What Exactly Are Emotions?

What exactly are emotions?

What are emotions? This is a question we’ve all asked ourselves at least once. We can define them as the ‘glue of life’. Emotions are the invisible yet intense matter that allows us to connect with others and become part of reality. At the same time, we laugh at this matter, admire it, let its wonders surprise us, and feel sadness when it is sad.

Few things are as mysterious to us as emotions. Indeed, they are part of our culture, education, gender and country of origin. However, they are also part of our genetic makeup. The universities of Durham and Lancaster (both in England) have conducted a fascinating study to demonstrate this. During this study, it was observed that fetuses in the womb can already display a small variety of emotions.

Through an ultrasound, they were able to find that unborn babies smile and even show facial expressions related to crying. This proves that even in the peaceful and quiet universe of the womb, people are already starting to activate their emotions. Even then they begin to practice that instinctive and essential language that guarantees their survival. A single smile will help to show a sense of well-being and contentment. Crying is a function that serves as an effective ‘alarm system’. This allows a baby to express his most basic needs.

So, what are they emotions? Emotions make us  human . Although we often make the mistake of thinking that there are both negative and positive emotions, in fact all emotions are necessary and valuable. After all, they fulfill an adaptive function. There is nothing more important than understanding emotions in order to use them ‘intelligently’ for our own well-being.

Echo of a smiling fetus

What are emotions?

Paul is working on his thesis. When he gets home from college, he goes straight to his bedroom to get on with it. He sits down at the computer and opens a drawer, because he needs some documents. He looks in the drawer and right on top of the folder he needs is a huge spider. Out of fear, he immediately closes the drawer. Shortly afterwards he notices that he is warm and that his heartbeat has accelerated. In addition, he has a lack of air and he gets goosebumps.

A few minutes later, he tells himself he’s been stupid. He must go on with his work and cannot waste time. When he opens the drawer again, he realizes that the spider wasn’t quite as big as he initially thought. It was actually quite a small spider. Ashamed of his irrational fear, he lets the spider walk on a sheet of paper and throws it out into the garden. This makes him feel satisfied, although he still has to laugh at himself.

What are emotions? The three dimensions

This simple example shows us how we can experience a wide range of emotions within minutes: fear, shame, satisfaction and pleasure. All these emotions have combined three very clear dimensions:

  • Subjective feelings: Paul is afraid of spiders and that emotion makes him flee from them, to protect himself.
  • A series of physiological reactions: his heart rate speeds up and his body temperature rises.
  • Acting expressively or behaviorally: After seeing the stimulus (the spider) that frightens him, Paul immediately closes the drawer.

The most complex thing about the study of emotions is that they are very difficult to measure, describe or predict. Each person experiences them in a different way. They are very specific and exclusive subjective entities. It is therefore a lot easier for scientists to evaluate its physiological responses. This is because we pretty much all react in the same way. Regardless of our age, race or culture. For example, in all experiences that are associated with fear, panic, stress or the need to escape, adrenaline is released.

Woman portraying different facial expressions

Why do we get excited?

The question, what are emotions, cannot be answered without discussing the specific purpose of emotions. Indeed, they serve to ensure our survival by allowing us to adapt to our environment. This was demonstrated by Charles Darwin when he proved that animals also had feelings and showed emotions. According to him, emotions were a real gift to them, and to us too, because they made it easier to grow as a species. In addition, they ensure that we can work better together to achieve this goal.

When it comes to explaining what emotions are and what they are for, Darwin was probably one of the most successful figures in this. However, throughout history, other names, different approaches, and more theories have emerged that attempt to answer the question, what are emotions?

What are emotions? Notes on the rites

The “Rites Records” is a first century Chinese encyclopedia that we should all check out. It is part of the Confucian canon and deals with ceremonial and social subjects, but it mainly deals with aspects of human nature. We refer to these notes because they also explain what emotions are. In fact, in this work even the basic emotions are described in detail: joy, anger, sadness, fear, love and repulsion.

What are emotions? The theory of James and Lange

In the nineteenth century, William James and the Danish scientist Carl Lange explained that emotions depend on two factors: the physical changes that take place in our organism when we are confronted with a stimulus and our subsequent interpretation of it.

That is, for these authors, the physiological response is activated before the subjective thoughts or feelings. There is no doubt that this view has many nuances and certainly presents a somewhat deterministic picture.

Brain in which a heart can be seen

What are emotions? The Schacter-Singer model

Now let’s go to the 1960s, to the prestigious Yale University (United States), to meet two influential scientists: Stanley Schacter and Jerome Singer. Both have further polished existing theories about emotions. They also formed their own well-known and interesting model.

Schachter and Singer taught us that emotions can indeed arise when we interpret our body’s peripheral physiological responses, as explained by William James and Carl Lange. However, according to these two scientists, they can also occur as a result of a cognitive assessment. This means that our thoughts and cognitions can also lead to an organic response and a subsequent release of neurotransmitters that will activate a particular emotion and associated response.

What are emotions? Paul Ekman, pioneer in the study of emotions

If we want to know what emotions are, it is almost impossible to avoid the work of Paul Ekman. When this psychologist from the University of San Francisco began his studies on this subject, he believed that emotions had a cultural origin. Most of the scientific community shared this belief.

However, after more than forty years of studies and analysis covering much of the world’s cultures, he came to a conclusion that Darwin had already referred to in his day. Fundamental emotions are innate and a result of our evolution. Based on that conclusion, Ekman established that humans are defined by a set of fundamental and universal emotions:

  • Joy
  • Fury
  • Fear
  • disgust
  • Surprise
  • sadness

However, in the late 1990s, he expanded this list after studying people’s facial expressions more thoroughly:

  • Debt
  • shyness
  • contempt
  • complacency
  • Enthusiasm
  • Pride
  • Pleasure
  • Fear
  • Disgust or Repulsion
  • Satisfaction
  • Surprise
  • Shame

What are emotions? The Wheel of Emotions, by Robert Plutchik

Robert Plutchik’s theory explains what emotions are from a more evolutionary point of view. This physician and psychologist gives us an interesting model in which he has well identified and differentiated eight basic emotions. All of these emotions have guaranteed our survival throughout our evolutionary process. According to Plutchik, we should also add other secondary and even tertiary emotions to this list. These are the emotions that we have developed over time to adapt much better to our environment.

This very interesting approach shapes what is known today as ‘Plutchik’s wheel of emotions’. This wheel helps us appreciate how emotions differ in terms of strength and intensity. For example, it’s interesting to remember that anger is less intense than rage. By understanding this, we will be a little better able to regulate our behavior.

How to achieve emotional well-being

At this point there is one aspect that we need to take into account. It is not enough to know what emotions are. It is not enough to know which neurotransmitter is behind every emotional state, physiological response or sensation. This would be like having a manual for a particular machine, but not knowing how to really use this manual to your advantage.

It is essential to convert our theoretical knowledge into practical knowledge. In addition, it is equally important to learn to manage our emotional universe to promote our well-being, improve the quality of our relationships and boost our productivity and creativity. In short, to improve our quality of life.

A good way to do this is to participate in what is now called emotional intelligence. We’ve all heard of it, and many may have even read Daniel Goleman’s book and several articles about it. If this applies to you, have you applied its main strategies in your daily life? Factors such as empathy, recognition of our own emotions, attention, correct communication, assertiveness, tolerance for frustration, positivity and motivation are aspects that we should never neglect. By now we know what emotions are, so now it’s up to us to make them the best tool to build an authentic sense of well-being and happiness. 

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