Emotions: Explained?

Grateful. Joyful. Full of love.

Heartbroken. Exasperated. Tired.

Emotions, while intangible and never easily understood, are what make us who we are. To me, emotions can be roughly divided into two basic categories: positive emotions and negative emotions. Everyone will inevitably experience both sides of the spectrum, some more extreme than others. Sometimes we feel so positive that we believe nothing can ever bring us down, while other times we feel completely drowned by negativity. Sometimes we work toward experiencing positive emotions, but instead, get met with disappointment. And even rarer, sometimes we experience both positive and negative feelings simultaneously.

We live through both positive and negative emotions (hopefully more positive than negative!) (image credit: https://bcs.mit.edu/news-events/news/delicate-balance-between-positive-and-negative-emotion)

Again, emotions are weird. I don’t think we’ll ever fully grasp the science or “feel” behind them, but to me, that’s also what makes them so beautiful. Modern society is about constantly working towards a comprehensive understanding of the world around us, including the very emotions that lie in our brains and hearts. The fact that we were put on this planet with something so abstract is so exciting, so human.

As a little kid, people never thought of me as an emotional/sentimental person, and I don’t blame them. I used to be a super shy kid, an introvert, someone who avoided talking with others. I thought growing up, I would become this calm, relatively emotionless person who just minded his own business.

Oh how things have changed. I’ve discovered that while I am still a relatively calm and collected person, I’m brimming with emotion on the inside. I’ve found that one of my greatest passions is to share these emotions with others while learning from their own stories — because everyone has a story to share, no matter how “un-emotional” they may seem on the outside. This is another universal truth that brings even more complexity and beauty to emotions, the fact that everyone can relate with each other (no matter how small the extent may be) through sharing emotions. And to be honest, this is probably one of the best and only ways people develop strong, lasting relationships. This is how society advances, how society responds to each other’s needs, how society became society. By sharing moments of love. Moments of regret. Moments from everything and everywhere.

(image credit: https://www.aier.org/article/no-society-does-not-need-unity)

Now, what kind of understanding do we have of emotions right now? How much science has been poured into unlocking the secrets of human emotion?

Let’s start with anthropologist Paul Ekman’s categories of basic emotions: anger, fear, surprise, disgust, joy, and sadness. How are each of these emotions triggered? Scientists have been trying to figure out whether our emotional reactions to external stimuli are a result of an involuntary, automatic response or whether our society-shaped judgement is what triggers the response. In other words, do we respond to situations as a result of our own evaluation or is it merely a manifestation of physiological changes taking place within our bodies?

For example, let’s say we visit the zoo and see a giant heap of elephant dung. If the former explanation is correct, then we would cringe in disgust because society and the environment has influenced our judgement to treat elephant dung as something disgusting. However, if the latter explanation is correct, then we experience disgust because our body naturally undergoes physiological changes like queasiness.

Paul Ekman’s Six Emotions (image credit: https://www.paulekman.com/blog/atlas-emotions-press-release/)

The second explanation — a more natural, innate trigger — can be readily applied to the aforementioned basic emotions. Thus, we can say that everyone experiences basic emotions because our bodies are naturally wired to respond in such manners. In a sense, these emotions are objective.

But like I said before, emotions are complicated. Psychologists agree that the basic emotions can be further added to, subtracted from, or combined to form more complex emotions. Perhaps, these more complex emotions are better described by the first explanation — instead of being a completely involuntary response, our reaction is better explained as a reaction more influenced by our moral/mental judgement of the situation. For example, let’s look at the feeling of nostalgia. This emotion cannot be categorized under one of the six basic emotions, but rather can be looked at as a combination of them. We may feel nostalgic because we feel sad that a past memory has long passed, fearful that we may never experience those feelings again, and/or even happy that we got to cherish that memory in the first place. In this scenario, it’s hard to say that these feelings of nostalgia are a naturally occurring response because they’ve been heavily shaped and molded into something more abstract — something that, perhaps, could only be possible if our reaction is as a result of our humanity (our judgement). Emotions like pride, guilt, and embarrassment seem to stem from these higher moral judgements.

With all this talk about emotions so far, I’ve discussed what kinds of emotions exist and potential explanations for how they can form, but I haven’t really hit this key point: why do we have emotions in the first place? Is there a biological explanation to justify human feeling?

The answer is: yes, there is a scientific explanation for why we have emotions. In plain terms, emotions act as motivators . In contrast with moods or personalities, emotions are much more temporary but still cause us to take action. Whether or not these emotions arise from an involuntary response or from our judgement, the fact remains that the why is to push us to do something. For example, if someone was being chased by a rapid dog, most people would feel fear; no matter how that fear was created within us, that feeling of fear motivates us to run away as fast as possible. From a biological standpoint, emotions can be seen as necessary for survival and for life to continue from generation to generation. Without this ability to quickly adapt to our surroundings, life would be difficult.

It might sound simple, but emotions exist for us to take action! (image credit: https://greggfraley.com/blog/2014/06/16/action-leads-creativity/)

However, the why of emotions doesn’t stop there. Let me pose another anecdote. Let’s say a father and his son are at a toy store, and it’s a big one with a bunch of the hottest toys on the market. This fact, in addition to the son’s childish desires, makes it super tempting for the boy to want more and more and more toys. However, the father is only allowing his son to buy one toy. The boy, desperate for at least three, throws a temper tantrum. If you were the father in this situation, how would you feel? What emotions would you feel? Probably something along the lines of embarrassment, anger, and/or disappointment that your son is being immature. Once the father experiences one or any combination of these emotions, he takes action. Maybe he quickly goes up to the son and calms him down. Maybe he compromises and lets the son buy two toys.

The point I’m trying to make is that in addition to being necessary for basic survival, human emotions are also cornerstones for maintaining/advancing society. In the example posed above, because the father is trying to understand and empathize with his son, his feelings cause him to take action in order to bring order to the situation. While this is a very small example, its principles can be readily extended to larger-scale situations involving larger populations of society. For example, politicians running for positions of power will try to properly react to how the citizens feel about something. If they are angry about how a state is being run, good politicians can sense those emotions and respond accordingly. At the same time, if the citizens are satisfied, then politicians can work toward prolonging and boosting those feelings of satisfaction. It all comes back to maintaining/advancing society.

At this point, something a lot of people wonder is how all this talk about emotions applies to animals. Do animals feel emotion?

Without diving too deeply, recent studies have shown that emotions definitely play some sort of role in animals’ physiological and behavioral functions. Changes such as quickened heart beat, adjustments in movement, and modified hormone release usually accompany a response to a situation, and this is precisely how we defined emotions previously — a cause to take action. However, scientists aren’t sure whether these emotions are actually “felt” psychologically by animals, whereas in humans, we can mentally “feel” emotions as perceived by our judgement. In other words, humans don’t just experience physiological changes, but rather we also “feel” them. Researchers have postulated that similar species such as primates probably “feel” emotions like us, but it’s harder to tell with other species.

If you’re still interested about emotions and how they work in humans and other animals, check out this video:

I think that’s enough emotion for now. Thanks for reading!

Adam Zhang

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