Emotions and Feelings
Everyone has some idea what emotions and feelings are but their exact nature
is elusive. We can begin by noting that emotions and feelings are not the
same. The first issues to be discussed are semantic, not trivial by any means.
There are many words that refer to emotions and feelings. There is no standard
use of terms. The words that describe emotions and feeling are numerous,
confused and confusing. I want to emphasize the distinctions that clarify the
differences among innate (pure) emotions, feelings, sensations and the all
important emotion-cognition complexes that are mislabeled emotions. The term
“emotion” points to animal and human social behaviors. There are a small
number of primary emotions and variations that involve mixtures of emotional
displays with other behaviors.
We recognize that brains bring information about the outside world together
with information from inside the body. Images of the outside tend to be detailed
and explicit in consciousness. Monitor images from inside the body tend to be
vague and variable. Generally, humans are ignorant of internal processes and
invent all manner of imaginary and irrelevant explanations to explain feelings.
The term “emotion” is best used to point to animal and human behavior.
Joy, anger, fear and
pain are pure emotions. Other, more complex and derivative experiences act as
interfaces to emotions. Love, jealousy and hate are not emotions. These are
descriptions of complex interactions and evaluations that involve a range of
emotions, feelings and combinations of behaviors, body changes and feelings, For example, lovers
experience a range of feelings and display different emotions at different
times. Euphoria is the benefit of being in love. Sadness and anger are the cost
of being in love. Jealousy, like love, is another complex of cognitions,
feelings and emotions that exist to monitor and regulate close relationships.
A multi-channel mixer
The best way to understand emotions to appreciate that the brain acts as a
multi-channel mixer that combine many different incoming signals with a variety
of responses that indicate and fulfill needs, intentions, social status and inner states of
the sending animal. Signals that indicate social status are important for social
animals. The emotional components of behaviors indicate degrees of dominance or
submission. Abject submission is indicated by crouching, kneeling,
cowering, covering the face with arms and hands, making high pitched noises,
heavy breathing, laughing and crying. Dominance is indicated by standing tall,
staring, leaning forward, raising arms, speaking boldly, laughing and shouting with
aggressive gestures such as foot stomping and hand clapping. Subtle emotions
such as shy behavior indicate degrees of submission in otherwise emotionally
The absence of emotional display is highly valued in polite society.
Humans have advanced toward civil and productive social environments that are
emotionally neutral. Emotional neutrality is a requirement for acceptable
behavior in school and work environments.
While our descriptive terms suggest that there are a large number of discrete
feelings, there are only a small number of primary feelings flavors that can me
mixed in a variety of ways. You can imagine several tracks in the brain
mixer that converge as feeling monitor images in consciousness. What are the
primary flavors? The range of feelings is from euphoria, a pervasive feeling of
well-being to dysphoria a pervasive feeling that all is not well.
The term “affect” is used as a category that includes emotions, feelings,
mood and cognitive-emotive complexes that are seldom properly described. In
psychiatry, “affective disorders” is a diagnostic category. I do not find
“affect” to be a useful word; it tends to conceal rather than reveal what is
really going on. I suggest retiring the term “affect.”