Disgust: How Social Emotions Become Social (If They Actually Do)

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In my last post I talked about the political, sociological, and economic implications that I recognized as I read neuroscientist Louis Cozolino’s book entitled The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain (Second Edition) (2006, 2014). In this post I’d like to focus in on some technical information from Cozolino’s book that, once again, will take us back to the political, the sociological, and the economic.

Dr. Cozolino presents some fascinating information concerning the development of the “social” emotion disgust. I’m putting social in quotes because some will disagree that there’s a social component to emotions. More on this in a moment. Using sociobiologist Paul Ekman’s work as a background, Cozolino suggests that fear, joy, surprise, sadness, and anger are other core social emotions. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio suggests that many higher order animals—dogs, horses, elephants, dolphins, etc.—actively use social emotions. Interestingly, Bowlby looked at core emotional responses such as startle, surprise, and fear. “The facial expression of disgust—pushing out our tongues, wrinkling our faces, and moving our heads backward—seems to be designed [by evolution] to expel food from the mouth and pull the face away from an object of repulsion,” writes Cozolino. Cozolino goes on to suggest that the innate behavioral reaction that we call disgust was later used by evolution (in a conservative way mind you) to signify or symbolize danger to others. Today we see the symbols of disgust—pushing out the tongue, wrinkling, head backwards—and we know that that person is trying to tell us that this food is bad, don’t eat it. So, what exactly happened? Well, turns out that as we humans (and some higher order animals) developed the brain capacity to deal in abstractions, such abstractions (i.e., pushing out the tongue, wrinkling, head backwards) came to represent the process from whence they came.

Using evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar’s 1998 book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language as a background, we hear Cozolino tell us that “Grooming, or the manual inspection of another animal’s fur for insects and other possible problems, is one way in which primate groups maintain coherence, cooperation, and bonding.” In essence, the physical process of grooming, which helped to insure health, was abstracted out and used to signify or symbolize health and caring. This basic idea—that the essences of an innate process could be used to symbolize that process—has caused cognitive scientists and linguists (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson would be examples here) to speculate that the core of language is embodied, that is to say, comes from our experience of innate bodily experiences. Well, Bowlby essentially said the same thing, that the innate behavior of attaching was abstracted out and used to represent care and bonding within a group. In this way, attachment behavior became a social emotion. Or did it …?

A few years back a colleague suggested that I read a book by Mary Midgley entitled The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene (2010). Midgley argues against the idea of a selfish gene. The idea of a selfish gene comes from zoology professor Richard Dawkins’ highly influential 1976 book entitled The Selfish Gene. The idea is fairly straightforward: genes are only concerned with the survival of the organism, which leaves out concern for groups of organisms. The selfish gene is part and parcel of social Darwinism: survival of the fittest. Well, hopefully I do not have to tell you that the idea of a selfish gene supports a conservative viewpoint. Understandably, this riles liberals no end. So, you have people like Midgley firing back. The main ammunition? Altruism. How do you explain altruism within a selfish gene model? Altruism seems to argue for the idea of a social gene: genes concerned with the well being of social groups. Well, selfish gene believers have an answer: Individuals do engage in group processes but only to the extent that such participation brings benefits to the individual. Essentially what we have here is what game theorists call The Prisoner’s Dilemma. [1]

Here’s the prisoner’s dilemma in a nutshell. Imagine the thought process a prisoner might go through as he or she formulated a plan to escape from prison. One plan would be to trust a few others and ask for help. The upside is that you have help to bring about your escape plan. The downside is you could be ratted out. Another plan would be to trust no one and ask for no help. The upside is no one will rat you out. The downside is you have to do everything yourself. Well, these are the two political models that exist here in the US and elsewhere. Conservatives believe in YOYO—your own your own. Liberals believe in WIIT—we’re in it together. Conservatives fear free riding or freeloading. As a result, conservatives fear social safety nets, like social security, because they believe such social programs encourage freeloading. Liberals accept that free riding is the price we pay for a true democracy. Liberals tend to be afraid of rugged individualism. As a result, liberals fear privatization, like individual retirement accounts. I’m pulling this from cognitive scientist turned political commentator George Lakoff’s work in the area of political framing. [2]

And there you have it. No amount of science is going to solve the Prisoner’s Dilemma, or settle the debate: selfish gene or social gene. Science will not settle the debate: social brain or individual brain. I hope I’m not revealing anything startling but certain models of therapy support particular political models. As an example, behaviorism supports conservatism. In contrast, mindfulness supports liberalism. And, yes, Bowlby took a dim view of behaviorism. Why? Probably because Bowlby operated from a more liberal position. [3] But today, behaviorism is the darling of health insurance companies. Why? Behaviorism espouses a conservative model, which, in turn, seems to fit with current economic models. As a matter of fact, the term mental health is being rapidly replaced with the term behavioral health. During a workshop on cognitive-behavioral therapy a few years back, the presenter warned that in the not-too-distant future, using any modality other than behaviorism would be considered unethical. I kid you not.

So, just a quick post on how science will not settle debates like selfish or social (genes or brains), conservative or liberal, trust or distrust (as in the Prisoner’s Dilemma). “Conservatives demonstrate more amygdala [the brain’s main fear center] activation and persistent cognitive styles compared with liberals, who demonstrate more sensitivity for cues to alternate responses,” so says Cozolino. OK … conservatives are the rigid fear center; and liberals are the flexible PFC (prefrontal cortex)—home to possible alternatives. But if brain science has shown us anything, it’s that these two brain centers have to work together. The prefrontal cortex is home to the Executive Functions, such as arriving at alternative plans of action. But as Executive Function expert Russell Barkley tells us [4], the prefrontal cortex cannot do anything on its own. It needs the amygdala in order to carry out any plan that it may come up with. Ah ha, the brain IS social because it’s cooperative. But is the amygdala being cooperative or is it duping the PFC so as to get its own way, for its own benefit…? Maybe the above discussion is why political satirists Robert and Michelle King developed a summer 2016 TV program entitled BrainDead.

Clinging behavior from our developmental past is now connected to people clinging to their presidential hopeful, both a search for safety and security. If anything, these two persistent patterns —conservatism and liberalism—provide evidence that we need meaning systems that have the ability to map individual to collective experience. To use George Lakoff’s frames, Nurturant Parent versus Strict Father: two patterns that have been with us since Biblical times. As I have mentioned before, following the upcoming presidential election in November, about half of the US will be in mourning. Why? Because their meaning system was defeated, and, by extension, devalued. A presidential election here in the US is probably the single most important event revealing how much we need safe and secure meaning systems born from our need for safe and secure attachment.


[1] For more on this theme, see William Poundstone’s 2010 book entitled Prisoner’s Dilemma.

[2] For more on this theme, see Lakoff’s 1996 book Moral Politics.

[3] For more on this theme, see Ben Mayhew’s article Between Love and Aggression: The Politics of John Bowlby (History of the Human Sciences, vol. 19, no. 4, p. 19–35).

[4] See Barkley’s 2012 book entitled Executive Functions—What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved.