Fear, lust, love, compassion…

I’ve got a small confession to make. For the last 10 years I’ve been thinking about writing a book called “Fear, Lust Love…”. I’d planned it as a combination of academic analysis of each concept, combined with a narrative, poetry, and stream of consciousness writing. It’s probably not going to be a best seller…


But these three concepts have always fascinated me. For a long time I’ve seen them as evolutionary progressions, starting with fear, the most basic emotion, moving to desire, and then to love, a complex and highly sophisticated state that is part chemistry, part complex brain structures. With some more thought, I’d now add compassion, perhaps the most complex (and most recently evolved) emotion. In fact, compassion is a state that might even be beyond an emotion, it’s certainly so much more complex than fear or desire, and might not even sit on the same continuum.

The book might or might not happen, but today, I’m going to try to break down these four emotions/concepts. Alas, there won’t be any poetry 😉

We could argue that fear, lust, love and compassion are a progressive activation of increasingly complex brain systems – resulting in continuously more complex emotions that activate progressively larger amount of neurological systems. At the bottom is fear, a system that evolved long before our ancestors displayed any human-like characteristics. In fact, calling fear an emotion is really a misnomer. Fear (and it’s associated ’emotions’ including anxiety, anger, discomfort, alarm, panic, distress, etc.) is a warning system generated by the limbic system in the midbrain. I’ve written about this system extensively (here and here for starters) and how it easily manipulates our behaviour. Despite the variety of fear-related emotional states we’ve labelled, this system is really an alarm bell that forces us to pay attention to our environment when it believes that we’re in danger. This ‘alarm bell’ feels very uncomfortable, and usually activates a fight or flight response. It’s therefore very difficult to ignore – which makes a lot of sense. If it was easy to ignore, it wouldn’t get our attention, and we (or our ancestors) wouldn’t have heeded danger (and wouldn’t have survived to pass on their genes). Of course, this system evolved for a world that we no longer live in, and it’s not sophisticated enough to determine the differences between real and imagined danger. As far as this system is concerned, something is either trying to eat us, or it isn’t. That sort of binary process worked great 100,000 years ago – and works really badly now.

So fear isn’t what we think it is. It’s not so much an emotion as a survival system with a very loud alarm bell attached to it. It works on very simple processes, and was probably our earliest emotion. Unfortunately, because most people treat fear (and it’s associates) as undeniable, it is able to manipulate their actions in a way that doesn’t often work out well for us or those around us.

Moving on, let’s look at lust and it’s associated desire system. Like fear, lust and desire evolved to help propagate the species. Housed in the mesolimbic dopamine system, desire is reward-based. When we engage in an activity that (at least 500,000 years ago) is likely to increase survival (such as sex, eating, drinking, or maternal or paternal behaviour), this system rewards us with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine feels really good. I mean, really good. So good in fact, that anything that activates it can become addictive (i.e., we feel an intense need to repeat it and feel terrible when we don’t have it). This just wasn’t a problem in an earlier world where the only things that actually activated the mesolimbic system were your basics like sex and food (and these were still pretty scarce). But as we evolved bigger brains we got turned on by more and more things. Our aesthetic abilities allow us to experience a dopaminergic reward when we see a sunset or hear music we enjoy. We learnt to refine chemicals that mimic the effect of dopamine (e.g., cocaine) or that increase its effect (e.g., nicotine). We gained increasing access to pleasure on demand (refined sugar, porn, television, the internet…). And now this system can be hacked incredibly easily, making us want a whole coterie of meaningless crap. And, just like fear, we’re hardwired to trust the system. We seldom question its activation, but go to great lengths to do what it tells us to.

So fear and lust aren’t really emotions – they’re the inappropriate activation of systems that evolved to keep us alive in a world that was extremely simple. Now, unchecked, those systems have been the cause of pretty much everything that’s gone wrong on this planet (that humans had something to do with) – you name it: war, the destruction of the environment, global warming, slavery, oppression; they all exist all because we can’t recognise that some ancient internal systems, that we’re hardwired to trust, just don’t work anymore…

So let’s look at the systems that might just save us. The emotions and concepts of love and compassion are pretty complex, and certainly not easy to pin down in the brain. To a certain extent, love is the byproduct of systems that evolved to help us bond with other human beings, so that we’d be more likely to stay together long enough to rear children, and to protect those children by  cooperating with other humans. Two neurotransmitters are active when humans bond to other humans: oxytocin (more prevalent in women) and vasopressin (more prevalent in men).  Although they work slightly differently (vasopressin is more about camaraderie, oxytocin about intense one-on-one bonding), both help to ensure that we’re neurologically rewarded for playing nicely with others (not surprisingly they’re also released during sex). They help us feel a deep sense of connection with others, which in turn reinforces the bond. Over time, humans have developed the concept of love into a wide-reaching notion that can exist internally, between individuals, within groups and, occasionally, universally. It’s a tricky one though, because love can often be brought down by fear and desire. For most people, it’s very hard to experience loving emotions when they believe they’re in danger, or when they treat others as source of pleasure.

It’s not all just neurotransmitters though. Humans do more than just look after their children and cooperate. We’re capable of remarkable acts of kindness that extend beyond our evolutionary programming. A while back, I wrote about Dunbar’s number (see here), a theoretical limit to the number of other humans we can connect with (about 150). It’s speculated that this is because of the complexity of human relationships, we simply don’t have enough processing power to sustain relationships beyond this number, and this explains why we group together in tribes and why the suffering of those outside our tribe doesn’t affect us (when you hear about a disaster in another country, your reaction will be limited unless you have direct family there). Despite these limitations, humans can cultivate a sense of compassion for others that extends across tribal borders and that allows us to look past superficial differences. Supposedly based in the left prefrontal cortex, compassion is the ability to understand that other human beings are just like us, that they have hopes and desires and needs and neuroses. It’s pretty much the opposite of fear and desire, because it allows us to see that other people, even ones we don’t know, are worthy of our recognition and respect.

Now, this is the tricky bit. It’s easy for humans to start bringing spirituality in at this point. After all, we take comfort in believing that something like compassion must have some sort of divine origin, mostly because it’s so different from our basic drives (that often result in suffering). I’ve written about how we’re vulnerable to infection by memes that offer us neurological reward (here) and why faith is the result of lazy cognitive processes (here). Nevertheless, compassion doesn’t need to be dehumanised with a bunch of ‘woo woo’ crap. Insisting that compassion is the domain of religion and spirituality makes it even harder for humans to experience it, because, yes, compassion and its cultivation is actually hard work. Being compassionate requires a person to actively and mindfully assess his or her internal state, and recognise when fear and desire systems have bene activated. More importantly, it requires that person to deliberately act contrary to the way that his or her fear or desire systems are telling him or her to act, and this will be difficult because it will (at least at first) feel wrong. Compassion is the willingness to experience discomfort and confusion in the service of something more complex. Compassion is the ability to recognise other human beings as the same as you, even though every primitive system is screaming that they are not the same, and that they are dangerous because of their differences. Compassion requires bravery and internal strength and awareness, but it most certainly doesn’t need a mystical origin, or the intervention of ritual and convention.

This is our journey. We evolved through fear, desire and love to be able to experience and cultivate compassion. But we didn’t out-evolve these things, they’re still with us (and probably always will be), and it takes constant effort and focus to ensure that they don’t modify our actions. It’s really our only hope. Attending to our fear and desire systems will wipe us out. Recognising that they’re there and choosing to act compassionately anyway means that we might just have a chance.

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