What are emotions?

What are Emotions?

Emotions can seem mysterious and confusing. We feel jealous or angry, happy or sad but where do those feelings come from? What is creating them?

The Traditional Approach

There are several theories about the emotions. The most quoted theory relates to the Limbic Brain, part of the Triune Brain Model. The Limbic Brain is often called the Emotional Brain. It is level of brain between the ancient reptilian brain, and the modern ration thinking brain. Neuroscientists claimed to have found evidence linking emotions to various parts of it.

Recent research however, suggests that the Limbic Brain theory is too simplistic. There is no obvious correlation between parts of it and specific emotions.

It’s just physical

Lisa Feldman-Barrett provides a persuasive explanation of emotions in her book “How Emotions Are Made”.

She contends that emotions are physical states that we interpret based on our experiences, and social and cultural norms.

Fear and anger are the easiest way to understand this. Fight or Flight responses via the Sympathetic Nervous System generates various degrees of both emotions. In the case of anger this can range from mild irritation to downright rage. With fear, we can be anywhere from unease to panic.

Think of the example of someone about to parachute for the first time. If that person has led a sheltered life or had a family member with a fear of heights, they may interpret the physical aspects of Fight or Flight as terror in the run up to the jump. But if that person regularly steps out of their comfort zone or has been brought up to relish adventure, the same physical aspects of the Sympathetic System activation may be interpreted as excitement. The physical symptoms are the same – raised heart rate, butterflies in the stomach – but through the lens of our experiences and conditioning, the state, or “emotion” is experienced differently.

Jealousy can be a shade of fear – the fear of missing out – or of anger – for example being angry at our self for not achieving more. Shame can be fear of being judged, or anger for having been stupid. What appear to be complicated emotions are in fact merely shades of the same thing. We feel threatened in some way.

50 Shades of Grey

Emotions like sadness or hopelessness fall within the Dorsal Vagal “freeze response” part of the Autonomic Nervous System (Polyvagal Theory). But the physical aspects of this state can also be experienced as a spacey detachment, that feels nice and is often called “cool”. Again, it is our tendencies & environment that helps us interpret what we’re feeling, rather than the physical state having a definitive label.

With the elevated emotions of the Ventral Vagal Socially Engaged state (gratitude, happiness, compassion) again there is no uniformity. Certain countries don’t have concepts like happiness. They experience the same physical state but interpret it differently, like being imbued with Spirit.

Know Yourself and the World is Yours

In conclusion, various parts of the body produce the states we associate with emotions. The nervous system, breath, heart, endocrine system, muscles, and brain. We then interpret them as emotions through the lens of self, and through our social / familial conditioning. This means we can start to approach what we feel objectively and unpick our habitual responses.

The next time you feel “anger” see if your understanding changes if you identify it as your nervous system being activated, rather than being overcome by a mysterious emotion. When you feel jealous or disappointed, see if there is a simpler emotional explanation (like fear) underneath it. The next time an advert or news item triggers you, distinguish between the physical state being activated & the emotional “message” being overlaid to manipulate you.