The Basic Emotions Babies Have From Birth

Newborn baby holding Mothers hand
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Cognitive and cognitive-behavioral approaches have come to dominate psychotherapy, but the emotions babies have from birth may offer alternative forms of therapy. Research has shown, however, that there are good reasons for the prevalence of cognitive-behavioral approaches to therapy. Mainly, this therapeutic approach works for many problems. Depression, in particular, has been shown to respond well to approaches that help people change their beliefs and assumptions.

On the other hand, one potential problem with cognitive approaches is their tendency to relegate emotions to a secondary status. Psychologist Albert Ellis, for example, saw strong emotions as a result of an interaction between events in the environment and beliefs that we have.

Infant Emotions Serve as a Guide 

But what about babies? We've all seen babies who seem to be feeling very strong emotions. Do these emotions result from their beliefs? Affect theory is an attempt to explain babies. We all understand that babies have at least rudimentary emotions. It's a lot harder to think of them as having beliefs. Affect theory differs greatly from cognitive approaches because it postulates that we are born with nine very basic emotions called affects. All emotions stem from these affects.

Positive, Neutral, and Negative Affects

Psychologist Silvan Tomkins believed these nine affects to be innate and the source of all emotions. The affects range from positive to neutral to negative. The positive interests include interest/excitement and enjoyment/joy. The neutral emotions include surprise/startle, while the negative emotions include the following:

  • Fear/terror
  • Anger/rage
  • Distress/anguish
  • Shame/humiliation
  • Disgust
  • Dissmell (repulsion)

Silvan Tomkins originally developed affect theory before cognitive theories were popular. It is one of several evolutionary theories that postulate that there are a small number of innate affects. Much of his original work is reputed to be quite difficult to read, so his ideas have been more popular when presented by others who follow his school of thought.

Chief among these is Dr. Donald Nathanson, the founder of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute. Nathanson's works on the topics of shame and affect theory have begun a quiet revolution among psychotherapists. Emotions have become clearer and new light is shed on therapeutic techniques such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

Script Theory and New Psychotherapy Trends

Tompkins' affect theory is accompanied by his script theory (which even Nathanson claims to not fully understand). As we get older, we organize our experience into scenes, then into scripts that include emotions, past experiences and guidelines for behavior.

The gatherings of the Tomkins Institute are one of the best places to learn about affect theory and script theory. Nathanson hosts the event, along with others who are active in research and clinical work on the theory. The colloquium has featured several presentations on using EMDR as a technique for freeing people from destructive scripts in their lives and Nathanson encouraged all of the therapists present to learn this technique.

Is affect theory the next trend in psychotherapy? Quite possibly, but it has yet not reached the critical mass that it needs to dethrone cognitive therapy. It has great potential, however. Next time you spend time with an infant, ask yourself whether she has emotions. Then ask why.

By Leonard Holmes, PhD
Leonard Holmes, PhD, is a pioneer of the online therapy field and a clinical psychologist specializing in chronic pain and anxiety.