The Octave Of Primary Emotions

Emotion is not something to be concerned about. Indeed, in this sense of the word, concern is itself an emotion; it is a low intensity expression of fear. Mediators are sometimes taught that emotion is preferably avoided in mediation, or at best to be ‘handled’ prior to getting to the job at hand; in this respect, mediation has come to mirror the legal system, which goes to considerable lengths to keep emotional expression out of court rooms and law offices. Many of the popular books on the subject barely discuss the emotions at all; instead, they focus on methods to ‘deal with’ emotions should they intrude. They treat emotion as something that gets in the way of problem solving. The closest they get is to divide emotions into ‘positive or negative;’ the list of ‘positives’ are mostly synonyms, and the reader is then directed what to do with any ‘negative’ stuff, such as take a deep breath, count to ten, work out an analytical response.

This article presents a perspective that emotion is integral to all forms of human interaction, indeed integral to any communication, even with corporations that are just fictional or ‘legal’ entities. It implies that we tend as a society to suffer not from excess but a deficit of emotional expression and that a good deal of social interaction today is inclined to exhibit a ‘flat affect,’ characterized as ‘a severe reduction in emotional expressiveness, speaking in a monotonous voice, having diminished facial expressions’ []. The difficulty in mediation is not too much emotion, but either too little or hiding in disguise, so the mediator has to be able to read signs, clues and ‘tells’ to understand what is going on beneath veneers of rationality.

Emotion needs to be perceived as the movement of energy, which is neither positive nor negative but merely a response to a situation. The different emotions are evolutionary responses to environmental factors. One reason human emotion can seem complicated is due to the fact that we have memories, and not only our own memories but the memories of others which can carry an emotional charge for us, and also one can feel ‘conflicting’ emotions, meaning several emotions simultaneously. One can also be ‘moved’ emotionally by works of fiction or stories from the past.

An emotion may be acute or chronic. Children’s emotions tend to be acute, flaring and fading as the child moves from one emotion to another; the emotion is fluid. But a person may become so habituated to a given emotional response that it becomes chronic; the emotion is stuck. An abused child may become chronically apathetic or fearful. We can find in mediation that a person is unreasonably or inexplicably angry, and we cannot tell where the anger is coming from because there does not appear to be any immediate stimulus for it. The answer may be that the person is stuck in a particular emotion as a chronic response to life.

Normal children are easily excited; they rush at life. But it is not uncommon to come across adults who seldom smile, and for whom a mild interest is about as intense in emotion as they are able to feel. The vibrant societies of the past have been full of conflict, yet buzzing with enthusiasm and excitement for projects upon which we now gaze in wonder and amazement. That is why so many people visit Florence, where the architecture is testimony to an explosion of artistic energy expressed as intense appetite for life, yet Florence was notorious for civil strife and murderous conflict.

Emotion means what the word suggests; it is an energetic expression of movement. Without emotion, no one would get out of bed in the morning, and some people don’t. Emotion is the wellspring of action. As soon as one recognizes that emotion is an expression of energy, it becomes easy to comprehend because we know a lot about other forms of energy. An analogy is with music, where the energy of a sound expressed as a wave length has been exhaustively studied. A single note is a form of energy emitted as a wave, which is received and interpreted as a particular sound. Emotions can be viewed the same way. Every note contains qualities, such as volume, duration, frequency or pitch, timbre and so on, so that a single note can be expressed in a number of different ways. Western music divides notes into octaves consisting of eight major notes and any number of minor notes between them, and each octave has one above it and one below it, ad infinitum. The note expressed in one octave may be repeated in a higher or lower octave. Harmonics are created by combining different notes. Many sounds are way beyond our human range: ‘Astronomers have detected the deepest note ever generated in the cosmos, a B-flat flying through space like a ripple on an invisible pond…57 octaves below the keys in the middle of a piano.’ [Britt, 2003] Perhaps emotions are also infinite, but we lack the sensory organs to perceive more than a few.

Some emotions propel us forward. Some emotions propel us backwards. Some emotions propel us inwards. Emotions are an expression of direction, and the impulse to move in a direction. Emotions are not positive or negative, which is merely to overlay a given emotion with a value judgment, but are developed evolutionary responses to environmental stimuli. The worst thing that can be said about an emotion is that it may be inappropriate to the present situation, and this arises as a function of time and memory, because past emotions may be carried forward in time. But no emotion is inherently negative. Writers on the subject are apt to label fear and anger as negative, but in certain circumstances fear or anger are the exactly appropriate emotions. All emotional response is designed to protect the integrity of the individual organism. Fleeing in panic may well save your life, and occasionally we read heart-warming press accounts of tiny 90-year old ladies swinging their handbags or walking sticks to beat off young thugs.

The primary emotions are sometimes described as sad, mad, glad and scared; this rhymes nicely but is incomplete. We need some more to get an octave of eight primary emotions. These are the do, ra, me, fa, sol, la, ti, do of emotions – apathy, sadness, fear, anger, boredom, interest, enthusiasm and elation. The octave expresses the movement of energy in sequence, and such movement is in a given direction.

These directions are as follows: apathy looks nowhere, sad looks inward, scared looks around for refuge, mad looks around for a target, boredom looks around distractedly, interest looks around with focus, enthusiasm looks around with passion, and elation looks nowhere in particular but feels wonderful. Between these primary emotional ‘notes’ we can find place for half notes, quarter notes and so on until it becomes no longer useful to categorize.

The ‘note’ of grief (sadness), for example, may vary in volume, pitch, intensity and timbre, and then we use different descriptions such as misery, sorrow, anguish, desolation or heartache. The low intensity ‘note’ of fear may be called concern, anxiety or apprehension; a high volume of fear may be called terror or panic. The low intensity ‘note’ of anger may be called irritability, annoyance or aggravation; high volume anger may be called rage or fury. The anger of a psychopath [Silence of the Lambs] is not the same as the anger of a child [Kramer v Kramer], which is not the same as the anger of a fighter [Rocky], which is not the same as the anger of a writer [Solzhenitsyn], and so on in all the situations of life. Boredom may be chronic or acute; it may be felt as dull pain or with exquisite intensity. Interest may be mild or intense; if it becomes very intense it may change pitch and become enthusiasm. Excitement is similar to elation but expresses different pitch and timber. Elation may turn into pure joy, which is what the Romantics were after: ‘Hail to thee blithe spirit, bird thou never wert, that from heaven or near it, pourest forth thy heart, in profuse strains of unpremeditated art.’ [Ode to a Skylark]

The octave of primary emotions starts with apathy, an emotion intensely unpleasant to experience and in which one would expect the actor to make attempts to dull the pain of that dark, inward-looking, sludgy, unmoving congealed emotion. Here we might find substance abusers, because substance abuse is a response to pain and apathy is experienced as pain. Apathy is what happens if grief is continued too long. When the tears have stopped pumping but the situation has not improved, then a person may sink into a low state of almost no energy manifesting at all. The person is not outward-looking, and has ceased to be inward-looking, but is merely sitting miserably. This may be considered close to pathological.

If one can help that person to move out of that awful condition, they might be able to experience an outpouring of grieffor the frightfulness of their condition or past events that brought them to that condition. We see that such a change in emotion is a large step forward, as the movement of the energy goes from almost no movement at all to an outpouring, a pumping of energy literally expressed by the body as tears. Such catharsis brings a great sense of relief. While fear deals with threatened loss, grief deals with actual loss. Grief is an inward look emotion, but the outward manifestation of grief is often tears. It is unhelpful to say to a person who is grieving, “There, there, don’t cry.” It is better to encourage the tears, or at least do nothing to stifle them. Grief is a natural and evolutionary response to loss. It is also called sadness. The flow of tears may be likened to a ritual washing or cleansing, a washing away of the wound. Grief lasts as long as it lasts, and when it is over, the person is then ready to reemerge into the world. In traditional societies, a grieving person is often secluded during the period of mourning, in order to permit the attention of the organism to focus upon the process of healing. It is uncomfortable for a grieving person to focus on business or worldly affairs. That is why, after the events of 9/11, it was difficult in many instances to persuade the loved ones of those killed in the Twin Towers to file claims for compensation, even though the deadline was fast approaching, because they had not yet completed the grieving process and were therefore not yet ready to get on with their lives.

Moving further, one finds the point of fear. Fear is a more active expression of energy than grief because fear wants to propel the organism in a particular direction, away from the perceived threat; it is a flight mechanism. Flight not only requires more in the way of hormonal activation, but is more survival oriented than sitting in a puddle of tears, not that there is anything wrong with tears or grief but in that condition the organism is more vulnerable to attack, whereas when one is in head-long flight, one has a better chance of survival. Fear results in, or is an expression of, the release of adrenalin, because both anger and fear require movement and adrenalin charges the muscles, the difference being that the movement is in opposite directions. The intensity of fear can be so great as to produce paralysis instead of flight, and intense anger can be equally dangerous, inducing apoplexy.

As a matter of a slight switch in direction, the adrenalin charged muscles that are propelling the organism in head-long flight may turn into the forward emotion of attack. Thus fear can turn into anger, but anger lacks judgment and is therefore risky. Anger has a bad reputation in our society because it is potentially dangerous, and furthermore its source may lie in the past, invisible to an observer and perhaps inaccessible to the person experiencing it. We see this most commonly with people who get upset and angry over what seem like trifles. We are talking to a person and suddenly something we said triggers an anger response. This can be quite confusing because the person experiencing the anger focuses on the triviality, being unaware of the underlying cause, and creates an impasse because the trigger for the anger seemed insignificant to anyone observing it. The reason people fear anger is that anger presages attack. Faced with an expression of anger the potential recipient is faced with an immediate decision, whether to flee the scene, whether to appease, whether to submit, whether to counterattack. All these options must be processed at a lighting speed without much analytical input, which in turn creates stress, manifested in the body as the release of adrenalin and other hormonal responses. An angry person lacks good judgment; that is why lawyers try to induce anger in their opponents or opposing witnesses, so they will make a mistake.

Anger is directed outward but it sees the environment as a threat. It is not cowed but it lacks judgment and is apt to take risks in an effort to overcome the threat. So it is not a useful emotion for the calm resolution of problems, but it is fairly close in terms of energetic wave length to achieving a state of interest which is the desired state for problem-solving.

Beyond anger there is boredom, and many people act bored whether as a tactic or genuinely, but boredom is not far from interest and interest is where we want to be. Notice that whereas grief was not going anywhere energetically, fear was going backwards and anger was going forwards, boredom is not going anywhere but is distracted and looking around, while interest is moving forward and that is what we want. We want the energy to move in a forward direction outward towards the particular situation or problem that needs to be resolved; we want at some point to be able to apply analytical skills. Whereas grief lies close to fear, boredom lies between anger and interest. Boredom is an emotion associated with feelings of discomfort, distractedness, of looking around for something to do and not finding it. Grief is active but looks inward; boredom is also active but looks outward, not really moving but wishing it was. Boredom is quite a good place to be because it is not hard to pass quickly from boredom to interest. This is readily observable in children, hanging around the house whining “There’s nothing to do,” but as soon as something is promised, a trip to the playground, a new game to play, a friend to play with, a child may snap instantly from boredom to excitement. Young children move freely from one emotion to another, as long as they have not been abused. Some people are wholly and totally fed up with their jobs; they experience boredom as a chronic condition and it is painful.

The emotion that we need from parties to mediation is interest, and if they start the mediation apathetic about the outcome, or grieving about their loss, or fearful of the outcome, or angry with the opponent, or resentful about being there at all, these emotions are not inappropriate but need to be worked on so that over time, the parties will come to be interested in resolving the particular situation in which they find themselves. Interest may vary between mild and intense. Interest is the emotion at which analytical problem-solving processes become available. That is why it is sometimes not recognized as an emotion at all, but when one realizes that the development of analytical thinking in Western Europe led to a massive and sustained outpouring of enthusiastic investigation into every aspect of existence, it is easy to see the kind of emotional energy that interest represents; it is outgoing, forward-looking and engaged.

Beyond intense interest is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm means literally ‘possession by a god,’ and elation or joy is what happens to enthusiasm when it is considerably heightened. We don’t see this in mediation too much, but for our purposes interest is good enough.

One could diagnose the current legal system malaise from this emotional perspective. Lawyers and judges complain about the loss of civility over the last thirty years. One reason is that the practice of law has become less interesting and for many painfully tedious. Trials can be exciting but are becoming rare. Lawyers are burdened with a ‘discovery’ practice that often consists of propounding and answering large numbers of questions, followed by expensive depositions in which ‘pattern’ questions are asked for hours on end. After years of this kind of stultifying paperwork, dissatisfied lawyers take it out on each other and everyone complains about incivility. The main reason mediation is so popular is because it is so extremely interesting.

Participants come to a mediation carrying with them not only the burden and stress of the conflict itself, but also of the underlying situation that caused the conflict in the first place. The accumulation of wounds that occupies so much of their attention lies in the past, yet clearly the resolution of the problem lies in the future. The problem arrives encrusted with baggage of unexpressed emotions, with pain, bitterness and despair, or anger, frustration and apprehension. These things need to be addressed in order to liberate attention sufficiently to permit participants to concentrate on the future. In this sense, mediation is a process of moving a person’s attention from the past to the future. Similarly, the octave of emotions tends to move from the past (apathy, grief) to an uncomfortable present (fear, anger, boredom) to a lively anticipated future (interest, enthusiasm, elation). If that is accomplished, then it is possible to leave the past behind along with all its accumulated baggage, and this achievement is accompanied by a feeling of relief; participating in this feeling is one reason why mediators like their job.


Charles B. Parselle

Admitted to practice law in California and England, Charles Parselle is a founding partner of Centers for Excellence in Dispute Resolution - CEDRS.COM - and a sought-after ADR professional. An experienced litigator, he enjoys the confidence of both plaintiff and defense bars as a gifted facilitator of dispute resolution. He… MORE >

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