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).

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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.

Emotion Vs Thinking

“Well, that person is very emotional!”

“Don’t be emotional!”

How many times have we heard of statements similar to this? I guess it should be almost every day. What is the objective to coin sentences similar to these? Have we thought about this? I think one of the main reasons to brand a person by saying he is emotional is to mean that he is not rational; he is not applying his mind. Now should we think emotions are hindrance to rational thinking? If your answer is yes then you are right but one fact is you are still in olden days! Because in the olden days people thought emotion is a hurdle to think rationally and logically. Plato said “passions and desires and fears make it impossible for us to think”. Descartes also said in the same vein that emotions keep the mind from pursuing its intellectual process.

In the recent times (50 years is recent in research unlike technology for which it is ancient!) researchers, especially, psychologists have explored the many positive roles of emotions in cognition and intelligence.

I am not going into the technical details to explain the positive roles of emotions in this post but I would like to suggest few examples which can substantiate to an extent the positive roles played by emotions.

Herbert Simon in one of his paper in 1967 argued that emotions perform the critical important function of interrupting normal cognition when some unattended goals require attention and servicing. This is a very important feature of emotions — in the broader sense this is called as internal goal management. The other main use of emotion is as problem solving tool. This too, was pointed out by H. Simon. For example, let us see a person who is going to perform on the stage for the first time. Just think of his varied mix of emotions. He is happy that he has got an opportunity; He fears that nothing unexpected things happens; He is anxious about his performance and the response from the audience. These are few emotions a normal person will go through. Happy makes him/her in a positive frame of mind. Fear makes him to prepare for the eventualities that he might face when he performs on the stage. Anxiousness makes him to perform to the liking of the audience according to his belief (leave out if it is ultimately a success or failure). The liking is with respect to him — he is seeing the expectation of the audience through his perception. So what we infer here — emotions are driving forces to take necessary actions for the expected events. Emotions are also in the abstract sense an umbrella term to seek solutions. I mean to say each emotion is mapped to few set of solutions. Fear can occur for various events but each occurrence of fear in a person will drive him to apply the solutions associated with fear either to run away, prepare to face it, get some help from someone and so on.

So emotions are not hindrance to thinking but the moral is to use emotion and thinking in a correct proportion. Correct proportion is very hard to define here. It comes only through experience and it also depends on one’s own personality.

Thinking without being emotional is learning to drive a car by reading books about driving; learning swimming without touching the water!

First Post

We feel a different kind of nausea! That’s why this title for the blog! Let us explain why in the sequel.

First, we will set the context by introducing ourselves. We two, Nirmal and Sakthi, are part of ECOM research lab, Infosys, Bangalore. For the past few years we have been reading on various topics like emotion, cognition, interpretation, intelligence, consciousness, perception and related stuffs. Our objective is to study about human (emergent) behaviors and to look it in the computational perspective.

The topics mentioned above are peculiar in the sense that most of the people think that they understand themselves and what happens around them, but we feel that this ‘understanding’ is a bit more complex than it looks like. Also, we feel that the limit to one’s ‘understanding’ is closer than they appear to be. In this blog, we intend to write about our journey in this intellectual adventure and other miscellaneous stuff that might include music, photography, chess and so on.

To be more precise most of our posts will be about the research papers that we have read on these topics together with our views. We feel that by “throwing” these things here (now you know why we call it as nausea!) and making a diary of events about whatever we know, whatever we have read, observed and inferred we would be able to string together the various discrete looking ideas and make something useful!

We hope it would be useful.