Theory of Emotions

In the last post we discussed about the evolutionary traits of emotions that gives the evolutional perspectives of emotions. As discussed there are several other models that are formulated in the literature. We will take three of them in this post and discuss them in a more informal way. Consider these three statements:

  1. We cry and (so) we are sad
  2. We are sad because we cry
  3. We are sad because we cry and understand that something has gone wrong totally against our expectation

We can explain the three theories using the above three statements.

James-Lang theory relates to the second one. It says that because of our physiological reactions to certain events we get emotions/feelings. Some models like Damasio’s even differentiate between emotions and feelings. But for our understanding we take both as same. To say more clearly this theory states that due to experience of some event we get into some physiological reactions like shivering, trembling, rise in heart rate, dryness of mouth and so on and because of this we get into various emotions. Although this theory does not hold good with the present researchers in the field there is some truth about this theory in some specific situations. For example, the drug addicts experience various physiological reactions then get into various moods/feelings/emotions. The main criticism of this theory is that viscera react slowly — people experience emotion then feel the effect in the viscera.

Cannon-Bard theory relates to the first statement, i.e., we cry and (so) we feel sad. Cannon opposed the view of James-Lang theory and showed by experiments that thalamus is the key for all of our emotional reactions and when that occurs almost at the same time physiological reactions are also produced. But he did not mention clearly if the physiological reactions is only because of emotions. To confirm the importance of thalamus he showed that when we remove the thalamus the body ceases to produce emotions.

The two-factor theory formulated by Schachter & Singer relates to the third statement above. It says that emotional reactions are generated by both the physiological reactions (arousal) and cognition. External events causes physiological reactions in us and some understanding of the events like how relevant it is to us — painful or pleasure; how important; and other contexts like social implications and so on. Because of cognition there might be inhibition and exaggeration. We as an individual experience these physiological changes and try to interpret these changes. Likewise, when we understand the events we infer it in many dimensions (also called as appraisal) like relevancy, how important, social context and so on and this creates a kind of feeling in us. These two factors lead us to some feeling which we call it as emotions. Schachter & Singer in 1962 showed this using a very nice experiment described here.

There are many other theories for emotions built over the years that we will take up in the next series of blogs. But coming back to the three models described above obviously the last model carries more weight in the sense that it is more appropriate to the reality in this modern era. It is also interesting to see the evolution in the understanding of emotions — James-Lang theory was formulated in the 19th century (this theory is not generally accepted these days), Cannon-Bard theory in the early part of 20th century (not so accepted although for some specific situations it works) and the two-factor theory in the later part of 20th century (the most agreed upon theory out of these three).

Evolutionary Traits of Emotions

Study of emotions has gone through investigations in various different prespectives: psychological, philosophical, computational, neuro-biological, evolutional and so on. Reseachers from different areas have defined various models for studying emotions and other related stuffs. But till now there is no universally accepted model. Partially this is due to the lack of proper definition for emotions itself. According to this article published in 1981 there are 91 definitions for emotion defined by various people from different areas.

In this post we mainly concentrate on the evolutionary aspect of emotions. These evolutionary traits have been talked about by many researchers (some are Darwin, D. Watt) in the literature.

First we have to agree on the following hypothesis in order to understand the evolutionary traits of emotions:

“Every human/animal or (may be?) any biological system tries to survive, by some means, any kind of internal or external attacks”

What would have been the main objective when human/animal started to live in this world? Obvious. Yes, it is Survival! First, the body has to take care of its equilibrium. Then he (see the note1 given in the bottom!) has to defend himself and survive any internal or external attacks; find something to eat or drink to energize his body. Once this two things are more or less guaranteed then he can think about pleasure, happiness, joy, fun, passion, setting/achieving his goals and so on. This is the philosophy of any human-being. Now we try to relate this philosophy to the following:

  • Homeostasis
  • Emotions
  • Cognition

Homeostasis takes care of the internal imbalances in our body and keeps our body in an equilibrium. Hence it takes care of the physiological part and makes him survive the internal issues in his body. Once this is taken care he thinks about the survival from the other external things/forces. For this the evolutionary extension called as emotion helps. If he is faced with many issues emotions tell him which one to take first. It also helps him to interrupt what he is doing and makes him to be ready for the situation. Emotion also helps him to communicate instantly and to apply it as a problem solving tool (that is to take action to survive the dangerous internal and external events). Once these two levels are taken care the next stage of evolution is cognition where he is able to use the information, gain knowledge, analyze, infer, apply logic, compute and build new things from whatever he knows. So the emotion can be called as a “evolved supervisor” for homeostasis while being at the service of homeostasis and likewise cognition can be called a “evolved supervisor” for emotion while being at the service of both the homeostasis and emotion. This evolution does not mean that its one way, i.e., homeostasis ->  emotion  ->  cognition. The evolution has come to a stage where all three are interdependent. This shows that the evolutionary perspective of emotions but there are other models too in the literature that are different from the above. For example, of the many, three of them are

  1. James-Lang Theory
  2. Cannon-Band Theory
  3. Two factor theory

We will discuss about these three in the next post.

Note1: Those who feel that I am a male chauvinist please replace he with she and him with her wherever appropriate!

Note2: This is with respect to the second post on emotion vs thinking, Marvin Minsky, in his book The Emotion Machine, feels that the emotion is not especially different from the processes that we call ‘thinking’ (see this).

What is emotion?

There are a lot of words related to emotions that we use every day – happy, sad, confused, wonder, contented, etc. we never had any doubt about what they mean. When we use these words to communicate, we never doubted whether the other person will understand it or not.

What comes to our mind when we hear these words?

For example, what comes to our mind when we hear the word ‘happiness’?

It must be a smile or laughter. We remember cry or a frown face when we hear the word ‘sad’.

Is this what emotion is all about?

Definitely not.

According to Nico H Frijda, there are three components for emotions.

  1. Behavior/expression
  2. Subjective experience
  3. Physiological responses

Laughter, cry, smile, frown, etc. are behaviors that are associated with certain emotions. Apart from these expressions, we can observe bigger and more significant behaviors also as part of emotional behaviors, like throwing something when angry, patting a pet when affectionate, etc.

Apart from these, there are feelings or experiences that are associated with each emotion. It is very difficult for someone to explain this experience even though everyone experiences it. It is more like ‘the self’ or the ‘I’ within us experiences the emotion. This is evident when someone explains their emotional state like “I feel sad”, “I feel happy”, etc. The assumption is that if people emphasize on “I feel…” there must be something special about that feeling.

Another thing that comes into picture is physiological responses. For example, shivering, palpitations, etc. We use some nice phrases to represent the physiological changes.  ‘Broken heart’, ‘butterflies in the stomach’, etc., are some phrases we use to explain some of these states.

When we face an event, we generate all the three mentioned above as a response to what we face. This phenomenon is called emotion.