Natural Spirituality: What we can learn from the biology of emotion

(Today’s article is by guest writer Katherine Peil Kauffman. A brief bio is provided below.)

Humanity enjoys an abundance of divine guidance from religions East and West – epic poems, revelatory scriptures, and sacred cannons. Although authoritative, inspired or inspiring, all such holy books are external man-made sources of wisdom. They are artifacts of human culture. As a scientist, I hold the empirical artifacts of the universe and the biosphere – the Book of Nature – to be the purest revelatory word of any Divine Creator. But I am no Atheist. Human beings ponder that which we symbolize as God “in face of mystery”. While we search for patterns and order, we must honor the creative chaos within the cosmic machinery, and dwell comfortably in the humility of our corporeal limitations. 

Nonetheless, through our nature, the divine mystery compels us from within. We are born hardwired to experience joy, curiosity, wonder, zeal, and yes, faith. Such feelings pour forth from vital – indeed divine depths – of our being, giving us meaning and purpose, drawing us naturally and magnetically toward beauty, truth, and goodness. 

Such emotions are central to the human design. But so are their darker cousins: sadness, fear, anger, disgust, shame, envy, rage and hate – feelings associated with the Seven Deadly Sins. My calling has been to discover why. To answer the questions: What are feelings? Why do we experience them in good and bad – pleasurable or painful – categories? Why are they hard-wired with levels of intensity that can hijack our minds and bodies, drive entrenched social conflict, and lead us down a path of suffering and self-destruction?

As mentioned in my earlier piece for SNS, The Purpose of Emotions, the key scientific question was: What is the biological function of emotion? The answer was that emotion functions in all living creatures as a primal self-regulatory sensory system. Together, these four simple words offer many uniquely surprising additions to our collective understanding of human nature. Like dropping a nugget into a still pond, potentially life-changing implications ripple out in nearly every direction, even redefining what it means to be alive, and offering untold promise for our human potential. 

In this follow-up, my goal is to unpack this missing function phrase by phrase, while placing it in the context of our everyday personal feelings and universal spiritual experiences. My hope is that these additions can initiate personal reacquaintance and reconnection with our magnificent emotional sensibilities. They are our biological birthright and we have neither yet experienced them fully nor utilized them optimally either as individuals or as a species. But perhaps my most urgent goal is to disavow the empirically unsupportable dogma – from both science and religion – that has inadvertently disabled us, by historically denying, diminishing or distorting the divine elegance of our natural design.

Emotion as a Sensory System
For contextual simplicity we’ll start with the second phrase: “sensory system”. The big news here is that emotion emerged as the first, most ancient form of sensory perception, the grandparent of all other senses. But emotional qualia include both informative feelings and motor behaviors, specifically a good or bad sensory stimulus and a coupled approach or avoidant action tendency. However subtle (even subconscious), these behavioral components still show up in the motivational dimension of human experience. This means simply that our feelings push and pull us in specifically “hedonic” directions: Toward that which is pleasurable and away from that which is painful. Although the term “hedonism” remains tainted by pejorative religious connotations, this universal pattern is observable in all living creatures, and it undergirds all teleological – purposeful – behavior. Our emotional hardware ultimately ensures that we will orient ourselves toward “True North” in terms of optimal physical, mental and spiritual being and becoming. But this will require understanding and extracting the information provided by emotional sensory qualia.

Notice that emotional qualia are binary, two kinds of feelings (good or bad) delivering two kinds of behaviors (attraction or repulsion). This is significant because such binaries undergird digital computation – the heart of information processing itself. Like the 1s and 0s that forge the logic gates and electronic circuits of our computers, emotional qualia deliver the most important kind of information: Evaluative information. They encode an evaluative “yes/no” logic that biologically undergirds all higher cognitive and linguistic representations of “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong”. Indeed, binary emotional qualia deliver what I call the fundamental semantic information bit, the natural bedrock of all evaluative meaning. Were it not for the preemptive methodological misstep of the naturalistic fallacy (limited further by the Newtonian machine metaphor, the denial of animal intelligence, and the Cartesian severance of mind from body), Western science might have discovered and embraced nature’s evaluative logic long ago.

Cracking the Ancient Evaluative Code
While this ancient logic will extend into many complex human domains, it originates and bubbles upward from the physical laws and chemical processes that undergird life itself. The ultimate value represented by feelings concerns physical health, optimal –- “right” –- living in terms of immediate bodily states. In the most general sense feelings say: YES to ongoing creation and NO to impending destruction. But this logic emerges from the generative dance of complementary opposites in nature, dynamic self-organizing processes depicted as The Way in Taoism, driven by dialectic interactions between Yin and Yang. Such a dance yields a dynamic kinetic equilibrium in nonequilibrium systems, a balanced stability over time despite ongoing energy exchanges with the local environment. It is evident in biology as the bistable (on/off) switching within cell signaling and genetic and neural regulatory networks; in particle physics as positive/negative changes and attractive/repulsive electromagnetic forces, and in quantum mechanics as superpositions and constructive/destructive wave harmonics; and in mathematics as conjugate variables and Fourier Transforms

But the particular Yin/Yang pair of interest, seems to be the dynamic attractors/repellors that mediate stability and change in complex systems, and the ultimate complementary opposites of order and chaos. They provide the logical bridge between the lawful happenings of physics and the purposeful doings of life. Indeed, emotional resonance and dissonance are associated with the balanced state known as the “edge-of-chaos” , the sweet spot between chaotic (entropic) dissolution of form and the rigid inflexibility of excessive order. To maintain and restore balance on the edge-of-chaos marks the universally favored state at the heart of both information processing and physical “sensitivity”.  This is where thermodynamically favored states in physics, deliver morphodynamically favored shapes in chemistry, that in turn, give rise to teleologically favored experiences in sentient creatures.

This is where the Yin/Yang complements in Taoist logic align with the Middle Way in Buddhism and the Golden Mean in Aristotelian virtue ethics. This is where science can now lend retrospective voice to the emergent semantic thought systems that characterized the Axial Age  (mid-first millennium BCE), those that manifested in Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Platonism, and Zoroastrianism. Each, in their own way defining a functionally expansive “Greater Good”, that fostered all new levels of holistic unity of human behavior across space and time. Indeed, the recent positive psychology movement explicitly aligns the Greater Good with our True North dimension of positive emotional experience

The deeper biological revelations of the ancient yes/no logic, however, elucidate how both positive and negative emotions promote the universal Greater Good of right (edge-of-chaos) states of balance. This is where the logic of our natural design defines the evaluative terms right and wrong. Both good and bad feelings are asking the creature to restore balance – to right oneself, like a captain would right his sailboat in response to winds of change. To “right oneself” is a verb, a response-ability that is under evolutionary selective pressure. To right oneself, is nature’s singular and universal moral imperative toward the ultimate Greater Good of optimal health, vibrant living, and life-long evolution. To right oneself is to literally change the immediate relationship between the body and its external world. 

The Ultimate Emotional Gift:  Self-regulation
This brings us to the meatier phrase of the long-lost function: “self-regulatory”. It captures the ultimate reason all creatures have feelings: Emotional sensory perception regulates the self

The word regulation speaks volumes about the command-and-control machinery of our natural design – how the behavior of living creatures is controlled (animated) from within. This self-regulatory design is driven by a circular flow of energy, feedback information and activity between the creature and its external environment. While covered in detail elsewhere, I’ll mention three key points here.

First, this circular flow is comprised of a three-step cybernetic control loop, that: 1) compares “the self” against the conditions of its external “not-self’ environment; then 2) signals when imbalances occur, and triggers a 3) self-correcting response that restores the living machine to its optimal trajectory.  While this might sound jargony, rest assured that clever engineers routinely use nature’s cybernetic design principles to control machines ranging from guided missiles to intelligent robots. The key point is that this circular flow of self-correcting feedback information ensures the machine will right itself whenever necessary in order to stay on its pre-programmed course. 

Second, on the inside, a self-regulating system is multitiered, organized as a holarchy or fractal. This can be envisioned like a set of Russian Nesting Dolls, its identity existing simultaneously as both part and whole at every level. The aforementioned regulatory control is distributed throughout the entire organism with bidirectional information flows in vertical dimensions as well.  Any “top-down” automatic control from the global “whole” (the biggest doll) serves to constrain (stabilize) and enable – empower – the “bottom-up” self-regulatory activity of each of its local “parts” (each smaller doll interacting within its own local time/space environment.)  For example, how the vertebrate brain uses neuropeptides – “the molecules of emotion” – including hormones to coordinate the activity of all the unique various cell types that construct and maintain the tissues and organs of the body). In the language of complex systems, the yes/no evaluative code serves as a “simple rule”, a common algorithmic language that allows each part to right itself to the edge-of-chaos, yielding optimal self-regulation, coherence and integrity across all levels. This is why our emotional system is so intimately entangled with immune epigenetic, and genetic regulatory processes, and how lingering positive (eustress) and negative emotion (distress – inflammation) can deliver placebo and nocebo responses from the mind to the body. 

Third, and most importantly, what nature has created in living creatures that AI engineers cannot, is that the cybernetic control loop itself constitutes a living, developing, mind at every level. Whether instantiated by receptors on a cell membrane or the complex sense organs of the vertebrate brain, this is where emotional sentience plays its central and vital role. Indeed, the perception of hedonic qualia pulls triple duty in the sensorimotor feedback loop: It serves as the feeling signal, the behavioral correction, and furthermore it feeds back as the fundamental semantic information bit that forges evaluative memories, habits, and cognitive schemata – literally constructing the mindscape. Hedonic qualia serve as the “unconditioned” stimulus-response pair within Pavlovian conditioning, upon which many otherwise neutral cultural values can be symbolically embraced. In other words, emotional qualia are how we see, learn about, and actively utilize the uniquely “good or bad” affordances available in our physical and cultural niches at any given moment in time and space. But central to our new story is that with the emergence and evolution of evermore complex brains, the informational content within the emotional sense became far more elaborate – and indeed remains the biological ground zero for our spiritual impulses and moral conscience.  

In sum, nature’s self-regulatory design has several foundational implications. First, emotional perception is relative in time, space and to the perceiving self; hence the unique “self-relevant” nature of emotional stimulus. Second, emotional resonance and dissonance provides the common evaluative language between all aspects of self-identity: between parts and wholes in self-organizing systems, within and between bodies and minds of individuals, and within and between minds that comprise every social group. We can observe the universal evaluative language of emotion in the adaptive learning, nonverbal communication and social cohesion of less complex creatures, and in the human social level feedback of reward and punishment. It undergirds the semantic domain within every human language – the only legitimate cypher for common words such as good, evil, right and wrong. Third, like the pre-programmed course of the guided missile, it’s constant self-correction and True North trajectory deliver all forms of teleological (teleonomic) – purposeful – behavior. 

 Self-Regulation and Purpose in Evolution
But what might be nature’s equivalent of the purposeful “target” destination? This is where the emotional self-regulatory sense has quite profound implications for our understandings of evolution, wherein we find moral value to be rooted.

I hinted before that acts of righting oneself and maintaining a right track trajectory were under selection pressure. In evolutionary terms, this means that the mind serves as the fluid, everchanging, interface between the internal and external worlds, and is constantly being forged and honed through personal experience. This means at any point in its development, each is a unique phenotype – no matter any common, heritable, genotype – and can be more or less accurate in terms of its symbolic match between the internal physical requirements and external challenges and opportunities afforded by the environment. This means simply the real-time emotion-driven behaviors of living creatures have played an instrumental role in evolution all along: That we humans participate in our own evolution every single day. Every time we experience an emotion is an opportunity to evolve.

There is where the self-regulatory logic unites the Darwinian and Lamarckian evolutionary stories, honoring both nature and nurture, and extending the theory to shorter life-relevant time scales. Indeed, both Darwin and Lamarck originally gestured toward the significance of emotion and the “felt needs” of living creatures in evolution. The link to morphological changes was later offered by Baldwin in terms of learning, brain development, and “social heredity”, and further to the discovery that “junk DNA” was mediating dynamic interactions with the environment that trigger cells to switch genes on and off. This and much more is now acknowledged as the entirely new dimension of epigenetic inheritance, where self-regulation and adaptive development take center stage. Once again, we encounter the yes/no logic of stability and change, of destruction and creation, but now in the Darwinian criteria for natural selection: survival and adaptation

We also encounter the triad of self-regulatory purpose, one that reflects the triune structure of the vertebrate brain, and undergirds the three levels of information encoded within our complex human emotional feelings: Painful emotions say no to destruction of the body, serving the purpose of self-preservation. Pleasurable emotions say yes to adaptive opportunities, to novelty, variety and the growth of mind, and to creative and innovative cultural expressions, serving the purpose of self-development – individually, socially and technologically, morally, psychologically and spiritually. Indeed, the information within the appraisal themes of the basic emotions, joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust offer the mind information that can liberate the body from its hardwired behavioral safeguards. Notice that four out of five of these basic feelings are painful emotions. Nature is offering the mind four times more universal information about how to specifically avoid destruction! Once the mind embraces the informational dimension of emotion, the game of life becomes a game of learning and personal growth! Our natural right track trajectory yields an increasing ratio of positive to negative feelings, our edge-of-chaos sweet spot yielding a minimum of around 5/1. In short, nature intends us to be liberated from all but the minimal and inevitable distress of learning error. 

Here is where we find the ultimate natural value. The reason that all creatures move toward the pleasurable, why all humans pursue happiness – the feeling of joy in all its complex forms. Here we find the ultimate True North purpose in nature. For ultimately, over time, maintaining the optimal balance between self-preservation and self-development yields self-actualization of all innate potentials. Here, I intend the term “self-actualization” to mean creativity in all manifestations: From the very actualization of quantum potentials into classical holonic identity structures, each both parts and wholes dancing at the edge of chaos, giving rise to ever-new wholes; to the evolution of novel morphology, complex neural structures with ever-increasing information processing capacities; to the ontological development from genetic seed to epigenetically unique personal identity, to the actualization of all innate human potentials including any mystical identity components like spirit or soul. All of which is driven by our self-regulatory design and our True North desires.

While nature is teaming with meaning, value and purpose, evolutionary theory remains hampered by deterministic physics, by machine metaphors, by fear of religious vitalism, and haunted by echoes of “The Fall” in Genesis. Our natural equipment is assumed to be flawed, driven by outdated instincts or “selfish genes”, our minds and experiences epiphenomenal, and our actions (beyond reproduction) inconsequential on evolutionary time scales. But acknowledging the early emergence and ubiquity of emotional sentience, the ethologically creative role of emotion-driven behavior, the ecologically interactive and self-regulatory nature of the genome drives the phenotypic developmental trajectories of individuals, offers a much richer evolutionary story — an Emo-Etho-Eco-Evo-Devo – understanding of evolution.

Best of all there is no supernatural “evil” in this story, beyond the willful conscious acts of destruction of life.  And there is no “sin”, but that of self-deception, the denial of emotional information, our accountability to it, and/or rationalization of its meaning. But there are wrong-track trajectories marked by human suffering, the complex negative emotions and their coupled fight and flight defenses. These are nature’s telltale signs of a conditioned mind, where the packages of emotional information remain unopened, mindful self-development has not occurred, behavior remains on autopilot, and the bodily safeguards remain in place. This is a mindless state. This is a state vulnerable to emotional manipulation of others who can get inside your emotional control loop and by instilling shame, fear, false pride, righteous anger, rage or hate and harness your fight and flight defenses for personal or political gain. The biologically false dichotomy of “good versus evil” coupled with the equally false dichotomy of “us versus them” is the dehumanizing source of ongoing social self-destruction. But self-destruction begins at the personal level with long-term neglect of self-regulatory responsibility. Indeed, complex suffering evidences stunted emotional, psychosocial mental and moral development – a less fit neural phenotype, creating prolonged inflammatory stress responses that lead to disease and physical self-destruction.

This is why religion has associated sin and evil – spiritual disorder – with the negative emotions and “mindless” hedonic behavior. For example, five of the “seven deadly sins” are emotions themselves (envy, pride, lust, greed, anger,) and all have to do with the lack of emotional self-regulation. This is also where psychiatric “disorder” is also associated with excessive and unregulated emotional feelings and behaviors. In short, both science and religion have been blaming the messenger while missing the message

Fortunately, nature is very resilient, very forgiving of mistakes that yield learning. Although there are vulnerable developmental windows that can leave limitation and trauma, the human being is very plastic and inclined toward empathic expansion, optimal health and wholeness. We are offered insightful and healing dreams, transcendent spiritual experiences across time space and self, and soulful insights to help us back on track. There is THE WAY back from the darkest nights of the soul. This is the essence of our innate divinity. And it all begins with awakening to the stream of emotional information and aligning with foundational binary evaluative code.

Experiencing Emotion as Spiritual Guidance
So let’s not limit this discussion to words. Please take a moment to connect with your own emotional experience. Play the reductionist and think about the core binary categories into which all feelings fall. Go back in time to our single-celled evolutionary ancestors, with simple sensorimotor chemistry delivering emotional perceptions that ONLY felt good or bad. Before neural structures emerged in insects, paving the way toward feelings joy, fear, disgust, anger or sadness in reptiles and mammals.  Long before primate prefrontal cognitive development, human language and culture delivered such personally tailored feelings as trust or mistrust, confidence or shame, admiration or envy, love or hate. Note how the ancient resonance and dissonance bubbles upward within all the higher senses, as the pleasant and unpleasant dimension within sights, sounds, scents, tastes and touch. Notice also how we can see and feel emotional binaries in others, in their facial expressions, open or closed postures and vocal tones. Begin to appreciate how central these evaluative tones are to nonverbal communication, social interaction, and behavioral cohesion – or lack thereof.  Ground them in the idea that they are asking us to restore our sweet-spot edge-of-chaos balance for stability of body and development of mind, which drives an upward spiral of creative self-expansion, individual and social self-actualization and positive experience.

This foundational understanding of emotional information will allow us to decipher what are now three levels of information available within every common feeling.  They can inform us of the specific universal conditions to create in our cultural landscapes to foster optimal and accountable self-regulation, those that offer optimal constraints that satisfy the self-preservationary imperative while enabling the creative freedom to develop and express potential in novel and personal ways. They can inform us which ideas and structures to eliminate – including top-down power hierarchies and social authoritarian regulatory controls that constrain through sticks rather than enable with carrots. They can inform us of the precise ideas, habits and strategies in our mindscapes that are working and those that are not. They will invite us to broaden identity boundaries and reward us when we do, rather allowing them to narrow and close in autopilot ego-defense. What has come to be known as “emotional intelligence” is just the tip of an enormous iceberg.

In sum, while the term self-regulation may have had very modest cybernetic beginnings, the term is  now fully loaded: Ranging from self-organizing autopoiesis (self-making) and preservation of form (self-preservation), to genetic, epigenetic and immune regulation, to mindful adaptive self-development, self-control, self-determinism, self-discovery, and meaningful self-actualization, even the self-transcendence of contemplative practice and oceanic self-expansion of spiritual experience. In short, the “self-relevant” nature of emotional stimulus captures it all, mediating all aspects of identity, spanning the body, mind, the autonomous part, the social whole, and any and all other seemingly mystical aspects of The Self.

Indeed, cracking the evaluative code opens the door upon the spiritual wisdom that lies within. For ultimately, to say that emotion functions as the “self-regulatory sensory system” means that emotion serves as nothing less than our innate – naturally divine, God-Given –  guidance system. It is the physical mechanism undergirding what was once postulated as the vital force – the elan vital – that provided both the animation and guidance attributed to spirit or soul. 

Accordingly, it echoes universal spiritual themes within our religious traditions across time and space: From attaining harmony with the animistic nature spirits of our ancestors, to conforming with the optimal “vibrations” of New Age thought; From the enduring themes of the East: The active alignment with the Divine order and The Way (Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Islam), the yogic cultivation of empowered and creative consciousness (Hinduism), the ego-transcendent embrace of nonsuffering, unity and impermanence, and the practice of right living (Buddhism); to the cultivation of the Western fruits of spirit or attaining the divine wisdom of the heart (Judaism, Christianity). Best of all, as a biological endowment, this innate spiritual guidance is equally available to all members of the human species regardless of race, creed, or socioeconomic caste.

The Book of Nature offers a far richer, more elegant depiction of human nature than we have yet embraced. Emotion science offers a new vitalism, fleshing out its empirical lens with the missing qualitative, evaluative dimension, reclaiming the meaningful rights and responsibilities of creative agency, and honoring the self-actualizing trajectory of Self Identity in all its manifestations. It tells a story of self-organization and ongoing evolving participant co-creation, where our design plan includes both free will to manifest destiny and the innate guidance to use it properly. It tells a story of life dancing at the edge-of-chaos, mediating the grand balance between parts and wholes, with distributed self-regulatory control delivering the optimal rhythmic pace and timing across all scales. Every player attuned to the binary emotional resonance and dissonance, swaying between preserving the body and seizing opportunities for mindful growth as the improvisational dance dictates, spiraling into ever-new self-actualizing crescendos.

The Greater Good is life itself. To right oneself upon the right track is to LIVE as fully, vibrantly and completely as the grand dance allows.  EVIL is simply the reverse trajectory, backward, limited and riddled with man-made suffering. But now, the old story of The Fall, of sin and a faulty design by a bungling Creator, is replaced by The Rise from a Spiritual Flatland of our making, and awakening to the full multidimensional use of our innate biological – indeed spiritual – sensibilities. This is my read of the divine revelations from the Book of Nature.


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Bio: With degrees from University of Washington and the Harvard Divinity School, she writes and speaks on the function, evolution, physio-chemical, and informational nature of emotion, its role in optimal health, development, psychological function, moral reasoning, and spirituality.  Katherine is Founding Director of nonprofit EFS International, whose mission is fostering global emotional wisdom.)






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