotionally evaluate everything AS we perceive it. (We think about it afterward) Thus emotional specializations, by embodying "innate knowledge" about the problem space, operate better than any general learning strategy could.

For example, the negative effects of incestuous conceptions are difficult for any individual to observe in the absence of a modern controlled study with numerous participants, much less integrate rationally into one's motivational system. Fortunately, the emotion of disgust guides humans away from incestuous unions between fertile adults, given appropriate cues of familial connection such as co-residence in the first years of life. Similarly the emotion of fear guides a child to anticipate attack and prudently modulate flight or fight activities instead of waiting to be ambushed and killed in the dark by a predator. Emotions thus helped us solve most adaptive problems economically, reliably, and effectively.

The wisdom inherent in our emotions is largely responsible for the success of our species to date. But the behavioral instructions associated with emotions developed to deal with ancient adaptive challenges may, at times, not be optimal for dealing with modern-day challenges. Furthermore, individuals in a modern society might have other goals such as maximising wealth or happiness. So let's see if emotions still have any purpose in the present times...


The great majority of people alive today have grown up in a world in which we were taught that in order to be successful, in order to get ahead, we'd need to get control over our emotions. To be seen as "emotional", is considered a bad thing. Overt displays of both positive and negative emotions are considered inappropriate in school, public and in professional settings. Emotions in general are considered the opposite of logical, clear thinking. However scientific research proves the contrary. Emotions and cognition are intricately involved with each other. Infact emotions help us make memories and enhance learning process. They also affect our perceptions and consequently our decision-making ability. Let's now understand how emotions play an important role in how we think and behave.

Our emotions and our memories are inexorably linked. On one level, emotional memory simply refers to the notion that very emotional events are often memorable. We're more likely to remember emotionally charged images (for example the scene of a car crash or of someone crying) than neutral ones. Furthermore, we're more likely to remember any image if we ourselves are in a state of heightened emotion.

Memory is the ability to encode, store and recall information. The process of laying down a memory begins with attention (regulated by the thalamus and the frontal lobe), in which a memorable event causes neurons to fire more frequently, making the experience more intense and increasing the likelihood that the event is encoded as a memory. Emotion tends to increase attention, and the emotional element of an event is processed on an unconscious pathway in the brain leading to the amygdala. Only then are the actual sensations derived from an event processed.
As seen in the adjoining image our long term memory is classified into EXPLICIT MEMORY created consciously by COGNITION and IMPLICIT MEMORY created unconsciously due to repetition and EMOTIONS. Implicit memories drive much of our subconscious abilities such as habits, skills, behaviours, reflexes, conditioned responses and emotional reactions, which we engage in without any conscious awareness.
Approximately 95% of our activities both behavioral and biological are directed by the subconscious mind. The processing capacity of the subconscious mind is much more than the conscious brain. The conscious mind can process 1-3 events at 40 bits of info/sec whereas the subconscious mind can process thousands of events at 40 million bits of info/sec. 

Example - Most people have the experience of sitting down with a newspaper and just popping it open. And before we actually read anything, something catches our attention. We don’t actually know exactly where it is in the newspaper but we start looking until we find something. We don’t realize it, but when we pop open the newspaper, the subconscious is so fast; it has already read all the words on the page. When it came across words that were relevant to us, the subconscious told our conscious mind to pay attention…that something is in the newspaper for us.

The function of the subconscious is to perceive and record every detail. It’s not seeing just a newspaper, but everything wherever we are. Anything that the subconscious interprets as connected to us, it will call our attention to. This implies that attention is guided by the subconscious even in case of logical learning process. 

For a successful decision we need to compare and cross examine not just the different aspects of a situation but also our physical capabilities (various sensations in the body like heat, pressure, flexibility of movement, etc) The possibilities are infinite. How do we compare them?

This comparison of the incomparable is made possible by emotions.(Just the way we can compare a song with the taste of coffee) Emotions are considered to be 'The decision makers in our life' even in situations where we believe our decisions are guided purely by logic and rationality. Emotional intelligence, or our ability to understand and manage emotions, helps us to act quickly and take actions that will maximize our chances for success.

Neuroscientists have often described cognition and emotion as separable processes implemented by different regions of the brain, such as the amygdala for emotion and the prefrontal cortex for cognition. In this framework, functional interactions between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex mediate emotional influences on cognitive processes such as decision-making, as well as the cognitive regulation of emotion. However, neurons in these structures often have entangled representations, whereby single neurons encode multiple cognitive and emotional variables. Researchers have also found that people with certain types of brain damage that impairs their ability to experience emotions also have an decreased ability to make good decisions.

Example - In an experiment by Antonio Damasio, one of his patients, Elliot, suffered ventromedial frontal lobe damage and while retaining his intelligence, lost the ability to feel emotion. The result was that he lost his ability to make decisions and to plan for the future, and he couldn’t hold on to a job.

Emotional memories have an huge impact on how we perceive the world around us. Perception of the environment is not necessarily the reality of the environment. A being’s perception of the environment acts as a filter between the reality of the environment and the biological reaction to it. A person may perceive a negative environment where there is actually a supportive or positive environment. Then this negative perception influenced by intrinsic emotional memories, activates the body for “fight or flight.” 
Example - A boy was bitten by a dog when he was young. The bite hurt and he was frightened. This event became stored in his emotional memory bank. As a teenager, the sight of even a gentle dog triggers a feeling of fear. How does this happen though he has no conscious recollection of his past memory? 
What actually happens when the boy sees the dog, his brain instantly compares the image of the dog with his past memories through the fast track circuit (using amygdala as shown in the image). The brain finds a match with the previous memory of the dog and triggers a feeling of fear. This feeling then affects how his brain perceives the dog. He then reacts with fear without knowing why. Even if the brain reasons (via the slow track through the cortex) that the dog is a friendly dog and there is no need to react with fear, yet the initial reaction has sent signals down the boy's nerves causing stress hormones to be released in his body.

These memories dont just happen with dogs but also with all our past situations and relationships. A person with a certain kind of walk, talk or personality might cause us to feel fear because it reminds us of a bully from our past. This is how emotions affect our perceptions an in turn our mental capabilities and eventually our physical health.


Emotions evolved to help us adapt and survive, however survival is not central to evolution: indeed, all individual organisms die sooner or later. In contrast, genes - which can be thought of as particles of design - are potentially immortal, and design features spread by promoting the reproduction of the genes that participate in building them. The human body is comprised of 50 to 65 trillion cells. In every one of our cells, we have genes whose function it is to rewrite and adapt genes as necessary.

“Epi” means above. So, epigenetic means control above the genes. The nucleus, which contains the genes, has traditionally been viewed as the control center - the brain of the cell. Yet, when the nucleus is removed, the cell continues with all of its life functions. So what controls the fate of the cells? Scientific research using stem cells proved that fate of the cells is not controlled by genes but is controlled by the environment.

Experiment by Bruce Lipton (cellular biologist) for cloning a stem cell - When one stem cell was put it in a petri dish by itself,  the stem cell divided every eight hours or so. After a week, there were about 50,000 genetically identical cells in the petri dish. Then these cells were split up into three different petri dishes. The chemical composition was changed a little bit in the culture medium of each of the three dishes. The receptor proteins on the cell membrane perceived this change in environment and accordingly changed its instructions to the activities of the cell. Thus in one dish, the cells became muscle, in another they became bones, and in the third they became fat. The fate of these genetically identical cells was not controlled by genes but was controlled by the environment - in this case, the culture medium.

What this means for us...
We human beings are made of 50 trillion cells. A human body is like skin-covered petri dish. And the culture medium is blood. That is what nourishes the cells. From the experiment we infer that our environment impacts each and every cell within. Just as a cell has receptor proteins to perceive the environment outside the cell membrane, humans have the five senses which read environmental information and send signals to the brain. Through the process of “perception,” the brain interprets the environmental signals and in response releases regulatory chemicals into the blood, the body’s culture medium. Thus the external environment is translated to the internal environment of cells.
Epigenetics doesn’t change the genetic code, it changes the readout of a single gene to create over 30,000 different proteins. When a human being encounters love, the growth genes are activated. When a human being encounters fear, the protection genes are activated. Thus perfectly normal genes can result in cancer or death. Vice-versa, in the right environment, mutant genes won’t be expressed. Our perception rewrites genes!

If certain experiences happen enough times, they can affect how genes are expressed and packaged without altering DNA. Every emotion we experience will cause chemical changes in our body and brain, and those chemical changes will then cause genetic changes. If those genetic changes occur often enough and with persistence, that can lead to modification of those genes such that they react the same way in the future because they’ve been trained. Though not a typical outcome, there have been reports of such modifications being passed onto subsequent generations, in what's known as transgenerational epigenetic evolution.

Example - Nature Neuroscience journal reported that mice inherit smell memories from their fathers -- even when the offspring have never met their father or experienced the smell themselves. The study also found that the third generation of mice was born with the same smell memory.

While scientists have found evidence for epigenetic changes that are passed down in mice and water fleas, there is only circumstantial evidence for the phenomenon occurring in humans.

Emotions that incline the individual to engage in seemingly pointless activities over the near-term (e.g., grief, playfulness, fascination, guilt, depression, feeling triumphant) need to be analyzed in terms of how they modify the psychological architecture for benefits that are accrued probabilistically over the long-run (e.g., gains in knowledge; recalibration of motivational priorities; the recomputation of a huge body of choice-variables in the face of information that the local world has dramatically changed).

Emotions are the most important guidance system that we have. Its this great compass that we use to know if we are in the righ situations or not. Without our emotions we wouldn’t be able to know when we are veering away from wellbeing, or when we are about to do something that could cause ourselves and others suffering. My next blog will have information to utilise this Emotional intelligence.

Think of this: You don’t have to intellectualize everything, you just feel it. This is Nature’s way.