“Motivation and emotion are two sides of the same coin” – Conversation with Ross Buck (Ph.D.) at University of Connecticut

          While Buenos Aires boiled like soup in a caldron in the middle of summer, the campus of University of Connecticut was covered in snow. I had traveled to the United States because of my job, but once I fulfilled my objective, I postponed my return home long enough to take a bus to the north, and go meet Ross Buck.

          The truth is, it was not something sudden or improvised. I had already planned it beforehand. I had even booked some vacation days so as to spend them up in the States before coming back to the ‘porteña’ city. From the moment I realized I was going to be so close to Buck -weeks before travelling- I decided I could not miss the chance to meet him personally. I had read about his extensive research on the brain mechanisms of human emotion and motivation. I knew he had written hundreds of articles, reports and papers; even three books. His ideas on the relationship between emotion and motivation, something I research and I’m especially interested in, moved me –talking about motivation- to look for a face-to-face conversation. That’s how I asked him if I could pay him a visit to his office in the Department of Communication Sciences, at least for a little while. Once he learned what I am working on, Ross agreed very kindly.

          When the time came, I got off the bus at Storrs, where the University of Connecticut is located. I found the place particularly peaceful and integrated with the natural landscape. That’s why I behaved like the typical tourist and couldn’t help taking some pics. My ridiculous omission was that I later did not remember to take a pic together with Ross Buck! (Ross, you owe me this one for the next time!). So I attach here a couple of his pictures retrieved from his own profile webpage from the University (click to link: http://coms.uconn.edu/directory/faculty/rbuck/).

          I walked for several minutes until I found the building where Ross performs as professor of Communication Sciences. He was already waiting for me in his office. The walls were covered in books. His kind character surprised me: typical of those brilliant people who are great, and still relate to others with humility. Dr. Buck, PhD, is known for his concept of the PRIME systems combining motivation and emotion (I will soon explain what they are). He has taught social psychology, he has extensively researched on the development of emotional expression, on the brain mechanisms involved in the operation of emotions and motivations, and on the non-verbal factors of communication. He is currently also working on the issue of emotions in the media (cinema, etc.).

          If we stop and think a little bit, we´ll see that everything that causes emotions motivates us, and –in turn- everything that motivates us generates emotions within. In fact, motivations and emotions are usually found together in the academic books of contemporary psychology, both labeled as functions that <<activate>> us. They promote our behavior. Note that the latin root of the terms ‘motivation’ and ‘emotion’ is the same: moti and motion mean <<to move>>. And that’s how the dialogue began.

          Ross Buck explained to me that emotion and motivation are two sides of the same coin. As I realized his beard matched the snow outside, Ross referred to that coin as a system. We have several systems of behavioral control. A subgroup of those systems is specifically composed by those of motivation-emotion. Each one has a <<potential>>, something in stand-by like a program waiting for the right code to execute an order. Like an ATM waiting for you to enter your pin. That <<potential>> is motivation.

          Ross told me: when a certain stimulus works as input of the system, such potential activates. The <<deliverable>> (i.e. output, i.e. readout) is, precisely, the emotion. Comparing this to the concepts of matter and energy in Physics, Ross made me realize that we never see energy itself, but just the way it shows through matter: fire, force, heat. Similarly, motivation cannot be seen. We only notice its expression as emotion.

          Let’s look at an example: My goal may be to save 5000 dollars by the end of the year. Or perhaps to pass an exam. If the stimulus turns out to be positive (I achieved to gather the amount I wanted, or I got a good mark), an experience of fulfillment and satisfaction activates inside me. I become happy. However, if December 31st comes without enough money or if I miss the exam, these situations act as a key to unlock the feelings of failure and frustration.

          Ross went on: He calls these motivation-emotion systems <<PRIMES>>. Which means <<Primary Motivational-Emotional Systems>>. There are PRIMES too close to the instincts, intimately bond to the depth of our biology. For instance: to be hungry and being eager to eat, to be afraid of snakes and avoiding them, or to feel pain when we burn a finger and so removing it from the fire. This kind of PRIMES is based on brain circuits and neurotransmitters, common to all of us. They are genetically structured.

Adapted from Ross Buck’s power point “Emotional Experience, Expression, and Communication.
A Developmental-Interactionist Approach to Biological and Higher-Level Social, Cognitive and Moral Emotions. – Part I Definitions” (you can find it in the webpage I mention above)

          On the other hand, there are more complex PRIMES, which require the processing of our brain cortex, are subjected to learning and to cultural baggage, and thus are less rigid. They activate according to our interpretation (integrating emotional factors to cognitive and social ones) and they express in many ways. ‘Wanting to perform accurately for our boss’, ‘being acknowledged by a friend’, or else ‘avoiding the fear of speaking in front of an audience’ are motivations not rigid at all. Instead, they depend on which the social standards are, which tacit standards in the particular activity are accepted, what the other people and their evaluation mean to me, etc.

          PRIMES do not only take into account the external stimuli, but the internal as well. Such as thoughts or assumptions we constantly do. They even respond to more subtle stimuli, such as the amount of blood sugar (which, in fact, also modifies the way we reason).

          Completing his explanation, Ross argued that the ‘readout’ of those systems (emotion) can be divided into different aspects:

  • Readout I: changes in the body. Adaptive/Homeostatic responses such as the famous ‘fight or flight’ one. Arousal, such as the heartbeat increase, etc.
  • Readout II: expression (for instance, our emotional faces or gestures).
  • Readout III: sensible subjective experience, being consciously aware of which emotions we are feeling.

          If we pay attention, we become aware that we are able to handle Readout II to a certain extent. We also have the ability of expressing Readout III in different ways, given the social environment and our beliefs. That’s why emotions look -at first glance- so diverse in quality and intensity, person to person, moment to moment.

          Nevertheless, you can tell from Ross Buck’s work that emotions are neither ethereal nor foggy. They depend on very concrete processing by our PRIMES. Systems that integrate innate circuitry with emotional learning. The innate aspect becomes evident when we observe the way the information of the stimuli is processed. Emotions have a certain frame, a certain program. For example: if we interpret an interpersonal contingency as others’ rejection to our self, we will feel shame. Whereas if we interpret it as others’ rejection only to an action we performed, we will experience guilt.

          From my point of view, framing emotions as a part of that same behavioral control system that brings about a certain motivation is precisely the answer that cognitive sciences and social neuroscience were looking for. Models of the operation of human emotions will evolve in the future thanks to this framework of a two-sides-coin comprehending desires, concerns and feelings all-in-one. Thus, evolutions in the clinical and therapeutic fields will also be achieved.

          Thanks a lot, Ross, once again!


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