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What Goes on in Your Mind When You Feel Emotions?

What are the key ingredients of emotions?

Understanding emotion is a complicated business. The accepted wisdom in emotion theory is that emotional experiences are emergent interactions of various ingredients, such as prior learning, appraisal, and social contexts, to name a few. The emergent emotion is more than sum of its parts. That is, we tend to oversimplify the sources of our emotional experiences. As a result it is tempting to attribute our emotional experience to a specific cause. But we can get the cause wrong.

Stored knowledge. Prior experiences shape our perception and gives meaning to current situations. Experiences created today shape the future experiences. For example, you might perceive a bee as friendly or dangerous based on the past experience or learning history. For people who have experienced bees as part of a beautiful garden, the image of a bee is calming. Those who have been stung, with resultant pain, the image of a bee can be terrifying. We are mostly unaware of the extent to which our prior knowledge contributes to our own experiences. However, by deliberately cultivating certain types of experiences, it should be possible to modify our experiential habits.

Emotions are forms of judgment. Emotional experiences involve creating meaning or appraisal. The term “appraisal” means an evaluation or estimation of something’s value or nature. A person’s emotional experience typically results from a subjective interpretation of an event rather than on the event itself. Different individuals can appraise the same even differently. For example, grief about someone’s death represents a judgment about that person’s importance to the person. For a joke to be funny, it has to be perceived as such by someone. When there is no evaluation, there is no emotion.

Context Matters. Context influences meaning of what is perceived and shapes our emotions. For example, encountering a bear (or the snake in the path) in the woods may trigger high levels of vigilance, such as running to avoid real danger or possibly fighting for one’ life. By contrast, watching a bear in a zoo poses no life threatening danger. Context can also explain why for some people the sight of a beggar in the street can trigger generosity but the abstract knowledge of poverty would not.

Emotions occur in social contexts. Situational context is important for creating opportunities for emotion. For example, being in a romantic relationship restrict the range of emotions that partners likely to experience in any day: if one partner feels miserable, so does the other. Similarly, people in shared relationships (roommate in college) become attuned to each other. One explanation is that partners pick up each other’s psychological states unconsciously, for instance, through mimicry.

Culture. Through socialization process, individuals learn when and how to feel and express their emotions. For example, in Zimbabwe the failure of a woman to give birth to a male child is a source of serious depressive reactions in Zimbabwean women. The appraisal of such failure includes a serious decline in social status, undesirability as a marriage partner, and potential divorce.

In short, emotions are difficult to verbalize and that is why we need the field of psychology. We don’t have conscious access to the origin of emotional states, so we confabulate about the cause. Misattributions usually disappear when people are made aware of the true source of their feelings.