The Affect System: What Moves Us
Recent years have seen exciting leaps in figuring out how our emotions work – and how we can understand ourselves better.
What we feel and why we feel it
One pioneering researcher, Silvan Tomkins, has done more than nearly anyone to help us understand what we feel and why we feel it. His research has shown that our emotions are deeply connected to ‘affects’ – normal, automatic response of our body that we think of as connected to our feelings. Our feelings are internal signals that an affect has been triggered.
Let’s take fear as an example. Simply, when we ‘feel’ fear in our bodies – a dropping of our stomach, waves of nausea – that’s an internal indication that the affect of ‘fear – terror’ has been activated. We have no control over our affects at all; if strong enough, they can almost take us over.
But why have them? What purpose do they serve? It was Tompkins view that our affects helped us to quickly sort out complicated stimuli. When our environment presents us with complicated signals, our affects help us zero in on what is worth paying attention to – sorting the danger signals out from the other stiumuli, for example. Strictly, for us to be aware of something in the environment, it needs to stimulate our affect system and one of its nine affects. The stimulus then becomes impossible to ignore.
The nine affects that Tompkins identifies are as follows;
• Surprise – startle
One of the things you are probably wondering is why are there only two positive affects and five negative ones. One explanation is that the affect system fulfils a function of keeping us out of trouble; for this reason, it is weighted towards things that are dangerous to us. You might also be wondering why there are two words to describe some of them – this is because they represent a range; from mild interest through to intense excitement, for example.
Interestingly, each affect is associated with particular facial expressions that Tompkin’s research indicates are common across cultures. This is quite important – whereas our feelings are internal signals that we are experiencing an affect, our facial expressions are external signals that we are experiencing an affect. Living in groups like we do, this is a key survival asset – if we see another member of our culture is experiencing a particular affect, we can know it in a glance – and take appropriate action.
Tompkin’s research indicates that affects are linked to brain activity, and are linked to three basic patterns of brain activity – brain activity that is increasing, brain activity that is staying steady, and brain activity that is decreasing.
In blog posts to follow, I’ll discuss each of the nine affects; how they occur, what they mean and what you can do about them.
Reference: Kelly V. C. (2009) “A Primer of Affect Psychology”