Everybody has a rich inner landscape contoured by emotions; they not only give meaning and color to everyday experience, but emotions commonly influence decision-making. They may be humanity’s earliest guide to how to get basic needs met.
Yet science is not quite clear what emotions are. Whether they are inborn, genetically determined reactions, each with its own mechanism; patterns of response to stimuli, each distinctively etched into neural circuitry; or in-the-moment interpretations of experience is a subject of keen debate.
Many experts today believe that emotions are brief, felt mental states that arise from the mind’s conscious interpretation of bodily sensations that occur automatically and unconsciously in response to stimuli in an ever-changing environment as a way to regulate arousal, direct attention, and motivate behavior. Typically reflected in posture and facial expressions, they are even thought to function as a silent communication system to others in the service of getting one's needs met.
Emotions are a fast-track, inescapable source of information about how to stay safe, survive, and thrive in an ever-changing environment. Emotion is closely linked to motor activity—both are mediated by the autonomic nervous system—and is thought to motivate a behavioral response. The emotion of fear, for example, stimulates a withdrawal response without any thought required.
Emotions are thought to originate in the amygdala, as it codes the nature of incoming stimuli. Through bundles of two-way circuitry, the prefrontal cortex, the seat of decision-making, receives and interprets emotional signals coming from the amygdala, orchestrating a response and influencing the general state of reactivity of the amygdala.
While all emotions are important and serve as a source of information, emotions are generally classified as positive or negative. Positive emotions include happiness, love, and pride; they foster a sense of expansion and psychological growth. Negative emotions include fear, anger, sadness, and disgust; they create discomfort as a way to warn us to attend to something important.
Scientists distinguish between feelings and emotions, even though they sometimes colloquially use the two terms interchangeably. Emotions are considered the automatic, unconscious body reactions to stimuli, while feelings are the conscious, subjective, and mental interpretations we make of those physical changes. Emotions are thought to be universal, experienced by all people in the same way. Feelings, on the other hand, are thought to differ to some degree among cultures, with some cultural learning involved.
The ability to exert control over one’s emotional state calls on a number of cognitive skills—to change either one’s thoughts or one’s behaviors—to prevent the emotion from launching or to prevent it from being expressed. Most often, emotion regulation is of service in down-regulating, or dampening, the intensity of negative emotions, such as anger, disappointment, or anxiety. A healthy repertoire of emotion regulation skills keeps people from behaving in counterproductive ways when they are emotionally activated. They are especially essential for maintaining social relationships.
Self-awareness—noticing what you feel and being able to name it; emotional acceptance—particularly accepting the discomfort of negative emotions without judging them or taking steps to change them, and cognitive reappraisal—reframing a negative event as a more positive one are key components of emotion regulation. Finally, distancing—gaining perspective by looking at your situation “as a fly on the wall” can also be a useful approach.
Because emotions matter and stimulate so much of human behavior, people benefit from the capacity to be aware of, control, and express their emotions well—what pioneering psychologists Peter Salovey of Yale and John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire deemed emotional intelligence. They put forth the idea that people could refine their ability to reason with and about emotions and deploy it to further their personal and social goals, handle relationships well, and promote coping and creativity.
The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence identifies five component skills of emotional intelligence: recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions. Recognizing and understanding one’s emotions, in turn, hinge on self-awareness. Managing emotions, especially difficult ones, is such a critical skill, researchers find, that it is a major underpinning of success in life. Another key facet of emotional intelligence is empathy, the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of others; the success of long-term relationships hinges on it.
If sustained, negative emotions generally are associated with detrimental physiological effects. The quick burst of physiological arousal we usually interpret as anger, for example, is important to motivate justice-seeking, but if sustained or chronic, the increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased blood flow to muscles in preparation for action, increased body temperature, and skin perspiration can damage the body, promoting inflammation and raising cardiovascular risk.
The basic human emotions have signature facial expressions that people are wired to recognize, even from a distance—the smile of happiness, the widened eyes and open mouth of surprise, the downturned mouth of sadness, the knitted eyebrows and reddened face of anger, the wrinkled nose of disgust. Detecting the emotions of others doesn’t just provide a guide to how one should (re)act to be effective; it can be a downright survival skill.
People can mask their emotions, and accurately perceiving the emotions of others hinges not just on detecting their facial expression, even the short-lived flickers of emotion known as microexpressions. Recognizing the postural patterns and nonverbal gestures that accompany emotional expression can add to the accuracy. But perhaps most revealing of all, recent studies show, are vocal signs of inner states.
There is evidence that the voice is an especially powerful tool for expressing emotions, and researchers have identified distinct audio signatures of 24 emotions, from anger (growls and forceful staccato bursts) and awe to sympathy and triumph. While much past research has focused on the looks of emotions, the sounds turn out to be so discernible that the most accurate way of identifying emotions is proving to be listening with one’s eyes closed.