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The Amygdala of My Cat, and Other Considerations

I don’t like angry conflict.  I don’t much like any show of emotion any more.  Maybe I wouldn’t so much mind other persons’ emotions if they better knew what their feelings really were.  People today are taught to use their angers to protect their spaces, to express their resentments toward others for the sakes of their own healths.  These aren’t emotions, and this isn’t a healthy process.

I have trouble knowing how I feel, unfortunately, so I pay a little extra attention to others’ displays of emotion.  One thing I know about emotions is that they don’t consist of the usual catalogue in every introductory psychology text (anger, fear, hatred, pride, love et alii).  Let us consider what we can know of emotions, briefly, and see if we can improve upon a contemporary attitude which identifies only anger, and openly or implicitly encourages us to ventilate it.

Emotions might be said to have their roots in primitive neurophysiologies and behaviors which would occur to the benefit of the individual or the species.  We might agree that drives to eat (and to hunt or forage), to copulate seasonally, to fight or run in the face of danger, to nurture young et alii may have good grounding in the brain, may be acted even when not chosen.  We like to call these instincts.

Feelings humans have with regard to these may be ingrained but are not automatic.  From these we may form some of what we call emotions, attitudes and behaviors related to the ingrained and automatic.  We are more complex, however, in that we have much volition over our attitudes.  We can, to a great degree, choose our emotions.

We are more complex in another way as well.  We have a high degree of self-awareness and value ourselves very highly.  Much of what we call emotion has to do with self, and no matter how dense and automatic, is always volitional, coming more from the cerebral cortex than from the older parts of the brain.

I have been called a technological nihilist, one who claims modern science brings us no advances.  Such a calumny is unjustified and hurts my feelings.  It is not new scientific data which are atavistic, but cultural “scientific” attitudes which may pervert those data.  If you and I can make some overall sense of our consideration of emotions we will be willing to include all the facts (if it doesn’t cost us the truth) and we will have been very scientific.

Can we accept these:  that instincts are programmed into the brain, that human emotion includes conscious volition, that human emotion is heavily colored by sense of self?  We can make the old distinction between humans and other animals.  Let’s not.

I use my cat in much of what I write.  I love him, am proud of him.  I never hate him even when he pisses on my bed.  I feel good thinking about just who he is, considering presents I may bring him.  I am emotional about that cat.

He is emotional, even about me.  He is self-satisfied sleeping.  He will treat as food only his own brands.  He is alarmed by unexpected noises, and thunder drives him under the bed.  I am special to him, so he whines at the apartment door when I come home, but he will act as if he hates me, bite me if I cause him pain combing him.  If he were like my previous “outside” cats he would bring me dead birds and moles’ heads.

Plenty of species mate for life.  Are there emotional implications to that?  Plenty of species include individuals who have related personally to human beings.  Is there any emotional implication there?  Almost all individuals, at least females, either free their young or nurture them.  Do they have feelings about it?  Many species’ young can find their own mothers and vice versa.  Is there there identification and valuing of the other?

So, let us consider all emotion, respecting its putative roots in our hard-wiring, acknowledging more subtle mechanisms we might call hormonal, but recognizing emotions take place as the experience of attitude and behavior through a self-aware individual who can make many choices.  And let us remember that my model of this feeling individual is a cat.  (You may use another model.)

A common modern exhortation is to feel your anger and let it out.  Can anger be felt?  Can it be let out?  We all will say we have felt angry and we have acted angry.  Have we?

Perhaps fear is a relatively pure basic feeling over which we have no control, but anger is not.  Give someone a shot of adrenaline through a needle or by stimulating his adrenal glands to secrete and he will feel fear.  Drive at him very fast with a big green truck and he will feel fear.

How will you make someone angry?  There are thousands of ways to irritate anyone, but will you thereby anger him?  What will he feel?  It may be many, many things.  Let us conduct a scholarly experiment and irritate a lot of people, then interview them to find out how they felt.

If someone were angry, how would he let it out?  With a lot of meaningless noise and stomping about, perhaps.  And would he feel better?  A bit more fatigued, at least, and that might approximate calm.  If his anger were a negative opinion of me, it would not have become more positive thereby.  If his anger were at not getting what he wants he would not be less angry unless the tantrum brought him his desiderata.

Ventilating something which is not a substance can relieve no pressure, especially when pressure wasn’t the problem.  Anger is no pressure, it is a chosen attitude that has to do with the culturally determined habit of making value judgments based in self-interest.  Just because value judgments are intended to be in one’s self interest doesn’t mean they work out that way.  We are easily in error when we confidently guess we know what is good for ourselves.  We would do better with pure instinct.

Love?  Do you have any idea what love is?  Is it a simple pure emotion?  Is it rooted in rutting?  Is mother love rooted in an instinct to care for offspring?

One thing love must be as we see it in human beings is the demand to be appreciated and mirrored by the other.  Sorry to say this, but we do a sorry job of loving.  Demanded and traded behaviors do not make an emotion, a feeling.  Do we ever truly love?  You’re damned right we do, but too often through sick behaviors we call “codependent.”  Are our love feelings ever normal?  Probably, but who can tell?  What is normal?  We’ll ask a cat or a mole soon.

Pride.  More self stuff, sometimes projected onto “my” son, daughter, friend, professor, et cetera.

Sadness.  We like to say there is a biochemical basis for mood, and we chemically treat it in millions.  But an emotion is not a mood, no matter how similar we think they feel.  Mania is not anger, but a driven state.  Depression is not sadness, for it is not a feeling in response to something, but an overarching mood.  Sadness certainly is a feeling, and is in response to a loss symbolic or concrete, and it produces a depressed mood.  (Read that sentence again, please.)

Joy?  I hope so.  If it is the bloated gloating of the so-called ego it is not the same joy I have known.  For me joy is Aha, eurhka, the experience of what fits together, synchronicity, a sense of my oneness with the universe or a sense of the restitution of what I had been missing.  It is, for my cat, the sound in the hallway becoming me home, and snicker-snacks and scratches on the head.  Joy.

Perhaps we meant something by our labels for emotions, but I’m afraid we’re not very good at feeling them.  Let’s try making them more complex so they resemble reality a little closer, maybe then we’ll start to dig them.  An emotion is felt, but we usually feel many things at once, so let us allow glimpses of a feeling to tell us something of how we feel.  Emotions are not dictated by simple stimuli, nor do they result in simple reflex responses, so let us not look to understand them much in terms of circumstances or behaviors only.

I can’t easily tell you how I feel (Can you tell me how you feel?), so I will interview myself to find out more:

I:  So, how I feel is not so much the practical question as whether I feel.
Me:  I do.
I:  About something?  Do I feel in relation to something?
Me:  Yes, many things, especially those I value highly.  I like or love them, get afraid and angry if they are threatened, am proud of them, hate their enemies.
I:  Do I purely feel these?
Me:  No, I feel many things at once, and these not always extremely.
I:  Do I feel in relation to other persons, human or not?
Me:  Yes, the same but more so, many at once, not always strong, not always clear.
I:  Do I ever feel against the person or thing I feel for?
Me:  Often.
I:  Do I have more than one feeling in more than one direction about the same person or thing, under the same or different circumstances, with or without allowing an expression in behavior?
Me:  You’re catching on.
I:  Then what determines my feelings?
Me:  How I feel.

Nice interview.  At least it excludes a few unproductive approaches.  What I got from it is that I choose my emotional foci, my emotional experiences and my emotional responses, to a great degree.  My emotions depend more on how I really am and who I really am than on what goes on around me.  If I know more about my own attitudes, what they really mean, how I have managed intricately to construct them, I may become more aware of my own feelings and more free and open in relation to the persons and events about me.

Now to what is concretely real, my cat.  It is through his relation to me I really know his emotions, and mine to him.  We don’t have to think or speak how we feel, but to live it in relationship.  It doesn’t seem to come out of our instincts, but respects them.  We do not give simple discrete stimuli often (but I rattle the can of snicker-snacks to call him) and we do not give simple reflex responses (sometimes he does not come).  Our emotions take place in the flow of our current interaction.

This is the punch line.  Emotions are valuable and valid in the flow of interaction among persons.  They are seeds in the isolated state of one person, but blossom between two, a garden shared by many.  Feelings like faces should be constantly changing to be fully alive.

I feel warmly toward you for reading this.  I do feel my feelings more fully because we have discussed this between us.  I am more aware that my feelings are a part of how I am, and a little less I look for you to happen by to make me feel better.  I am a little more free than I was when we first met here, a little more alive.

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