What Are Emotions?

We live "with, through and in" emotions all the time, yet what are they?

Here are two different perspectives from About.com and PsychologyToday. Take a look and add your comments below!

In our next article, we will look at emotions from yet another perspective that acknowledges their existence and looks more at what we can do given their existence. Of course we could go into the philosophy of it, but rather we will use our own testable experience for us to better determine "How to Improve Our Emotional Fitness."

“What Are Emotions?

About.com Psychology.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

“An emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response.”
Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2007

In addition to understanding exactly what emotions are, researchers have also tried to identify and classify the different types of emotions. In 1972, psychologist Paul Eckman suggested that there are six basic emotions that are universal throughout human cultures: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness. In 1999, he expanded this list to include a number of other basic emotions including embarrassment, excitement, contempt, shame, pride, satisfaction, and amusement.

During the 1980s, Robert Plutchik introduced another emotion classification system known as the “wheel of emotions.” This model demonstrated how different emotions can be combined or mixed together, much the way an artist mixes primary colors to create other colors. Plutchik suggested that there are 8 primary emotional dimensions: happiness vs. sadness, anger vs. fear, trust vs. disgust, and surprise vs. anticipation. These emotions can then be combined in a variety of ways. For example, happiness and anticipation might combine to create excitement.

In order to better understand what emotions are, let’s focus on their three key elements.

The Subjective Experience

While experts believe that there are a number of basic universal emotions that are experienced by people all over the world regardless of background or culture, researchers also believe that the experience of emotion can be highly subjective. While we might have broad labels for certain emotions such as ‘angry,’ ‘sad,’ or ‘happy,’ your own unique experience of these emotions is probably much more multi-dimensional. Consider anger. Is all anger the same? Your own experience might range from mild annoyance to blinding rage.

Plus, we don’t always experience ‘pure’ forms of each emotion. Mixed emotions over different events or situations in our lives are common. When faced with starting a new job, you might feel both excited and nervous. Getting married or having a child might be marked by a wide range of emotions ranging from joy to anxiety. These emotions might occur simultaneously, or you might feel them one after another.

The Physiological Response

If you’ve ever felt your stomach lurch from anxiety or your heart palpate with fear, then you realize that emotions also cause strong physiological reactions. Many of the physical reactions you experience during an emotion such as sweating palms, racing heartbeat, or rapid breathing are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, a branch of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary body responses such as blood flow and digestion. The sympathetic nervous system is charged with controlling the body’s fight-or-flight reactions. When facing a threat, these responses automatically prepare your body to flee from danger or face the threat head-on.

While early studies of the physiology of emotion tended to focus on these autonomic responses, more recent research has targeted the brain’s role in emotions. Brain scans have shown that the amygdala, part of the limbic system, plays an important role in emotion and fear in particular. The amygdala itself is a tiny, almond-shaped structure that has been linked to motivational states such as hunger and thirst as well as memory and emotion. Researchers have used brain imaging to show that when people are shown threatening images, the amygdala becomes activated. Damage to the amygdala has also been shown to impair the fear response.

The Behavioral Response

The final component is perhaps one that you are most familiar with – the actual expression of emotion. We spend a significant amount of time interpreting the emotional expressions of the people around us. Our ability to accurately understand these expressions is tied to what psychologists call emotional intelligence and these expressions play a major part in our overall body language. Researchers believe that many expressions are universal, such as a smile indicating happiness or pleasure or a frown indicating sadness or displeasure. Cultural rules also play an important role in how we express and interpret emotions. In Japan, for example, people tend to mask displays of fear or disgust when in the presence of an authority figure.

Emotions Vs. Moods

In everyday language, people often use the terms ’emotions’ and ‘moods’ interchangeably, but psychologists actually make distinctions between the two. How do they differ? An emotion is usually quite short-lived, but intense. Emotions are also likely to have a definite and identifiable cause. For example, after disagreeing with a friend over politics, you might feel angry for a short period of time. A mood, on the other hand, is usually milder than an emotion, but longer-lasting. In many cases, it can be difficult to identify the specific cause of a mood. For example, you might find yourself feeling gloomy for several days without any real reason.

… And Some Say Happiness is A Brain Process

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

Philosophers and psychologists have long debated the nature of emotions such as happiness. Are they states of supernatural souls, cognitive judgments about goal satisfaction, or perceptions of physiological changes? Advances in neuroscience suggest how brains generate emotions through a combination of cognitive appraisal and bodily perception.

Suppose that something really good happens to you today: you win the lottery; your child gets admitted to Harvard, or someone you’ve been interested in asks you out. Naturally, you feel happy, but what does this happiness amount to? On the traditional dualist view of a person, you consist of both a body and a soul, and it is the soul that experiences mental states such as happiness. This view has the appealing implication that you can even feel happiness after your body is gone, if your soul continues to exist in a pleasant location such as heaven. Unfortunately, there is no good evidence for the existence of the soul and immortality so the dualist view of emotions and the mind in general can be dismissed as wishful thinking or motivated inference.

There are currently two main scientific ways of explaining the nature of emotions. According to the cognitive appraisal theory, emotions are judgments about the extent that the current situation meets your goals. Happiness is the evaluation that your goals are being satisfied, as when winning the lottery solves your financial problems and being asked out holds the promise of satisfying your romantic needs. Similarly, sadness is the evaluation that your goals are not being satisfied, and anger is the judgment aimed at whatever is blocking the accomplishment of your goals.

Alternatively, William James and others have argued that emotions are perceptions of changes in your body such as heart rate, breathing rate, perspiration, and hormone levels. On this view, happiness is a kind of physiological perception, not a judgment, and other emotions such as sadness and anger are mental reactions to different kinds of physiological stages. The problem with this account is that bodily states do not seem to be nearly as finely tuned as the many different kinds of emotional states. Yet there is undoubtedly some connection between emotions and physiological changes.

Hence happiness can be a brain process that simultaneously makes appraisals and perceives the body. For details about how this might work, see the EMOCON model of emotional consciousness.

Understanding how the brain works shows that these theories of emotion – cognitive appraisal and physiological perception – can be combined into a unified account of emotions. The brain is a parallel processor, doing many things at once. Visual and other kinds of perception are the result of both inputs from the senses and top-down interpretations based on past knowledge. Similarly, the brain can perform emotions by interactively combining both high-level judgments about goal satisfactions and low-level perceptions of bodily changes. The judgments are performed by the prefrontal cortex which interacts with the amygdala and insula that process information about physiological states. Hence happiness can be a brain process that simultaneously makes appraisals and perceives the body. For details about how this might work, see the EMOCON model of emotional consciousness.

What Do You Think?