Emotions and Feelings

Emotions and Feelings

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-4834-8.ch007


The neural basis of emotion is a complex subject, as it is difficult to study emotions using the techniques normally employed for the study of sensory and motor systems. If you are studying a sensory system, simply present a stimulus and look for the neurons that respond to it. You can manipulate the stimulus to determine the attributes (orientation, frequency of sound, etc.) that best evoke a response. But how can this technique be used to study emotions? It is not straightforward and straightforward to study emotions in animals that cannot tell us their subjective sensations. What we observe are the behavioral manifestations of inner emotions. Therefore, we must carefully distinguish the emotional experience from the emotional expression. What we know about the mechanisms of emotion in the brain comes from a synthesis of animal studies on the expression of emotions and clinical cases that give us glimpses of human feelings.
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What Is An Emotion

Emotions - love, hate, grief, joy, shame, envy, guilt, fear, anxiety and so on - are feelings we all experience at one time or another. But what exactly defines these feelings? Are they sensory signals of our body, diffuse patterns of activity in our cortex or something else? Such questions have proved extremely difficult to answer and have led to the proposition of various theories as to what exactly the emotions are (Damasio, 1994).

Theories of Emotion

In the nineteenth century, respected scientists, including Darwin and Freud, considered the role of the encephalon in expressing emotions. Careful observations of the expression of emotions in animals and humans, as well as emotional experience in humans, have led to the development of theories relating expression and experience.

The James-Lange Theory

In 1984, the renowned American psychologist and philosopher William James proposed one of the first well-articulated theories of emotion. Danish psychologist Carl Lange suggested ideas related to James. His theory, commonly called James-Lange's theory of emotion, has suggested that we experience emotion in response to physiological changes in our body. For example, we feel sad because we cry and we do not cry because we are sad. Our sensory systems send information about our situation to our brain, and as a result, our brain sends signals to the body, changing muscle tone, heart rate, and so on. The sensory systems respond to the changes evoked by the brain, and it would be this sensation that constitutes the emotion. According to James and Lange, the physiological changes are the emotion, and if they are removed, the emotion will disappear with them. Today, this may seem, to many people, the opposite of what was expected, as it also seemed to many contemporaries of James and Langue. Until this theory was proposed, the commonly accepted concept was that emotion would be evoked by a situation and that the organism would change in response to emotion. James and Lange's theory is exactly the opposite.

Before rejecting this theory as ridiculous, try one of the well-thought experiments suggested by James. Suppose you are boiling with rage at something that just happened. Try to take away all the physiological changes associated with emotion: your restless heart calms, your muscles relax and your hot face cools. It is difficult to imagine maintaining rabies in the absence of any physiological signs. In fact, this little experiment is not much different from the technique used in some meditation courses to relieve stress. Another example is your first encounter with someone you are really attracted to, and it is like swimming in a pool boiling with emotions that include happiness, love, desire and anxiety. Imagine, then, that suddenly, all the physiological signs of your passion are removed (as if you had taken a real shower of cold water). Would you still sense the same emotional state? Probably not.

Even though it is true that emotion is closely tied to the physiological state, this does not mean that emotions cannot be felt in the absence of obvious physiological signs (a point that even James and Lange would have conceded). However, for strong emotions, typically associated with physiological changes, there is a strong relationship between emotion and its physiological manifestation.

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