Emotional pain typically drives the quest for psychotherapy.  Pain, after all, is nature’s signal that an organism’s welfare, and survival, are threatened.  Hence, taking action to identify the cause of the pain and to eliminate it are adaptive.  Any psychotherapist, and anyone who has undertaken psychotherapy, will tell you that it is not always easy to identify the cause of the pain and treat it — unlike how we diagnose and treat bacterial infections with antibiotics.  We have no clinically-available biological markers for emotional distress: no blood tests, brain scans, or urine assays.  The pain is no less real than that experienced elsewhere in the body, but explaining it is orders of magnitude trickier and requires more indirect methods of assessment.

Just try finding a word to describe the experience of an emotional ache.  The exercise renders most of us speechless for minutes.  Patient: “It feels bad.”  Therapist: “Yes, but which bad feeling is it?”  Patient: “I don’t know.”  And so the patient and therapist begin the excavation of the layers of his/her emotions and emotional learning history, down the layers of time as far as we can go — working to identify the feeling, its duration, its triggers in real time, and its roots in emotional history.

New research suggests that those layers of emotional learning may go deeper than we might expect.  In a recent study, psychological scientists demonstrated that 1-year-old infants seem to be capable of registering the emotions resulting from social interactions.  After performing a puppet show for the infants, researchers found that the infants could discern when one puppet was mistreated by another.  They could even discern when the mistreatment was accidental or deliberate.  In essence, the infants “…had strong feelings…” about the way the puppets should have treated each other.

Psychotherapists often speculate that some emotional reactions were learned, or emotional raw spots created, so early in life that they are not recorded as explicit memories, that is, memories that are “tagged” with information such as time and place of acquisition.  Rather, some emotional reactions seem to be recorded as implicit memories, typically experienced as something one just “knows” or experiences as “this is just me” without the ability to explain how it came to be.  The observations from this new study offer some tantalizing hints about the information infants can process and understand in their social – emotional worlds and could partially explain the challenge of putting feelings into words.  Some feelings could have been experienced before language development.  The study’s findings may also shine some light on the darkness of our understanding of how the emotional atmosphere of a family leaves its mark.

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