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The Function of Emotions

Emotions are more physiological than psychological.

Emotions are more physiological than psychological. Their psychological significance comes from the meaning we give to them. Uninformed by the function and mechanics of emotions, the meaning we assign to them is arbitrary and more likely to confound than illuminate understanding of self and others.

More than a trillion bits of information about the world bombard our senses at any given moment. To select the small amounts it can process from this constant onslaught of data, the brain uses what can be described as “pattern disruption.” Any significant disruption of familiar sensory patterns triggers a biological response, commonly called emotion.

A similar pattern disruption process monitors bodily functions. Changes in states like pain, pleasure, hunger, thirst, body temperature, and respiratory rate trigger emotions. Humans are more sensitive to changes in sound and scent than to visual patterns, and more emotionally responsive to pain and thirst than pleasure and hunger. In general, we respond with more intense emotion to changes we hear and smell than to those we see and to those that hurt and parch more than pleasures and appetites.

Whether triggered from without or within, emotions produce major changes all through the body, most notably in muscle-tone, energy level, tone of voice, and facial expressions. They signal organs and muscle groups, accelerate or decelerate cardiovascular rates, and mute or exaggerate messages of pain, deprivation, and pleasure. They have enormous power to enhance, distort, or totally disrupt other mental processes. For instance, intense interest can make thoughts and ideas flow profusely, while shame makes it all but impossible to concentrate.

In general, only changes in the body or environment that produce emotion are noticed. Emotions are the path that highly selected bits of the world take into the self. We scarcely experience the world apart from our emotional response to it.

Emotions originate in the primitive limbic system, which is common to all mammals. (When you see a picture or model of the brain, you don’t see the limbic system. The large cerebral cortex sits over it like a helmet with a slit in the middle, where the two major hemispheres join together.) Although the brain is always changing, the limbic system is pretty much fully developed on a structural level by age 3. Hence, it is called the toddler brain.

As children mature, emotional response to change expands to include thinking. Changes in thinking and imagining now produce emotional response. Slowly developing thought patterns, regulated by emotions, enable children to construct meaning about the world and their relation to it.

Components of Emotion

Arousal is the energy that powers emotion. Even without emotional stimulation, arousal ebbs and flows in roughly 90-minute cycles throughout the day, including while we sleep. At peak arousal times, we are more susceptible to intense emotional response.

Excitability and abundant energy mark periods of high arousal. Abnormally high levels produce over-stimulation, obsessions, compulsions, insomnia, or mania. Periods of low arousal permit relaxation, letting go, or numbing out. Abnormally low levels of arousal create depression, muted emotions, or hypersomnia.

Specific emotions sometimes attach to arousal levels. For some people, high arousal produces increased anxiety or confidence. For others, low arousal stimulates shame, pride, anxiety, or withdrawal of interest.

Motivation. Emotions send action signals to the muscles and organs of the body to prepare us to do something. (The Latin root of the word means “move.”) Each emotion carries general motivation for behavior selected from the broad categories of approach, avoid, or attack. If the change stimulating the emotion seems promising, the usual response is interest or enjoyment, which motivate various approach behaviors to “sense more, learn more, get more.” If the change seems dangerous, anger, fear, or disgust emerges with motivation to attack (devalue) or avoid.

Motivation is the most important component of emotions. We cannot understand ourselves or other people without understanding motivation. We almost always fail to act in our best interests when we ignore motivation.

Types of Motivation. Below are examples of the primary motivations that foster growth and empowerment.

  • Interest: find out more, get beneath the surface
  • Passion: indulge, plunge
  • Conviction: work to keep the status quo or change it
  • Compassion: sympathize with the pain and hardship of self and other
  • Enjoyment: appreciate, relax with
  • Anxiety: learn more, increase ability to cope
  • Shame: hide, cover-up.
  • Distress: get back what was lost or compensate for its loss; consolidate gains
  • Guilt: reconnect, compensate.

Below are motivations that have survival importance but are scarcely helpful in negotiating the complexities of most modern problems.

  • Fear: freeze, run
  • Disgust: recoil, get away from
  • Anger: control, neutralize, devalue, punish, warn, threaten, intimidate, avenge
  • Contempt/hatred: annihilate.

Some writers conflate the largely unconscious motivations of emotions with conscious goals and intentions. Most people would claim that the goal of communication in intimate relationships is to gain cooperation from their partners. When pressed, they say that they want cooperation because it makes them feel more connected. Yet they pursue their goals in emotional demeanor, that sounds critical, punishing, or manipulating, as if daring their partners to love them. Their intentions might be to express their feelings, but if those feelings are anger or contempt, their unconscious motivations will be to devalue, warn, threaten, or intimidate. The motivation of their emotions create formidable barriers to accomplishing their goals and intentions.

Feelings. The subjective experience of emotions—what they feel like—dominates our conceptions about them. However, this slowest component of emotion processing is only part of the emotional terrain. Trying to understand or change emotions through focus on how they feel is like trying to understand and change intestinal gas through focus on discomfort. Pop-psychologists make that error when they insist on “exploring and expressing” feelings.

The fact is, we cannot explore and express feelings without changing them. Mental focus amplifies and magnifies, creating the psychological equivalent to the observer effect in physics. Moreover, the brain loads into implicit memory other times you’ve experienced the feeling you’re trying to explore or express. This gives historical meaning to your feelings that go beyond the current situation. To complicate matters, the people around you will be focused on the situation and their own emotional responses to it. They are unlikely to give the same meaning to the feelings you’re trying to explore or express.

In the next post, I’ll discuss the attributes of emotion that most influence the meaning we give to them.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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