Our Early Emotional Life

Conceptual Issues and Questions

Posted Oct 31, 2016

In August, we examined our inborn and earliest feelings and how they work. We discussed how feelings, combined with reason, motivate and lead to human behaviors. This month we take a brief look at some of the conceptual issues and questions surrounding our early emotional life.

Technical and Psychoanalytic Considerations: Early Affect and Development

Affect (feeling) is seen as providing amplification. Without the amplification of the affect system “nothing else matters—and with its amplification anything else can matter… [I]t lends its power to memory, to perception, to thought, and to action no less than to the drives” (Tomkins, 1991, p. 6, emphasis in the original). The drives need amplification of affect in order to function as motivators. For example, sexuality must borrow its potency from the affect of excitement: The drive must be assisted by an amplifier if it is to work at all. At the first sign of affect other than excitement (e.g. shame, fear, or distress), there is impotence and frigidity.

Affects interact in various ways and can themselves be innate activators of other affects. For example, anger can be triggered by distress as well as by an excessive sustained level of the other negative affects (fear, shame, etc.) or positive affects (e.g. too-long-sustained excitement); the interruption of interest can lead to distress and then anger; and shame is a specific inhibitor of continuing interest and enjoyment. Affects themselves may act as regulators and modulators of other affects. For instance, activation of the positive affect of interest can attenuate fear and distress (Taylor et al. 1997; Tomkins, 1963).

This conceptualization is in essence an information-processing system, consistent with recent neurophysiologic studies. As Gedo (2005) noted, “affectively becomes a cybernetic system of intrapsychic communication” (pp. 90-91). Some of the problems with this conceptualization include the vagueness of the term “frequency of neural firing per unit time” (density) and the possibility of other primary affects (Izard, 1977; Panksepp, 1998).

However, subsequent to Tomkins’ death, the bulk of recent neurophysiologic research has tended to support the basic idea of innate primary affects, and various authors have adroitly summarized the burgeoning studies documenting the roles of the brainstem, limbic system, and neocortex in the development, processing, and regulation of affective processes (e.g. Damasio, 2003; George, Ketter, Parekh, Horowitz, Herscovitch, & Post, 1995; Lane, Reiman, Ahern, Schwartz, & Davidson, 1997; Levin, 1991, 2003; Panksepp, 1998; Paradiso et al., 1997; Reiman et al., 1997; Schore, 1994; Taylor et al., 1997).

Current Context

Knapp’s (1987) cogent discussion of the history of the study of affect and Tomkins’ place in it can now be updated somewhat. First, Freud and Tomkins are ultimately both similar and dissimilar in their concepts of affect. Both have something of a binary notion of the subjective experience of affect, and Tomkins substantiates Freud’s ideas of pleasure and displeasure and conflict in demonstrating the positive and negative valences of the various affects, notions that are supported by neurophysiologic research (e.g. Panksepp). The difference lies in Tomkins’ further elaboration of the number and types of affects and the proposed mechanisms of action. Another example involves the drives. Both retain the idea of drives, but, for Tomkins, affects are amplifiers of drives and hence more the motivating agents.

Relationships Between the Environment and Internal World

Second, Tomkins’ ideas include an explicit focus on both the environment and the internal world. In this he is consistent with object relations concepts and current clinical ideas involving a two-person psychology as well as clinical work with children and adults that have to take both the environment and the internal world into account. He takes the environment into account in that affects are biological responses to different kinds of external and internal stimuli: The response of the organism depends on the gradient and quantity of the stimuli. The internal world is taken into account in that each individual has optimal stimulation levels or density of neural firing needed to trigger the affects, that is, individual temperament comes into play (e.g. Thomas & Chess, 1977).

This work also makes more understandable how psychoanalytic theories seem to oscillate over time between an emphasis on the intrapsychic world, on the one hand, and the role of the environment, on the other. The individual internal capacities of the organism (the intrapsychic) as well as the rapidity and level of the stimulus (environment) are both taken into account.

Attachment Theory

Finally, Tomkins’ work currently reframes the ideas of J. Bowlby, P. Fonagy, and other attachment theorists regarding a specific attachment drive. Rather, affects are seen to underlie aspects of attachment, and attachment is mediated by affects. As Demos (1989) noted,

… attachment theory as represented in the works of Bowlby (1969); Ainsworth et al. (1978); Sroufe and Waters (1977)… argues that there is a preorganized behavioral, emotional, perceptual system specialized for attachment which has been inherited from our primate ancestors and is designed to decrease the physical distance between the infant and the caregiver in time of danger. By contrast, the view presented here [that is, Tomkins and colleagues] speaks of highly organized and coordinated systems that the infant has inherited from evolutionary processes but conceptualizes these systems at a more basic and general level, for example, the perceptual, cognitive, affective, motor, and homeostatic systems, which are designed to function equally well in the inanimate or animate world, and in safe as well as dangerous moments. (p. 293)

Later Development

While Tomkins emphasized the innate biological aspects of affects, he also examined their later development. A variety of unlearned stimuli and, later, learned stimuli trigger a small number of affects. “Consider the nature of the problem,” Tomkins (1991) wrote. “The innate activators had to include the drives but not to be limited to them as exclusive activators. The neonate, for example, must respond with innate fear to any difficulty in breathing but must also be afraid of other objects” (p. 57). The infant must be able to cry at hunger or a burn or cut or horrible taste. Each affect has to be activated, therefore, by some general characteristic of neural stimulation, common to both internal and external stimuli and not too stimulus specific. As was noted previously, Tomkins’ (1991) solution involved affect activation via stimulus increase, stimulus level, and stimulus decrease.

With respect to learned stimuli, Tomkins (1991) proposed that the same triggering mechanisms had “to lend themselves to be pressed into the service of learning and ‘meaning.’ It is very unlikely that the innate affect program would have evolved with two separate triggering mechanisms” (p. 57, emphasis in the original). Learned activators of affects may include objects, words, imagination, and other affects. Language both expresses affect and triggers affect.

In this way, Tomkins opened the door to understanding the power and intensity of transference and displacement: Various related stimuli can trigger the same primary affects. Combinations of affects and experiences give subtlety and shadings to later emotional life. For example, Tomkins (1963) considered sadness a variation of distress, in which the experience of loss was involved with the eliciting of distress.

Script Theory

Tomkins (1991) conceived of script theory to account for the role of affect in character structure. “In script theory, I define the scene as the basic element in life as it is lived… [It] includes at least one affect and at least one object of that affect” (Tomkins, 1991, p. 74). The object is not necessarily a person and may even be another affect. Connecting one affect-laden scene with another affect-laden scene involves the formation of scripts. The script deals with the individual’s rules for predicting, interpreting, responding to, and controlling a set of scenes.

Daniel Stern (1985) had a similar view of the early development of affect and character structure, the connection of feelings and experience. He called this process “RIGs”:

Further, we are concerned with the interactive experience, not just the interactive events. I am suggesting that these episodes are also averaged and represented preverbally. They are Representations of Interactions that have been Generalized (RIGs). (p. 97)

It is through the utilization of script theory that Tomkins explored in great detail issues such as the development of character structure and personality. Much of Volumes III and IV of Affect Theory Consciousness as well as several articles contain Tomkins’ (1991 and 1992) elaboration of script theory (Demos, 1995). He presented several categories: scripts of orientation (how to talk, construct, and live in the world); scripts of evaluation (discriminate moral and aesthetic values, what is good or bad, true or false; these include ideological scripts, as discussed more fully below); affect scripts (involving control, management, and salience [i.e. degree of focus on affect itself] or affect); and scripts marked by aspects of risk, cost, and benefit.

Tomkins wrote most about this latter group, and he conceptualized four patterns on a continuum from those most related to positive affects to those dealing primarily with negative affects. These four patterns include:

  • Affluence scripts (governing mostly positive affects)
  • Limitation-remediation scripts (dealing with scenes of negative affects attempting to transform into positive affect scenes)
  • Contamination scripts (governing ambivalent scenes that resist transformation to positive scenes)
  • Antitoxic scripts (which deal with purely negative affects). These are scripts that Tomkins, Nathanson (1992), and Demos (1998) related to clinical work and character structure.

Further Questions

Our discussion of innate feelings—primary affects—raises a host of issues, including:

  • Why do there appear to be more negative than positive affects? This probably has to do with evolution. It is more important for self-preservation that the infant be able to signal when he is in trouble than when he is not. In this sense, negative affects are like SOS signals. The baby is saying, “Help! Something is wrong here.” As we will see, this idea of SOS signals can be very helpful to parents in focusing on the causes of the infant’s distress or anger and fixing the problem, rather than being sidetracked by the behavioral manifestations.
  • Why do some babies seem to be more sensitive to changes in stimuli than others? In other words, why does it seem to take more sustained light or noise to trigger distress or anger in one baby or another? Why are the children born of the same parents often so different in these ways? The answer to all these questions is essentially the same: the inherited neurobiology differs from one child to another. That is, each infant enters the world with the nine responses to stimuli, but at different levels of sensitivity.

This brings us to the concept of temperament. Temperament refers to various aspects of the infant’s innate neurological responses, e.g. greater degrees of activity or passivity, levels of sensitivity to stimuli, and so on. In actuality, things are a bit more complicated. Because the environment has such an impact on the infant right after birth, it is very difficult to sort out what contributions are made by nature and what by nurture. As Demos, Stern, and others have shown, early parental responses to the baby’s feelings or signals influence how the baby regulates these feelings.

  • What is the relationship between the environment and one’s internal world? As mentioned, Tomkins balances them, stressing the significance of both. For example, fear and interest are determined by the rapidity of incoming stimuli (the environment), but at what point fear or interest is triggered will depend on the individual’s sensitivity (internal world). Similarly, distress is triggered by a quantity of stimulation (environment) above the optimal stimulation zone of the individual (internal world).

As we get older, these feelings combine with experience and with each other to form our more complex emotional life—the self and meaning (Goldberg, 2015). As noted previously, later in his life, Tomkins developed what is termed “script theory” to describe this process of personality formation. These various feelings also modulate other feelings. For example, interest in certain instances can attenuate fear or distress. Or remember, for instance, Dr. Seuss’ book Green Eggs and Ham. As psychoanalyst Michael Basch has noted, the underlying theme of that book is the shift from the feelings of disgust to the feeling of interest.

  • As mentioned earlier, there are many different ways to think about and understand feelings. With respect to the work of Tomkins, Izard, Ekman, Demos, and Nathanson, questions can easily be raised. What is the relationship between these feelings and biological drives (e.g. hunger, sex)? Tomkins employs a very integrated system in which affects are amplifiers of drives. Some argue surprise is not a feeling but a reflex. Some wonder about sadness as a basic feeling; Tomkins suggests sadness is a later derivative of distress, when distress is linked with the experience of loss. Some offer that there are fewer than nine innate feelings, with at least surprise, disgust, and dissmell considered differently.

These discussions are complex, interesting, and important. But when one steps back and looks at the larger picture, various sources of data support this notion of “primary affects”—that is, a discrete number of innate, universal feelings which combine to form our complex emotional life. Neurobiological research, infant observation studies, cross-cultural data, and clinical work all tend to support the basic idea of innate universal feelings.

In upcoming newsletters…

With this foundation, let’s now look at how understanding these feelings puts a light on human experience. Over the next several months, we will examine how these innate affects play out in real life—especially as they are involved in development and character structure. We will start this by exploring in greater detail what may be our two most important affects: interest and anger.


Darwin C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Third Edition, P. Ekman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Gedo JE (2005). Psychoanalysis as Biological Science: A Comprehensive Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Goldberg A (2015). The Brain, the Mind, and the Self: A Psychoanalytic Road Map. UK: Routledge.
Izard CE (1977). Human Emotions. New York: Plenum Press.
Knapp PH (1987). Some contemporary contributions to the study of affect. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 55: 205-248.
Nathanson DL (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Panksepp J (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stern DN (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.
Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.
Tomkins SS (1963). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume II): The Negative Affects. New York: Springer.

Book of the Month

The Language of Distress: Understanding a Child’s Behavior
A. F. Brafman
London: Karnac, 2016

This small book is wonderful for parents and professionals. Dr. Brafman presents several short case vignettes of children under 10 years old with various problems: constipation, encopresis, phobias, biting, headaches, breath-holding, vomiting, night fears, and so on.
His general approach is “to discover the meaning of the child’s symptoms” (p. xiv; emphasis in original) and assist the parents in being empathic with and understanding of the child’s fears. He uses words, drawings, and other verbal and non-verbal techniques to help the children and parents express their feelings.
Dr. Brafman closes the book with a note from one of the parents: “I’m delighted the problem is behind us and that we got some insight into his difficulties, rather than just imposing socially acceptable behavior over his worries” (p. 161). Brafman notes the parents were often surprised and puzzled by how the help was achieved: “They had never expected their child to have such a capacity to express their thoughts and feelings, their ‘hidden’ anxieties…” (p. 161).

About Dr. Paul C. Holinger 

Dr. Holinger is the former Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, and a founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy. His focus is on infant and child development. Dr. Holinger is also the author of the book What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.