Category Archives: emotional awareness

The nature of emotions

What is an emotion? Merely an unfortunate by-product of being human? A chemical malfunction of a dysfunctional citizen? The luxury of weepy failures and wet-toast hippies with too much time on their hands that drink psychedelic tea in midnight fits?

In her book The Molecules of Emotion, the scientist Candace Pert conceptualizes the human being as an information network, in which body, mind and emotions are inextricably linked with each other. In her view, our emotions are the subjective experience of our physiological processes, which themselves also cause changes in those processes; emotions form part of a sophisticated feedback system by allowing the network to become conscious of its regulatory signals and direct their flow healthily; in this way, emotions let us know whether information is flowing freely, whether the system is out of balance or threatened, and therefore what actions need to be taken (usually at the subconscious, biochemical level) to deal with the imbalance or threat.

This accords with what some neuroscientists say about the evolution of our ‘limbic brain’ system — a group of regions in our brain responsible for much of our emotional processing — that this system evolved as a kind of ‘internal/external’ monitor: “is this person a threat? am I in danger? what should I do (biochemically, automatically) about this lion coming towards me? now can I relax and digest food? should I be aroused?

Now, because our emotional processing mechanisms (including the molecules of emotion) evolved as a communication system, it makes sense that they – like serotonin receptor sites – would be hooked up to just about every part of us that touches the external world and bears on our survival: brain, enteric (digestive) system, sexual / reproductive system, endocrine (hormonal) system, immune system. We have receptor sites for the molecules of emotion throughout our entire body, down to the smallest kind of immune cell (called a monocyte). This gives emotions the wide-ranging ability to influence the expression of our biochemistry (and cells) in each of the systems in which they act. In addition, the relatively new sciences of psycho-immuno-endocrinology and epigenetics explain how emotional states can actually influence the expression of cells at a genetic level (for example, an inherited gene predisposing one to cancer can be “switched on” / “upregulated” by environmental factors which include emotions).

Candace Pert suggests that for the information network to be healthy, information must flow naturally, the feedback loop must be tight; since emotions here represent information flows, if you allow emotions to flow in a healthy way and seek to resolve emotional darkness and stagnation or shut-down (blockages in the network), information in the network will flow in a life-affirming current. And this leads to ‘adaptive’ behavioural responses to your environment, that is, more magic, more connectedness, a life more in tune with who you really are, better decisions, less emptiness, less voracious consumption of the earth. The opposite (ignoring / denying / suppressing / projecting the feedback signals of emotions) can, over time, lead to emotional dysfunction and, potentially, physical illness.

“Fuck you, I love emotions. Like peace, love and MDMA. But the others ones are for losers who don’t have their shit together”

What does pain and darkness mean to you? What is your relationship to pain and darkness? What strategies do you use to deal with emotional or physical pain? The way you relate to this pain will have implications for your relationship with Ayahuasca.