By Fauzia Saeed, Psychologist VCCTC, PRCS Punjab Branch.LHR
In psychology and philosophy, emotion is a subjective, conscious experience characterized primarily by psycho physiological expressions, biological reactions, and mental states. Emotion is often associated and considered reciprocally influential with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, and motivation.
The physiology of emotion is closely linked to arousal of the nervous system with various states and strengths of arousal relating, apparently, to particular emotions. Emotions are a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence our behaviour. Those acting primarily on emotion may seem as if they are not thinking, but cognition is an important aspect of emotion, particularly the interpretation of events. For example, the experience of fear usually occurs in response to a threat. The cognition of danger and subsequent arousal of the nervous system (e.g. rapid heartbeat and breathing, sweating, muscle tension) is an integral component to the subsequent interpretation and labeling of that arousal as an emotional state. Emotion is also linked to behavioral tendency. Extroverted people are more likely to be social and express their emotions, while introverted people are more likely to be more socially withdrawn and conceal their emotions.
Research on emotion has increased significantly over the past two decades with many fields contributing including psychology, neuroscience, endocrinology, medicine, history, sociology, and even computer science. The numerous theories that attempt to explain the origin, neurobiology, experience, and function of emotions have only fostered more intense research on this topic. Current areas of research in the concept of emotion include the development of materials that stimulate and elicit emotion.
First of all, motivations are ‘e-motions’. They act to motivate us. Without emotions we would probably not do very much and hence would not survive – at least in the evolved form we are in now.
Motivations are felt in the body. Our muscles tense or relax. Our blood vessels dilate or contract. When we feel emotionally, we also feel physically. Our emotions can thus make us feel uncomfortable or comfortable, sending us signals to do something urgently or to stay in our comfortable state.
Internally, for example when we are trying to make understand something or make a decision, we use our emotions to deduce whether what we have concluded is a good idea. Self-Perception Theory and the Cognitive Appraisal Theories of Emotion explain how we deduce our emotions by watching ourselves.
When we think about something that contradicts our values, our emotions will tell us that it is bad. When we think about something that could hurt us, our emotions will tell us that this is not a good idea. Just by imagining what might happen, our emotions are still triggered and hence let us make better decisions.
We generally wear our hearts on our sleeves as our inner emotions are displayed on our outer bodies. Our faces, in particular, have around 90 muscles, 30 of which have the sole purpose of signaling emotion to other people.
Signals are generally very useful, as they help others decide how to behave towards us. If someone is looking angry, then attacking them is probably not a good idea. If they are looking afraid then you could attack them or you could help them and thus earn their gratitude.
You can use emotions to motivate people. Connect good emotions with what you want them to do, and bad emotions with what is not wanted.
Respond to the signals you see in other people. Also notice how what you do affects those emotions, thus connecting what you do with a real inner effect on them.
Also watch your own emotions. They are signals that tell you something about what is happening in the inner you. This can be very useful as we often do not realize what is going on in that deep, dark subconscious inside of us.
Positive and negative emotions
There are more negative emotions than positive emotions. We can feel fear, anger, shame, hate, and yet beyond a basic happiness and joy, there are few other positive feelings.
A reason for this is because most emotions are designed to keep us alive. They signal warnings and prompt us to act, from running away to avoiding others to fighting back.
Whilst we feel emotions on an ongoing basis, we sometimes enter a state of arousal, in which our bodies experience heightened physiological activity and extremes of emotion. This can be both powerful and dangerous, both for ourselves and for others.
States of arousal can be positive and negative and include fear, anger, curiosity and love, which are felt with an overpowering intensity that drives us to act, often in an unthinking way.
Arousal is a state of heightened activity in both our mind and body that makes us more alert.
Arousal acts along a spectrum from low to high. You can be slightly aroused and you can be extremely highly aroused.
Arousal is the result of stimulation. When we are stimulated appropriately, then we become aroused. With greater stimulation, we become more aroused.
Arousal is a fundamental human need. In particular when other basic needs for safety and social position are adequate, we start looking for more excitement. What do people who have everything seek? ‘Sex, drugs and rock and roll’ is a common description that embodies arousal.
Arousal can be both positive and negative in experience, for example in excitement or fear. A lack of arousal can also be positive or negative, for example in relaxation or boredom.
Arousal starts in the brain, where the Reticular Activation System connects the primitive brain stem and the cortex and affects sleeping-waking transitions. In arousal, it acting to increase our wakefulness and consequent alertness and attention. In arousal caused by a threat, the fight-or-flight reaction is triggered.
The endocrine system stimulates various glands, in particular adrenaline, which increases oxygen and glucose flow, dilates the pupils (so you can see better) and suppresses non-urgent systems such as digestion and the immune system.
Arousal is spread through the Sympathetic Nervous System, with effects such as increasing the heart rate and breathing to enable physical action and perspiration to cool the body. It also has specific actions such as stimulating sexual arousal.
Emotional arousal is a process, which means it happens as a sequence over time. Understanding this is a step towards being able to manage the process.
Arousal often happens through a trigger, which appears through one of our senses. Thus, for example, arousal can happen through:
- Touch: A punch, kiss or caress
- Vision: Seeing something shocking or desirable
- Hearing: A sudden noise or somebody saying something
- Smell: An evocative odour that triggers powerful memories
- Taste: Of wonderful or disgusting food
The process of arousal
Arousal typically happens when the body releases chemicals into the brain that act to stimulate emotions, reduce cortical functioning and hence conscious control, and create physical agitation and ‘readiness for action’.
Emotions can be classified in terms of how arousing or not they are. Here are some:
Arousal is sometimes talked of with the metaphor of heat, reflecting the energy created, with arousing emotions described as ‘hot’ or ‘warm; and calmer emotions as ‘cold’ or ‘cool’.
Higher arousal tends to make people want to talk and communicate more. Hence people talk more when they are joyful and less when they are just contented.
The effect of arousal
In situations of negative stress, we enter the fight-or-flight state, when primitive responses designed to keep us alive are kicked into motion.
In sexual arousal, our bodies prepare themselves for sexual intercourse and our brains go into overdrive in a state of intense desire for completion of this most basic of acts.
In other states of stimulation, people report feelings of ‘being more alive’, as senses become more acute and the skin prickles in excitement.
The desirability of arousal
We all have a need for arousal at some level and being aroused is a pleasurable state that plays to basic needs for stimulation.
Even negative states such as fear and anger have their benefits. Angry people report feeling all-powerful, perhaps harking back to neonatal states of infantile omnipotence.
Fearful people also may access early memories of being subsequently comforted. Fear is also a common factor in many hobbies, especially extreme sports, where people do things deliberately to become aroused, from skiing to watching horror movies.
In states of depression, the opposite occurs and suffers may be unable to feel any sense of arousal, interest and engagement with the world.