Emotions Are the Embodied Masters of Our Mind
We can never step out of our emotions.
Posted November 17, 2022 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Our emotions express the embodied living roots of who we are as human beings.
- Our emotions are whole-body events triggered by cognitive events, actual or remembered.
- Our emotions are experiences that are cognitively assembled.
- Our emotions are the embodied experiences we cannot escape.
The Primacy of Our Emotions
Since ancient times emotions have been recognized as key part of human nature. To dive deep into our emotions is to dive deep into the history of life. Humans entered the picture of life about 6 million years ago. Back then, we were just another animal trying to stand upright next to gorillas, chimps and orangutans.
Those primates evolved for 70 million years as part of the lineage of mammals that took 200 million years to evolve. The ancient roots of the tree of life itself date back to LUCA, the ancestor of all current life, 3.8 billion years ago. Emotions are part of this long evolutionary tree of the natural intelligence of life. So it’s natural to say that they play a central role in our mental life.
Emotions express the embodied living roots of who we are as human beings. We can never step outside our emotions. Emotions never appear without a context of embodiment. Emotions have a kind of irreducible primacy. The primacy of emotions is first and foremost existential. Emotions are something we live.
What Emotions Really Are
What emotions really are is not a finalized discussion; emotions are part of many ongoing research programs. The conventional view holds that emotions are innately programmed in subcortical circuits. Let’s look at some practical descriptions of emotion given by some of the leading emotion researchers.
Evan Thompson, co-author of The Embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience, describes emotion as “ a prototype whole brain event” (Thompson, 2007, p 363). He states that an emotion recruits and holds together activities in many brain regions. An emotion mobilizes and coordinates virtually every aspect of the organism. Based on this description we can clearly see an emotion as a whole body event.
After a lifelong study Antonio Damasio defines them as :
“Collections of co-occurring and involuntary internal actions triggered by perceptual events.” (2021, p 78)
Emotions are whole-body events triggered by cognitive events—actual or remembered. Thus, emotions are the deep mind-body phenomena that make us who we are. We must not neglect their significance in our lives. They tell us the embodied story of the values and meanings of our life.
The Phenomenology of Our Emotions
Newer emotion theories argue instead that emotions are higher-order states expressed in cortical circuits. Joseph LeDoux, a giant in emotion research at the Center for Neural Science and the Emotional Brain Institute in New York, goes a step further in his emotion research. He states:
“Although emotions, or feelings, are the most significant events in our lives, there has been relatively little contact between theories of emotion and emerging theories of consciousness in cognitive science.” (LeDoux & Brown, 2017, p 1)
When we start to fuse emotion theories with consciousness theories, it seems that emotions are so much more than innately programmed in subcortical circuits. LeDoux explains to us that emotions are self-involving experiences that are cognitively assembled.
They are very complex interactions between embodied behavioral reactions, physiological changes, and instrumental actions as part of our long natural intelligence with arousal systems, memory systems, motivational systems, perceptual systems, and cognitive systems as appraisal, introspection, and verbal report.
Emotions arise from the cognitive foundations our culture created and our life history constructs as personal value and meaning. The contents of our current mind are whole-body events made during life’s long evolution and are expressed in us as “cognitive evaluations of situations that affect personal well-being.” (LeDoux, 2019, p 200)
Emotions involve our entire embodied neuroaxis: from brain stem to limbic areas to superior cortex. They consist of visceral and motor processes in our body. They encompass psychosomatic networks of molecular communication between our nervous system, immune system, and endocrine system.
On a psychological level they involve attention and cognitive appraisal. They are felt as various complexes of affective feelings. They express behaviourally in different facial expressions and many types of action tendencies. (Thompson, 2007)
The World’s Psychology Today
Emotions are difficult to ignore in the daily world news. The emotional contents of our mind tend to absorb us. We cannot pretend that the emotional expressions in the world's many sports championships leave us cold. We hear every day about the emotional tragedy of Ukrainian newborns in bomb shelters. We cannot ignore the emotional expressions of the young women cutting their hair and burning their headscarves in Tehran. We cannot dismiss the emotional suffering of the starving children in Somalia. To be alive is to be emotional.
This week, planet Earth welcomed its eight billionth resident. The birth of a child is an event in which 225,000 women across this planet participate daily in a whole collection of intensely embodied emotions. Emotions became the conscious experiences we care most about. The phenomenon of emotion is what colors our existence and drives our cultural evolution.
Our emotions are the embodied experiences we cannot escape. Emotions sometimes disturb our nights. They now and then disturb our lives. Emotions define our psychology. They are the building blocks of our health. We can never step outside our emotions. That is why emotions became the embodied masters of our mind.
Damasio, A. (2021). Feeling & Knowing. Making Minds Conscious. New York, Pantheon Books.
LeDoux, J. (2019). The Deep History of Ourselves. The Four-Billion-Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains. New York, Viking.
LeDoux, J. & Brown R. (2017). A Higher Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness. In: The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life. Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.
Varela, F.J., Thompson, E., Rosch, E. (2016). The Embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge MA, MIT Press.