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Emotional Knowing and Emotional Literacy

A new model for understanding emotion optimizes performance.

Key points

  • Emotional literacy is understanding how emotions unfold, and change one's behavior and thinking.
  • The "Making Sense of Emotion" theory outlines the four phases from emotion's inception to its execution.
  • Emotional intelligence is a learnable process that optimizes self-regulation and decision-making.
  • Emotional literacy refines self-awareness, social skills, academic, and job performance.

In my novel contribution, Making Sense of Emotion, I view emotional intelligence as “emotional literacy.” Emotional intelligence is identifying, controlling, and managing emotions, personally and with others, and the emphasis is on reflection and self-understanding. Emotional literacy, then, is a refinement of emotional intelligence. Emotional literacy is a deep understanding of one's emotions, empathetically listening to others, and responding effectively and meaningfully. Launched as a four-step, learnable process of emotional knowing, making sense of emotion develops robust emotional intelligence. Abundant research shows this literacy enhances academic and occupational performance, which is sorely needed during the COVID-19 era.

 Frank John Ninivaggi MD, author, 2010
Emotional Dynamics, original oil, Frank J Ninivaggi MD, 2010
Source: Frank John Ninivaggi MD, author, 2010

Emotional Intelligence: Older Model and Newer Model

Historically, academic psychology toggled between emotional intelligence (EI), emphasizing either the ability of intellect or a capacity for integral personality traits, emotions, and motivation. On one hand was a cognitive approach, using conscious, logical features; the other hand saw emotions as a dynamic flux of conscious and unconscious impulses, temperament, and contextual variables.

To explain these views, scholars proposed three branches of emotion derived from statistical research:

  1. Perception
  2. Understanding
  3. Regulation

However, these branches neither comprise nor use what makes “clinical” sense, attention to “emotion sensation.” Sensation, as emotion's platform, can't be faked. It shows in speech, attitude, and behavior, taking shape in conception and performance.

My newer model of emotional intelligence closes this gap by capturing emotion’s four fluid phases:

  1. Emotion sensation
  2. Emotion perception
  3. Emotion conception (nonconscious modulation and conscious regulation)
  4. Emotion performance utilization

Making Sense of Emotion unpacks the traditional “emotion regulation” branch by unearthing it into two steps in an effort to clarify emotion’s real-life effectiveness: emotion conception and emotion performance utilization.

Therefore, “emotional hygiene” becomes learning emotional awareness. Enhancement comprises spotting sensations, distinguishing them, and noting how they grow in complexity. Emotional intelligence develops by learnable steps into emotional literacy, beginning in childhood and progressing. Fluid intelligence, memory, motivation, and environmental reinforcements influence how learning and real-world integration occur.

An Emotional Intelligence Lexicon

Stepping back, it may be helpful to define some terms.

Emotion denotes a nonconscious, physiological sensation. External stimuli or memories generate sensate emotions, triggering the brain’s amygdala and limbic system.

Feelings represent emotions becoming subjectively identified as consciously aware percepts (i.e., organized sensory information) and understandable concepts (ideas with meaning).

Emotions from the limbic system to the higher cortex transform nonconscious emotions into conscious feelings. However, the terms, “emotion” and “feeling,” are typically used interchangeably.

Mood refers to long-term feeling states.

Affect is a facial expression elicited by nonconscious emotions, conscious feelings, and longer-term moods. An emotion, feeling, mood, and affect never are pure, they are mixed states that nuance their experiential fluidity progressively.

Emotional processing describes the array of steps from the onset of “emotion sensation” through its perception, conception, and enactment in real life. Each step includes data transformations refining what goes forward.

Making Sense of the Emotional Four-Step Model

Emotion Sensation

The implicit, visceral launchpad of all emotional experiences begins here. Sensations are core emotions, an unorganized awareness coded by the senses and globally sensed in the body. No specificity exists other than the raw experience of the stimuli-sense organ connections. A physical stimulus in the environment emits energy detected and absorbed by a sensory organ. This energy becomes a neural message called “transduction.” It travels from the body’s periphery to the central nervous system, brain, and spinal cord.

Sensation in the periphery produces sensations felt both subliminally (non-consciously) and consciously. A sensation's only messages are an urge to aversion/withdrawal (unpleasurable) or attraction/approach (pleasurable). Emotion sensation is the dynamic reality of a moment-to-moment, unfiltered experience in becoming conscious.

Emotion Perception

When sensory nerve impulses reach the central nervous system, thalamus, amygdala, and cerebral cortex, they organize, test, and make judgments about this sensory bundle, i.e., “perception.” Perception is explicit, conscious awareness. However, the two processes of sensation and perception co-occur with no rigid distinction.

When sensory receptors are stimulated (sensory processing), nerve impulses travel to the central nervous system as “bottom-up” processing. In the brain, “top-down processing” differentiates and interprets this “perceptual processing,” creating a “percept”: a visual image, sound, taste, odor, touch, or pain.

Emotion Conception

The meaning that intellect imputes to emotion is “emotion conception.” At this phase, non-conscious emotion becomes a conscious “feeling.” This enhancement denotes emotions becoming subjectively identified as conscious percepts and expanding to become understandable concepts, i.e., reflective reasoning.

For the traditional third branch of emotional intelligence, called “emotion understanding,” I prefer the more precise term “emotion conception.” This phrase highlights the vast array of complex neocortical thinking (e.g., critical and executive functions) that qualitatively transform sensation and perception into rationally-organized processing units.

“Emotion conception” is where meaning arises. This core processing comprises explicit critical and conceptual thinking, yet has implicitly modulating features. Thus, conscious and nonconscious significance yields the last target phase, “emotion performance utilization.”

In my approach, the former academic “emotion regulation” branch is unconflated into its two facets:

Non-conscious Emotional Modulation: Emotion regulation first begins as emotional modulation—the non-conscious base of all conscious regulation. Concurrently, emotion regulation continues to operate with intention from prefrontal cortical processes.

“To modulate emotions,” however, includes modifying, attenuating, regulating, supervising, steadying, and harmonizing the amplitude and emotional fluctuations toward stabler equilibrium. Modulation is more than mere change. Implicit learning, tacit knowledge, and nonconscious motivation are accessible to conscious, explicit awareness.

Conscious Emotion Regulation: Emotion regulation taps higher cortical processes, taking conscious, explicit control rooted in non-conscious emotional modulation. When experts refer to “emotion regulation,” they emphasize deliberate, intentional, and controlled behavior. Thus, emotion regulation commonly means consciously altering emotion to achieve skill delivery in real-time, i.e., purposeful restraint and checking unruly reactions.

Emotion regulation emphasizes attempts at purposefully delaying, slowing down, and suppressing mental content and behavior. This effortful control includes the willful induction of executive attention and the deliberate suppression or inhibitory control of poorly considered responses. For example, studies compellingly show that conscious emotion regulation advances job performance, school behavior, and learning.

Emotion Performance Utilization

“Emotion Performance Utilization” is the end-product of feelings manifest in actual experiences. This fourth phase is emotion’s leading expression in real life, the implementation of emotional awareness, capability concretized into literal ability.

Emotion’s “sensations” can be identified and monitored through their four-step development into conscious feelings. This emotional knowing is the purposeful key to successful life outcomes. In achieving these steps, for instance, by practicing mindfulness, “felt experience” amplifies emotional insight.

Emotion performance utilization shows how emotional knowing becomes mindful emotional literacy—the refinement of emotional intelligence. Motivation, purpose, and a sense of meaning energize one to achieve one's goals or objectives through tactical action.

Thus, learning emotional intelligence is possible by wholeheartedly “making sense of emotion.” Emotions are adult behavior, and emotional literacy raises innovating emotions to a lifelong activity of daily living.


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Ninivaggi, Frank John (2017). Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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Ninivaggi, Frank John (2013). Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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