What is Emotion?

By Wil Forbis
December 1, 2010

The Our Wacky Brain collection:

First off, I would like to welcome readers to a new series of acid logic articles titled "Our Wacky Brain." Articles in this series will cast the learned and insightful acid logic eye on the topic of the human brain and the various disciplines devoted to its study.

Some may ask, "Why do you wish to bore us with discussions about the brain, Wil Forbis?" Let me attempt an answer. The small but sophisticated population of people who peruse my blog know that I've spent significant parts of the past three years dealing with two major ailments. One is severe repetitive strain in my forearms (now substantially better) and the second being a (likely) virally induced malfunction of the collection of tiny organs in the inner ear responsible for balance (often referred to as the vestibular system.) As I researched these maladies, I became curious about the topic of neurology and the study of brain functions, specifically related to the senses. Questions like, "how do we see?" or "how do we feel pain?" or "how do we know when we are upside down?" attracted my attention. One can do little reading on the topic of neurology, however, without getting sucked into literature on emotions. I became particularly interested in how emotions relate to our senses of pain and pleasure.

Emotions are baffling little buggers. One could argue that they define the very experience of being alive. Discussion, description and creation of emotion are integral to all our art forms, from writing to film to music. We've collectively spent billions of dollars on drugs and therapies attempting to moderate or stimulate our emotions. Yet trying to define what emotions are is a confusing process which often suffers under the weight of misused terminology and circular logic. How do you feel when you feel happy? You feel good. But isn't "good" just another way of saying "happy?" If you were approached by an alien who claimed to have no experience with the emotion of guilt, could you explain it to him? Probably not.

Despite all this, scientists, philosophers and everyday people have put quite a bit of thought into emotions. We've generally grouped them into categories of either positive or negative emotions. And we have a strong sense of the differences between joy and hatred, or fear and regret, or pride and revulsion, even if we can't always put it into words.

MIND AND BODY (Descartes versus William James)
Throughout history, many of us, especially in the western world, have viewed emotions as part of the domain of the mind or spirit. Defining the mind or spirit is about as easy as defining emotions, but we tend to believe that the mind/spirit is separate from the physiology of our body. It's the ghost in the phrase "ghost in the machine." If we believe in an afterlife, we think that our spirit will continue to experience emotions. This theory of "mind-body separatism" was famously advocated by the philosopher René Descartes.

One of the first figures to challenge this idea was the psychologist/philosopher William James (brother of author Henry.) In 1884, he came out with a counter theory, described below in a quote from this Wikipedia article about him:

The theory holds that emotion is the mind's perception of physiological conditions that result from some stimulus. In James's oft-cited example; it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run. We see a bear and run, consequently we fear the bear. Our mind's perception of the higher adrenaline level, heartbeat, etc., is the emotion.
James was essentially arguing that emotions are physical sensations, often sensations in the viscera/guts. (Hence the phrase, "gut reaction.") When we're anxious, we experience mild stomach upset, increased sweating, a tightness in our chest. (The exact combination of sensations varies from person to person.) When we're ecstatic, we experience a pleasant tingling on the side of our neck, or perhaps some lightheadedness. James argued that emotions are not of the domain of the mind, but of the body.

Many people have augmented this theory since James first posited it. In 1995, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio published "Descartes' Error" and specifically mapped out the fear reaction as he had observed it. He saw an interesting process of communication between our much older "primitive" brain --- responsible for basic emotions --- and our more recently evolved Neo cortex or "modern" brain --- responsible for rational thought. Damasio noted that the primitive brain, upon observing potentially dangerous stimulus (like seeing a bear), communicated with the endocrine system, ordering it to release various hormones which changed the body to a "fearful" state*. Like a blinking red light, this hormonal tide alerted the Neo cortex that it better do something to avoid the danger. According to Damasio, the body organs, particularly the endocrine system, are integral to the creation of the physical sensations of emotion. As such, philosopher Descartes was in error when he argued that the mind (and its emotions) were separate from the body.

* By fearful state I mean pulse racing, trembling, and seemingly electrical jolts traveling down one's spine.

Augmented with some ideas from evolutionary science, this theory of emotion can be thought of as follows. The brain of an individual is like a computer, and is constantly predicting the odds of survival of the individual (and his/her genes) based on the environment the person is in and the actions they are taking. The brain gets information about the environment and these actions via our senses: sight, hearing, touch etc. Actions that are beneficial to the individual's survival are rewarded with "good" sensations e.g. the pleasure from eating. Actions which are detrimental to the individual's survival are punished with "bad" sensations e.g. the pain you feel when you stick a knife in your kidney.

But the brain is not just responding to the current actions. It's also predicting the possible results of actions under consideration. If you're thinking about performing an action which could have negative consequences --- say, walking into a lion's den --- the brain generates the unpleasant sensations we think of as fear. If you're thinking about an action which could have a positive effect, like having a hearty meal, your brain spurs you on with hunger and desire. (Food is, of course, more plentiful in the modern age, so the evolved incentive to eat often is actually turning us into a world of fatties.)

It's worth contemplating the hand of evolution as it operates in such scenarios. The kind of person who isn't afraid of walking into a lion's den probably won't live long enough to reproduce.

This question then arises: how does the brain generate the pleasant or unpleasant sensations we correlate to the term emotions. The answer is very complex --- many books have been written on the topic --- and still not fully hashed out, but I'll briefly touch on it. In response to stimuli, our brain "orders" the release of various hormones and the brain "messengers" known as neurotransmitters. An example we're all familiar with is the onslaught of the hormone adrenaline that occurs during emotional distress. You might have read a recent Slate article arguing that parents received a mini blast of the pleasurable neurotransmitter oxytocin when they receive love from their child. (Another good way to get oxytocin? Take ecstasy, also known as the "love drug.") Neurotransmitters and hormones can have various overt effects on our body state --- they can cause our heart to race, our skin to sweat --- but they can also be more subtle. How do you feel right now? Do you have any mild stomach discomfort? Do you feel a pleasant, muted tingling along the back of your neck? We're often not overtly aware of how we feel. During much of our life, our body state is embroiled in a barely noticeable tug-of-war between the chemical messengers that travel our system.

There are obviously some emotions that involve more than just body sensations and changing body state. What about guilt? You may have negative sensations when feeling guilt, such as upset stomach or chest tightness, but you are also intellectually aware of the reason for the sensations e.g. you slept with your neighbor's wife, or you ran over your daughter's cat. I refer to these reasons for our emotional state as "intellectual contextualizations. The same could be said for an emotion like regret, or on the flip side, pride. With guilt or regret your brain is "ordering" neurotransmitters and hormones to "punish" you, but it's also letting you know the reason for the punishment. With pride, your brain is "rewarding" you, but also within a certain context.

Can one experience the physical sensations of emotions without tying them into their intellectual contextualization? Can you feel sad without knowing why you feel sad? We can, and it happens quite often. We've all had that sensation of knowing that something is bothering us, but we can't quite figure out what it is. Sometimes this can be resolved with a little deep thought; sometimes it takes years of psychotherapy. And sometimes, there is no intellectual contextualization. Certain people are naturally sad (e.g. they may suffer from a deficit of "pleasurable" neurotransmitters and hormones) and certain people are naturally happy.

For a while, I was happy enough to describe the creation of emotions as follows: the brain takes stock of incoming stimuli, determines whether actions currently undertaken or being considered are likely to help the flourishing of the individual, and then alters the body state to nudge us in one direction or the other. Then a thought occurred to me: what about repressed emotions?

There's some controversy as to whether repressed emotions even exist, but we've all experienced a sudden influx of emotion that seems to come out of nowhere. (The volcanic anger of road rage is a good example.) It seems reasonable to entertain the idea that we have some hidden store of emotion that we can only sense when it bubbles over.

Thinking about this caused me to change what I define as emotion. As I stated, the inception of emotion is the process of your brain "calculating" the likelihood of your survival or flourishing based on your current situation or predictions of upcoming situations. I think that calculation --- with or without the physical sensations --- is the core of what we call an emotion.

How does this tie into repressed emotions? Let's consider the following scenario. You're five years old and you've just been molested by your grandfather. Your brain takes in this information and quite correctly concludes that the world is not as safe a place as it had presumed, thus lowering your likelihood for survival and flourishing. The shock to your system is tremendous and the brain readies a tidal wave of neurotransmitters and hormones to impart this knowledge. But some other part of your brain realizes that this emotional shock is in itself dangerous to your survival. So it represses or buries this emotion (both the intellectual conceptualization and the physical sensations) somewhere. But that horrible realization about the danger of the world is still recorded somewhere in your brain, and may eventually come to the surface.

Any discussions of topics like emotions or the mind are at best theoretical. For those of us who don't have access to expensive MRI machines or blood tests, it's impossible to "see" our neurons firing neurotransmitters, or our endocrine system releasing hormones. But I think there are some interesting home experiments we can do. When we're experiencing emotion, be it sadness, joy, pride, regret or whatnot, we can try to mentally tabulate exactly what we're experiencing (Buddhists refer to this sort of thing as "mindfulness.") For example, I recently hiked up a mountain near my house. As I stood atop a boulder overlooking the view, I observed some power lines that ran down the mountain and crossed just below me. As a kind of mental joke, I considered the possibility of leaping off the boulder and wrapping my sweater over the powerline so that I could literally slide down it as a kind of human ski lift. I had no serious intention of doing this, but even so, I could feel my body revolt. My viscera churned slightly and my chest got tight. What surprised me was the sensation in my knees. They tingled and weakened, almost as if my body was saying, "if you are considering this insane action, then I'm going to take away your ability to jump!" And I often discover these strange, unexpected sensations whenever I perform this mental tabulation of the sensations of emotion. An emotion is not just one sensation, but a curious combination of many sensations across many organs of the body.

Update (December 21, 2010): I've been reading Antonio Damasio's follow-up to "Descartes's Error" entitled, "The Feeling of What Happens." He mentions two additional components of the emotional experience worth considering. One is the increase or decrease in brain processing speed (e.g. alertness) that occurs with different emotions. In moments of fear or terror, time slows down, and we become acutely aware of our surroundings. In periods of depression, life becomes a blur. He also argues that our sense of our skeletal muscles is just as important as our sense of our viscera in "sensing" our emotional state. (Pages 288-289.)

Update (September 26, 2011): In her book "My Stroke of Insight" brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes her experience having and recovering from a left brain stroke. At one point she touches on the physiological nature of emotion (page 144.)

The portion of my left brain that I chose not to recover was the part of my left hemisphere character that had the potential to be mean, worry incessantly, or be verbally abusive to either myself or others. Frankly, I just didn't like the way those attitudes felt physiologically inside my body. My chest felt tight, I could feel my blood pressure rise, and the tension in my brow would give me a headache. (My italics.)

Update (November 8, 2013): The book "World Wide Mind" by science writer Michael Chorost has as an elquent description of the physical nature of emotion. Chorost visited a retreat in California where particpants were encouraged to express their emotions to each other. He states... (Pages 84-85.)

For me [emotional expression] had been been unexpectedly hard, because I sometimes didn't know what my feelings were. I often had to pause, garnering information from my body. Did my stomach feel tight? Did my jaw feel clenched? Or the opposite: Did my arms and face feel loose and limber, in relaxation?

Update (November 29, 2013): Although this is anecdotal, this passage from the book "The Undiscovered Mind" by John Horgan (who is something of a neuroscience and psychology skeptic) captures the notion that emotion is a physically felt feeling quite well. In describing a college depression, he writes.
My melancholy seemed to literarily press down on my chest, and it never gave me a moment's respite. All the usual little pleasures---food, movies, sports, books, conversation---failed to distract me from my morbid self-scrutiny. My condition felt physiological, as much so as the flu, and seemed to require physiological remedies---copious amounts of alcohol and drugs. But it was not entirely physiological. It started after a romantic relationship failed, and it ended when I met and fell in love with my future wife.

Next month: What is morality?

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