Emotions and the Well-calibrated Self

There have been many, many models of emotion that have attempted to define and explain what this indefinable and inexplicable thing might be. Most have been failures, unable to account for whole swathes of emotional experience. It can be hard to pin down exactly what has gone wrong in these efforts, but perhaps it can be stated like this: By attempting to explain emotions themselves or by attempting to locate emotions in physical structures of the brain or body, or provide a single overarching purpose for Emotion, each effort has failed by asking the wrong questions. The question perhaps should not be Where are emotions, What are emotions or What are emotions for, but How are emotions.

The oddness of that question – How are emotions – is perhaps the key to its ability to elude us as well as the key to understanding emotion itself.

To be fair, progress with analysis of brain structures, new models of how the brain works, and descriptions that use systems, networks, processes of development and emerging phenomena seem to capture not just more of what we understand by emotion but provide meaningful explanations of how and why. The ideas of homeostatic emotion and constructed emotion are examples of these kinds of approach. They head in the right direction it seems, but they do not go far enough.

To push this further, we need to forget about emotion altogether and, picking up the idea of homeostasis, generalise that idea far, far beyond the individual’s body, and indeed far beyond the actual into the possible – and even into the impossible. This is because emotion is at work in memories, in imaginings, in aspirations and in the workings of logic. It is, in short, a cloud that surrounds the person and all they know, their mind and all they contemplate.

The idea that we feel closest to immediate family, the wider family and friendship groups, then the community, and so on in spheres of decreasing connectedness is an easy one to understand. The more connection, shared experience and interdependence we have, the closer we feel to those people. The less connection we have, the harder it is to feel connected – this is not a difficult concept. For an inherently social species such as humans a sense of connection – of relatedness – is essential for our way of living. It is the web that holds society together. It also, by extension, progressively excludes those further and further from our life experience – fewer contacts and fewer shared experiences you have, the less meaningful that person’s wants and needs are for you, and vice versa.

Within this basic model, how do we understand the idea of ‘myself’?

Does the self end where skin meets air? Does it extend beyond that, into a ‘personal space, or into the family or community? Does it lie in the mind alone? What happens when a person’s sense of self does not fully align with what most would consider the basic unit of self, the physical body or the individual mind? What exactly is this thing called The Self, and how do we ‘see’ it?

The concept of personal space is useful here I think. Most people are well aware that they have a personal space, that someone can invade that personal space just by standing too close. Different ‘types’ of people are associated with different degrees of closeness however. A close family member can hug us and that is fine, while a stranger sitting beside us on a bus can feel invasive.

That concept of personal space is limited somewhat by the use of the word ‘space’ which prompts us to think in terms of physical proximity, and a bubble of ‘my space’ that surrounds the person’s body. Things get a little trickier when we feel our personal space has been intruded upon by loud noise from the next street for example. The source of the noise is way outside the range of any scope of what we typically understand as personal space. Yes, it travels and could be said to penetrate our space regardless of where it originated. But the example does point to the possibility that this space is not entirely a physical thing, or to put it another way, not solely about physical proximity.

Once we start considering personal space as something that does not necessarily need to be about physical space it frees us up to consider what that feeling of intrusion is like and how other experiences are similar. For that matter, though personal space tends to be discussed as something sacred which others intrude upon, it is also somewhere we allow people and experiences into. When someone you care about reaches for a hug, and you are happy to provide it, what does that feel like? Mostly we don’t really think about it. There are clear groupings in our head – people who absolutely are going to get a hug, people who maybe can get a hug in certain situations, people who we may somewhat stiffly hug briefly – your boyfriend’s aunt for example, and people we do not expect to hug ever. But it is clear there are Hug Rules and we have some sort of picture of who sits where in the ranks of huggability. What are the rules? Who sets those rules? Usually, you do. It is your space and you decide this person getting a hug is okay. Definitely not okay for a stranger in a shop or on the street, but perfectly okay for your daughter.

When we push that concept out a bit and think of it as the elements of the environment which are ‘of me’ in some way, we can view certain people as having more or less a part in what makes a person who they are, a role as an external component of their personal space. That helps account for why certain people have more or less ‘right of access’, but it also suggests that intrusions into their personal space are akin to intrusions into our own personal space, that they, being insiders if you like, carry a piece of our personal space with them.

Viewed in this way, the very glue that holds society, friendships, communities and family together, the sense of relatedness which is such a core human need, becomes an inherent part of the self, and allows us to be outraged that ‘one of us’ has been harmed even if we have never met that person.

The idea that autonomy and relatedness are basic human needs is well established, and the two are sometimes presented as conflicting forces. Here, we can view the reach and permeability of personal space as a way to describe relatedness. Autonomy, in the sense of both agency and volition, the freedom to act and to choose when, why, and how to act, then becomes an answer to the question: What are the rules?

Putting this together, we have a sense of self that extends beyond the physical body through the environment through the process of defining certain people and things to a greater or lesser degree as ‘of me.’ As this is at least felt to be by our own choice it is essentially autonomy at work, shaping our relatedness, and then through our relatedness accepting both constraints on and extensions to our agency. We to a certain degree choose to enact our autonomy through association. It is this extended self that allows us talk about ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ – “we really did not play well in the second half” – as a fan of Manchester City who does not live in the UK, has never actually attended any City matches and hasn’t played football since they were a kid. It allows us share a sense of belonging. Our sense of self and our sense of belonging are intertwined not so much as conflicting forces but as mutually supportive forces that wax and wane in their immediate effect from situation to situation.

By building a sense of self in this way we necessarily go way past understanding the self as defined by our physical bodies or even the people and objects we associate with and reveal The Self as what it is – a concept. Being a concept is what allows us extend and contract it, change its permeability and how we respond to its interaction with the environment. It also allows us truly separate it from anything physical and bring into its reach things like beliefs and interests.

When we consider the things we feel some attachment to, some control over, some responsibility to, it quickly becomes evident that our memories, aspirations, imaginings and thoughts are very much part of that. What makes our self what it is includes all this and more, a cloud of gradually thinning density that can reach around the globe, capturing cultural or sub-cultural, religious, national, political, ethnic and other allegiances. I is not just contained within a multitude of different forms of We, but many forms of We are contained within I.

We can push this further. When we exercise our autonomy to manage this personal space, it applies to all aspects of our being, whether they be physical or not, and that includes a sense of control over how our time is used, not just our choice of goals but how we set about reaching them, the things we set out to communicate and the means we select to do that communication, the ‘thinking space’ we defend to cogitate and imagine and plan. We can label these in everyday ways as ‘space to speak’, ‘thinking time’, ‘me time’ or more formally as Personal Communicative Space and so on, but however we label them, they are part of a broader personal space, or perhaps what we could call the Personal World – everything we associate with and over which we feel we have some right to exercise a degree of control, or to which we are content to give up a degree of control. In both instances we are exercising autonomy through freely made choices, but also those choices are specifically about defining how appropriate we feel our relatedness to those things or people is.

Achieving some sort of perfect state of contented balance across the whole extended self, across that Personal World can be thought of as an extension of homeostasis beyond the confines of the body and also into wholly non-physical aspects of the self. Even in the traditional sense of balancing internal bodily systems, such balance is about a constant process of adjustment and most certainly as the sense of self is extended outward and inward, the likelihood of balance becomes less and less likely, and the complexity of maintaining that balance becomes a more and more complex task. I would suggest that we have a name for that constant urge to reach towards balance, and that word is stress.

Understanding stress in this way allows for the widely accepted notion ‘a little stress is a good thing’ – like a bit of exercise being good for you, and also space to allow for excessive stress to wear us down much as relentless physical effort on the one hand wears us down, while a total lack of physical activity leads to wasted muscles and weakened bones on the other. The extreme states are damaging, but some activity maintains a healthy system that oscillates gently around a balanced ideal.

And it is this movement away from an ideal state that is what matters here, because the purpose of this piece is to address the question of what emotion is, and how it operates, and answer that odd question posed at the start – How is emotion?

The original sense behind the word ‘emotion’ is to cause something to move, to put in motion, to impel into action. The idea of a moving experience, of being moved, as ways of expressing the effect of emotion are commonplace. This role of emotion as a driver of action has exercised many thinkers over the centuries – it can hardly be disputed that emotions lead people to act, to cease acting, or to change the way they act. There is a clear connection between emotion and action.

Referring to the model of a multi-stranded extended-self oscillating around a collection of physical and conceptual homeostatic ideal states, we can picture emotion as consciousness of divergence from homeostasis. I described this recently as “shades of the state of being conscious of being.” Essentially, I would contend that we experience emotion as we experience electromagnetic fields – it is only when the field change or we move through the field that we can detect it at all, as a tension through time between an expectation (that is, what we last experienced) and what we are currently experiencing. Comparing each against the homeostatic ideal gives not just awareness that there is a divergence but the rate and extent of that divergence, and the ‘direction’ of the divergence. Allowing for a degree of flexibility, a sort of comfort zone, movement beyond that range indicates an instability, which may require action – the emotion in question is thus engaged by the imbalance. Emotions are, of course, both positive and negative and have a range of intensity – feeling irritation, anger or fury depends on the extent to which the extended-self is unbalanced, and we can actively seek out imbalances that we feel remain sufficiently inside the scope of our control – riding a rollercoaster, going out for drinks with friends, joining the crowd at a football match – specifically in order to feel the imbalance created by handing over control to an external force and the pleasurable emotions that ensue.

That’s all fine in itself, but it depends on a number of factors to be in place in order to function safely, that is, to detect excesses in good time, assess the risk, and choose an appropriate remedy or none.

If the baseline – the homeostatic ideal – is miscalibrated (albeit, it has to be said, against some non-existent theoretical ideal) we have a problem. Everything referencing that baseline will be misread. A minor difference can be understood as part of what results in individuals being inclined to caution or risk, being what we call introverted or extroverted, having a cheery or dour demeanour and so on. Personality, in short. Given that there is no independent universal reference, we, being a social species, tend to use each other as a reference, reading the way others respond and act as a guide, allowing us to learn both where to place our baseline and also the extent to which our culture deems a given response and intensity of response to be appropriate. What gets called behaviour thus arises as the product of interplay between our experience, social references we encounter and how well we have learned to calibrate our baselines and manage our responses.

Needless to say, nobody is born with all this carefully calibrated machinery in place. It is learned. We develop increasing levels of emotional skill as we develop through infancy and childhood and indeed can continue to do so throughout life. Thus, the extent to which a person’s baselines are calibrated against the cultural norms of the society into which they are born and grow are dependent on their ability, inclination and opportunity to reference that information, to process it through feedback loops and test how effective that calibration is, and the kind of inputs they have access to. A person deprived of ongoing caring support in early life or subjected to traumatic experiences will be at increased risk of calibrating their baselines differently – perhaps dramatically so – compared to others in their society. Equally, how emotions are recognised, labelled and their cultural appropriateness will be dependent on external references. We can see the consequences of impediments to this learning process of calibration of baselines and responses in various ways such as the more gradual emotional development commonly seen among individuals blind or deaf from birth. It should be noted that this does not necessarily mean such infants are emotionally incapable as such, simply that they follow a different developmental path. It is more the mismatch between the opportunities presented and their capabilities that impairs development – such slowed development is not typical of deaf children raised by deaf parents for example.

The above examples point to variances in the learning process resulting from the absence of certain sensory input channels. Similar effects may arise through intellectual disability or through heightened sensory inputs. Again, the end result is not an impairment as such but a difference. The process of development may vary, and the resulting calibration may vary. What is significant in all these examples is not that the net result is different from the person’s peers but that each individual will seek out and calibrate to a state that ‘feels right.’

This is of the utmost importance, because that state of ‘feeling right’ represents precisely the interplay of relatedness and autonomy that calibrates baselines. When that process is impaired or the person is coerced into acting in line with baselines that do not represent that personal state of feeling right, the result is a state of chronic imbalance analogous to the sense of dysphoria felt by transgender people.

Externally-imposed efforts to teach ‘correct’ actions will necessarily conflict with the internal sense of what feels right. Not only will this be a slow process and unlikely to result in particularly useful outcomes, it will do psychological harm to the individual in multiple ways, and ultimately their own wellbeing will require that they cast aside the resulting miscalibration and revert to their own ‘correct’ baselines, which have not changed because the inputs against which they are calibrated have not changed. All that has happened is that a mask of learned actions has been applied by others, creating that dysphoria-like state. More, at the point this person seeks to revert to what ‘feels right’ they have lost crucial developmental time – perhaps years or even decades long – and thus inevitably are greatly disadvantaged in their ability to function within relationships and society as a whole. The resulting experiences may well, and sadly all too often do, only compound experiences of exclusion and ostracisation, and consequent chronic anxiety. Essentially, this is a ‘damned of you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario – maintain a mask that does harm or strip off the mask and experience harm.

In terms of preventing such outcomes it is clear that artificial or inappropriate teaching does no good and likely will result in lasting harm. Particularly in infancy and early childhood, play is the basis of learning combined with interpersonal engagement with close family members. In so far as those processes can result in positive outcomes for the individual, they must be calibrated by the person themself such that they ‘feel right’ and thus the meaning of the phrase child-led or person-led comes into real focus. What is appropriate for the individual is not something any other person can define, absent remarkable psychic powers. Trust is therefore an essential component of early childhood support. Despite enormous pressure to the contrary, the child’s developmental and wellbeing interests are best served by trusting that child to know their own needs, to facilitate their desires and exploration as far as safety allows and to put aside standardised plans of developmental milestones. No person is average, and many people not only diverge from average in multiple ways, those very divergences are expressions of the developing individual’s personality and characteristics.


This argument was assembled with the able assistance of:

Natacha Atlas with Mazeeka Ensemble, Ana Hina, 2008
Natacha Atlas, Ayesheteni, 2001
Parov Stelar, Seven and Storm, 2005
Negura Bunget, Maiestrit, 2010
Negura Bunget, ‘N Crugu Bradului, 2010
Parov Stelar, The Demon Diaries, 2015

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