The Relationship Between Emotions and Feelings

Emotions and feelings seem to always go hand in hand, but is that really the case? What nuances do we usually leave out when thinking about them?
The Relationship Between Emotions and Feelings

Last update: 05 September, 2022

The relationship between emotions and feelings has been studied on many occasions. Therefore, today, we can contrast all kinds of ideas. In fact, there remains much to be discovered on this particular subject.

Both emotions and feelings are systematized over time. They give each individual an emotional identity. When a problem persists in an individual’s life, in addition to the automation of thought processes, their emerging emotional world constitutes a pattern. This becomes systematized and tends to form part of their personality style.

The emotional tone that characterizes the individual is systematized in their relationships and their forms of interaction. It’s also imprinted on their face and their stereotyped gestures and has a neurochemical correlate. Therefore, when someone who’s normally funny appears serious and thoughtful, their environment will question them, supposing that something must be wrong with them. Let’s find out more.

Anxious woman with her partner

Feelings are a demonstration of consciousness

Antonio Damasio claims that a feeling is the perception of a certain state of the body, together with the perception of a certain way of thinking. He also states that, in order to have feelings, a nervous system is required that’s capable of mapping bodily states into neural patterns and transforming them into mental representations. More specifically, mental representations require consciousness.

The human brain generates the same bodily states that are later evoked in front of various objects. It also builds the specific emotional body state to generate the corresponding feeling.

Although the relationship between feeling and consciousness isn’t direct or simple. It’s difficult to feel without being aware of it.

When we feel, we perceive ourselves

We feel because there are patterns of activity in regions of the brain that allow us to feel and begin to perceive ourselves. Without a body, there’d be no self, no consciousness, no emotions, and no feelings.

Richard Lazarus suggests subordinating feelings within the framework of emotions since he understands that they encompass more. He defines feeling as the subjective or cognitive component of emotions, in other words, the subjective experience of them.

According to Lazarus, when we become aware of the sensations (or alterations) of the body when receiving this stimulus, the emotion becomes a feeling. That’s to say, at the moment we notice that we experience an alteration –and we’re aware of it– we put a name to what we’re feeling (the emotion) with a specific label.

Feelings can persist in the absence of external stimuli when they’re generated by ourselves.

Time, a key distinguishing factor

One of the most marked differences in the relationship between emotions and feelings lies in time. As we said earlier, emotions are abrupt; they break out, many of them, unexpectedly, like anger, surprise, or fear. In fact, they’re automatic and, although in some cases, they can be regulated, we’re not always aware of them when they detonate.

Feelings develop in interaction and are more persistent than emotions. That’s because they’re produced as a result of a bond and a bond isn’t a simple interaction, but rather involves a non-random relationship. Emotions, on the other hand, are primitive because they basically don’t involve cognitive processes.

We don’t think about getting excited, but we suddenly do it. On the other hand, our feelings are associated with elements of thought and are established over time.

Damasio points out that, from an evolutionary perspective, emotions are more primitive than feelings. This is because the brain mechanisms that support emotional reactions were formed before those that sustain feelings.

Basic emotions play a role in systems. They ensure survival and collaborate with the body in pursuit of its defense in an attempt to ensure life. In short, they’re regulators of essential functions and they also facilitate social relationships and stability.

Sad woman

The biological mandate to survive

The maps associated with joy or happiness imply well-being and are more relevant for survival because they’re substitutes for other emotions. In addition, they imply states of balance for the organism. These states of joy are motivating, and allow social development and a greater capacity to act. Therefore, someone who was afraid but overcame a difficult situation feels happy.

On the other hand, the maps related to sadness correspond to functional imbalances of the organism and can be invalidating. In the case of pain, the symptoms of the disease indicate an imbalance of vital functions that, if not resolved, have a poor prognosis. In fact, the situation can even evolve toward disease and death.

Antonio Damasio claims that feelings can be mental sensors inside the body that are mental expressions of balance or internal imbalance.

Our biological mandate is to survive and to make the survival experience pleasurable rather than painful. This condition of life is expressed in the form of emotions (joy-sadness) and happiness and involves getting rid of negative emotions. With the objective of survival, throughout evolution, a mechanism was developed that allows immediate reaction and the decision to act quickly.

In these situations, there’s insufficient time to plan or think consciously and then decide. They demand an automatic reaction. The time that rational thought requires to analyze the possibilities of action decreases the probability of survival since it reduces the possibility of deciding and acting quickly.

There are always exceptions

Faced with an unexpected situation of imminent danger, the cerebral amygdala reacts. In the face of danger, it converses with emotional memory (processed by the hippocampus) and analyzes it with the prefrontal cortex, which is the center of rational and logical analysis, among its other functions. This process occurs to protect us and can even save our lives.

However, Joseph LeDoux discovered a circuit that consists of a shortcut in the amygdala. In these situations, it avoids the dialogue with the other interlocutors and gains seconds and milliseconds in the reaction. This is important in extreme situations.

LeDoux described the rapid amygdala circuit from the dangerous situation. He also mentioned emotional triggers, which make appropriate detection and reaction possible.

Ekman claims that there’s an emotional alert database that’s triggered by a neural network in human groups in all cultures. The body expresses each of the basic emotions in a different way through specific muscular indicators that are different for each type.

People representing different emotions on their faces with drawings

Emotional triggers and alerts

As we mentioned earlier, the relationship between emotions and feelings isn’t simple. However, thanks to different investigations, we can now compare extremely interesting ideas. That said, two things must always be clear:

  • The brain continuously monitors changes in the body.
  • The body feels the emotion at the same time as it experiences it.

In conclusion, human beings possess a complex repertoire of regulatory mechanisms for survival. These can be classified as automatic or non-automatic. The former include the emotions and feelings they give rise to. They’re the foundation of a repertoire of survival-oriented behaviors that are ethical, compassionate, and collaborative.

The problem is that non-automatic devices often seem to conflict with automatic ones. In fact, we live in social institutions governed by mechanisms of competition, struggle, aggression, power, fear, non-cooperation, denial of the other, etc. These go against our emotional basis for survival, that of cooperation, association, and love. It’s a paradox.

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  • Melamed, A. F. (2016). Las teorías de las emociones y su relación con la cognición: un análisis desde la filosofía de la mente. Cuadernos de la Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales. Universidad Nacional de Jujuy, (49), 13-38.
  • García Andrade, A. (2019). The Neuroscience of Emotions: Society Seen from the Point of View of the Individual. An Approximation to the Link between Sociology and Neuroscience. Sociológica (México)34(96), 39-71.