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Habits of Love: What Affective Neuroscience Reveals about Morality and the Mind

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“Animals crawling out of the mud recall our lowly beginnings . . . the belief that morality somehow escapes this humble origin has been drilled into us by religion and embraced by philosophy. It is sharply at odds, however, with what modern science tells us about the primacy of intuition and emotions. It is also at odds with what we know about other animals. Some say that animals are what they are, whereas our own species follows ideals, but this is easily proven wrong. Not because we don’t have ideals, but because other species have them, too.”

–Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist

My perspective as a creative writer predisposes me toward affective neuroscience as an explanatory frame for questions of morality and mind. We often joke among ourselves that science is only now “discovering” what artists and writers have always made use of in their art—the primacy of embodiment, the way physiology and emotions inform everything else. The writer’s cardinal rule is “show, don’t tell”—good writing is concrete and embodied, shows a character’s body language and emotions, shows how characters respond to those around them, doesn’t talk abstractly or preach to the reader about these things. Readers experience literature emotionally, then figure out its “meaning.” Good writing can’t “abstractify,” to use Temple Grandin’s term from Animals Make Us Human. Morality is an abstraction, but the operations of the autonomic nervous system and the basic emotions it informs are not. Creatures, including human ones, will respond with rage or fear if challenged, and will reach out and connect and play and touch and groom and relate if they think they are safe.

Safety creates social engagement—it is in the blood that goes into the heart and the breath that fills the lungs. It’s what happens when you walk into a business meeting and preconsciously assess the feel of the room. Is your senior colleague friendly? Does she lean toward you and smile? Or does she angle her body away from you, shuffling papers and pursing her lips and tapping her pen on the desk? If the former, you relax and smile to yourself, prepared for a good conversation. If the latter, your defenses go up, your body stiffens and shoulders drop, and your heart rate accelerates so that you’re ready for a fight. Already, before a word has been said, the meeting has gone awry.

This kind of automatic physiological reaction to cues of safety or danger informs our potential for prosocial behavior. To begin to address the question of where mind and morality meet, then, I need to depart from the dominant and residual understandings of those words—that morality is a “high” form of consciousness that controls the “lower,” “bad” emotions, and that “mind” is the apex of consciousness, what transcends the “mere matter” of the brain; instead, I want to focus on the basic emotions.

“Basic emotions” are themselves contested terrain related to debates about “top-down” and “bottom-up” views of information processing in the brain. “Top down” begins with cognition, so that your abstract impressions and existing knowledge flow down to lower-level functions like the senses and influence your perception. “Bottom-up,” by contrast, begins with the stimulus and its impact on the senses and emotions, which catalyze a number of reactions that flow up to the secondary and tertiary levels of brain function and are then cognitively processed. Simply put, top-down is idea first, bottom-up is sense and emotion first. 

Two of the main figures in the bottom-up approach articulated by affective neuroscience are Jaak Panksepp, famous for his “laughing rats” experiments that helped prove that basic emotional systems—care, panic, grief, play, rage, lust, seeking, and fear that are located in the brain stem—are shared across species, and Stephen W. Porges, whose “polyvagal theory” is rewriting the dominant paradigms in trauma theory.[1] In polyvagal theory, a “brain face heart circuit” coordinates an organism’s initial, pre-conscious response to the environment and helps determine whether any given situation is safe or unsafe (neuroception). This is determined at the level of the autonomic nervous system and informs the basic or “primary process” affects that Panksepp describes, and because these actions occur prior to cognitive processing, they contribute to a “bottom-up” approach.

The name “bottom-up” can be misleading, however, in that the affective model sees information processing as an interdependent feedback loop. This “bidirectional circuit” (Panksepp) is only “bottom-up” in the sense that “neuroception” (Porges), facilitated by a “brain/face/heart circuit” in the central nervous system, regulating heart rate and other basic functions, is described as prior to perception. The basic affects are activated by those neuroceptions, which in turn inform secondary (memory and cultural learning) and tertiary (cognitive, conscious) brain functions. The cascade continues back down in an endless feedback loop. In a very strong sense, then, the mind is embodied in and informed by systems in the autonomic nervous system and brain stem, and both “mind” and “morality” are fundamentally informed and made possible by them.

Like the work of Panksepp and Porges, what primatologist Frans de Waal calls a “bottom-up view of morality,” located in the basic emotions manifested at the affective, primary process level, articulates an expansionist, not a reductionist, view. He writes that “the moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time. The most fundamental one derives from the survival value of group life. The desire to belong, to get along, to love and be loved, prompts us to do everything in our power to stay on good terms with those on whom we depend.”[2]

Gorillas cuddling on a log De Waal bases his view on years of empirical research on monkeys. One of his most famous experiments featured two monkeys, who were asked to perform the same task, but the first monkey got a slice of cucumber as a reward and the second, a grape. The first was content with the cucumber initially, but when she saw the other getting grapes, and this pattern continued, she started screaming and shaking the bars of the testing chamber. De Waal notes that these actions have a corollary in human actions, such as the Wall Street protests of 2013, and that “to see it so vividly on display in a monkey helps us understand that our own sense of fairness, rather than being a product of our vaunted rationality, is rooted in basic emotions.”[3]

De Waal’s designation of morality as “the desire to belong, to get along, to love and be loved” articulates an interrelational perspective that takes the individual out of isolation and into connection with everything around her, a framework that links affect with cognition, body with mind, and organism with everything that surrounds it. It is what other responses to the “where do mind and morality meet” question have termed “heart” (Ilarion Larry Merculieff), the “matter of the moral mind” (Hester Oberman), and the “ecomind” (Frances Moore Lappé).

It is crucial that the conditions for this kind of connection and prosociality are grounded in the autonomic nervous system and the brain stem. Morality, and mind, begins in the literal reactions of the heart and breath as these combine with capacity for relation to others (Porges’s “social engagement system,” and what de Waal calls the “survival value of group life”). Morality is in these physiological processes as they interact with each species’ differing group norms, from de Waal’s monkeys grooming each other to the play bows of dogs to human coworkers asking after each other’s children. It is in the way small children and dogs will try to comfort you if you start to cry, in my Siamese cat as he kneads and then falls asleep with my Akita dog.

“Morality,” De Waal writes, “has humble beginnings, which are recognizable in the behavior of other animals. Everything science has learned in the last few decades argues against the pessimistic view that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature.”[4] “Human nature” is a combination of basic affects, and whether the positive or negative affects get expressed has more to do with any individual’s sense of safety than it does with either “good” or “bad” natures. In the words of biologist novelist Barbara Kingsolver, both mind and morality might be as simple as “let me be a good animal today. Let me dance in the waves of my private tide, the habits of survival and love.”[5] What creative writers, affective neuroscientists, and many of the contributors who responded to the question all suggest is that these prosocial “habits of love” have had and continue to have immense survival benefits and that these habits underlie the more abstract strictures of morality and mind. 

[1] See Panksepp, J. (2014). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions. London and New York: Oxford University PressPanksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York: W.W Norton; and Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York: W.W. Norton.

[2] de Waal, F. B. (2013). The bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates. New York: W.W. Norton.

[3] ibid., 232.

[4] ibid., 239.

[5] Kingsolver, B. (1995). High tide in Tucson: Essays from now or never. New York: HarperCollins.


Image Credit

“Monkey Cuddle” by Barney Moss. (CC BY 2.0)

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  • Leslie Heywood

    Leslie Heywood is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University, where she is a member of the Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Executive Committee and teaches seminars in Animal Studies, Neuroaesthetics, and Creative Nonfiction. Her latest book is Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors (Red Hen Press), poetry that shows how behavior, emotions and experience are linked in the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

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