We, all of us, have emotions and, at different times and for widely differing reasons, can experience feelings of happiness; at other times, sadness, relaxation, tension etc. We love and we hate; can sometimes sympathize or empathize with those about us. Pain too possesses a powerful emotional component. The throbbing, pulsing, stabbing or burning sensation – whether perpetual or intermittent – can, we know, be at times markedly exacerbated by a whole range of emotions of which apprehension, fear, alarm and foreboding are but a few. Moreover, it is emotion that gives form and substance and provides colour to every conscious aspect of our daily lives. Every single personal encounter in daily life is shaped, in part, by our exposure to and experience of the capacity to reason, but by no means only so. Outcome – as we have seen and shall see – is often determined by this ancient emotional legacy of evolution and our ancestral past, which is the basis for emotion. Yes, we all have emotions, use them and in a certain sense, are them. We may therefore safely conclude that emotional awareness and expression impinges upon every aspect and awareness of life, waking and – yes, as in our dreams – sleeping also. Yet what do we really know about human emotion?
As it happens, it is far from easy to provide a pithy yet precise meaning of the word emotion. Certainly, it is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as, “any agitation or disturbance of mind, feeling, passion…vehement or excited mental state”. It is also the case that the word “emotion” derives from the Latin, ”movere”, i.e. “to move”. Yet in its complete sense, the phrase “emotional behaviour” in fact describes more than a moving out, in the sense of directing, expressing and sometimes communicating one’s most salient needs and states. Imagine, if you will a chariot being drawn by a powerful “charger”. In order to journey along the road safely and to reach its eventual destination in ‘one piece’, there needs to be a sensitive and controlling hand on the reins, or else…!
Let me, on the basis of what I have written so far, attempt my own definition of emotion. “Emotion is a single or multiple feeling/expression, indicating, at times obscure, at others distinctive pattern of thought, accompanied by internal and/or external evidence of psychological and biological changes, all leading to tendencies or urges to act”; (action which at times is just as likely to entail, on the face of it, doing nothing).
Thus, emotion clearly concerns an issue which is also a function of memory and remembering. It can be identified and articulated in language, verbal and nonverbal. It entails given perceptual processes which facilitate identity and meaning and thus cognition, reaching back, in some cases to very early learning, perhaps even to childhood and infancy. An example of this kind of thing would be where it concerns trustworthiness in others, which has its foundation in parents who were persistently caring and reliable or conversely, uncaring and unreliable.
It is generally regarded to be the case that there are four basic or universal emotions, namely fear, anger, sadness and joy and that other emotions are, in reality, composites of more than one of the above. For example, when we worry, or feel anxious or are under stress, fear is likely to dominate, with perhaps, a little anger and/or sadness thrown in for good measure – and so on. Some modern researchers are at pains to point to their conviction that emotions (like guilt or disgust) possess uniqueness and accordingly, are entitled to be afforded a status of their own. The more we know, the more, so it would seem, this complex subject matter of emotional awareness and response demands by way of subtler interpretations and explanations. Just one example of this kind of thing might well refer to the impact and outcome of social activity and functioning, as well as of religious belief on attitude and behaviour.
In one very important sense, cognition as such (and the related processes which facilitate thinking, problem-solving and decision-making) have less to say about human functioning and behaviour than does the impact and outcome of human emotion. And the reason for this (from the experiential end of things) is because emotions have less to do with processes and more with content. Perhaps it would be useful for me here to at least summarize, the processes that we know have evolved to manage this content.
So what is known concerning the involvement of basic physical, neural and biochemical functions in emotion?). Briefly, incoming information being channelled by the senses, i.e. sight smell, hearing etc., arouses and is evaluated within the limbic system of brain as well as by other areas of the cortex. In the event of – say – a letterbox rattling in a high wind, the frontal cortex may very well adjudge the wind to be the cause of such disturbance rather than burglars. Thus further worry and /or action is aborted. On the other hand, recent research has revealed that one area in the limbic system, namely the amygdala, does not depend entirely on signals being received from the neocortex to formulate its emotional reactions. Indeed, it is this more occasional propensity for incoming signals from eye, ear and other sense organs to be transmitted by the thalamus directly to the amygdala (thus bypassing the usual processing areas of the neocortex) that results in the experiencing of emotional reactions and memories possessing no element of cognitive participation at all, e.g. of blind rage or panic.
In one important respect it could justifiably be argued that inordinate reference to cognition and affect, i.e. thinking and feeling, leads only to the blind alley of “false dichotomy”. Such is the nature of the lives we lead – however diverse in other ways – we can no more think without feeling than we can feel without involving mechanisms and processes that are deployed in thought. Thus it needs at least to be stated that whilst the limbic system provides an adequate enough explanation of how the brain makes emotions (and in that sense is necessary to it) it is an insufficient explanation to account for what we might call the “emotional brain”. For although areas of the limbic system are the first – beyond the senses that is – to be engaged in the processing of incoming emotions, these are certainly not localized in the limbic system of the brain in the manner that was once thought. (C) SB.