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For the 1991 hit single from Mariah Carey, see Emotions (Mariah Carey song). For the computer game, see E-Motion.

In psychology and common use, emotion is the language of a person's mental state of being, normally based in or tied to the person's internal (physical) and external (social) sensory feeling. Love, hate, courage, fear, joy, sadness, pleasure and disgust can all be described in both psychological and physiological terms. Emotion is the realm where thought and physiology are inextricably entwined, and where the 'self' is inseparable from our individual perceptions of value and judgement toward ourselves and others.

Emotion is sometimes regarded as the antithesis of reason; as is suggested by phrases such as appeal to emotion or don't let your emotions take over. It must be recognized that emotional reactions often produce internal states and cognitive streams undesirable to the individual feeling them, which s/he may wish to control but often cannot, or at least produce consequences or thoughts which s/he may later regret or disagree with but during the emotional state, could not control with his/her other principles. Thus one of the most distinctive and perhaps challenging facts about human beings is this potential for both opposition and entanglement between will, emotion, and reason.

Some state that there is no empirical support for any generalization suggesting the antithesis between reason and emotion: indeed, anger or fear can often be thought of as a systematic response to observed facts. What should be noted, however, is that the human psyche possesses many possible reactions and perspectives in response to the internal and external world - often lying on a continuum— at one extreme lies pure intellectual logic (often called "cold"); at the other extreme is being purely emotionally unresponsive to logical argument ("the heat of passion"). In any case, it should be clear that the relation between logic and argument on the one hand and emotion on the other, is one which merits careful study. It has been noted by many that passion, emotion, or feeling can add backing to an argument, even one based primarily on reason - particularly regarding religion or ideology, areas of human thought which frequently demand an all-or-nothing rejection or acceptance, that is, the adoption of a comprehensive worldview partly backed by empirical argument and partly by feeling and passion. Moreover, it has been suggested by several researchers that typically there is no "pure" decision or thought, that is, no thought based "purely" on intellectual logic or "purely" on emotion - most decisions and cognitions are founded on a mixture of both.


Culture, Society and Emotion

It is not clear whether emotion is a purely human phenomenon, since animals seem to exhibit conditions which resemble emotional responses such as anger, fear or sadness.

It has been hypothesized that the emotional responses typical of human beings have evolved and changed in many ways since the species first emerged. Nonetheless, as noted above, it may well be the case that human and non-human animal emotional responses lie on a continuum, rather than being two completely distinct categories of human and animal.

Much of what is said about emotions, as well as the history of what has been said about them, is conditioned by culture and even politics. That is to say specific emotional responses, as well as a group's interpretation of their significance, may be influenced by cultural norms of propriety. For instance, certain emotions such as love, hate, and the desire for vengeance are treated very differently in differing societies. This methodological relativity is entirely different from the question of whether emotions are universal or are culturally determined. Many researchers would agree that a vast proportion of human behavior, no matter how close to the lowest biological substrates - including sexual behavior, food consumption, feelings in response to physiological changes and responses to environmental conditions - are conditioned based on social surroundings and non-human environmental factors. Thus it is not difficult to defend the position that emotion is, to a high degree, dependent on social phenomena, expectations, norms, and conditioned behavior of the group in which an individual lives. Clearly, then, the influence of politics, religion, and socio-cultural customs can be easily traced or hypothesized.




Since humans can experience such a wide range of emotion, many have developed schemes for classifying emotion so that it can be better understood.

Basic four

The basic states of Commedia dell'arte are fear, anger, sorrow, and joy.

Psychoevolutionary theory

Emotions are in this view a complex of motivational factors which force us to act in a certain way. Perception, in combination with the brain's network of previous associations, is typically the determining factor in emotional response. One's concept of reality can be subject to its whims (illusion, etc.), which have a range of desirable or undesirable results, in some cases creating a placebo effect(e.g., if you believe you're being attacked by a giant monster, you will feel fear despite its objective absence), or in other cases, psychosomaticism (e.g., if you believe you have lice, your head may begin to itch, even if you don't have lice), to name a few.

Varying effects of human emotion (though not necessarily distinct in their complexity from other animals) are believed to be correlative with human evolution, which has produced advantages beyond mere physical stature. In conjunction with the species' incredibly advanced abilities in rational and abstract thought, the success of humans came to depend on intraspecies social interaction and cooperation. Emotions may have a role in managing this advantage, inclining people to feel, for instance, good when others do (e.g. after accomplishing a grueling task together).

Since emotions can compel us to change our beliefs or our practices, they clearly play a role in learning. There is a fair amount of emerging theory on the relationship between emotions and learning. One theory posits that, if learning measures the rate of change of knowledge (or beliefs), then emotions influence the rate of change of learning, itself. That is, emotions correspond to the time-derivatives of learning, and learning corresponds to the time-derivative of knowledge. (Though some would say there is a massive difference between emotion "influencing" and "corresponding" to the time-derivatives of learning.)

There are many methods of learning, including direct instruction, games and simulation, play acting, and direct experience. Each of these generates corresponding kinds of emotion (including curiosity, fascination, confusion, anxiety, surprise, bewilderment, frustration, chagrin, despair, hope, satisfaction, and confidence). Part of the theory of emotions and learning ties into drama theory.

Mental health and emotion

Emotions are generally regarded as an indicator of mental health. For example a wide class of psychiatric disorders relating to mood are classified as affective disorders. Depression for instance, is an affective disorder with a range of symptoms such as the prolonged and painful experience of sadness. On the other hand individuals that are incapable of experiencing emotions such as sadness or anger are referred to as suffering from emotional poverty reflective of many personality disorders.

Repression/suppression of emotion

Repression and suppression of emotion is believed by many to be harmful to physical and mental health.

Common views on emotions

Following are some propositions concerning the nature of emotions. Some of these assertions may be mutually contradictory. Nonetheless, they are an indicator of the wide range of beliefs on this subject:

  • An emotion is a mental state or process. This process can be conscious or subconscious, but in any case it attempts to balance and integrate various and often conflicting, facts, experiences and concepts.
  • It is a subjective, psychological experience, associated with a group of physiological reactions arising in response to some event. This experience is often held to be involuntary, although there appears to be no agreement on the extent to which one can learn to intentionally influence emotions.
  • Emotional experiences consist of thoughts, feelings, affective responses (e.g., sadness, anger, joy, determination), physiological responses (changes in internal bodily functioning), cognitive responses (e.g., a conceptual representation of an event), and behavioural responses (an outward expression such as flight or resistance).

Psychological views

Questions concerning the mystery of human emotion were the territory of a number of disciplines until the development of modern psychology. Over the last century, psychologically-based theories have provided influential, if incomplete explanations of how emotional experience is produced.

  • The James-Lange theory proposes that conscious conclusions about what we are "feeling" form in reaction to physiological changes occurring in the body. This was proposed by William James and Carl Lange independently in the 1880s.
  • The Cannon-Bard Approach proposes that the lower brain initially receives emotion-producing information and then relays it simultaneously to the higher cortex for interpretation and to the nervous system to trigger physiological responses.
  • The Schachter-Singer Approach gives highest importance to the cognitive skills that create an interpretation of the situation and so provide a framework for the individual's behavioral response.
  • The Opponent-Process Approach views emotions as sets of pairs, one positive and one negative. When an emotion-producing stimulus is present, one of the pair is suppressed so that the more situationally appropriate emotion is felt intensely.
Missing image
A gag on Just For Laughs Gags, showing surprise

The feeling component of emotion encompasses a vast spectrum of possible responses. Psychologists have attempted to offer general classifications of these responses, and as with the colour spectrum, systematically distinguishing between them largely depends on the level of precision desired. One of the most influential classification approaches is Robert Plutchik's eight primary emotions - anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, curiosity, acceptance and joy. Plutchik argues for the primacy of these emotions by showing each to be the trigger of behaviour with high survival value (i.e. fear: fight or flight).

Principally involved in the physiological component of emotion are: the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the limbic system, and the hypothalamus. Fear, in particular learned fear, is thought to depend on the amygdala.

There is considerable debate as to whether emotions and emotional experiences are universal or culturally determined. One of the first modern attempts to classify emotions was Adam Smith's study, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This book is based largely on data from Western Europe. Some anthropologists have explored the relationship between emotional disposition or expression and culture, most notably Ruth Benedict in her ethnological study, Patterns of Culture; Jean Briggs in her ethnography Never in Anger, Michelle Rosaldo in her ethnography Knowledge and Passion; Lila Abu-Lughod in her ethnography Veiled Sentiments; and Katherin Lutz in her ethnography Unnatural Emotions. Paul Ekman has found that some facial expressions of emotion appear to be culturally independent, as described in his book Emotions Revealed.

In his book Descartes' Error, the neurologist Antonio Damasio has developed a universal model for human emotions. This model is based on a rejection of the Cartesian body-mind dualism that he believes has crippled scientific attempts to understand human behaviour, and draws on psychological case-histories and his own neuropsychological experiments. He began with the assumption that human knowledge consists of dispositional representations stored in the brain. He thus defines thought as the process by which these representations are manipulated and ordered.

One of these representations, however, is of the body as a whole, based on information from the endocrine and peripheral nervous systems. Damasio thus defines "emotion" as: the combination of a mental evaluative process, simple or complex, with dispositional responses to that process, mostly toward the body proper, resulting in an emotional body state, but also toward the brain itself (neurotransmitter nuclei in the brain stem), resulting from additional mental changes.

Damasio distinguishes emotions from feelings, which he takes to be a more inclusive category. He argues that the brain is continually monitoring changes in the body, and that one "feels" an emotion when one experiences "such changes in juxtaposition to the mental images that initiated the cycle".

Damasio thus further distinguishes between "primary emotions", which he takes to be innate, and "secondary emotions", in which feelings allow people to form "systematic connections between categories of objects and situations, on the one hand, and primary emotions, on the other."

Damasio has suggested that the neurological mechanisms of emotion and feeling evolved in humans because they create strong biases to situationally appropriate behaviours that do not require conscious thought. He argued that the time-consuming process of rational thought often decreases one's chances of survival in situations that require instant decisions.

Daniel Goleman and other investigators have researched what is entailed in the abilities to manage one's own and other people's emotions. See Emotional intelligence.

Apart from the common western views as described above, also traditional systems such as Buddhist psychology survived for thousands of years with treasuries of experiential knowledge, but are often disregarded because of their subjective approach. However, exactly the aspect of introspection is extremely valuable for psychology - as long as we have no machines which can actually show us thoughts and thought processes, a certain level of subjectiveness is unavoidable.

Biological views

In other works, mammals are said to be capable of emotion due to several forebrain (prosencephalon) areas at the heart of the limbic system being adapted from being used for smell, to being used for emotion. These generate emotions for parental care, playfulness, and vocal calling (MacLean 1990).

These changes are said to have come into play about 150 million years ago.

Senses and modeling areas of the brain stimulate the emotive areas. These in turn appear to affect other areas of the brain that affect glands, which create a chemical output (for instance, opiates), resulting in sensations (in this instance, pleasure).

Birds appear to have emotive ability similar to mammals. This raises the question of whether the dinosaurs also had emotive ability. Modern fish and reptiles are believed to have no measurable emotive ability.

Whether the way communal insects work could be considered emotional is probably the subject of debate, but the argument can be made.

In proportion to brain size, humans appear have the largest limbic system of any vertebrate, potentially making them the most emotional animals.

The frontal lobes are where most abstract modeling goes on. This allows creatures so-equipped to model the feelings of others, to model dangerous situations, and more. This is interesting because the more powerful the modeling center, the more complex the emotive ability should become.

Evolutionary views

The advantages to being capable of emotion include:

  • Enhanced ability to care for young
  • Enhanced ability to cooperate with others of the same species
  • Reduced competition with others of same species
  • Added ability for discrimination among situations

Many animals can bond to their young and take care of them, and thus gain flexibility in their reproduction strategies.

Animals can herd together and react in more complicated ways to threats and situations. Thus they both cooperate better, and don't compete as destructively against others of their own species.

They can form a hierarchy and this forms another reproductive strategy when the dominant animal gains more reproductive rights.

They can form aversions, or preferences, to shapes, colors, smells, and more. This gives an additional tool for recognizing better mates, better food, and avoiding danger.

In humans, with our complex communication methods, the modeling of others' feelings would seem to be particularly important. There are known cases of minor damage to the frontal lobe, which caused disruption to its communication to the rearward parts of the brain. Major behavioral changes are often observed in the people damaged, such that they are no longer emotionally equipped to function well in society.

In a situation where people are living at subsistence level and must group together to survive, these abilities allow them to get along. If it's a situation where individuals will inevitably die if cast out, it becomes a major evolutionary advantage to model others emotively well enough to not be cast out.

Emotional Reasoning

Survival often requires that an organism be able to react to changes. Ideally, the organism is able to reason and logically react to the change. However, the reasoning process has its drawback.

  • it often takes too long
  • there might be incomplete information for a conclusion to be drawn
  • the organism's brain might not be sufficiently developed for reasoning to take place

Thus emotions provides the organism with a mechanism to work around the limitation of reasoning. The conclusion drawn might not be the optimal, or may surpass the rational alternative. Studies have suggested that the brain can be hindered by too much information, losing sight of how to handle the task at hand. We often hear of seemingly supernatural tales when someone acted because they had a "funny feeling," and somehow, without a reasoning sequence, was able to perform optimally. Emotions are often derived from our experience and buried below conscious, rational thought. Since they derive from patterns that are unconsciously monitored and recognized, emotional motives can be strikingly accurate, despite the presence of rational analysis.

Hence there are many advantages that emotional reasoning offers.

Philosophical views

Philosophers have considered the problem of emotions from a number of different angles, and in recent years have attempted to integrate, or at least relate, accounts of emotion found in literature, psychoanalysis, behavioural psychology, neurobiology and in the philosophical literature itself. Martha Nussbaum, to take one example, has issued a recent challenge to theorists of emotion who understand emotions to be irrational states grafted onto a rational, emotionless thought process. This understanding of emotions may be considered the epiphenomenal account; emotions may be the end-product of cognitive processes—such as a feeling of anger upon realizing that one's been cheated—but they can never take their place among other mental states, such as believing, as equals. In this account, one may, for example, reason perfectly well about an ethical quandary without experiencing emotion.

In Nussbaum's account, emotions are essentially cognitive states of a subject; what distinguishes emotions from other thoughts is that they refer to events or states in the world that directly relate to what she terms the individual's own self-flourishing. Here, self-flourishing refers to a constellation of concepts taken from the Aristotelian notion of Eudaimonia.

Nussbaum's primary goal in her recent work on emotion is to support this cognitive account of emotions against the epiphenomenal account by showing how emotions both have a logic—can be considered to follow coherently or not upon one another—and are directly responsive to external facts. For Nussbaum, the fact that the emotion of jealousy can coexist with that of love, but not with that of, say, friendly-feeling, is a consequence of their cognitive properties. Accounts of psychoanalysis and of the sequence of emotions experienced when listening to music are also, in Nussbaum's view, supportive of the cognitivist account.

See also List of emotions, Empathy

Further reading

  • Task Force on DSM-IV, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders : DSM-IV, American Psychiatric Association
  • Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Cambridge University Press (, November, 2001, hardcover, 751 pages, ISBN 0521462029; trade paperback, April, 2003, ISBN 0521531829
  • Martha C. Nussbaum, Therapy of Desire, Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Harcourt, February, 2003, hardcover, 320 pages, ISBN 0151005575; trade paperback, December, 2003, 368 pages, ISBN 0156028719
  • A Buddhist View on Emotions and Delusions (
  • Keith Oatley and Jennifer M. Jenkins, "Understanding Emotion", Blackwell Publishers, 1996, ISBN 1557864950
  • Malcolm Gladwell, "Blink", Little, Brown, 2005, ISBN 0316172324

External links

de:Emotion es:Emocin eo:Emocio fr:motion hr:Osjećaji nl:Emotie ja:感情 pl:Emocja ru:Эмоция sl:čustvo


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