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May 12th, 2011 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 434 views | Send article | Print this Article |

By Robert DePaolo


This article proposes that emotion can be understood in terms of physical laws, particularly energy dynamics. In so doing it offers a possible link between the pre-biotic world and the evolution of life forms.

Over time a variety of explanations have been offered regarding the true nature of emotion. One of the earliest was proposed in the 19th century when William James and Carl Lange described emotion as an interpretive, post-arousal process. Although dismissed subsequently, the idea that cognitive appraisals and interpretations guided emotions resurfaced through the work of Lazarus (1984), Ellis (1994) and Ellsworth (1994).

Another description, provided by Walter Cannon (1929) held that emotion could be defined in the context of fight-flight behaviors and emergency reactions (Friedman & Silver 2007), (Sapolsky 1994). Still another, championed by Freud (Kennard 1998) and post analytic theorists such as Jung (1970) viewed emotion as resulting from a bio-cultural clash within a compartmentalized psyche. Following this came phenomenological interpretations of emotion as exemplified by Carl Rogers (Farber 1998) who viewed emotion (most especially anxiety) as emanating from incongruities within the self concept. A more recent theory derives from the field of evolutionary psychology and holds that emotion is most essentially an orchestration-oversight mechanism of mind (Cosmides &Tooby (2000).

Research has yielded valuable information about the physiological correlates of emotion. For example it appears that through its regulation of hormones, the limbic system is the source of pleasure, rage, aggression and fear, and that neurotransmitter mechanisms are instrumental in creating depression and other pathological states. (Papez 1937) Bruce & Neary (1995). Yet while these studies offer a building block assessment of how emotions occur they do not explain how they originated or why they occur in the first place.

Some theoreticians have addressed the question by suggesting that emotion first evolved with reptiles, whose limbic system produced the neuro-chemical wherewithal to aggress, flee, maintain vigilance and thereby enhance predatory, escape and avoidance behaviors. McLean’s notion of the triune brain is one example of that idea (1990).

We know of course that sub-reptilian creatures also hunt and flee. In fact fish and even less biologically complex creatures such as octopi, snails and amoeba do so with a fair amount of proficiency. The question could be asked as to whether such creatures emote or whether they are simply responding reflexively to certain stimuli. More to the point, with little or no mind/brain how could any creature come to “know,” “remember” and react to the dangers and attractions of the environment?

To some extent a true understanding of not only emotion but organic behavior per se requires a pre-cephalic explanation. In other words, to determine the roots of emotion and behavior one must inquire as to its origin prior to the advent of brains.

One way to address that question is to consider an essential aspect of nature that transcends the biological domain – the laws of physics.

The Origin of Behavior…

Many people – even some in the field of social science – take behavior for granted. All creatures, from protozoa to humans have it, and it is inherently purposeful. Indeed one could argue that, due to its need-gratifying and error-correcting capacities behavior is as central a definition of life as an ability to reproduce. Here behavior is not taken for granted. To the contrary it is assumed that while behaving required intricate intra-cellular construction from the outset a behavioral potential did not initially require brain tissue because all organic structures, including anencephalic plant life have energy-detecting mechanisms and respond to energy inputs without the luxury of having a brain. Yet the explanation here goes even beyond that by asserting that behavior and emotion have their origins in an inorganic process. As to how and why, consider the following:

Behavior entails a decision. It is by definition discriminatory. In order for actions to favor adaptation means they cannot occur randomly. Instead they must be at least somewhat stimulus-specific. Even more to the point, adaptive behaviors can only ensue after a moment of deliberation, whereby the organism selects from a potpourri of inputs which stimuli require a response and which do not.

We know this is true of so-called higher organisms. For example a seal fleeing from a shark has to parse out stimuli such as rushing water, sound, visual impressions of surrounding fish and his own comrades in order to focus on the single stimulus… “shark.” That means it must differentially excite and inhibit neuro-transmissions and neuronal bursts of activity. The fact that in such instances emotion, perception and decision making go hand in hand dispels the idea that emotion and thought are categorically and functionally distinct mental activities.

The same can be said of creatures without a brain. Single cell organisms also flee from aversions and approach pleasurable stimuli. They are not typically described as having emotions, but act as if they do.

In order to perceive and act, both the seal and the single cell organism require a pause capacity, i.e a mechanism by which to inhibit actions, filter out irrelevant stimuli, hold the trace of the momentous stimulus in focus for a moment, then react. What physical process would enable creatures, great and small to do this pausing – particularly in the absence of a brain?

Energy Flow…

The root of emotion and behavior in a pre-organic context might be found in the phenomenon of energy transfer, as pertains to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This refers to the unwavering tendency for energy to flow from high to low concentration states. In discussing this topic it is important to keep in mind that what we call perception, emotion and behavior are really just energy interactions that we interpret subsequently as experience.

Recall the physics experiment in high school in which there were two flasks connected by a tube. If one flask was filled with water, the other empty, the water invariably flowed from the former to the latter. It illustrated that energy always flows into a vacuum. In the experiment the rapidity of the flow depended on the volume differential. If one flask was filled to the brim, the other partially filled, the flow would be less forceful and immediate than if the volume differential were greater. In the energy interaction between a full and partly filled flask there would be a pause in flow due to the presence of a competing volume, also described as a form of energy resistance or a “shield mechanism.”

Metaphorically speaking (though this will be explained concretely in a moment) it could be said that because the empty flask into which water flows rapidly has no internal resistance (i.e. no shield) it lacks a pause capacity and is afforded no time for “deliberation.” In effect, it lacks a quasi-cognitive capacity and has no choice but to become inundated and assume the volume level dictated to it by the volume of its sister flask. That also means that, due to its singular blend with the outside energy source it contains less information and is high in entropy.

On the other hand the partially filled flask does have a pause/quasi-cognitive capacity. Consequently its volume resistance enables it to accommodate the newly flowing water in “context” – analogous to the way in which Piaget said children learn via the existence of schemes and subsequent assimilation or accommodation of new inputs (1952).

Now on to a more concrete explanation. The principle discussed above holds that an a priori energy volume serves to modulate incoming inputs, thus creating the possibility of deliberation.

Thus any organism with or without a brain which has an internal energy-volume producing capacity can process signals effectively, because it can prevent inundation. For that reason it can shield itself from extraneous inputs, pause, parse and thus carry out functional, purposeful behaviors.

The Emotional Shield…

Many years ago, two researchers, Yerkes and Dodson proposed a theory of task-congruent arousal, which came to known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law (1908). They demonstrated that behavioral efficiency depended to a large extent on the type, duration and intensity of physiological arousal. Their studies indicated that subjects whose arousal level matched the demands of the task tended to do well. Conversely, when arousal levels and task were incompatible performance became increasingly inefficient (Lupien, Maheu et. al. 2007)

The Yerkes-Dodson law can be readily applied to energy flow principles. For example excessively high arousal would create a high stimulus blockage effect – the shield would be too firm and inputs could not get through fluidly. In situations where singular perceptions were required, or where extremely general, non deliberative perceptions were involved, a firm shield/high arousal state (as might be seen with a traumatized individual) would work fine. On the other hand, in instances where a great many inputs had to be considered for purposes of lengthy deliberation a more open, flexible and semi-permeable shield would serve the responder best. And of course there would be various stages in between, depending on the task.

The Physics Of The Biotic World…

Higher organisms use a brain to deliberate, make decisions, emote and behave, but it could be that the evolution of brains was a luxury. i.e. an embellishment of a basic energy exchange process that could produce behavior and motive without need of a brain.

This implies that a prototype emotion might have originated as a pre-biological, external energy-blunting process shielding against rapid energy inundation, making organisms more “informed” vis a vis the outside world, thereby creating a pause capacity via internal energy resistance that in the course of evolution came to facilitate perception and deliberation.

Eventually this mechanism was incorporated into specific brain sites. However its origins might have been pre-organic. Thus brain evolution might be viewed as a variation on a pre-biotic, ergonomic theme.

In that context emotion could be described most fundamentally as a feed forward device that prevents stimulus inundation, enables an organism to make behavioral decisions, and one that, despite its connotation as a non-rational process, actually plays an important role in cognition.

Shield Pathology…

A shield mechanism can on occasion go awry. Whether due to neurotransmitter dysfunction or maladaptive interpretations of experience, the shield mechanism can either be too firm or too weak as per the nature and flow of tasks and experiences. In such circumstances an individual’s capacity to pause, deliberate and decide might be variously effected. At times the individual might be too behaviorally inhibited, at other times too excited. The traditional diagnostic categories of depression, anxiety, psychotic thinking could be reflective of that process.


This article offers a revision on traditional thinking by proposing that emotions are not for purposes of creating drive or prompting emergency reactions but rather to rise up and create internal energy resistance patterns for purposes of modulating inputs, preventing inundation (as well as low information states, i.e. “noise”) and providing the potential for pause functions and attentive, deliberative actions. The “feeling” aspect and labels typically attributed to emotion might simply comprise a homocentric interpretation of that process. While due to our penchant for phenomenology we describe “feeling this or that way” in the aftermath of experience, a more fundamental description of emotion might be that it comprises a resistance mechanism that prepares us for energy onslaught and by its protective, counter-weight functions enhances behavioral, perceptual and motivational efficiency.


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