“Affect – Imagery – Consciousness” volume 1:  The Positive Affects and volume 2:  The Negative Affects

by Silvan S. Tomkins (Professor of Psychology, Princeton U)

Springer Publishing Company, inc

NY 1962


Freedom of the will and structure of the affect system

“Much of the debate concerning the freedom of the will arose from a … failure to distinguish motives that are more free from motives that are less free, e.g., affects from drives.  (Tomkins/aic/109)”

must accept “…both the causality principle and what may be described as the information, complexity or degrees-of-freedom principle.  (Tomkins/aic/110)”

“Two systems may be equally determined, but one be more free than the other….  Complexity is a measure which is more general than causality, since it applies equally well to formal and empirical systems.  The end points of degrees of freedom, or complexity, are complete redundancy in which no change is possible and complete randomness in which any change is possible.  (Tomkins/aic/1100”

In other words, chaos

”The classical view of causality considers only the two ends points of this continuum.  But we argue that there exists a continuum of degrees of freedom and that where a particular system operates along such a continuum is itself determinate…..  if one compares two chess programs, the one which considers more possibilities before it decides on each move it’s the freer general strategy and the more challenging opponent for a human chess player….  Within the human being we can determine the conditions under which he is least free and the conditions (Tomkins/aic/110) under which he attains his highest reach.  All of these conditions are determinate and involve no conflict with the causality postulate.  (Tomkins/aic/111)”


“A living system such as a human being is a feedback system rather than a communication system, and therefore the freedom of such a feedback system must be distinguished from the formal theory of the information (i.e. complexity, degrees of freedom) of a communication system….  (Tomkins/aic/111)”

“For such a living system to duplicate itself, it must be active –how active depends on how complex a structure it is and how changing the environment which surrounds it.  The freedom of any feedback system is, consequently, a conjoint function of its complexity [which in humans is determined by the interactions it has with people during the formative brain stages] and the complexity of its surround.  The freedom of a feedback system, we argue, should be measured by the product of the complexity of its “aims” and the frequency of their attainment.  (Tomkins/aic/111)”

“A human being thus becomes freer as his wants grow and as his capacities to satisfy them grow.  Restrictions either of his wants or abilities to achieve them represents a loss of freedom.  (Tomkins/aic/111)”

With severe infant abuse the wants never grow to full complexity (e.g., still wants to grow a brain so it can be autonomous) and therefore its ability to achieve these limited wants is, in itself, limited.


“”We have considered the role, in the preservation of the self [if there is one] and of the species, of the combined drive and affect systems.  For a motivational system to play a biologically adaptive role it must have at least two characteristics:  it must urge the animal to become motivated to do what it must do if it and its population are to reproduce itself, and it must urge the animal to do what it can do.  These may be quite independent criteria.  What an animal sometimes must do to survive it cannot do, and it perishes.  What an animal can, or could do, it sometimes need not do either to survive or reproduce itself.  In the long run, however, these criteria tend to become correlated through evolution so that the animal can do and does what he must do.  To the extent that this correlation becomes attenuated, species tend toward extinction.  (Tomkins/aic/111)”

“The affect system provides the primary motives of human (Tomkins/aic/111) beings.  The human affect system is nicely matched in complexity both to the receptor, analyzer, storage and motor mechanisms within the organism and to a broad spectrum of environmental opportunities, challenges and demands from without.  The human being is the most complex system in nature….  Out of the marriage of reason with affect there issues clarity with passion.  Reason without affect would be impotent, affect without reason would be blind.  The combination of affect and reason guarantees man’s high degree of freedom. (Tomkins/aic/112)”

When brain development is altered, both hemispheres are damaged.  In addition, and importantly, their ability to “marry” is interrupted, as well.


“Feedback and affect are two distinct mechanisms which may operate independent of each other in human beings…..  The majority of homeostatic mechanisms within the body work silently, unconsciously and are unfeeling….  Affect, even when activated, is not always an essential part of the feedback assembly in human beings.  (Tomkins/aic/112)”

“The infant passively enjoys or suffers the experience of his own affective responses long before he is capable of employing affect as part of a feedback mechanism in instrumental behavior.  He does not know “why” he is crying, that it might be stopped or how to stop it.  Even many years later he will sometimes experience passively, without knowledge of why or thought of remedial action, deep intense objectless despair.

This is not limited to infanthood, particularly when abuse has prevented the necessary mechanisms to regulate affect and to modulate arousal.

“Affective responses are of course “caused.”  There are specific conditions which activate them, maintain them and reduce them….  (Tomkins/aic/112)”

“The term central assembly refers to a mechanism involving consciousness.  Messages in te nervous system may or may not become conscious.  If they become conscious, we call them reports; the mechanism which transmutes messages into reports, that is, transforms them into conscious form, we refer to as the transmuting mechanism.  It is our view…that the components or sub-systems of the nervous system which are functionally joined with the transmuting mechanism vary from moment to moment as determined by the set of sub-systems which were functionally joined to the transmuting mechanism in the previous moment, by the transmuted information contained in those previously joined sub-systems and by the nature of the messages within the sub-systems of the nervous system which are competing at the moment for the limited channel capacity of consciousness.  The transmuting mechanism plus all those components of the nervous system which are functionally joined to it at a given moment in time we refer to as a central assembly.  (Tomkins/aic/113)”

“All central assemblies involve consciousness, but only when there is some aim to be realized, an attempt to achieve this aim and reports of how close this aim is to realization is a central assembly operating on feedback principles.  Even while an affective response is being activated and later reduced it need not be either activated or reduced by a central assembly employing the feedback principles….  Without initial awareness that there might be a specific cause that turns affect on and a specific condition which might turn it off [for an infant], there is only a remote probability of using his primitive capacities to search for and find these causal conditions.  The affect system will remain independent of the feedback system until the infant discovers that something can be done about such vital matters.  Even after he has made this discovery, it will be some time before he has achieved any degree of control over the appearance and disappearance of his (Tomkins/aic/113) affective responses.  Indeed, most human beings never attain great precision of control of their affects.  (Tomkins/aic/114)”

“In what sense then is such infantile blindness and adult incompetence as described above evidence for high complexity characteristics of the affect system?  Is this imperfect integration of the affect system the way to a radical increase in the degrees of freedom of the human being?  (Tomkins/aic/114)”

“Cognitive strides are limited by the motives which urge them.  Cognitive error, which is essential to cognitive learning, can be made only by one capable of committing motivational error, i.e., being wrong about his own wishes, their causes and outcomes.  (Tomkins/aic/114)”

“Part of the power of the human organism and its adaptability lies in the fact that in addition to innate neurological programs the human being has the capacity to lay down new programs of great complexity on the basis of risk taking, error and achieve- (Tomkins/aic/114) ment – programs designed to deal with contingencies not necessarily universally valid but valid for his individual life.  This capacity to make automatic or nearly automatic shat was once voluntary, conscious and learned frees consciousness, or the transmuting mechanism, for new learning.  But just as the freedom to learn involves freedom for cognitive and motivational error, so the ability to develop new neurological programs, that is, the ability to use what was learned with little or no conscious monitoring, involves the ability to automatize, and make unavailable to consciousness, both errors and contingencies which were once appropriate but which are not longer appropriate.  Insofar as what one has learned thoroughly in the past is appropriate to the present, one is efficient; but insofar as it is inappropriate it may produce behavior which is recalcitrant to modification, despite its inappropriateness.  (Tomkins/aic/115)”

We must add into this equation the fact that on some fundamental levels what was “learned” was actually formed into the brain structure and formation as it happened.

“The essential quality of man as we see it is not in the amount of information he possesses but in the mechanism which enables him constantly to increase his freedom.  (Tomkins/aic/115)”


“The importance of the independent variability of the affect system from other systems, and particularly from the central assembly as it employs the feedback principle, is a special case of what we have argued is the primary technique by which the human being generates complexity, i.e., the incompletely overlapping central assemblies.  (Tomkins/aic/120)”

“By the term “incompletely overlapping central assemblies” we mean that the components of differing central assemblies, that is, the central assembly at different moments in time, will in part be the same and in part be different.  Similarly, the set of messages in any component of the central assembly may be in part the same and in part different at differing moments in time.  Finally, we also mean by incompletely overlapping assembly that there are parts of each component which may remain outside the assembly and thus remain unconscious, as when two sounds summate in intensity in consciousness but are not differentiated with respect to pitch.  (Tomkins/aic/120)” [does that mean not differentiated or separated?]


“The ultimate combinations in the human being of affect with the receptor, analyzer, storage and effector systems produces a much more complex set of combinations than could have been built into the affect system alone, or into any predetermined affect “program.”  The gain in information from the interaction of relatively independent parts or sub-systems within the organism we have likened to the gain in information from a set of elements when they are combined according to the rules of a language.  (Tomkins/aic/120)”

“We conceive of the human being as governed by a feedback system in which a predetermined state is achieved by utilizing information about the difference between the achieved state at the moment and the predetermined state to reduce this difference to zero.  Our argument thus far is that because the human affect (Tomkins/aic/120) system is independent of the human feedback system, the latter may have “aims” independent of affects, and affects may come and go without recourse to or dependence on the feedback system.  This independence of the affect and feedback system is greatest in infancy.  (Tomkins/aic/121)”


“Since we have been arguing for a sharp distinction between affects as the primary motives and the “aims” of the feedback system, let us examine what we mean by these aims.  The purpose of an individual is a centrally emitted blueprint which we call the Image.  This Image of an end state to be achieved may be compounded of diverse sensory, affective and memory imagery or any combination or transformation of these.  It is important to note the differences between this Image and the variety of different imageries which may or may not become incorporated into the Image as components.  (Tomkins/aic/121)”

“Sensory data from the exteroceptors and from the interoceptive feedback of the affective and motor responses all become conscious only as imagery.  [this is consistent with right brain processes]  Data from storage or memory is also translated into imagery.  Although sensory, affective and memory imagery become conscious only through the operation of a central matching mechanism which employs the feedback principle …. There is, nonetheless, a sharp distinction we wish to draw between the operation of imagery in sensory, affective and memory matching and the Image as the blueprint for the primary feedback mechanisms.  (Tomkins/aic/121)”

“In sensory (exteroceptive and interoceptive) imagery, the model is given by the external world as it now exists in the form of sensory information or by the internal world as it now exists in the form of feedback from the interoceptors.  In the case of memory, the model is the external world as it once existed, recreated in the form of memory imagery.  In the case of the Image the individual is projecting a possibility which he hopes to realize and that must precede and govern his behavior if he is to achieve it.  In its totality it need not correspond to anything he has ever experienced.  (Tomkins/aic/121)”

“In many Images what is intended is not conceived as the maintenance or reduction of any affect, but rather as doing something such as taking a walk or achieving something such as writing a book.  Despite the fact that there may be intense affect (Tomkins/aic/121) preceding and following the achievement of any Image, there may yet be a high degree of phenomenological independence between what is intended and the preceding, accompanying and consequent affect….  Driving an automobile while engaged in conversation represents the operation of an Image which is minimally represented in awareness.  (Tomkins/aic/122)”

“The Image is a blueprint for the feedback mechanism:  as such it is purposive and directive.  Affect we conceive of as a motive, by which we mean immediately rewarding or punishing experience mediated by receptors activated by the individual’s own responses.  Motives may or may not externalize themselves in purposes.  Ordinarily they do and generally tend to maximize reward and minimize punishment.  Human beings are so designed that they prefer to repeat rewarding affects and to reduce punishing affects, but they need not act on these preferences.  (Tomkins/aic/122)”


“The basic freedom inherent in the structure of the affect system is a consequence of its freedom to combine with a variety of other components in the central assembly.  In this respect it is not unlike the organic element, carbon, which is responsible for increasing the complexity of organic matter by virtue of its great combinatorial capacity which enables the assembly of compounds which differ only slightly one from another.  In short, the capacity of the individual to feel strongly or weakly, for a moment, or for all his life, about anything under the sun and to govern himself by such motives constitutes his essential freedom.  (Tomkins/aic/122)”



“The drive system has a very restricted freedom of time which is based on the biological urgency of the transport of energy, in and  out.  (Tomkins/aic/123)”

The critical differences between the drive system and the affect system are in large part a function of the difference in rate of change of events within the body compared with the rate of change of external environment.  The internal environment is kept within a relatively restricted rate of change by a variety of homeostatic mechanisms.  The drive system with its relatively primitive signal and feedback mechanisms will work well enough because of this predictable and small variability of the internal environment.  The affect system of man operates, however, within a much more uncertain and variable environment.  (Tomkins/aic/124)”

“If an individual lived in an environment in which there was only homogeneous stimulation, there could be a specific affect famine not unlike drive hunger in its urgency.  (Tomkins/aic/125)”

“It is with the learned, constructed objects of affect, however, that man enjoys the greatest time freedom….  This is not to say that his freedom to choose how much or how little of his life will be the occasion of rewarding positive affect is always under his control, but the possibilities are there in a way in which they cannot be with respect to the drive system.  (Tomkins/aic/125)”

“He may indeed come to experience anxiety all of his life, and though unwanted, it nonetheless constitutes a time spread which is impossible at the drive level.  From the point of view of our definition of freedom of the feedback system, however, this would (Tomkins/aic/125) represent a restriction in freedom despite its higher level of differentiation.  (Tomkins/aic/126)”

“indeed it is the freedom of the affect system which makes it possible for the human being to begin to implement and to progress toward what he regards as an ideal state – one which, however else he may describe it, implicitly or explicitly entails the maximizing of positive affect and the minimizing of negative affect.  Such an optimizing ideal could not begin to be translated into empirical strategies except for the fact that it is theoretically possible to reduce the suffering of negative affect to zero and to increase the enjoyment of positive affect to the life span of the individual.  If it were the case that one had to suffer either an irreducible minimum of negative affect or an inherent upper limit to the experience of positive affect, then the human being’s idea of progress and of bending the world to the heart’s desire would be limited to the utopian and to supernatural agencies.  It is because man senses the contingency in his present distress, fear and shame as well as in his present joy and in his excitement that he is sustained by the idea of progress.  The special case of psychotherapy is based on the assumption that an individual who may suffer chronic anxiety may eventually be helped to be free of such suffering.  (Tomkins/aic/126)”

Chronic negative feeling can be of despair itself, not just anxiety.  And these assumptions are based evidently on the belief that “all brains and minds are created equal.”  We now know that is not the case.  Peritrauma during infancy changes the brain, and I am not convinced that these chronic states can be changed.  In addition, I believe it is homeostasis emotionally that is the goal, not perpetual escalating positive emotion!

“Without the capacity to turn affect both on and off for varying periods of time, the freedom to invest affect in one or another object, to shift affect investment, to overinvest affect, to liquidate such investment, or to find substitute investments would not be possible.  (Tomkins/aic/126)”


“Chronic fear may be relatively invariant in intensity at a low, intermediate or high level for long periods (Tomkins/aic/128) of time.  It is clear that the profiles of intensity of affect are limitless in contrast to the relatively stereotyped variations in the characteristic course of variations of intensity of the drive system.  Although any one individual’s range of variation of intensity may be congealed into a specific style, [as a function of attachment experiences in infancy built into the brain, I would say] the number of different possible styles among different individuals is theoretically very great.  [cultures form infants to fit within their cultural parameters and styles]

“The rate at which affects develop intensity can vary as a function of the rate at which the perception of the object evoking affect increases.  This latter rate may be learned or unlearned.  Thus the slow development of moderate pain characteristically evokes a slowly developing distress of moderate intensity, whereas a sharp stab of pain evokes a rapidly developing cry of distress.  Both of these are unlearned rates.  On a learned basis, perceptions of disturbing situations, if such awareness develops slowly, produce distress which is likely to increase equally slowly.  The unexpected straw that breaks the camel’s back can, however, produce an explosion of distress or hostility.  (Tomkins/aic/129)”


“Not only are both intensity and duration of affect capable of greater modulation than is possible for drives, but so is their density.  By affect density we mean the product of intensity times (Tomkins/aic/129) duration.  A density measure of this kind means that an affect of high intensity but limited duration has equal density with an affect that is low in intensity but more enduring.  Most of the drives operate within relatively narrow density tolerances….  The consequence of too much or too little density is loss of consciousness and possible death.  (Tomkins/aic/130)”

“The density of affect investment, in contrast, can and does vary from the most brief, weak affective response through brief intense investments and longer weaker investments to moderately intense and moderately enduring affective investments, to maximally intense investments for relatively enduring periods and moderately intense investments for a lifetime and finally to the extreme monopolistic investment of unending maximal intensity.  (Tomkins/aic/130)”

“Affects maybe either much more casual than any drive could be or much more monopolistic.  By virtue of the flexibility of this system man is enabled to \oscillate between flickleness of purpose or affect finickiness and obsessive possession by the objects of his affective investments….  It is…only the joining of affect to the high-powered analyzer mechanisms which can crate such monomania as we find in romantic love, in the insatiable passions for sexuality, power, money, knowledge, excitement or creativity.  Affects enable both insatiability and extreme lability, fickleness and finickiness.  (Tomkins/aic/130)”


“…central problem of learning, that of anticipation.  (Tomkins/aic/130)”

“…the explanation of the development of anticipatory behavior rests heavily on one’s views of the nature of memory, since anticipation is in part posticipation, the linking of the past with the future.  But more than an ability to remember is involved in the development of anticipation.  What is remembered must also be compelling here and now.  The individual must care, if he is to act on his anticipations.  This is made possibly by the time freedom of the affect system.  (Tomkins/aic/131)”

“The cry which the child emitted at the moment when it first felt the pain of the flame must be shaken free, time-wise, of its link to the experience of pain.  In part this is achieved in the originally punishing experience, inasmuch as the child may continue to cry long after it has pulled its finger away from the flame, and even after the pain which started it has abated.  Since the child may continue to cry “at” the object in the original situation after the pain is over, the child may well have already learned that the object is something to cry about before its second encounter.  Thus we see that the relatively longer inertia of the affective response, even when instigated by pain, is an important condition of anticipatory learning.  (Tomkins/aic/131)”

“The distinction between original (Tomkins/aic/131) affect, remembered affect and the affect evoked b remembered affect is clearest when what is evoked is a different kind of affect than the remembered affect.  (Tomkins/aic/132)”

“Anticipation necessarily requires the linking of past experience with present affect.  The burnt child can shun the flame only if he is now afraid of it.  If he either remembers it but is not afraid of it, or if he is afraid but not of the correct object, he may not learn to anticipate and avoid future encounters with noxious stimuli.  The same is also true for much anticipation of a positive kind.  (Tomkins/aic/132)”


“There is a real question whether anyone may fully grasp the nature of any object when that object has not been perceived, wished for, missed, and thought about in love and in hate, in excitement and in apathy, in distress and in joy.  This is as true of our relationship with nature, (Tomkins/aic/134) as with the artifacts created by man, as with other human beings and with the collectivities which he both inherits and transforms.  There are many ways of “knowing” anything.  (Tomkins/aic/135)”


“In marked contrast to the separateness of each drive, the emotions readily enter into combinations with each other and readily control one another.  Neither hunger nor its satisfaction can be used to reduce thirst or the need for air, as fear can be used to reduce crying and the affect of distress.  (Tomkins/aic/137)”

“…fear itself can be controlled by fear.  One can frighten the soldier out of cowardice by making him more afraid of cowardice than of death.  (Tomkins/aic/137)”

“On the positive side, joy and excitement provide rewards which enable human beings to counteract fear and distress and shame.  Since the former, positive affects are activated by any sudden reduction of the latter, negative affects, one can learn to regard negative affect as a transitory state, a problem to be solved.  [Yet this works the other way around as well, an increase in negative affects dispels the positive, doesn’t it?]

“…the experience of affect is in general not limited to particular organs in the same way as is eating, drinking or sexuality, and the arousers of affect are in no sense as site specific as are the drives.  (Tomkins/aic/139)”

“To the extent to which human beings become addicted to specific satisfiers, either in the case of drives or affects, substitutability of objects declines.  (Tomkins/aic/140)”

“As addiction to specific objects grows, substitutability therefore declines.  To the extent to which the addiction is to the affect, however, rather than to its objects, there can be a growth of objects.  (Tomkins/aic/141)”

“The crux of our present argument is that it is the affects, not the drives, which are transformable…  (Tomkins/aic/143)”

“If one end of the continuum of complexity is freedom of choice of alternatives, then the other end is redundancy, by which we refer to the restriction of freedom of choice.  (Tomkins/aic/143)”


“Most of us achieve, at best, a negative kind of control in the inhibition of overt affective responses.  We may learn not to show our anger or grief or fear in external behavior, but we find it difficult not to feel angry if someone affronts us; we find it difficult not to feel afraid when we are in danger and not to feel grief upon the loss of a loved one.  Still more difficult is it for most of us to achieve positive control over our own affective responses.  Few of us can turn on (Tomkins/aic/143) love, fear, anger, in the way that we have achieved control over our limbs – that is, “intend” to walk from one place to another and simply walk.  We cannot in the same way “intend” to feel love or anger or fear and simply initiate these responses, or, if they have already been initiated, continue them or turn them off at will.  (Tomkins/aic/144)”

“It is as though every time we wished to move an arm or leg, we had to “imagine” the last time this happened and hope that this imagery would move the limbs.  (Tomkins/aic/144)”

“In psychopathology, this situation is most aggravated.  Affective responses that are painful cannot be turned off, affective responses which are longed for cannot be turned on.  One can feel guilty about a passion which cannot be felt.  (Tomkins/aic/144)”

“…affective responses seem to the individual to be aroused easily by factors over which he has little control, with difficulty by factors which he can control and to endure for periods of time which he controls only with great difficulty if at all.  They are in these respects somewhat alien to the individual.  They are the primitive gods within the individual.  (Tomkins/aic/144)”

“Not only are the events preceding affect redundantly related and the part whole interrelationships within affect once instigated redundant, but also the events which follow the arousal are redundant, tending to rearouse the same affect.  This is the principle of contagion – the fear-arousing potential of fear, the anger-arousing potential of anger, the excitement of excitement, the joyousness of joy, the distressing quality of distress.  (Tomkins/aic/146)”

Interferences of messages – “…restriction of freedom is a consequence of the inherent limitation of channel capacity for the reception, awareness, analysis and transmission of information.  One sent of messages, whether affective or non-affective, may re-empt the available channel capacity and thus interfere with the transmission of other sets of messages.  (Tomkins/aic/147)”

He gives example of when involved in gross muscle activity one’s ability to solve mathematical problems is limited

There is redundancy based on innate structure of nervous system and general design of the body, and based on memory and thought  (Tomkins/aic/148)


“…restriction on the freedom of affect can also be imposed by the nature of the “object” of affect investment.  The simplest case is the unrequited lover.  Once having committed himself to the love object, the rise and fall of his affects thereafter will never be entirely within his own hands….Although the committed lover can take his life because of unrequited love, nonetheless if the cost of affect investment becomes excessive it is always possible to liquidate such investment.  Only as investment loses its liquidity can the individual be caught by excessively unprofitable affective investment.  (Tomkins/aic/149)”  [Especially when the investment includes our dependency on the other for our arousal modulation, arousal, stimulation – and we tend to “go to the object of our attachment” when we are distressed – even if our attachment with that other is the cause of the distress.]


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s