The Evolutionary Purpose of Emotions is Communication (an essay in YouTube Videos)

A set of brain structures commonly referred to as the limbic system gives rise to our emotions.

The limbic system is associated with mammals. Reptiles, on the other hand, don’t have much emotional range. Sure, they experience sensations such as heat, cold, hunger, pain, and an urge to reproduce; and they respond accordingly. But they don’t feel joy, grief, anger, or terror. They don’t mourn the loss of a loved one (or celebrate their return, an experience every dog owner is familiar with).

Emotions are the domain of social animals—those that have come to rely on the advantages of living in groups. The more intelligent, and the more advanced their social structure, the more emotional. (So for example, dogs have more social structure than cats… and are also more emotional than cats. Elephants — social animals — are emotional. Etc.)

The limbic system is also exquisitely adept at recognizing the emotional states of others. This provides a clue to the evolutionary origin of emotions. The purpose of emotions is communication. If a group member is threatened, that’s important for the others to know as well. Fear is the expression of perceived threat, and is contagious. It instantly agitates others and puts them on alert. Happiness puts others at ease. If you see someone get nauseous and feel disgust and nausea yourself, that’s good, evolutionarily speaking—out on the savanna, you might have eaten the same thing that’s making them sick.

So we’ll say it again: The purpose of emotions is communication.

I see this a lot with my clients. It’s been said that conflicts tend to be 10% difference of opinion and 90% tone of voice. All of the real transformation in relationships takes place at the emotional level. Everything else is just a MacGuffin, a plot device to move the action along. Most of the time disagreements brought to the table are trivially easy to resolve. They’re not the real issue. Sometimes you don’t even have to know what they are (take this video for example):

2 replies
  1. Mark Devon
    Mark Devon says:

    I think each emotion has a different evolutionary or biological purpose. For example, we all feel a negative emotion that I call revenge. We feel revenge when we conclude “X harmed me by breaking the rules”. We keep feeling this negative effect until we conclude “I harmed X as much as X harmed me”. The purpose of revenge is to coerce you to retaliate against rule breakers – even when it harms you. Revenge reduces rule breaking by making victims always retaliate. The fewer rule breakers there are, the more efficient we are.
    You can conceptually dissect all of the emotions in this manner. I have taken at stab at doing so. You can read about revenge and the other emotions at: http://www.theoriginofemotions.com

    • Ken Blackman
      Ken Blackman says:

      Hi Mark. I appreciate your detailed analysis. While your use of the word “emotion” is more broadly encompassing, spanning everything from reflexive reactions to conceptions, I don’t think we’re saying different things. The example you gave is certainly a case of emotion as a form of communication—emotion whose purpose is its effect on others.


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