The Centrality of Emotion, Part 2: An Ancient Approach to Modern Science


How can we bring our emotions into right relationship with reality?

This is a key question today for Spiritual Naturalists. We want a path that values not only the objective but also the subjective.

As we saw in Part 1, with only a few exceptions, emotion is largely peripheral to modern science, but it was central to ancient philosophy. At the same time, ancient philosophy suffers from one major flaw: its theories are rooted in outdated models of the mind and world.

It seems the ancient and modern worlds each hold different parts of the puzzle. So the question becomes: how can we discover a path that makes emotion genuinely central*, but which is also rooted in today’s best scientific evidence?

Reviving an Ancient Approach

One way to do this is to bring the two pieces of the puzzle together: apply the ancient approach to emotion to a modern scientific model.

To review quickly from Part 1 of this series, the ancient method can be summarized in three steps:

  1. analyze how emotion arises,
  2. diagnose the point(s) at which influence is possible, and
  3. train yourself in the skills necessary to do this successfully

I see no reason why this method cannot be applied to today’s best models. This post will attempt to do precisely that, taking an ancient approach to modern appraisal theory.

A Modern Model of Emotion: Appraisal Theory

Recent decades have seen significant progress in understanding how emotions arise. Theories are hotly debated, but one of the top contenders is something called appraisal theory. Central to it is the insight that mind and heart are not separate or opposed: rather, they produce emotion together.

1. How Emotion Arises

Here is the theory in its most basic form. When some stimulus is perceived, for example a car that cuts you off in traffic, the mind begins a fast and largely unconscious process of cognitive appraisal. In other words, it determines whether and how the stimulus is relevant to your goals: for example, is the car compromising your goal of safety, or your desire for fair and just sharing of the road?** The result of this appraisal process then initiates a physiological response. For example, you may feel your hands tighten around the steering wheel as your body prepares for fight-or-flight. The sum total of this cognitive and physiological process is felt subjectively as emotion. In this case, it may appear as anger, or more specifically road rage.

Here is a graphic representation of the model:***

Appraisal Theory Model

This model of emotion provides the first step of the ancient approach: 1) analyze how emotion arises. The next step asks us to diagnose the point or points at which influence is possible.

2. How to Influence an Emotion As It Is Arising

The cognitive appraisal described thus far is extremely fast and largely unconscious, which would seem to offer dim prospects for intervening in the process. However, a further insight provides what we are looking for: as the initial process is unfolding, it can trigger secondary appraisals.

Many theorists posit multiple appraisals happening simultaneously through parallel processing. For example, the tightening of your grip on the wheel is itself a stimulus that can catalyze a second appraisal, even before the first is completely finished. In this way, the process feeds back on itself in a rich, multidimensional way that allows us to realize – consciously or unconsciously – what is happening inside us and influence the process in a more fruitful direction. We can, for example, recognize road rage in the making and calm ourselves.

It is important to recognize that this reappraisal is a natural part of an adaptive process. In order to respond as quickly as possible to a significant (perhaps even life-threatening) situation, an organism must start evoking emotion as quickly as possible, based on minimal input. For example, your unconscious mind might think: “looks like a snake – better start evoking fear for fight-or-flight!” However, an organism also wants to respond as accurately as possible so as not to waste energy or opportunities: “Wait, it’s not a snake, it’s just a rope – switch to relief and then calm.” The thing is, accuracy requires time-consuming processing of as much input as possible. Thus, the most efficient system will start with a quick-but-sloppy appraisal followed by slow-but-precise reappraisals.

From this analysis, it is clear that reappraisal is not a “suppression” or “inauthentic” expression of emotion; rather, reappraisal is part of the natural process we all do already. It’s just a question of how skilled we are at this capacity we all share.

And there’s the rub: we aren’t necessarily very good at recognizing emotions arising and reappraising them. Often we have to be told by others before we even realize we’re experiencing an emotion: a friend says “why are you raising your voice?” and you shout back “I’m not raising my voice!” – only to realize all too late that you’ve become angry.

So it seems we have a situation much like long-distance running: we are all born with the capacity to run a marathon, but only some of us practice enough to actually do it. It is much the same with taking responsibility for our emotions: we need to practice. That’s where the third step of the ancient approach comes in: 3) train yourself in the skills necessary to do this successfully.

3. How to Train for Effective Influencing of Emotions

This last step is perhaps the most neglected by modern science and philosophy. Only very recently, with the slow acceptance of practices like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is academia even beginning to tackle it. In contrast, ancient philosophies offered students a complete toolbox of practices designed precisely for this purpose.

For example, the Stoics practiced oikeiosis, or “appropriation”, in which one broadens one’s circle of concern beyond oneself to include family, community, and eventually all people (these days, we might go further to include the whole ecosystem). Such a broadened perspective modifies appraisals to be relevant beyond one’s own narrow personal goal set, thus influencing the direction in which emotion unfolds. Likewise, Confucian ceremonialism heightens attention to ritual forms and the relationships between participants, so that one’s goals are again broadened beyond narrow personal interests. Pagan ritual can be understood in much the same way as widening one’s goals to integrate nature, community, and mind. In fact, a great many of the practices engaged in by Naturalistic Pagans, Secular Buddhists, Humanistic Jews, and other naturalists, become comprehensible once their relevance to the unfolding of emotion is understood. By broadening one’s perspective, practices like these influence the appraisal process in directions fruitful for a rich and happy emotional life in closer sync with reality.

Before one can apply such broadening practices in actual situations, though, one must first recognize the need to do so. This takes mindfulness, which is perhaps the most foundational and crucial skill of them all. Most ancient philosophies had some form of mindfulness practice, at least implicitly, while some trained explicitly in it, such as Buddhists practicing mindfulness of the breath or Stoics practicing prosoche. Mindfulness is what enables deeper perspective-broadening practices to be implemented in moment-by-moment situations. In light of this, academia’s recent recognition of MBSR as a legitimate practice appears a crucial step in the right direction.

Equipped with practices training mindfulness and perspective-broadening, a person can begin to develop the skills necessary to take responsibility for his or her emotional life.

The Ancient and Modern Together

How can we bring our emotions into right relationship with reality? This article has proposed one way to do so, by putting together the two halves of the puzzle. We can integrate the ancient approach to emotion with modern scientific understandings of reality.

Of course, this series has only provided the most schematic of presentations. In the online educational course I am currently developing for the Spiritual Naturalist Society, students will explore these ideas in greater depth and begin implementing them in their daily lives. When the course is ready, it will be publicly available to all. Those interested are invited to look for it soon, hopefully within the next year.

Naturalists of all kinds can take full advantage of this powerful approach. Even as we embrace modern science, we need not content ourselves with a solely objective relationship to reality. Nor must we accept philosophical models of mind and world long-since outdated. Instead, we can apply the ancient approach to modern models. In this way, we can discover a path that makes emotion genuinely and appropriately central, while also being rooted in today’s best current scientific evidence.

In short, we can live in right relationship to both objective and subjective reality.


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*By “central” I mean “not peripheral.” I don’t mean to imply it is or should be the only thing at the center of our concern.
**This process is theorized in terms of appraisal variables. The variable of goal relevance determines the intensity of emotion based on how relevant it is to personal goals. The variable of goal congruence determines whether the resulting emotion will be pleasant or unpleasant based on whether the stimulus helps or hinders goals. Finally, a number of other goals, such as coping potential, agency/blame, and degree of certainty, combine to specify the particular emotion that manifests.
***The model actually gets far more complicated than this, but the finer details can be left to theorists. For our purposes, this representation captures the most essential elements. It is simplified somewhat from that presented by Agnes Moors’ article “Theories of Emotion Causation: A Review”, in the 2010 volume Cognition and Emotion, edited by De Houwer and Hermans.

This article was originally published at

2 thoughts on “The Centrality of Emotion, Part 2: An Ancient Approach to Modern Science”

  1. “it is clear that reappraisal is not a “suppression” or “inauthentic” expression of emotion;”

    I’m glad you mentioned this point. As a society, we shy away from any suggestion of emotional repression or denial. Somehow, from Freud to the culture of the 60s to the fever pitch of music, sports, and movies today, so many people treat emotional acting-out as healthy and as a kind of right. The idea of emotional reappraisal as related to responsibility, reality and happiness may catch on and sink in.


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