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General Psychology

Emotion

Dr. C. George Boeree


So far, our theory is rather cold and mechanical. What about

feelings? Well, they're there, to some degree, in every

interaction. Imagine this: In the middle of the night, you get a bad

case of the mad munchies. So you leave your bed and head for the

fridge. It's very dark, but you know your apartment like the back

of your hand, so you don't bother with the lights. The coffee

table is in the middle of the room and you anticipate its presence

and maneuver around it. Perhaps you reach out your hand to

touch the edge to confirm your anticipation. You're almost there

-- five more feet to the fridge -- when WHAM! you walk into a solid

six foot...something: The unanticipated! What do you feel at that

moment? Perhaps fear, surprise, perhaps sheer terror. Whatever

it is, it is rather unpleasant. Let's call it distress. You are, at the

same time, busy "generating anticipations" -- making guesses about

the nature of the beast, taking actions that might alleviate some

of your fears, dashing for the light switch. The lights come on...

you're expecting a sex-crazed psycho-killer.... And lo and behold,

it's the fridge. You cleaned behind it for the first time in 30 years

and left it pulled out. Now how do you feel? Perhaps you feel

relief, a sensation of pleasant resolution. You heave a great

sigh, perhaps laugh. Things make sense again. Life is on the right

path again. Let's call it delight. (Note that you might still feel

some negative emotion as well, as soon as the initial relief is

behind you -- like annoyance at your own stupidity. That problem

has yet to be resolved!) Another example: Notice the people

coming off one of the "sooper-dooper" roller coasters. Notice

their frozen smiles. That's their way of saying "yes! I am alive!"

Let's be more precise: When interaction is problematic, we feel

distress. For example, (1) when we fail to anticipate something--

like the fridge in our face--we are distressed. We also feel

distress when (2) we anticipate more than one thing at the same

time: conflicting anticipations. Which of your roommates is

actually the chain-saw killer? Each time you are alone with one

of them, you don't know whether to feel secure or to run like

the blazes. And (3) we also feel it when we are faced by general

uncertainty: Which way is that cockroach, or rat, or snake going

to move next? Perhaps this is the root of our common phobias of

these delightful creatures. Distress can be mild, an irritation or

annoyance: When your pen runs out of ink just as you sign a

check at the local supermarket. It can be a bit more intense: The

frustration of you car breaking down; the fear as your car

careens out of control on the highway; the disgust you feel

when you discover that your lover bites the heads off of live

chickens. Delight is the resolution of our distressful problems.

We are, actually, developing or elaborating our understanding

of the world when we feel delight. Delight is the emotional side

of adaptation, of (believe it or not!) learning. It too can be mild:

The pleasant feeling of finishing a crossword puzzle or winning

at a game or sport. Or it can be a bit more intense, like the relief

you feel when you realize that the roller-coaster only felt like

it was leaving the tracks; or the joy of scientific discovery,

artistic creation, or mystical experience. Notice that since

solving problems requires having problems, delight depends on

distress. Even physical pleasure seems to work like this: You

enjoy it more after doing without it for a while, whether "it" is

food, drink, or sex! Too much of it, and it doesn't seem to satisfy

quite so well. (Note that our response to this is often to try

doing it even more! Hence some of our neurotic attitudes

towards sex, food, gambling, attention....) Facing a problem

doesn't cause distress -- it is distress. The distress is just the

feeling-side of the situation. The same points apply to delight. It

isn't caused by problem-resolution, it is problem-resolution. And

distress and delight don't cause you to seek a solution; they are

not "motivating forces." But there's no doubt that the situations

in which you feel distress may be ones that you avoid in the future.

Or, if they resulted in delight, they may be ones you seek out in

the future. It is the anticipation of distress or delight that is

motivating. Anxiety is the distressful anticipation of distress.

From experience, you expect that the situation before you will be

unpleasant. This expectation is itself unpleasant: it conflicts

with your desire to be a happy, carefree individual. And, often, you

try to avoid the situation. Hope is the delightful anticipation of

delight. From experience, the problem before you will be

resolved, and this is a happy thought. Depending on details, we

could also call this eagerness, or even anxiety, as in "I'm anxious

to get started!" Now, the "basic" distress and delight don't

usually happen at the same time--since one is the problem and the

other the solution. But anticipatory distress and delight -- that

is, anxiety and hope -- often happen at the same time: We call this

"mixed emotions." Skimming across deep water on little sticks at

30 miles per hour can make you nervous; water-skiing, on the

other hand, sounds like fun. You feel both anxiety and eagerness.

You decision whether to try it will be based on how these two

balance out for you. Notice I said "for you." The decision is very

much a subjective one, based on what makes you anxious and

eager. Anticipation can also help us make sense of other

emotions, such as anger: Anger is distress with an expectation of

external change. The problem is "out there" and anger is the

build-up of energy needed to solve it. Just try to hold back a baby

from crawling, and see what you get. Sadness is distress with an

expectation of internal change. The problem is "in here." I realize

that I must adapt to it. Grief is the most obvious example: You

can't get them back; you can only learn to live with their

absence. Many of our major learning experiences involve

sadness, such as coming to understand our own limitations, or

the limitations of our loved ones, for example. Notice that anger

is a little more hopeful; sadness is a little harder to take. People

tend to be angry at things before they settle down to accept

what they can't change. That says something very important

about us: We resist major changes in the self; if we can, we try to

make the world fit our expectations. Sometimes people persist in

these emotional states. A person who is always trying to make the

world -- especially others -- fit his expectations we call

aggressive, and his emotional state hostile.. Often, what he

really needs to do is change himself, adapt. But for some reason -

- his culture, for example -- giving-in is taboo. Like physical

pleasures, when it doesn't work right, we do what we always do,

only more! Likewise, a person who is always trying to make himself

fit the world -- and especially others' expectations -- we call

compliant and his emotional state is commonly depressed.. He is

always trying to adjust himself to others, when often what he

needs is to get angry. Most common of all is avoidance: When we

see a problem coming, we give in to our anxiety and run away,

physically or psychologically. With avoidance, we are really

trying to get out of an emotional situation and back into a

peaceful state. Unfortunately, if you avoid problems and their

distress, you also avoid the delight of solutions. Think of some

of the common "psychological" ways we avoid life's problems:

Alcohol, drugs, television. The goal of avoidance is to be

unconscious, or at least unconscious of problems. These three

"types" -- aggressive, compliant, and avoiding -- are so common that

a number of theorists have independently come up with them

(Adler, Horney, Fromm, and others). These types may even have a

genetic component to them, so that some of us are more likely to

deal with our problems by turning to aggression, others with

compliance, still others with avoidance. More mature people

tend to take on problems with an eye towards a solution: They

face distress and anxiety with hope and eagerness. This takes a

little something--an ability to focus on your goals, and to ignore

the pains of getting there. This has been called will-power, self-

discipline, need for achievement, delay-of-gratification, and

emotional intelligence. I just call it will.

Theories about emotions It has always been assumed that the

First thing that happens is that we experience an emotion, and

then and only then do we start reacting to the situation

physiologically.  But over a hundred years ago, William James, the

father of American psychology, and Carl Lange, a Danish

psychologist, separately introduced the idea that we have it all

backwards:  First, they said, we have physiological responses to a

situation, and only then do we use those responses to formulate

an experience of emotion.  This is called the James-Lange theory.

Walter Cannon and Phillip Bard came up with a variation on the

James-Lange idea in 1929:  They suggested that there are neural

paths from our senses that go in two directions.  One goes to

the cortex, where we have a subjective experience, and one goes

to the hypothalamus, where the physiological processes begin. 

In other words, the experience of an emotion, and the

physiological responses occur together.  This is (as you might

expect by now) called the Cannon-Bard theory. In 1937, James

Papez noted that the physiological side of emotion is not just a

matter of the hypothalamus, but is a complex network of neural

pathways -- the Papez circuit.  In 1949, Paul McLean completed and

corrected Papez’s ideas, and called the larger complex the

limbic system, which is what we call it today.  It included the

hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, and is tightly

connected with the cingulate gyrus, the ventral tegmental area

of the brain stem, the septum, and the prefrontal gyrus. Paul

McLean is also the founder of the triune brain theory.  He

suggested that there is a certain evolutionary quality to the

structure of the brain.  Reptiles, he said, function entirely in

terms of instinct, and their brains are little more than what we

called the brain stem in people.  He called it the archipallium or

reptilian brain, and it includes the medulla, cerebellum, the pons,

and the olfactory bulbs. Above this is the paleopallium, or old

mammalian brain.  This is the limbic system and the portions of the

brain we call the old cortex.  Of course, this adds emotions to

the reptilian picture, and allows for simple conditioning.  And on

top of the paleopallium is the neopallium (aka new mammalian or

rational brain, or neocortex).  This is where more advanced

activities occur, including awareness.  McLean adds that, in

human beings, these three “brains” don’t always behave

cooperatively, which leads to some of the unique problems we

have!

Basic emotions One question that is asked repeatedly is “what are

the basic emotions.”  There have been dozens of answers to this,

none of which have been completely satisfying.  This is, no doubt,

due to the fact that emotional response is complex to begin with,

and is made even more complex by the fact that we add our

thoughts and interpretations to them as well as just

“experiencing” them as they are.  I suggest that we can organize

emotions into seven families:  

The Surprise Family
surprise, startle, astonishment
bewilderment, confusion
shock, exhaustion, overwhelmedness

The Fear Family
fear, threat, terror
anxiety
doubt, caution, suspicion

The Anger Family
anger, rage, frustration
hatred, hostility
envy, jealousy
disgust, contempt, annoyance, indignation
smugness, self-satisfaction, schadenfreud

The Sadness Family
sadness, sorrow, depression
anguish, despair
grief, loneliness
shame, embarrassment, humiliation
guilt, remorse, regret

The Eagerness Family
eagerness, anticipation, excitement, confidence
hopefulness
curiosity, interest

The Happiness Family
happiness, elation, joy, gladness
contentment, satisfaction
self-satisfaction, pride
love, affection, compassion
amusement, humor, laughter

The Boredom Family
boredom, ennui, complacency

©Copyright 2002, C. George Boeree

(Green)Archipallium brain (reptilian brain)
                                      (Red)Palleomammalian brain (limbic system)
                     (Blue)Neopallium brain (neocortex)







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