Behind Blue Eyes: No one knows what it’s like to feel these feelings…..

Recently I read an article by Carol Worthman of Emory University entitled “Emotions: You can feel the difference.” The article can be found as a chapter in the book “Biocultural approaches to the Emotions” which was published in 1999 and edited by Alexander Laban Hinton. As I read the article I was taken back to my first year as an undergraduate student sitting in a psychology class concerned with child development. In that class I was first exposed to the work of Jerome Kagan on temperament in infants and the work of Mary Ainsworth involving various types of attachment of children to their caregivers. The more recent work by Carol Worthman builds on these ideas and outlines a process in which an individual’s relationship to the environment is mediated by emotions and how the appraisal of this relationship has an effect on the individual’s mental and physical health. Ultimately, Worthman argues that emotions have a role in cognition and physical well-being.

Worthman begins with a description concerning what exactly emotions are and what they do. Emotions are involved in processing sensory information. Emotions influence the detection of stimuli and the amount of attention given to stimuli. Emotions are involved in learning, memory, and cognitive integration. Emotions also influence the cognitive drive of an individual, affecting motivation, organization, prioritization, and recruitment of cognitive structures. Emotions are also a signal to the self and to others. Emotions affect communication, relations, and self- representations. neuro-emotion

Emotion and the brain

Worthman introduces the ideas of Gregory Bateson, formed in 1958, concerning ethos and eidos. Ethos can be described as the affective-emotional landscape characterizing members of a culture. Contrary to this, eidos concerns the cognitive-propositional landscape characterizing working cultural logic of members of a culture. These ideas reflect a Western view of feeling and thinking being dichotomous or Cartesian. In this model, the two realms are mutually exclusive; as emotion increases cognition decreases, and as emotion decreases cognition increases. Worthman suggests that in addition to operating in this manner, there may also be a synergy between thinking and feeling. She suggests that emotions are crucial to preconscious processing wherein they direct attention, and are also involved in memory construction and retrieval.

Emotion influences what is remembered, how it is remembered, modulates the retrieval of information, and ultimately forms a “bridge to the unconscious.” Indeed, most processing of sensory information, including emotions, occurs in the unconscious and is therefore embodied outside of awareness.

Conscious vs. subconscious thinking

Worthman suggests that what becomes conscious is selective and it is emotion that shapes the selection. Consciousness is finite; the brain determines what to pay attention to and what to ignore or place in the background. Emotion plays a key role in selecting attention and prioritizing cognition. Emotions are integral to information processing. And finally both conscious and pre or unconscious information is embodied.


Worthman proposes a “dual embodiment schema” in which culture or the social context has an influence on the body through the process of embodiment and in return the body has an influence on the culture or social context leading again to various forms of embodiment. As Worthman states, “as culture shapes persons, persons shape culture.” The process of this embodiment depends on individual motivation, perception, behavior, and physical attributes. It is the individual’s interpretation of events, not the facts themselves, which constitutes lived experience.

Individual differences in emotional valence and interpretation of emotion can be described as the individual’s temperament. Jerome Kagan was a pioneer in the idea of temperament and described how reactive-inhibited infants are more easily excited, difficult to soothe, and less readily habituated.

Jerome Kagan on temperament

This has also been shown to be true in primates, particularly rhesus monkeys. In research conducted by Suomi (1991) high-reactive rhesus monkey infants were found to be more influenced by rearing conditions than low-reactive infants. High-reactive infants raised by “average mothers” were socially avoidant and low in dominance. Contrarily, low-reactive infants assumed immediate status no matter what were their rearing conditions. It has also been found that rearing conditions exert enduring effects on hormonal stress patterns (Higley et al. 1992).

In conclusion, individual reactivity can be a product of genetic inheritance or of early experience. Long-term effects of early experience may be exhibited only in certain situations. Effects of early experience depend on individual temperament through the interaction of reactivity and the environment. Variation in affective responsiveness influences how information is perceived, evaluated, and acted upon. These ideas constitute a psycho behavioral and biological link. They also illustrate the importance of the individual’s personal makeup and the context or social environment. A person’s inherited genetic biology influences temperament, which in turn influences emotion and how the individual interacts with the environment, which in turn influences mental and physical health, with all aspects combining in a circular feedback loop. I have included a chart created by Worthman below, which was created a few years after the article under discussion. In my opinion, the chart goes a long way towards illustrating these ideas in a visual format.



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