Love – The Most Human of Emotions

1. Introduction

In a previous post in this blog, I had written an article proposing that sophisticated time-awareness is the cognitive trait that makes us human. You can read the full article here, a summary of the same here and non-technical version here. Astute readers will have noticed that the article dealt mostly with human cognition and that I have largely ignored another important component of human nature, namely human emotions (we will soon learn that cognition and emotions are intimately inter-linked). After all, emotions play a dominant role in our lives. It is obvious many non-human animals also have emotions. So, in what way are our emotions different from that of other animals? Is there an emotion that is unique to humans?

The aim of the article is to propose that:

  1. Love is a uniquely human emotion,
  2. Love evolved as a by-product of certain cognitive traits unique to humans and
  3. Love evolved to counteract the adverse effects of Fear in humans.

Let me clarify that I am not talking about romantic love here, which is but a small component of Love (see below). To start with, we will do a little groundwork on the relationship between cognition, emotion and behaviour; then we will look a more primitive emotion, Fear, and study its evolution; further on, we will briefly look at the evolution of human cognition. Finally, we will examine the main themes of this article.

Please note: Experts in the field of neuroscience will argue that emotion and feeling are different, but, in this article, we will ignore the difference and treat them as equivalents.

2. Background: Cognition (thoughts), emotions and behaviour

(Most of the content of this Section are also posted as a separate article here. Those who read the article can skip to Section 3)

A psychiatrist colleague of mine told me in 2009 that there are only two basic human emotions – love and fear. The simplicity of that statement had struck me. But it also raised further questions – ‘Sounds nice. But what about other human emotions like happiness, anger, jealousy, shame, guilt etc?’ I didn’t pursue this line of thought at that time.

Many months later, I started reading the book Feeling Good, by Dr David Burns. It is a great book that deals with cognition, cognitive distortions (see below) and mood disorders. The central themes of this book are:

1. We receive information about the world around us through our sense organs and apply our cognition to interpret it. Cognition is the process of thought; it refers to our perceptions, beliefs, mental attitudes, biases, imagination and knowledge; it includes the way we think about things – what we say about something or someone to ourselves. It is the central processor, which receives input from our sense organs, and modulates both our emotions and behaviour. Thus, cognition gives meaning to the reality we perceive through our senses. It is our cognition which gives us the unique ability to think rationally, to make moral judgements, to appreciate beauty, to form complex societies and nations, and, to wonder who we really are and what our place in this Universe is.

2. Another fundamental concept in cognitive psychology is that our emotions are a direct result of our cognition – our thinking patterns profoundly affect our feelings and moods. In other words, our thoughts produce our feelings! Like so many fundamental truths about reality, this may appear counter-intuitive. After all, it appears that we feel first and then think later; moreover, it is the emotions that feel very real and so profoundly affect us, doesn’t it? Read on to clarify on this very important misconception.

The relationship between thoughts, emotions and behaviour is shown in the following figure:


3. In people with depression, thoughts are profoundly negative; and these thoughts have little or no correlation with external reality. Such thoughts are caused by one or more cognitive distortions (a type of thinking disturbance).

For example, imagine you overslept and were late for an important meeting with your boss. Instead of acknowledging that it is human to make mistakes and trying to learn from the experience, you brand yourself as totally flawed. There is a critical inner voice inside you which constantly harangues you with statements like, ‘I’m a failure’, ‘I can’t do anything right’, ‘I will always goof things up’, ‘I’m a born loser’, ‘I’m no good’ etc. It is most important to realise that this type of negative thinking produces negative emotional responses such as fear, anger, guilt, shame, jealousy, frustration, bitterness, resentment, apathy etc. The end result is a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle of depression, low self-esteem, mental torture, paralysis of will power and more dangerously, suicidal thoughts.

4. It is of utmost importance to realise that these cognitive distortions are precisely what they are – distortions! They do not interpret the external reality in a rational manner. Therefore the emotional responses such distorted interpretations produce are also inappropriate. Sometime during our lifetimes, many of us unfortunately pick these cognitive bad habits of interpreting life’s events with these kinds of irrational thoughts; these thinking disturbances then become so much a part of our personality that they become automatic.

5. Though the abnormal emotional responses are due to irrational thinking patterns, the emotions that are produced and thus experienced are real. So we tend to wrongly assume that the cognitive distortions which produce them are real and valid in the first place.

The following diagram summarises the relationship between automatic thoughts and negative emotions –


These automatic thoughts (cognitive distortions) and emotional responses occur very quickly, former followed by the latter, in response to a trigger – usually within a few milliseconds. Moreover, automatic thoughts are very transient and fleeting. So it is easy to miss the fact that it is the distorted thinking pattern which produced the abnormal emotional response. That is why the concept that our thoughts produce our emotions appears counter-intuitive.

Dr Burns describes 10 such cognitive distortions. They include –

  1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: Tendency to see things in black or white categories. If your performance falls short of your idealistic or perfectionist expectations, you see it as a failure.

‘I came second in the final examinations; I’m a total failure!’

  1. OVERGENERALISATION: Arbitrary conclusion that a bad thing that happened once will happen over and over again.

‘Birds are always crapping on my car window!’

  1. MENTAL FILTER: Tendency to pick out only negative details in an event, thus perceiving whole situation as negative.

‘Life is unfair!’
‘The world is a nasty place!’

  1. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: Tendency to transform positive experiences into negative ones.

‘He is only praising me because he is trying to be nice to me!’

  1. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: Tendency to jump to negative conclusion that is not justified by facts. It includes –

MIND-READING: Arbitrarily conclude that people have a negative opinion about you, without bothering to check this out.

‘He didn’t wish me; so he doesn’t like me anymore!’

FORTUNE-TELLER ERROR: You predict that things will turn out badly and mistake this prediction as a fact.

‘What is the point in giving the exam? I will do badly anyway!’

  1. MAGNIFICATION AND MINIMISATION: You exaggerate your own imperfections, fears and errors.

‘My God! I made a mistake! How awful!’

Minimisation means you inappropriately shrink your own desirable qualities.

‘My honesty doesn’t count in my profession.’

  1. EMOTIONAL REASONING: You take your negative emotions as evidence for the truth.

‘I feel like a dud, therefore I am a dud!’

  1. SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself by saying,

‘I should do this’ or ‘I shouldn’t do this.’

  1. LABELLING AND MISLABELLING: Creating a completely negative self-image based on your errors – an extreme form of overgeneralisation (see above).

‘I’m a born loser!’

Mislabelling involves describing an event with language that is highly coloured and emotionally loaded.

‘How disgusting of me! I ate like a pig!’

  1. PERSONALISATION: You assume responsibility for a negative event even when there is no basis for doing so.

‘It is my fault that my son is not doing well at school.’

Initially this classification of cognitive distortions can be a bit confusing and overwhelming. But, in my opinion, knowledge about these cognitive distortions is one of the most useful you will ever gain.

As an aside, Feeling Good also talks about a treatment technique – cognitive therapy or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). The basic concept of CBT is this – all you have to do is capture the distorted, automatic thoughts, identify what types of distortions they are and give rational responses to counter them. In effect, you learn to talk back to the critical inner voice; your eventual aim is to turn it off. As you keep doing this, you will notice significant improvement in your mood. Why? – Because you are trying to replace irrational and hurting thoughts with more rational and soothing ones. In effect, you are learning to think better. And therefore, you start feeling better. The trick is to capture the distorted thoughts and not the emotions they produce; familiarity with the types of cognitive distortions listed above is therefore essential.

Dr. Burns’ book may be a few decades old now, but its concepts are still valid. You will have noticed that Dr. Burns describes two types of thought – automatic and rational thought. That concept has found support more recently. Cognitive psychologists, such as the great Daniel Kahnemann, have classified human thinking into two systems: System 1 and System 2 which roughly correspond to automatic and rational thoughts respectively. I came across the following in the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (one of my intellectual heroes):

System 1, experiential, effortless, automatic, fast, opaque (we do not know that we are using it), can lend itself to errors. It is what we call intuition and performs quick acts of prowess … System 1 is highly emotional, precisely because it is quick. It produces shortcuts called heuristics that allow us to function rapidly and effectively, heuristics are fast and frugal, but they are also quick and dirty – they are virtuous since they are rapid but at times they can lead us into some severe mistakes. Emotions are the weapons system 1 uses to direct us and force us to act quickly – emotional reaction to the presence of danger is useful since we can react fast before we become aware of he danger.

System 2, the cogitative one, is what we normally call thinking. It is what you use in classroom, is effortful, reasoned, slow, logical, serial, progressive and self-aware. It makes fewer mistakes and, since you know how you derived your result, you can retrace your steps and correct them in an adaptive manner…

…Much of the trouble with human nature resides in our inability to use much of system 2.

Since I had written the initial draft of this article, Dr Kahnemann has written a whole book on System 1 and System 2 types of thinking, titled Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. It is very good book, very informative. Please do read it.

The two types of thinking are summarised below:-


Please note that we are naturally programmed to use automatic thoughts, where as rational thought requires conscious effort. In my opinion, the idea that we use two types of thinking is a profound one and has the power to change the world for the better. We will probably discuss them in detail in another article at a later date.

Closely related to cognitive distortions are another type of thinking disturbances called cognitive biases. They refer to the human tendency to make systematic errors of perception, interpretation and judgment under certain circumstances. Please note that the term used is “systematic” and not “abnormal” or “irrational”. It seems that we are, by nature, hard-wired for such mental errors! Cognitive biases can be thought of as milder forms of thinking disturbances when compared to cognitive distortions and are accompanied by much less prominent negative emotional component. But milder does not mean less important, and some cognitive biases profoundly affect our interpretation of the world around us and our resultant behaviour, mostly, in my opinion, for the worse. I soon plan to post another article elaborating on cognitive biases.

That is about the primer on the triad of thoughts, emotions and behaviour, as well as cognitive distortions. I had to introduce these concepts before we go on to the main subject of this article, namely human emotions. Let us first discuss about Fear.

3. What is Fear? (Fear, and not fear)

I was going through the first few pages of Feeling Good, when I suddenly had a eureka moment. It was the beginning of a torrent of insights.

You see, Dr. Burns’ book was giving descriptions about various types of negative emotions – fear, anger, hatred, jealousy, guilt, shame, bitterness, resentment etc. Suddenly it occurred to me that all these emotions are derived from a single basic emotion – FEAR. My esteemed psychiatrist colleague was right, after all – indeed, fear is a basic human emotion. We wrongly perceive (cognition) that we are ‘not good enough’ and we are afraid (emotion) of this perception of inadequacy. All the negative emotions listed above are due to this fear of inadequacy. And most of us, not just folks who suffer from depression, have this fear to a varying extent. Most importantly, this fear of a perceived sense of self-inadequacy has no basis in reality. It is the result of distorted cognition. There is no such thing as a human being who is ‘not good enough’, ‘a total failure’, or ‘a born loser’. This sense of inadequacy and worthlessness that resides in most of us is a delusion. Therefore fear and other afore-mentioned negative emotions produced by such thoughts are inappropriate.

At this juncture, I want to make a clear distinction between irrational and rational fear. Fear arising out of extrinsic threat of injury, disease or death to self or loved ones is rational. This type of fear is adaptive and is clearly a survival tool. It exists in most animals, including us (the fright-flight-fight response), and is an ancient emotion. More importantly, in case of humans, there is another type of fear. This type of fear is intrinsic in the sense that it can be produced by mere thoughts without any obvious external threat. Intrinsic fear can be either due to rational or irrational thoughts. The rational intrinsic fear is due to human awareness of future, of uncertainty of future and of certainty of mortality, all of which are unique, albeit ‘normal’, human cognitive traits. On the other hand, irrational intrinsic fear is produced, among other things, by distorted thinking patterns which gives a sense of inadequacy; this is the type of fear that is expounded in the book Feeling Better.

Thus, it appears that there are three types of fear in us – extrinsic fear (which we share with other animals), rational intrinsic fear and irrational intrinsic fear. In this article, we will be mainly discussing intrinsic fear, both rational and irrational. From now on, the term Fear will used for this intrinsic fear and include other negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, hatred, guilt, shame, resentment and bitterness. It is likely that there is an entire spectrum of Fear in us, completely rational and irrational at extremes, but with varying shades of grey in between. But dividing it into discrete categories will make things easier to understand.

4. What is Love? (Love, not love)

Let us turn our attention to Love. What do I mean by Love? In my definition, I would like to include not only emotions of romantic and kin love, but also those such as kindness, compassion, devotion, empathy, humility, reverence, awe, wonder etc. Does Love exist in non-human animals? I don’t think so. May be, the bond between the mother and her offspring in lower animals can qualify as a primitive form of love; but to me it appears as a genetically pre-programmed behaviour, essential to aid the survival of the offspring. In some lower life forms, there is some degree of altruistic behaviour, but there is no evidence that such behaviour has an underlying emotion of Love.

Some people will cite the bond that exists between human being and dog or some other pet animal and call it love. But, I do not think that dogs feel the same love as us (Dog lovers, please forgive me. I am a dog lover too!). Let me start by saying that, since a human being is involved in this relationship, it should not anyway be counted. Also, dogs themselves are not ‘normal’ animals. The neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, has good reasons to refer to dogs as ‘off-the-scale’ species. The relationship between humans and dogs is one of the most amazing instances of inter-species symbiosis. Over a period of thousands of years, humans have influenced the behaviour of dogs and have artificially selected certain traits in them which are useful to us, and one of these traits is dogs’ ostensible loving behaviour. Such behaviour gives us an illusion that dogs love us the same way we love them. Please note that I am not ruling out a positive emotional component in dogs’ loving behaviour, but only claiming that the quality of such emotion is not the same as the love we humans feel. There is, of course, no denial of the survival value such behaviour provides – many dogs in developed nations have a cushier life than many humans in developing nations! If you are still not convinced, ask yourself these questions – If dogs really feel the emotion of love, why don’t they show the same love towards other dogs? Why is it that the emotional interaction between dogs is similar to that found between other canines? Why is it that they show apparent ‘love’ only towards their human masters? Is it not, then, a behavioural tool selected to make us believe that dogs love us the same way we love them? By the way, there are other traits in dogs which make us wrongly believe that dogs have a mind like ours and that they think like us.

It might appear to some of you that I am denying the existence of any kind positive emotion in animals. You will then contend that animals do feel positive emotions and will cite the existence of pleasure in them as an example. Pleasure results from satiation of primal instincts such as hunger and lust (which, by the way, is present in us too). Thus, they too have clear survival value. But they have nothing to do with the emotion of Love.

The point I’m trying to make is this: we are not at all sure if an emotion called Love exists in lower animals; even if it does, it is vestigial at best. It appears that non-human animals are driven primarily by fear for their survival, supplemented by the experience of pleasure. In other words, fear is the predominant emotion, and has been, the key to their survival. We humans differ radically from other animals in our capacity to Love; they use fear as their primary survival tool, where as we humans have the potential for the exact opposite emotion – Love. Let me repeat that I’m not talking about only romantic love (though I think romantic love is a component of it), but Love of all things and indeed, all of Nature. We humans have this innate capacity, which is as unique as our capacity for reason, logic, language, music, arts etc. Love appears to be a new emotion, a new evolutionary trait which is well-developed only in humans. It seems as if Nature has selected Love over fear for survival of life, and to further evolution.

I know purists and academics may scoff at my attempt to de-classify human emotions into two simplistic categories – Fear and Love. I am aware that Panksepp identified seven different systems of emotions, each with its own neural pathways, each having separate evolutionary origins – fear, care, lust, panic, seeking, play and rage; similar attempts have been made by other neuroscientists too. May be, I’m over-simplifying; may be, my simplification is scientifically inaccurate. But it is not such a big issue. Sometimes, de-classifying, simplifying and synthesising, rather than classifying, elaborating and analysing, may be more useful to make a concept understandable; some degree of approximation of a concept is justified to gain new insights.

Next, we will discuss the question of how the emotion of fear evolved.

5. Evolution of Fear

The following outline of how Fear probably evolved is a narrative, a story, rather than a scientific account.

Natural selection has favoured the survival of those organisms which had the genes that endow a particular attribute (phenotype) which, in turn, enable the organism live long enough to make copies of the genes. In other words, any environmental threat to the survival of an organism must have favoured those genes that endow the organism with ability to survive that threat. Such attribute initially must have been in the form of physical (or motor) ability like, for example, development of flagella in bacteria or pseudopodia in amoeba which confer on the organisms the ability to move away from the noxious stimulus (later, this ability probably evolved into much more complex forms of locomotion).

Simultaneously, natural selection appears to have favoured those genes that can improve the ability of the organism to sense the threat to its survival; apart from various sensory receptors and sensory organs which have developed to a bewildering array of complexity, an important development has been the evolution of sensation of pain. The function of this important but very disagreeable sensation is to amplify the threat, so the organism can respond rapidly and vigorously to the threat. Because of the obvious survival advantage conferred by pain, natural selection favoured those genes which were involved in the further development of sense organs to detect pain, neural pathways to transmit the sensation, reflex pathways, brain centres to feel the pain, and also, a mechanism in the evolving brain by which the organism can remember the painful experience – memory. I suspect the origin and development of memory is more closely linked to development of physical pain than any other sensation (such as hunger or sexual drive), for the simple reason that being killed and devoured by a predator was the most important threat to the survival of an organism – a clear and ever-present danger.

The next major shift appears to have been the development of emotion of fear – a very disagreeable feeling to a very disagreeable sensation of pain, which in turn was aroused by a potentially harmful stimulus. Fear further amplifies the threat to an organism and definitely adds to its survival advantage. Thus natural selection would have favoured those genes which promoted the development of fear centre in the brain (called amygdala) and those genes which produce the physiological changes in our body in response to fear.

There are other advantages of fear. First, the organism doesn’t have to experience the sensation of pain to feel fear; fear can be triggered by a surrogate stimulus (for example, mere sight, by the deer, of a lion), thus bypassing the need for the organism to experience the painful stimulus. Second, presence of emotion in an organism can create awareness, however primitive, of a similar emotion in members of its group; the seeds of emotional intelligence probably took their roots during this phase of evolution of life. Third, it is possible to communicate emotion by appropriate behaviour at least to your kin or group, who have a similar emotional ‘predisposition’. Like emotional intelligence, the seeds of language must have also been sown at this time; mind you, I am not, of course, talking about the sophisticated language we humans are capable of, but rather a primitive form of communication which conveys emotions. You can see that all the advantages of emotions really add to the survival benefit of the organism and therefore natural selection must have favoured those genes that developed brain centres for emotion (collectively called the limbic system). It is also easy to see why fear is the primary emotion that is well developed in animals – because fear is the emotional harbinger of physical pain, which in turn is the harbinger of physical danger. Since survival and reproduction are the essential characteristics of life, one can see any attribute that aids these ends must have been naturally selected.

That is about the story of evolution of fear. I would like to add that other emotions such as anger and jealousy must have developed subsequently in animals as they too must have aided survival, reproduction or both.

Before we discuss about the evolution of Love, let us first look into the evolution of human cognition. This is because evolution of Love is intimately interlinked to that of human cognition.

6. Evolution of Human Cognition 

In Section 1, we saw what cognition is and its relationship to emotions and behaviour. Simply put, cognition is the process of thought; it refers to our perceptions, beliefs, mental attitudes, biases, imagination and knowledge; it includes the way we think about things – what we say about something or someone to ourselves.

So, how did we become thinking beings?

Let us take a detour and look at a sketchy outline of evolution of hominids. Hominids are the taxonomical group to which human beings belong; at present we, Homo sapiens, are the only surviving species of the group. The first hominids appeared about 2.5 million years ago. They were followed by many intermediate species for the next 1.8 million years. About 600,000 years ago, the hominids branched into two groups from a common ancestor in Africa. One group gave rise to the Neanderthals who migrated out of Africa and settled in various continents including Europe. The other group stayed in Africa (around the Great Lakes of eastern Africa) and it was out of this group Homo sapiens are believed to have evolved about 200,000 years ago. The Neanderthals are known to have existed in Europe for at least 40,000 years until they became extinct about 28,000 years ago. A very interesting aspect of evolutionary anthropology is that till Neanderthals became extinct they did not show any evidence of significant development of intelligence or cognition.

The early human beings who first appeared in Africa around 200,000 years ago are called anatomically modern humans and they too do not show any evidence of significant advances in cognition. Such advances as evidenced by ritualistic burial of the dead, cave art, body ornaments, sophisticated tool-making, specialised hunting techniques, barter and trade over a distance etc appeared suddenly about 40-50,000 years ago and marks the appearance of behaviourally modern humans. This has been aptly called ‘The Great Leap Forward’. As you can make out, this fairly sudden transition to behaviourally modern humans happened at least about 100,000 years after the appearance of first anatomically modern humans. Such behaviour indirectly implies appearance of unique human cognitive traits. The question that comes to our mind is this: Why did sophisticated cognition and intelligence develop in only one species of hominids i.e. Homo sapiens in Africa, and not in others?

Some of you might think that it is our brain size which created the perfect soil for cognition to sow its seeds. But do you know that the hominids’ brain had nearly reached that of modern human about 600,000 years ago? Moreover, the Neanderthal’s brain was as large as, if not larger than, human brain. The reason why brains started enlarging in early hominids is a fascinating story in itself but we will not go into that. Suffice it to say that a large brain had been present in hominids which did not display sufficient degree of cognitive sophistication. Thus, large brain alone cannot account for modern human behaviour that appeared about 50,000 years ago.

It is now time to introduce the concept of cognitive modules. Evolutionary psychologists believe that cognition evolved as a series of functional mental modules in response to environmental stimuli to which early hominids were frequently exposed. Natural selection favoured those modules which were successful in aiding the survival and reproduction of early hominids. For example, there may be dedicated mental modules for sophisticated tool making, language, music, logic, self-awareness etc. It is important to realise that there is compelling evidence to believe that these modules did exist in some early hominids, especially Neanderthals, albeit in a primitive form. Therefore, we can come to the conclusion that individual cognitive modules did not appear suddenly in humans but rather have been evolving over hundreds of thousands of years in early hominids.

But, the evolution of individual cognitive modules cannot explain the simultaneous appearance of myriad facets of modern human behaviour. Think about this: Each one of this behaviour like cave art, ritualistic burial, body ornament etc is unique and unprecedented, and has never been seen in any other life form before. The chances of multiple and diverse, but unique and unprecedented behavioural traits, all appearing independently, or, all becoming sophisticated in a single species almost at the same time, is almost nil. So how else could modern human behaviour have appeared suddenly about 50,000 years ago?

I think the above conundrum can be explained by the appearance of a more fundamental cognitive module in Homo sapiens. This module must be the spark which lighted up all the other pre-existing modules; it must be the catalyst which augmented their function. The appearance of a single module is more probable than the independent but simultaneous sophistication of multiple cognitive modules. Because of the fundamental (so called ‘domain non-specific’) nature of such a module, one can assume that it can simultaneously affect the function of various pre-existing cognitive modules and bring about augmentation of their functions.

If this is the case, what is that fundamental cognitive module? It is tempting to presume that it is self-awareness. After all, one of the most distinctive human trait is self-awareness; moreover, human cognition is mostly about making sense of oneself in relation to the environment. But, in my opinion, that is not the case. I think the fundamental cognitive module which is responsible for the appearance of modern human behaviour about 50,000 years ago is the module which made us aware of time (and space). I have written an article hypothesising that there is a neo-cortical neural mechanism in the human brain which makes us aware of time, and this sophisticated time-awareness (STA) can explain many uniquely human cognitive and behavioural traits such as multi-part tool-making, logic, language, notion of causation, episodic memory, mental time-travel, existence-awareness, religion, music, arts and humour. The full article can be found here, its summary here and non-technical version here.

Of particular relevance to this article is the cognitive trait of existence-awareness. It is usually mistaken for awareness of self only (self-awareness). It is important to realise that awareness of existence also implies simultaneous awareness of existence of your fellow humans, other living beings and non-living things – indeed, everything in the Universe or Nature whose existence you can possibly be aware of (so called, other-awareness).

I acknowledge that my hypothesis about evolution of human cognition is mostly speculative. But I do have the excuse of strictly adhering to the tenets of logic and reason. It is entirely possible that the cognitive modules of time, space and existence, not to mention other modules, evolved in a different order. Moreover, there may have been some intermediate modules, which may have provided the spark for human uniqueness, and  which may have since disappeared.

Whatever the truth about evolution of human cognition may be, one thing is certain: thought or cognition itself manifests as an inner voice – the voice within us with which we have constant internal dialogue. That is how we still think, is it not? As I have explained above, the appearance of sophisticated human cognition and this inner voice in our species is a seminal event in evolution. American psychologist Julian Jayne in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind has proposed an interesting theory. He says that initially we humans ‘thought’ that this inner voice came from external source, i.e., from God giving us advice, solace or orders. This was the period in human evolution when, I think, no rational thought of any note existed, and all natural phenomena were attributed to a supernatural creator. Julian Jayne says that awareness that one’s inner voice is one’s own and not God’s, is the dawning of human consciousness. Though I am broadly in agreement with Julian Jayne’s brilliant theory, I would rather think that the breakdown of bicameral mind led to strengthening of rational thought rather than to the origin of consciousness. Further, I think the realisation that the inner voice is our own probably happened at around 2000 to 1000 B.C., and this correlates fairly well with the time in history when we first seriously attempted to explain Nature and existence using logic and reason, rather than as the will of a super-natural God. Philosophy, as we know it, and later on science, were born as a result.

Next we will talk about evolution of Love and, how Love and human cognition are closely interlinked.

7. Evolution of Love

Cognitive awareness of time, for all the survival advantages it bestows upon us, has a flip side; so too does the awareness of existence. Somewhere during the course of their evolution, earlier rather than later, humans must have stumbled upon some very profound and disturbing realisations: that there is something called future, that human existence is finite, and that they know that they don’t know what will happen in the future, except that they are all going to die one day. Never before in the history of life had such realisations occurred to a life form. It must have been pretty dreary to early humans when they first began to realise that existence was transient, death was a certainty, and life, in a sense, meaningless. Spare a thought for our earliest ancestors, put yourselves in their shoes [sic] and try to imagine what it would have been like to have these types of realisations, especially while trying to survive in the unforgiving wilderness surrounding the Great Lakes of eastern Africa.

I mentioned in the Section, Evolution of Fear that the emotion of fear evolved as a by-product of pain, because fear amplifies the threat of bodily harm and thus, must have given a definite survival advantage. But when human beings became cognizant, the disturbing truths I mentioned above would have evoked the same fear; only this time the threat is not external but in humans’ mind! (Recall that I named this rational intrinsic Fear). Thus, on one hand, we have evolved this glorious ability of human cognition, with which we have the potential to conquer the natural world and beyond; on the other hand, we have this ancient emotion of fear which, having served evolution of life well for so long, is now turning out to be a liability – in the form of rational intrinsic Fear. Note that this Fear is due to the unique human traits of sophisticated time-awareness and existence-awareness.

Soon, during the course of early evolution of human cognition, another type of Fear must have taken root: the irrational intrinsic Fear. I mentioned in the Section, Evolution of Human Cognition that once we became aware of our own self, we simultaneously became aware of the fact that our fellow human beings too are thinking beings, and that they too have intentions. The first reaction of the human mind when it became aware of this fact must have been Fear! – ‘Is my fellow tribesman planning to usurp my hard-earned food?’, ‘Is my neighbour planning to steal my love-mate?’, ‘Is a rival tribe going to wipe out ours?’ and so on. I would not be surprised if the Fear induced by intentional stance of other human beings constituted a major portion our irrational Fear.  Please note the origins of mind-reading (revisit Section 2 for a recap) type of cognitive distortion here!

Let me repeat because this is important: for the first time in the history of evolution of life, a species became fearful of perceived  threats – all because of cognition! The human mind is the apotheosis of evolution of life and one of the first things it does is to be afraid – of imagined threats! Fear and cognition thus make a deadly combination – it must have made our ancestors mad, to the point of mass suicide and mass destruction. Mass suicide or destruction must have happened (it still does!) but thankfully, mass extinction did not happen because of appearance of something else – the emotion of Love! Natural selection must have selected those early humans in whom the seeds of Love were first sown, because they would have survived the crippling Fear arising out of nascent but disturbing realisations (please note that I am not arguing for the exclusivity of appearance of Love over other traits, which also could have helped early humans tide over this ‘cognitive crisis’). I think Love evolved as an emotional component of human cognition in the same way as fear evolved as an emotional component of pain. Love must have amplified the survival value of human cognition and must have neutralised, to some extent (though not fully – even now!), the destructive effects of Fear.

8. A little bit more about Love…

What do I exactly mean by Love? How can we characterise it? I’ll try my best to express what I’ve realised: Love is the emotion that accompanies the intuitive realisation, or awareness, that we humans, as well as our fellow living creatures, non-living things, stars, planets – indeed, all of Nature – exist; that ‘we are all in this together’. To put it another way, the moment you become aware of existence, you begin to realise that you exist (self-awareness), and that other people and things exist too (other-awareness), and this awareness of shared existence produces an intuitive understanding of inter-connectedness of things; the emotion that accompanies other-awareness, this awareness of shared existence and of inter-connectedness of things is what I call Love! (recall again that awareness or thought produces emotion!) I believe this awareness of inter-connectedness and the resultant emotion of Love is innate in humans and has been with us since the dawn of humankind. In other words, we are hard-wired to be aware of this inter-connectedness and for Love. The following diagram summarises the ideas I’ve just explained –


There are likely to be murmurs of disapproval among some of you after reading the last paragraph – that I’m beginning to sound like a mystic. Believe me, I’m no mystic; I am as dedicated to reason, philosophy and science as anybody. All the philosophising and theorising I’ve done so far have been based purely on reason and logic. You will have noticed that at no point have I invoked religion, spirituality, mysticism, astrology, superstition etc in my arguments.

This awareness of inter-connectedness is not as esoteric as it sounds. There is mounting evidence from the field of neuroscience that the human brain is hard-wired to connect with other brains, especially with those of our fellow human beings. Daniel Siegel has said that human connections create neuronal connections. It is well known that neglected and abandoned children end up with failure to thrive or even death.

I think there is another characteristic of this Love: there seems to be a natural hierarchy to the expression of Love – the scope of Love expressed appears to be inversely related to the incidence of its expression. Let me explain: Most of us have this innate tendency to fall in love with the member of the opposite sex, so called romantic love. In my opinion romantic love is but a manifestation of Love – since a man and a woman are evolved to mate and procreate, it is but natural that the person we tend to be innately aware of and express our Love is a member of the opposite sex. Romantic love is a combination of Love and sexual attraction. Thus, in this context, it serves as a useful adjunct to procreation. It also explains why romantic love in its full bloom is seen only in humans – because Love exists only in humans! Next, almost all of us love our kith and kin. In this scenario, Love exists in combination with kin altruism. Many of us love all members of their group, for example, the fellow citizens of their country – such Love is called patriotism. Only few of us love all of humanity – great humanitarian leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa belong to this category. Still fewer among us truly love all things living. Finally, only one in a million among us has developed full awareness of the inter-connectedness of all of things that exist, and therefore express Love for all of Nature. This is the state in which the innate Love is expressed in its highest form.

There is a general tendency to refer to human beings who express their Love in its totality as sages, enlightened ones, rishis, yogis, messiahs etc and to attach religious, spiritual or mystical connotations to such an enlightened state. My point is that it is not necessary. Such states can also be attained using logic, reason and science. Many of the greatest scientists such as Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins have expressed, in their writings, a sense of awe, wonder and humility at the structure of Reality, a mere feeble reflection of which is made available to us through our inadequate senses and intellect. And what they have expressed is nothing but Love!

Some of you might say, ‘All this sounds far-fetched. If we really are filled with an innate capacity to Love, why, then, is there so much misery in human life? Why is history of humanity one of history of mistrust, hatred, violence and destruction? Why is that only very few people lead a contented and happy life?’ and so on. The answer, my friends, is Fear. We human beings are a relatively immature species, only about 200,000 years old – a minute fraction of time when you consider 4.567 billion years of time span of evolution of life. I might even venture to say that we are a species in transition. On one hand, we have this new evolutionary trait, Love, whose very existence we doubt, let alone realise its true power. On the other, we still have this Fear which has existed during our evolutionary past, and which clings on to us like an old habit that dies hard. No doubt, adaptive fear has helped and still helps in the survival of our species. The rational Fear, though painful, also has clear survival value and most probably helped in human cultural evolution. But just like a tool that is becoming superfluous tends to be used in unnecessary activities, we, as a species, have started using Fear irrationally. We end up with this irrational Fear due to perceived self-inadequacy, the central feature of which is a critical inner voice which keeps haranguing us; we end up condemning ourselves as defective, inferior, inadequate etc. The irrational Fear which arises out of such cognitive distortions limits our inherent capacity to Love.

9. Summary and Conclusions 

To summarise, I propose that Love is the emotional counterpart of human cognition and is therefore a unique human emotion. It arises from the uniquely human trait of existence-awareness and the resultant awareness of fundamental inter-connectedness of things. Combine this with my hypothesis that sophisticated time-awareness is responsible for many uniquely human cognitive traits including existence-awareness, and one can understand that sophisticated time-awareness, existence-awareness and Love are all intimately inter-linked.

We are all hard-wired for Love. The main reason why Love is not obvious in most of us and why it found so little expression (for many thousands of years) must be that Love was, and still is, drowned by overwhelming Fear, especially irrational Fear. Most of this Fear is because of distorted thinking, which in turn is because of the wrong manner in which we perceive and interpret the world around us. The world will be a much better place if we use more of System 2 thinking, minimise our cognitive distortions and hence our Fear. Having said so, it appears that Love, after having had several false starts, fighting constantly against such a formidable enemy called Fear, has been gathering strength and momentum over the centuries, and is expressed in the 21st century more than ever. But there is still some way to go…

‘Take away Fear and there is only Love’