Emotions. How do they work? (and why do we have them?)
Written by Gabe
As a human, I can assert that there is something that I share with all other human beings on this planet. No matter your age, nationality, gender or marital status, both you and I have emotions. Why do we, though? For a species that oftentimes proudly calls their brains meat computers, our thought processes don’t exactly run on cold, robotic logic. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Emotions influence our thoughts in many ways, which is not something all of us want to admit.
Where do these emotions come from, then? Why aren’t we more like the machines in Asimov’s I, Robot? Philosophers, scientists and religious figures had been trying to explain similar questions (without the robots) since time immemorial, and only in the modern age are we remotely close to answering them.
To find an answer to why we have emotions, we first need to understand what exactly is an emotion. Although we all intuitively more-or-less know what emotions are, there is no single scientific agreement on one definition. Most would agree that emotions are states caused by the nervous system in order to cause a physical response by the body. What distinguishes them from feelings is that feelings are a purely personal, subjective reaction to our emotions.
Emotions, by Tereza Nawrocká, Something
Emotions as an evolutionary advantage
Since we know the what, we can move onto the why and how. Many think that emotions are pre-programmed into our brain by the process of evolution. This is called the Evolutionary Theory of Emotion, and it was pioneered by Charles Darwin (who is also known for the Theory of Evolution) in the 1870s. He believed that humans have emotions because they give us an advantage over the environment. For example, a hunter-gatherer that is afraid at the sight of a bear is much more likely to run away than one that is not.
Evolutionary theory also states that emotions are “hard-wired” so to speak, and basic emotional expression is the same across all human beings on earth - this view is not shared by all modern psychologists, some of which believe that how we interpret an emotion depends on the current circumstances and our upbringing.
Other Theories of Emotion
Darwin was definitely not the only one who tried to explain the origin of emotions. There are several other theories that attempt to describe where they come from. They can be divided into three groups -
- Physiological theories, that state that emotions are caused by the body and bodily responses
- Neurological theories, which say that the neurons inside the brain are the main cause of emotions.
- Cognitive theories, which say that emotions are created by your own thinking.
A famous example of a physiological theory is the (now often criticised) James Lange theory, according to which emotions are based on how you interpret bodily states caused by outside stimuli. In other words, you experience something (like your heart beating when afraid) in response to something in the outside world (seeing a dangerous animal) and so your brain deduces that you’re feeling an emotion (in this case, fear).
Emotions in the brain
Now that we have a basic understanding of the whys and whats, let’s get to the how. A part of the brain associated with emotion is the limbic system, an ancient structure that we share with all other mammals. It is also important for memory storage, among other things.
The limbic system contains several parts - the amygdala, hypothalamus, thalamus and hippocampus.
Similarly to memory, emotions don’t just happen in one part of the brain - they are spread out, and many parts of the brain collaborate in order to create results.
Take fear, for example. Fear happens when the amygdala stimulates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus sends signals to release hormones, such as adrenaline, to prepare us for a potential fight, or running away.
Anger happens very similarly to fear. The prefrontal cortex, another part of the brain, which also separates us from the rest of animals, is related to anger and anger control as well.
Happiness is caused by the release of various hormones, such as serotonin and dopamine. It originates partly from the limbic system, as well as another part called the precuneus, whose main functions are related to memory and physical orientation.
Love is a long and gradual process in the brain. It starts with a stress response in the hypothalamus (like fear). This is the reason you’re often stressed around people you like. Eventually, the hypothalamus releases hormones that give you feelings of pleasure, such as oxytocin and dopamine.
The Emotional Brain, by Alyssa Khoo, ysjournal.com
Precuneus, by Frank Gaillard, radiopaedia.org
Even though emotions are so intrinsic to human existence, we still don’t know nearly enough about them to state how they function with absolute certainty.
A common concept that is debated in psychology are the basic emotions. It has been a traditional view for many years that we have a collection of basic emotions, of which there are usually four to eight, such as sadness, anger, fear or joy. There have been proposals as low as two and as high as twenty seven. Some take a completely different stance on this issue, saying that there are actually no basic or specific emotions, and what we perceive as positive or negative entirely depends on circumstance, and how we analyse our physical state ourselves.
After all, neuroscience is still a fledgling field.
The quality of technology is constantly increasing and some day we will not only be able to understand the world that surrounds us, but the world inside our heads as well.
Kendra Cherry, “The purpose of our emotions,” https://www.verywellmind.com/theories-of-emotion-2795717Kendra
Cherry, “Overview of the 6 major theories of emotion”
Alyssa Khoo, “The Emotional brain” https://www.neurologylive.com/view/how-brain-processes-emotionsTiago Forte, “How emotions are made,”
Jill Seladi-Schulman, “Which part of the brain controls emotion?”
David Shariatmadari, “'I'm extremely controversial': the psychologist rethinking human emotion,” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/25/im-extremely-controversial-the-psychologist-rethinking-human-emotion
ScienceDirect “Precuneus,” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/precuneusRebecca
Herscher, “The Making Of Emotions, From Pleasurable Fear To Bittersweet Relief” https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/06/01/530103479/the-making-of-emotions-from-pleasurable-fear-to-bittersweet-relief?t=1623781863172