Your Emotions: Born With or Learned?

How does a person become the emotionally complex person he is? What are the origins of his daily frustrations, his morbid fears, his feelings of love? Is a person born with all his emotions or are they learned? Or do the emotions develop both through maturation and learning?

Research has shown that emotions do develop and mature from infancy through adulthood, partly as a function of the growth and development of the central and autonomic nervous systems. Some emotional responses are inborn, although they may not appear until the child has reached a certain stage of growth.

However, research also shows that many emotional responses are learned through experience. In view of the complex nature of our emotions, it is not surprising that their development should be equally complex.

A newborn baby is a helpless, undeveloped organism that does little more than drink milk, move around a bit, cry when hungry or uncomfortable, and sleep. However, if you startle a baby by sounding a bell or flashing a light, you may cause the baby to cry. The young infant does react to pain, discomfort, or startling stimuli, but his or her reactions are of a very global, uncontrolled nature. We might say that his or her emotional life simply consists of degrees of comfort and discomfort.

As the baby grows and develops, he or she learns to interact with people and things in his or her environment, and his or her emotional responses begin to increase in number. By the age of five months, a baby may show signs of both pleasant and unpleasant emotions, including distress and even anger. Delight may clearly be present by the third month, while most signs of love and affection may not until the baby is 10 or 11 months old.

In the same way that a child must be able to move his or her arms and legs before he or she can learn to walk, the child must physiologically be capable of producing and experiencing particular emotions before these can be modified through learning.

Classical conditioning

Psychologists have found that there are two basic processes by which learning takes place. One kind of learning is called classical conditioning. This occurs when one event or stimulus is consistently paired with, or followed by, a reward or punishment. It is through classical conditioning that a child learns to associate his or her mother's face and voice with happiness and love, for he or she learns that this person provides food and comfort.

Negative emotions are learned in a similar fashion. If a child is bitten or startled several times by a dog, he or she may learn to associate furry animals with pain or startle and, thus, developa fear of them.

Operant conditioning

The second kind of learning is called operant conditioning. This occurs when an individual learns to do things that produce rewards in his or her environment and learns not to do things that produce punishments. For example, if a mother always attends to her baby when he cries and cuddles him until he is quiet, she may teach the baby that if he or she cries he or she will get attention from the mother. Thus, the baby will learn to increase crying in order to have the mother more.

Every day, we grow and have new experiences. We constantly learn by reading, watching television, interacting with other people, and so forth. This learning affects our emotions. If a person is nice to use, cares about us, and tries to do positive things for us, we learn through classical conditioning to associate this person with positive feelings. One the other hand, if a person is mean, we associate him or her with negative emotions.

In other words, how we react emotionally depends not only on maturation and learning but on how we feel at that moment. Our emotional responses to various stimuli will vary, depending on what factors influence us at the time.

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