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Lifestyles of the Emotions

Emotions don't just
express feeling--they
regulate the pitch of the nervous system.

What happened to the days when emotions were the results of feeling
and you laughed because you were happy?. Gone forever, sidelined by those
who look at the biological underpinnings of personality. In a turnabout,
they contend that emotions do far more than express feeling -- they
regulate the pitch of the nervous system.

In the same way that appetite-regulation systems maintain body
weight at a stable setpoint, mood-regulation systems maintain a person's
emotional life at an "affective setpoint," believes Randy Larsen, Ph.D.
And these systems come in polar opposites.

There are those whose bodies normally amplify sensory stimuli:
augmenters. Because their nervous system operates at a constant screech,
they find the emotional slow lane exciting enough. And there are those
whose bodies dampen incoming stimuli: reducers. They may need to find
ways to jazz up their emotional life simply to stay awake. Their baseline
arousal level is low.

An assistant professor at the University of Michigan, Larsen sees
personality as a process, the unfolding of behavioral, affective, and
cognitive patterns that are consistent over time. He didn't invent the
so-called augmenter/reducer theory, but he is the first to extend it into
the domain of emotions. Previous research by others has shown that
reducers tend to have greater pain tolerance, prefer contact sports, and
abuse drugs.

Emotional responses appealed to Larsen because they are a powerful
source of stimulation in everyday life. So he looked at how people
respond to boring conditions -- like having to do 2,000 math problems.
Reducers found them intolerable, and their performance was miserable.
Given a choice, they opted for a mood-arousing experience, even an
unpleasant one.

By Larsen's calculations, 20% of the population is similarly
physiologically constituted to seek emotional intensity. Just be sure to
get out of the way if two of them get together.