Whenever one of these base emotion questions come up, I like to bring up Lövheim's Cube of Emotion
Now I have to put a disclaimer here, before I go any further. The connection between monoamine neurotransmitters and the eight "basic" emotions that Lövheim proposed deserves some skepticism. He proposed it in 2012, and very little follow up has been done. In addition, I assign meanings for the transmitters which are decidedly oversimplified. However, for writing and worldbuilding purposes, I find this overreach proves very effective in exploring emotion, so I continue to use it despite its questionable pedigree.
In Lövheim's cube of emotion, the 8 basic emotions of affect theory are paired to combinations of the three monoamine neurotransmitters: noradrenaline, dopamine, and seratonin. For example, fear/terror is associated with high dopamine, low noradrenaline and low seratonin while joy is associated with high dopamine and seratonin but low noradrenaline. This connection between emotion and neurotransmitter levels, were it to be found to be true, would be a very powerful statement about how our brain works.
For worldbuilding, I take it one step further. I looked at how these neurotransmitters operate and tried to over-distill it into something for worldbuilders.
- Dopamine -- Dopamine is associated with rewards. It's actually not the getting of the reward that causes dopamine, but the potential. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is used to let the neocortex notify the limbic system that it thinks there is a reward somewhere in the area, so the limbic system should act in a way which can uncover this reward. Basically, the thinking brain is happy with the situation it's in.
- Seratonin -- Seratonin is heavily associated with the lower parts of the brain - the reptilian part of the brain. It spikes after we've had a good meal, among other things. We can treat it as a signal indicating the body is happy with the situation it's in.
- Noradrenaline -- This neurotransmitter is highly associated with unexpected changes. There's some feedback loops between our sensory inputs and our brain's predictions about the world which cause noradrenaline to spike if the world turns out different from our expectations. Thus we can treat this as a signal that things are changing unpredictably.
These oversimplifications lead to surprising insight into how these emotions flow. Fear/Terror is associated with high dopamine, but low noradrenaline and seratonin. Through my oversimplification, we can say that fear is what we use in a situation where our body is very unhappy with what's going on (low seratonin), and we see that the situation is unfolding in that bad way predictably (low noradrenaline), but we see a way to make the situation better (high dopamine), perhaps by running in a useful direction.
Contrast that with distress/anguish, with its high noradrenaline and low dopamine and seratonin. In that case the brain doesn't see a way for things to get better (low dopamine), and there's constant hard to predict stimulus (high noradrenaline), which is the thing causing the distress. If it ceases to be unpredictable (noradrenaline goes down), we fall into shame/humiliation. And if you think about what happens as a person simply gives up the fight, this seems awfully accurate for how many simplifications we took getting here.
So what are some of our options?
- One option is to simply never get into this situation where the body's unhappy, the world is predictable, and there's reward in sight. We could always have behaviors which ensure unpredictable behaviors occur around us if the body is unhappy and there's
reward in sight. Indeed, there are some people who, if pushed towards fear, get angry rapidly.
- A fascinating variant of this is when you punish fear responses. This decreases the sense of a reward being around, so dopamine goes down. You get shame/humiliation. If you consider an individual who is in a trapped unhealthy relationship, this starts to feel uncomfortably accurate. Perhaps the environment for this alien simply never rewards seeking rewards in this scenario.
- You could pick different axes. Different axes would yield different base affects. One might consider cylindrical or spherical coordinates rather than these rectangular ones. For example, you might have a combined unpredictable world/rewards are available into one neurotransmitter with a second that moves it back and forth between the two like a knob. That kind of limbic system replacement would lend itself to completely different fundamental urges.
- You could identify a better response. Considering fear as what humans do when they see a reward, but their body is unhappy and the situation isn't offering any unpredictable insights, you could ask "what might my alien do different." It's a hard one to explore, since we're so used to the fear responses in humans, but fun to try. The result is an alien which has "fear" in the sense of this cube, but their response is very different.
No matter what, you're looking for an environment where the stereotypical responses to this scenario don't apply. I find that opens the door for a lot of brainstorming, so have fun with it!