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31. ‘Feelings’: A Litmus Test for System Health

(A full list of the contents of this blog series is available here.)

In my last blog I said that human beings are the measuring device for real weal creation and that this happens via their feelings. The acid test of the things we produce — of economic activity — is whether it makes us feel better than we otherwise would have done, to eliminate physical and emotional pain and suffering and to enrich physical and emotional experiences.

Some people are horrified by this elevation of the subjective. If you rely on subjective feelings you’ll have no objective yardsticks to base decisions on, they say. The result will be endless, paralysing ‘my feelings are more important that yours’ squabbling.

It’s a valid concern. After all, every single one of us is unique and different, so we want different things. How are we supposed to manage these differences — and the inevitable conflicts arising — without some external, objective yardstick to make decisions by?

It’s a big question, which every society and every generation has to find its own answers to. But I believe it is answerable for one very good reason: while we are all unique and different we are so within a range of human universals. It’s possible to say, for example, that generally speaking people like to be well fed rather than hungry and to be fit and healthy rather than ill. If it is possible to identify things that, generally speaking, help people feel better in their lives rather than worse, it is also possible to create valid benchmarks by which decisions should be made: it is possible to design social, economic and political systems and institutions that help to achieve this goal.

A philosophical departure

Unfortunately, in the West, seeing this simple truth involves setting aside hundreds of years of culture and philosophy perhaps best summed up by Descartes’ famous phrase Cogito Ergo Sum — I think therefore I am.

This statement is tragically wrong in three respects. It separates mind from body. It introduces a deep unquestioning individualism (framing both the question and the answer in terms of ‘I’). And it assumes and promotes a doomed quest for certainties. Mental blocks, all of them.

I’ll return to the quest for certainties later in this series. For now, my focus is on the other two.

The mental isn’t separate from the physical; the emotional is not separate from the physiological. We are embedded beings. We think things and feel things with and through our bodies using the same biochemical systems. And these physio/emotional feelings are not purely individual. They are deeply and inextricably social.

Let’s expand a little on these themes.

Emotions are a physiological phenomenon

We don’t operate via two separate systems, one for the physical, the other for the emotional. The emotions we feel at any one time are regulated by how our bodies work, particularly by chemical neuromodulators, including hormones, that are relatively slow-acting and long lasting and which create channels through which signals are sent.

These neuromodulators work in multiple, fiendishly complex, entangled ways, making all simplification suspect. But they are associated with different ‘jobs’. For example, dopamine is associated with pleasure, desire and aversion; noradrenaline with mobilisation for action; acetylcholine with play, arousal, attention, memory and motivation; serotonin with regulation of mood, appetite, sleep, memory and learning.

Evolutionary speaking, human modes of behaviour based on such neuromodulators go back an awful long way. All mammals evolved similar brain structures and circuits that govern their seven key emotional responses of lust, seeking, rage, fear, panic/grief, care and play. (Seeking is our ‘default’ emotion. When we are not in the grip of one of the other task-related emotions, our consciousness tends towards a generalised sense of interest in the world. Just look at a dog out for a walk.)

These emotional affects evolved over aeons, not to interfere in our decision-making as is often supposed, but to aid the making of here-and-now choices. How can we make choices without being guided by some sort of evaluative system that tells us which option is better or worse? Patients with damage to their pre-frontal lobes, an area of the brain which triggers emotional responses, find even the most basic decision-making difficult. Only later in our evolutionary history did we add logical, sense-making reasoning on top to help us deal with conflicting impulses and think through ‘what if?’ consequences.

Evolved to be social

Humans have also evolved to be social beings. From the moment we are born we are dependent on others and in relationship with them. Our physiognomy reflects this fact. Compared to other apes we have smaller teeth, weaker biting and chewing muscles, shorter gastrointestinal tracts and a different gut microbiome. Why? Because of cooking, a social activity and technology that uses fire to extract additional nutrients and calories from our food while demanding less energy to digest it.

Our fire-fuelled smaller stomachs enable bigger brains. Yet, like every socialised and domesticated species, the size of our brains has shrunk by around 20% over the last 20,000 years. Domestication makes us dependent on others for our survival and when this happens, our brains shed things they needed for survival without a group to help them.

Our brains are socially constructed. Literally. Our childhood interactions with others affects our brain’s development, with potentially lifelong effects. The biggest influence on these is the affection and attention shown to us by our carers. Smiling, cuddling, playing and feeding actually affect how the infant’s brain wires itself up.

Individuals’ baseline levels of cortisol are pretty much set for life within their first six months: too high and they will be prone to depression; too low and they will tend to be emotionally detached and aggressive. Romanian orphans who were shown no motherly love and given no sensory stimulation had smaller brains and fewer internal connections and an enlarged amygdala. As adults, they had problems forming emotional attachments and were anxious and depressed.

Our faces are central to this sociality. Compared to most animals our faces are incredibly expressive, with 42 specially evolved facial muscles that communicate emotions such as happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. These basic six expressions arise in every known society and culture and are commonly perceived as such across them all.

Then there’s the complex array of physiological capabilities involving the larynx, vocal chords, lip, tongue and facial muscles that make language possible: a pointless line of evolution without social interaction.

Social emotions

This hard-wired design for sociality doesn’t stop at our physiognomy. It reaches into how our emotions work. What we feel in social interactions is constantly modulated by the hormone releases they trigger. Humans get a surge of the pleasure hormone dopamine when they cooperate with one another. This is reinforced by the ‘bonding’ hormone oxytocin, raised levels of which are both a cause and effect of displays of trust. When dogs and their owners interact both animals’ oxytocin levels rise. If given an oxytocin nasal spray during experimental economic games, people act in more trusting, and trustworthy, ways.

Testosterone, a widely misunderstood hormone, isn’t a cause of aggression but is finely attuned to displays of status — a social construct. It rises rapidly (in both males and females) on winning any competition (including sports). Even watching our favourite sports team win boosts testosterone-based feelings of status, identity and self-esteem while the feeling of schadenfreude — gloating over someone’s fall from grace — comes with a surge in dopamine. (Testosterone surges also make us less adept at reading the emotions of others and more likely to react with fear to unfamiliar faces).

Now. In noting these human universals I’m not suggesting we humans are hormone-driven robots. Quite the opposite. I’m saying the hormonal means by which we actually feel things are often triggered by social interactions and cultural cues. We are not biologically programmed to act in certain ways. We are ‘programmed’ to respond flexibly to what our social and material environments throw at us, and that includes the cultures we live in.

Social emotions such as guilt, shame, envy and jealousy use the same biochemical pathways as lust, fear, anger etc but are learnt constructs — emotions generated by our culturally-mediated understanding of the social meaning of situations we find ourselves in.

The litmus test

Where does this take us? Well, first, what people feel is real and matters. It cannot be ignored or dismissed on the grounds that it is merely subjective. Second, far from being ‘irrational’, opening the door to chaos and mayhem, it is possible to investigate and understand what sorts of situations and circumstances tend to generate what sorts of emotional responses — and it is possible to use this understanding to design better policies and institutions, for both better motivation and better outcomes.

It is possible, for example, to design situations in which stress hormones like cortisol wash over us and stay with us, with far-reaching negative consequences for our health and wellbeing. That, I would argue, is what’s been happening on a society wide basis over the last 50 years in countries like the UK and US — subjects of a massive attempt at social engineering designed to force everyone to conform to a vision of what people should be like — ‘rational’ economic agents seeking to maximise their own self-interest, even if it is at the expense of others. Result: an accelerating decline into a climate of mutual mistrust, fear and anxiety.

On the other hand, it is possible to design situations which capitalise on the pleasure humans get from cooperation and displays of trust and positive reciprocity.

The litmus test that follows is simple (in principle — even if fiendishly difficult and complex in practice). It is this. The policies we adopt and the institutions we build need to be designed in ways that recognise and channel the full gamut of universal human emotions, whether ‘positive’ such as reciprocal or ‘negative’ such as tribal and status-seeking.

Indeed if Antonio Damasio is right, that’s what humans have been doing for millennia: searching for ways of being together that help us feel better in our lives rather than worse.

Here’s how he put it:

“The immune system, the hypothalamus, the ventromedial frontal cortices and the Bill of Rights have the same root cause … When individuals in social groups experienced the painful consequences of psychological, social and natural phenomena, it was possible to develop intellectual and cultural strategies for coping with it.”

Which raises the question — what should these intellectual and cultural strategies for coping look like? To answer this we need to build a realistic picture of humans as they are, not as we would like them to be. My next few blogs will paint such a picture.

Previous blog: 30. What’s wrong with ‘subjective’?


Books and articles I found particularly useful researching this blog include:

  • Gary Cziko, The Things We Do: Using the lessons of Bernard and Darwin to understand the what, how and why of our behaviour, MIT Press, 2000
  • Antonio Damasio, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Culture, Random House, 2019
  • Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, William Heinemann, 2003
  • Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, Vintage Books, 2006
  • Cordelia Fine, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the myths of our gendered minds, Icon Books, 2017
  • Bruce Hood, The Domesticated Brain, Penguin, 2014
  • Robert Sapolosky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Vintage Books, 2017
  • Murray Shannon, Embodiment and the inner life: Cognition and Consciousness in the space of possible minds, Oxford Scholarship Online March 2012. I particularly liked this quote:
  • Mark Solms, The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness, Profile Books, 2021
  • Mark Pagel: Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation, 2015
  • Paul J Zak, The Moral Molecule: The New Science of What Makes Us Good or Evil, Bantam Press, 2012



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