Humans are motivated to seek novel and pleasurable experiences.
Whether it’s chocolate ice cream, an extreme sport, or an unusual sexual act that you desire, what motivates your wishes? Every activity that is pleasurable to you has been made so by positive emotions: Interest, excitement, enjoyment, and joy enliven most of what we relish in our lives.1
Humans are wired to maximize their rewarding and positive emotions, and to minimize emotions that are negative.2 Nevertheless, both positive and negative emotions motivate you. In the case of positive emotions, the motivational aspect is obvious: Humans are motivated to seek novel and satisfying experiences. As far as the motivational power of negative emotions is concerned, you may do whatever it takes to diminish or relieve the punishing feelings they create. At face value, positive emotions seem to be much more fun, but relief from a negative emotion can be incredibly pleasurable as well. The experience of an orgasm, for example, combines the relief of negative emotional tension with the ecstasy of excitement.
Interest and excitement are inherently gratifying, and at a biological level they differ only in intensity.3 Suppose you are waiting for transportation to arrive, when someone you find highly appealing, who is also waiting, smiles at you. Your attention is drawn to that person through the activation of an emotion in the range of interest-excitement. Biologically speaking, the emotion you feel is brief and immediate. However, human beings are capable of sustaining long periods of excitement about anything that is sufficiently uncertain, complex, or novel.4 Therefore, introducing a continuous bit of novelty, uncertainty, and complexity into a relationship will keep it interesting and exciting. In the situation with the highly appealing person in your sight, it is also the case that any novel, but sincere, communication will increase your chance of having their continued interest. As well, longer periods of any emotion are sustained though thought and language. When you talk to yourself about being excited or convey your excitement to someone else, you may repeatedly activate the emotion. Unfortunately, this process seems to happen frequently with negative emotions that spin in your head and are repetitively triggered. In your own everyday life, keeping busy, arranging for a change of scenery, or challenging yourself can activate excitement.5 Of course, this only works if more pressing emotions, specifically negative ones, do not interfere with what excites you. In the example of the appealing stranger, if you assume the other person isn’t interested in you, the activation will hunch your shoulders and avert your gaze.
Although excitement is a positive emotion, unfortunately you may not always allow yourself to feel it. In such situations your own excitement is eclipsed by a negative emotion. Maybe you will blame a lack of confidence on a tendency to rain on your own parade. But often what gets in the way is what’s lurking in your emotional memory of exciting experiences. Surely there are times when excitement can be felt as dangerous and this becomes an impediment to desire. As an extreme example, when excitement is overwhelming and influences a later inability to tolerate sexual arousal, it may be recalling the experience of being an overstimulated, overwhelmed, and un-soothed child.6 Thus, you may avoid excitement in your life when you fear experiencing negative emotions such as disgust, fear, shame, or distress. The culture and environment in which you were raised contributes to how you respond to excitement and to the promotion or acceptability of expressing positive emotion. For example, excitement may have been dampened and subsequently linked with shame in your childhood, such as being told to calm down or being shushed. As a result, whenever you are excited it may be immediately inhibited by the negative emotion of shame.7 If the existence of excitement was denied, the ability even to perceive it may be overshadowed.8
Nevertheless, all love is based on the experience of positive emotion, and the part of love that is exciting and makes your heart thump owes its power to the emotion of excitement that began in early childhood.9 Any novel stimulus that attracts an infant’s attention via interest-excitement will show in his or her visual and auditory tracking, as well as a facial expression highlighted by a little furrowed brow.10 Interest and excitement are prominent emotional navigation tools in the development of one’s ability to evaluate circumstances in the environment from birth onward.
Early experiences, however, do bias our attention. Thus, what’s exciting to you may not thrill someone else. The emotional importance you give to someone or something influences how you will attend to it. Variations in what excites people are based on a complex network of emotional, cognitive, and physiological memories that are synthesized and stored in each person’s brain. Thus, conscious and unconscious memories bias your attention and script what turns you on emotionally.
Novelty-seeking, for example, may simply be a remnant of childhood experiences of excitement that are stored in emotional memory and seeking re-activation. A person can become addicted to excitement, and such an addiction commands unceasing novelty.11 Certain activities can be a stimulus for excitement, yet the aftermath of excitement can be exciting as well. Imagine, for example, feeling the excitement of online shopping or a succession of new sexual partners. Such excitement further amplifies your interest and curiosity in what is novel, sometimes to a level of addiction.12
The repetitive activation of excitement, or excitement that is consistently activated by a particular stimulus such as a person or activity, forms a sequence pattern that becomes a script—a reflex that is coded into your implicit memory and thus operates automatically and mechanically.13 Yet through the development of scripts you make sense of the regularity and changes in your life. Thus, the excitement you feel in the present always has a past history that has been compressed into present responses. These can either help or hinder you as you interpret, evaluate, and make predictions in your experiences of excitement.
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1. Nathanson, D.L. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
2. Tomkins, S.S. (1962/2008). Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer.
3. Tomkins, S.S. (1995). The quest for primary motives: Biography and autobiography of an idea. In V. Demos (Ed.), Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins (pp. 27-67). New York: Cambridge University Press.
4. Tomkins, S.S. (1962/2008). Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer.
5. Tomkins, S.S. (1962/2008). Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer.
7. Tomkins, S.S. (1962/2008). Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer.
8. Nathanson, D.L. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
9. Nathanson, D.L. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
10. Nathanson, D.L. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
11. Tomkins, S.S. (1962/2008). Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer.
12. Tomkins, S.S. (1962/2008). Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York: Springer.
13. Tomkins, S.S. (1995). Script Theory. In V. Demos (Ed.), Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins (pp. 312-410), New York: Cambridge University Press.