What Is Emotion & How Does It Work?

Charles Darwin can be attributed with the first achievements in emotion research, which he did in order to support his theory of evolution in the late 19th century. In his investigation of expression in mammals, he discovered the actual breadth of emotion as a topic of research. Since Darwin, there have been many approaches to the definition and organization of emotions in the field of psychology and psychiatry.

Fig. 1 Illustration of Robert Plutchik‘s three-dimensional model for emotion. Eight basic emotions oppose one another on top and each affect moving down the model is a less intense form of the basic emotion.

In 1896 German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt pioneered the dimensional-approach to emotion, using pleasant-unpleasant and low-high intensity to distribute affects (the experience of emotion). He believed the description of subjective feeling was possible through introspection. After Wundt, several researchers and psychologists have developed alternate dimensional models. Most of the dominant models are two-dimensional using arousal and valence. Robert Plutchik’s three-dimensional model (Figure 1) measures emotion through eight basic emotions (four pairs and their opposites) as well as the additional dimension of intensity. Both Plutchik, and later Harold Schlosberg, developed a conic shape diagram to show how intensity changes an emotion state. The PAD emotion state model (pleasure, arousal and dominance, and the Geneva Emotion Wheel (Figure 2), introduce the dimension of control, sometimes referring to it as dominance or power.

Fig. 2 Abbreviated and illustrated version of the 2012 Geneva Emotion Wheel.

Often in colloquial speech we interchange the terms emotion, feeling, and mood. These, although blurry and often related, represent different phenomena. With this in mind, we will assume the following about emotion: Our emotions arise from, and are based on, evolutionary history. They occur as a feedback loop (Figure 3) in an organism as an attempt to regain equilibrium after encountering a stimulus. We have emotions in order to make decisions: should we fight or flee? Therefore, emotions are more discriminating and responsive to argument and evidence — but hard to control. Feelings are part of the emotion experience in that they occur when a stimulus is encountered and are inwardly directed. Examples of feelings include tense, sick, energetic, or unstable. Moods, in contrast to emotion and feeling, are less specific and often times less intense. They do not arise from one specific event or stimulus, nor are they always rational or justified. Moods seem to color everything and we often describe ourselves as being either in a positive or negative mood.

For this thesis, I have adopted the evolutionary theory of emotion. Particularly in identifying basic emotions and the emotion experience as a feedback loop. Scherer’s work, in particular the development of the Geneva Emotion Wheel, has served to guide the development of the tool presented in chapter five. The combination of these two approaches, Plutchik’s discrete and Scherer’s dimensional, allow for the use of familiar emotion naming (angry, sad, joyful, etc.) and a more comprehensive evaluation of the appraisal process. The majority of scientists who study emotion also retain the view that a dual-approach is the most accurate.

Fig. 3 An illustrative representation of the process of emotion.

When we look at emotion through an psychoevolutionary perspective, we can break down its stages into the following (see Figure 3 to compare):

  1. The occurrence of an event (stimulus)
  2. The cognitive appraisal process (which carries on throughout the feedback loop)
  3. Naming the feeling state/emotion
  4. Experiencing an impulse to reaction
  5. Carrying out a reaction
  6. Observing/Experiencing the effect

If the organism, or we, are not brought back to equilibrium after the first loop, the loop restarts (or partially so) until we achieve it. To illustrate an example, we’ll use the death of a loved one:

  1. Death acts as the stimulus
  2. We determine that we feel loss or abandoned,
  3. These feelings do not arousal us but are intense, so we label it grief
  4. Our impulse in response to grief could be withdrawal or to cry
  5. Perhaps we do no withdrawal, because our family needs us, but we cry

This behavior elicits support from other loved ones, through which we are able to change the feeling state

From the point of view of evolution, cognition developed in order to predict the future more effectively. This is how we are conditioned to stimuli. If, after cognitive evaluation, our environment or situation is familiar (in that we know it to be satisfying or frustrating) then we are able to react quickly, as we already “know” what brings us back to equilibrium.

Measuring Emotion

I‘ve addressed the challenges in measuring emotion, but the challenges of talking about our emotion to begin with almost go without saying. Another of the characteristics Scherer states is the need for standard emotion labels in their natural language form. This allows respondents to use words they are familiar with when expressing their feelings. Here, a linguistic challenge with the rapid evolution in spoken languages and the popularization of e-mail, SMS and instant messaging, the nature of writing has also evolved to a more colloquial style. In a testing, or even therapeutic a setting, these changes are hard to account for. Still, revealing our feelings is important.

Fig. 4 Tony Soprano visiting his psychologist Dr. Melfi from the series The Sopranos.
Fig. 5 Helena Bonham Carter playing the patient in Roman Polanksi’s film A Therapy.

Though the effects of disclosing emotion are only recently being formally tested, we can find examples in history that cite its benefits. This will be discussed again in the next chapter on recording. Disclosing emotion requires that we use language to express a phenomenon that occurs at a non-linguistic level of consciousness. Assumingly, it is possible. We have developed an entire, widely-used treatment based upon the idea that it is: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It is also the model favored by insurance companies. Because it is first and foremost a “talking cure”, words are the natural unit of meaning. Even those of us who have never been to a therapeutic session recognize CBT from film (Figures 4 & 5). Seated across from a trained professional, patients are asked to create a narrative from their past or current experiences. The same problems discussed in the measurement of emotions also apply here. First, the only the most articulate are able to put experiences into precise words. That is of course, only when the experience can be realized by language. Second, how the patient describes their thoughts, feelings and experiences is influenced by the vocabulary available at the time and the need to construct a coherent sentence. This is a conversation, and so the requirement is that the speaker is understood and their story accepted. In an attempt to be understood, factual truths are sometimes left out and instead what is said is what is sayable. These are only the problems the patient struggles with. The analyst, with no code to decipher the patient’s expression, has no ability to translate language back into felt emotion. The shared human experience, and to some extent, a shared human language (English, for example) is somewhat reliable as a tool in this circumstance. When spoken, this shared language is largely metaphorical.

Historically, as Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico asserts, since our individual cognitive development, we spoke figuratively and rich in metaphor. We spoke subjectively using “poetic logic.” The period of Romanticism was the final heyday for this lush, expressive language. Industrial Revolution and advanced technologies brought much change to how we communicate information, which we‘ll discuss later. But as it pertained to emotion, the revolution was the antithesis of Romanticism. The waves of rationalism and objectivism were brought on by urbanism, capitalism and the increase of the population. The artists and poets — the masters of metaphor — and seekers of the aesthetic experience saw automation as dehumanization. Depending on your cultural experiences, you choose one of these two lenses (objective or subjective) to view the world. A pure objective stance requires a scientific account of reality and the use of language to express our experiences clearly and precisely. As we already pointed out, that becomes a complicated task in the context of emotion. It is difficult to only use words for rational, objective truth because it is a characteristic of human language to be made up of metaphors and analogies. This allows for the exploration of ambiguity. In their book, Metaphors We Live By, linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write,

“Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people.”

They highlight several metaphors we commonly use to specifically address emotions such as Happiness Is Up (“I’m feeling upbeat”) and Love Is Madness (“I’m crazy about her.”) We also understand our world spatially, which is why spatial metaphors like Happiness Is Up and Sad Is Down to help us literally to orient emotion in our realities. Even still, they conclude that no metaphor can be comprehended or adequately represented independently of its experiential basis. To understand the metaphor is to have experienced it. For two people to use the same metaphor, both need to have experienced it. Their “experientialist view” is a middle ground between the objectivism that dominates Western cultures and the subjectivism which has, at most, found its place in art and religion. Because we find our own truths based on what we individually experience, an experiential lens allows us to be objective with the parts that we understand and use tools like metaphor to make sense of the things we can’t quite grasp. We create an “imaginative rationality” for our feelings, aesthetic experiences and moral practices in order to comprehend them.

Describing emotion in a therapeutic setting places a large dependency on this shared experience, and appears to contradict what we know about our language: it differs vastly across culturing upbringing. Even still, we fumble our way through expressing our experiences to make sense of them. Labeling emotion is the first step this act of sense-making. It begins the process of gaining emotion awareness. The ability to symbolize feelings and put them into words provides a powerful tool for emotion regulation, influencing emotion and developing social skills.

Emotion Awareness & Self Knowledge

With emotion awareness comes the battle against emotion avoidance. As humans we have a strong tendency to avoid painful emotions. Normal cognitive processes often deny, distort, or interrupt emotion and transform adaptive but unpleasant emotions into dysfunctional behaviors designed to avoid feeling. So even though we have, through evolution, adjusted to experiencing necessary unpleasant emotions, we mentally override them. It is a part of improving skills that lead to emotion regulation, that one must tolerate all emotion experiences. Just as any other skill set we would like to acquire, we must learn the ins-and-outs of emotion experiences. Enduring an emotion, pleasant or unpleasant, gives us a full picture and thus a richer narrative to explain our experiences. Emotion awareness is not about thinking about feeling. It’s about feeling our feelings. Simply thinking can lead to obsession and ruminative thoughts, reinforcing our tendencies to avoid.

Dr. Judith Beck, psychologist and president of Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, said in an interview, “Worry and obsession get worse when you try to control your thoughts. Don’t stop them, own them. With practice you can learn to disrupt and tame the negative cycles.”

Through a better understanding of our emotion experiences, we are able to equip ourselves with better coping mechanisms.

We learn what works for us, which helps us gain emotion awareness and overall self-knowledge. To quote the general truth and Greek aphorism, “Know thyself.” Self-knowledge, as I will discuss in the next chapter, has been throughout history reached by the path of inward introspection and self-disclosure.

In this chapter, we addressed emotion and its complexity. We saw that despite its complexity, we choose a relatively straight-forward, yet limiting, approach to communicate it. Today, introspection and mindful mediation are trending. It’s hip to be aware. Next we’ll discuss how we have been looking inward through recording for thousands of years.

Continue to Recording.

An overview of this project and a link to the log book of my process can be found online here.