Keltner on emotions

With a title like Born to be Good one can tell that Dacher Keltner’s book about behavior and neuroscience echoes his Buddhist sympathies, and, indeed, he has attended the neuroscience conferences sponsored by the Dalai Lama, which seek to reconcile science and Buddhist psychology. Hence the subtitle of the book: The Science of a Meaningful Life.

Keltner is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and directs the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory. Although it has been covered before, the material Keltner presents is in a popularizing and refreshing way. He concentrates on aspects of behavior eliciting the reader’s interest: facial expressions, gestures, touch — and how corresponding parts of the brain register various emotions, culminating in compassion and awe. Keltner uses the Confucian term jen for the optimal sense of behavior and balance, and while the term may be new to some readers and therefore have no other connotation, jen historically refers to the characteristics of a gentleman in the ancient Chinese imperial court, extrapolated to a universal sense of personal ethics. This may not be what Keltner wants, but at least he does not belabor the term.

The book discusses interrelations of nerve function and the brain, with the author’s ongoing mapping of emotional responses to specific areas of the brain. The vagus nerve, for example, Keltner calls the “nerve of compassion” — not because it measures compassion per se but because its primitive function in the “fight or flight” response is capable of reflecting a hierarchy of emotions. The vagus nerve yields measurements from the colon to spleen to heart and lungs, to laryngeal and facial muscles, and does so with the entire gamut of emotion responses. The vagus touches nearly every internal organ, ascending to the medulla ob longita. The fight or flight response in humans basically reflects fear on the one hand and aggression on the other. As techniques come to pacify and control these extremes of response, the vagus nerve will reflect the change in comparison to the conventional measurements of emotions the average person.

Keltner doesn’t elaborate on the “fight or flight” mechanism, but it reminds one of Erich Fromm’s Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which early established the duality of aggressive response in human behavior. In contrast to instinctivists and behaviorists, Fromm cited the “fight or flight” reaction in human behavior as a vestige of animal defensive response, versus violence and cruelty only characteristic in human beings, not a benign defensive response but a socially and culturally conditioned response, wholly offensive. The capability of human beings to consciously distinguish these two responses enables an observer like Keltner to refine the observations of neurology. Thus the reduction of tension and anxiety in people is measurable in facial muscles, heartbeat, respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), and oxytocin receptors. The vagus nerve is activated with stress and reduced with calmness. The fight or flight reaction itself is reduced in a mammalian counterpart of reptilian immobilization. Of course that’s only how it looks to the panic-stricken and the aggressive.

This information is not new, of course, but Keltner helps popularize what remains tentative and buried away from popular understanding of psychology. But the subjects of his experiments are themselves part of that general public, and certainly influenced by society and culture, but the goal of neuroscience is to find if there are universally applicable results. Keltner thinks so.

The discussion of awe is especially interesting. Awe has historically been reserved for religious emotion, but it was the English thinker Edmund Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, who identified a secular counterpart of awe. Burke identified power and obscurity as key elements in our experience of awe with regards to both aesthetics and life experiences. Keltner identifies the social, physical, and cognitive sources of elicitors of awe in this secular sense.

In the social, awe may be elicited in the experience of a powerful and charismatic leader, in the execution or observation of a great skill (for example, a musician or athlete), or in experiencing a great virtue. In the physical world, awe may be elicited from something in nature, or even something human-made (for example, a cathedral). Even cognitive fields can elicit awe, as when reflecting on a complex theory or having an intellectual epiphany.

Awe spans from a sense of vastness in the above examples to a sense of accommodation in the feeling of smallness of self. In either case we intuit — or sense — a unity, a commonality, with everything, leading to a heightened respect as much as a heightened sense of reverence, the latter being a sense of astonishment. In either case, the smallness of self is a prerequisite to a new personal ethic. It serves the group the person may be involved with by reducing the self or ego, but ultimately it serves the person himself or herself in promoting self-esteem in the constructive sense of crafting a meaningful life. Although awe in the secular sense may have questionable objects (physical awe experienced by a dictator’s swaying rhetoric, for example), it is a continuum of emotional responses linked with empathy and compassion that are most conducive to satisfactory brain responses. Keltner is suggesting that we don’t get that far unless we literally experience awe, because that is where the prime receptors operate. By that time, however, if we have developed the sense of empathy and compassion, then awe feeds back to an approximation to jen and a meaningful life.

hus, the hierarchy of receptors runs from sensory pleasure at an “animal” level of anticipation and the registration of rewarding stimuli, through relf-referential behavior such as pride, then compassion, then all the way up to awe and its registration in particular parts of the brain. Here is a brief chart compiled from Keltner’s text:

sensory pleasure nucleus accombens;
left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex & hippocampus
release of opioids -> anticipation and registration of rewarding stimuli; memory; reflective thought
pride rostral medial prefronal cortex
(frontal lobes)
harm and suffering amygdala fight or flight
compassion (= observation of harm + appreciation of sufferer’s experience) dorsal medial prefrontal cortex
(frontal lobes)
empathy, beginning of perspective
awe left orbitofrontal cortex entire gamut:
anticipation & reward;
fight-or-flight -> adversarial defense
goal-directed action -> approachability;
reflection on internal experience -> perspective