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Emotions - what are they?

Welcome to blog #55 where we go deeper into what emotions really are. I believe, emotions are the missing link between intuition, bias and hormones. Today we will discover what i) emotions are ii) how they develop iii) why we have them and iv) how they impact us.

What are emotions?

Emotions help us survive and respond to our changing environment. They alert and prepare our bodies for possible action, and as a result we 'feel' something. In the animal world, emotions evolved from reflexes but are more nuanced, in that action is not automatic. Human culture everywhere incorporates emotions in family life, civic life and we often use each other's facial expressions as a gauge of one another's emotional state. Even in law - premeditated murder is considered far worse than a murder in passion even though the outcome is the same.

How do emotions develop?

Our emotions are a mix of nature and nurture. Babies first experience emotions as a response to feeling hungry, tired or uncomfortable. We develop more emotional breadth as we have more experiences.

Emotions are our brain's way of logging experiences as good or bad and encouraging or discouraging certain actions in the future based on that experience. If you had a bad experience walking down a dimly lit road, and felt either fear or something bad happened to you there, you would feel a negative emotion when either thinking about, or walking down that road or somewhere similar. Similarly, if you had an excellent experience at a new local restaurant, you would feel a positive emotion when visiting it or thinking about it (or something related to it).

Because emotions are the result of experience, we are heavily influenced by our childhood. As a result, there is no such thing as pure perception - two people might experience the same event completely differently due to their past experiences. For example one person might see a gun and feel 'this is a threat' another might see the same gun and feel 'now I am safe'. This is a good working definition of individual perspective which is how bias arises.

What purpose do emotions serve?

Emotions improve our ability to survive and reproduce. We can see what emotions do by seeing what happens in people that cannot feel emotions. Patients that have damaged parts of their brain that are heavily involved in emotional understanding find it almost impossible to make even the most simple decisions. Also, they cannot motivate themselves towards goals even though they have normal levels of intelligence. They also struggle to express their emotions or follow social norms.

Emotions therefore help you increase the efficiency and accuracy of decision-making. They allow you to consider some alternatives and through your feelings about them weigh them up, getting you to a decision more swiftly. Emotions help us navigate complex landscapes by allowing us to rely on our experience to cut to the quick.

Crucially, whilst unemotional decision-making might help you win a chess game, most of our lives are subjective and therefore emotions play an important part of helping us work out what will give us most positive subjective feeling. It is particularly important when working out the big decisions, like where you live, who you choose as a partner, what profession you would like to pursue.

Emotions also play a critical role in memory. Events which have a higher emotional significance are more memorable. People are more likely to remember the birth of their child or remember what they were doing when they first heard about a plane going into the twin towers.

Emotions and your body and brain

Emotions have both an impact on your sense of well-being and your body. For example fear, not only will you feel you need to make yourself more safe, bodily, your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate and 'prime' your body for what action might need to happen next.

This leads to an interesting feedback loop. When muscle relaxants prevented some volunteers from frowning, they reported a better mood than when muscle relaxants preventing them from smiling. This means there is a two-way feedback loop between the body and emotions. A good example of this is laughing yoga, where a group of people force themselves to laugh, and report positive feelings afterwards. Therefore feelings are not just a reflection of the external environment, they are also a function of your habits and routines.

We do not have to experience something fearful to feel fear. If we are imagining a troubling situation we will feel fear. A person who spends too much time on a low probability bad situation in the future, is exposing themselves to fear and thought processes that are unlikely to come to pass. More to come on this subject in a future blog.

When emotions misfire

Importantly emotions can misfire too, for example phobias, PTSD and panic attacks, where sharp negative feelings are felt in a non-dangerous place. These are extremes of when emotions are not helpful to our decision-making. Perhaps because they misfire sometimes is the reason that emotions are a strong nudge to act rather than an automatic reflex.

In less extreme cases, emotions make us build a worldview from only a few data points and nudge us in a certain direction. These poorly supported biases can direct people to some very poor decision-making. Allowing our poorly formed biases drive our decisions is one area where mistakes continually happen.

So what?

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:

1) Emotions are responses to the environment that help us navigate complex choices through experience.

2) Emotions build through experience, so your emotional feeling towards something depends on whether you had a good experience or not. In that sense emotions are subjective and can differ completely between one person and another.

3) Emotions do not always help us, sometimes they misfire and make us feel something that is more in perception than reality. We can make ourselves feel negative or make poor decisions when we allow emotions to become detached to reality. Here is where emotional intelligence comes into play.

Thank you for joining. Next week - 'How do we stop ourselves acting on emotion?'. Don't forget to sign up to the subscription list.

Sources for today's blog:

Emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman


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