©David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, RDI CC, Floortime C2c
Executive Director Sponderworks Children’s Services
Psychologists use the term “affect” to describe several aspects of our emotions, moods and internal experience, as well as the outward display of them [in humans] through the use of facial expressions, body language [posture; gestures, etc.), tone of voice (prosody) and actions.
The term "affect" is used to describe one's internal experiences of stimulation, arousal and sensation, mood, feelings, intentions, as well as how we regulate (manage) these experiences either consciously or unconsciously. In essence, affect describes our experience of a stimulus, event, or even one's own thought processes. Unlike traditional behaviorists, we consider these to be extremely important factors to consider in the analysis of behavior, because these internal experiences greatly affect the likelihood or probability of behaviors. Here are some examples to consider:
Let's say that we are stuck in traffic. On one particular day or time, if we are in a good mood, or in other words, we experience a 'positive underlying affect' at the moment, our attitude and thoughts reflect that. We might say to ourselves, "This is a good time to ...play some tunes ...make a phone call ...experience some solitude..." or something similar.
But at another time when we're not feeling so good, we gripe and complain and experience frustration in the same situation. In other words, the same set of stimuli or circumstances, under the influence of a different internal affect, lead to different behaviors and thoughts.
We go to a restaurant. We're told there will be a 15 minute wait.
If we are hungry - this news can worsen our affect and our behavior might reflect that.
If we're not hungry - the news doesn't change our affect for the worse.
We know from personal experience that our previous learning and experiences and our current thinking patterns can greatly affect how we experience something. So our cognitive states are related to affect in an important way. However, cognitive scientists point out that there are 15 times more connections emanating from our emotional and internal affective sensation deeper in the brain, than there are going the other way - from our conscious and thinking brains to our emotions. In the brain, affects are made in the lower, emotional and sensory parts of the brain. These internal brain mechanisms constantly monitor states of the body (e.g., levels of adrenaline; heart and breathing rate, hunger and thirst). Importantly, because these mechanisms are simpler and evolutionary older, they are in terms of brain timing, much faster than our perceptive and thinking mechanisms in the brain. This means that we experience internal affects before we are conscious of the experience, and our bodies go into action before we have a chance to appraise what is going on (heart/breathing rate increases or decreases; neurochemistry changes, etc. This fact has two further and very important implications:
- Our bodies have a much stronger effect on our affect and our subsequent thoughts and behaviors. Trying to change behaviors strictly through changing thinking or by teaching skills, rules or limits is relatively weak in comparison. This helps us understand how to help people who are upset, or who experience chronic negative affect states, such as in sensory integration, autistic, and mood disorders. Therefore, when we deal with such issues, we teach people how to "work the body first." Thinking and behavior generally follow, or control of one's own thinking is easier once they get their body under control. The strategies could include slowing down, taking a deep breath, seeking quiet, etc.
- Internal affects function as "action predispositions" as described above. The same set of stimuli (stuck in traffic) can result in different thoughts and behaviors in the same person, depending on the underlying affect.
Temperament describes a general neurological and sensory predisposition or set of patterns for experiencing the internal and external world. A good deal of one's temperament is built in genetically, but this innate wiring is somewhat malleable, especially by early infant and toddler environment and arousing, soothing and regulating actions that occur as part of the emotional, "affective" relationship between children and Caregivers. When we do a functional analysis of behavior, we consider temperament to be an important factor in assessing the probabilities of behavior and responses. We look especially at the match between Caregiver temperaments and child temperaments not only in the development of behavioral treatment plans, but also in the determination of which methodologies might make the best fit for a family.
Psychologists also use the term "affect" to refer to thoughts, intentions, and [less frequently] behavioral predispositions. Stanley Greenspan’s thesis on autism, the “Affect-Diathesis model” (which I believe relates not only to autism but all developmental and psychiatric disorders in one way or another), has to do with the difficulty individuals with autism have following through from an “affect” or intention to a motor plan.
Affect and Attention
Affect is also a process that factors heavily into where we focus our attention. The “choice” of what we attend to is not always conscious or always really a “choice” in the common sense of the word. Affective mechanisms (circuits) in the brain “select” stimuli based on a combination of sub-conscious and conscious influences. For instance, we naturally orient to the unexpected; to movement in our peripheral vision; to stimuli that somehow have [perceived] survival or reward value (i.e. interest), and stimuli that predict events and steps of sequences that we have learned already (e.g. a dog growling is a predictor or sign of increased probability that the dog will bite if approached). Affect also plays a significant role in the selection of objects or events that we place in our attentional foreground v. background (e.g., we choose to focus on someone speaking and ignore the sound of air conditioner fan). People that have attention and autism spectrum disorders often have difficulty with sorting out relevant from irrelevant stimuli, and commonly, they need to experience high interest or “high affect” in order to to attract their attention and to keep it focused. They may also experience “hyperfocus;” a state where the person no longer switches attention freely and flexibly to stimuli that are socially relevant or related to survival (e.g., the person doesn’t notice people entering or leaving the room or approaching them).
Affect and Arousal
Our species shares the same pre-wired (phylogenetic and inherited) affects: those that have to do the “Four F’s” of mammal behavior (fight it; flee from it; feed on it, or mate with it). These pre-wired affects come from evolutionary experience and natural selection and that evoke survival reactions and chances to propagate the species. All stimuli can be forced into one or more of the Four F’s, but those that are most related to survival and propagation seem to affect arousal more easily and reliably. For instance, it is relatively easier to ignore a speaker or an array of toys or books than it is to ignore an animal that is about to attack, food when one is hungry, and sexual stimulation. The work of Joseph LeDoux provides excellent reference material for understanding these processes vis a vie the amygdala and prefrontal cortices in the brain.
Conversely, when one’s background affect is one of high arousal, attention is drawn to related stimuli. For instance, if the background affect is one of anxiety, then stimuli that represent danger are even more prominent and perhaps over-generalized. When the background feeling is one of joy and ebullience, one tends to attend to stimuli that are congruent with that feeling, and ignore “downers” as in the example of being stuck in traffic.
Depression is a very clinically significant background affect that is characterized by low levels of arousal and interest, and an attentional bias towards negative stimuli and thoughts. In psychology positive and negative affects (PANAS) are considered independent of each other neurologically (involving different and separate neural mechanisms; circuits and pathways).
Affect regulation describes the process in which affects change due to internal efforts and processes, as well as interaction with the environment. Infants are born with almost no ability to regulate their affect. They are entirely dependent upon attuned Caregivers. Caregiver actions of alternatively stimulating and maintaining positive affects, and calming and soothing negative affects do a great deal to shape the functioning of our autonomic nervous system – one of the root neural systems controlling affect. Affect regulation is a very important concept in our analysis and treatment of behavior. Some of the best references come from authors Daniel Stern, Allan Schore, Alan Sroufe and Daniel Siegel.
External Affect: Outward Affective Display
External our outward displays of affect are communicated through body language (in our species that includes postures, but also facial and bodily gestures), sound (prosody, or the emotional tone or inflection we add; as well as noises we make), and behaviors that signal our intent or predispositions. These have a very long phylogenetic history. Reptiles and dinosaurs displayed signs of hostile, aggressive or sexual intent, and all vertebrate animals and most fish have some way of displaying whether they want another organism to approach or go away. Humans have widely differentiated affective displays for a multitude of emotions and intents. We also have conscious control over our affective displays towards others, and we often make efforts to mask them in order to deceive others.
Autism Spectrum and Deficits in Reading and Sharing Affective Displays
Children on the autism spectrum usually have some degree of difficulty reading the affective displays of others in order to understand other’s intentions, states of mind, and their related action predispositions. The ability to do this is extremely important. Imagine not being able to know whether another person or animal has hostile or friendly intentions towards you. This is a source of great anxiety among individuals on the autism spectrum.
Significantly, we use our facial expressions, body language, prosody, etc. to share or show how we feel with others. We turn our faces towards others so they can see how we feel, or we add tonal inflection to our voices for instance to show how we feel about something. Infants are doing this regularly by their first birthday, but many individuals on the autism spectrum never do it, or do it rarely. They often do not understand the function or need for it.
Sensory Integration Dysfunction and Affective Disorder
Individuals may have difficulty with the perception of internal sensations (interoception) and emotions. In these individuals, there may be a mismatch between their emotions and the outward display or affective display of the emotion. For the purposes here, we are not talking about affective disorders in the sense that affects are dysregulated (e.g. bipolar and other mood disorders; schizophreniform; explosive behavior disorders, etc.)