What are Emotions?

What are Emotions?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

We have all wondered what emotions are at least once. We could define them as the “glue of life”. They are the invisible but intense matter which allows us to connect with others and to be a part of reality. Simultaneously while laughing with it, admiring it, letting it surprise us with its wonders, and feeling sad with its heartaches.

Few conditions give off as much mystery as emotions do. It’s true that they are a part of our culture, education, gender, and country of origin. However, they are nonetheless already integrated into our genetic base. The universities of Durham and Lancaster (both in England) conducted a fascinating study to demonstrate this. It was observed during this study that fetuses within the maternal womb already express a small variety of emotions.

“An emotion does not cause pain. Resistance or suppression of an emotion is what truly causes pain and suffering.”
-Frederick Dodson-

Through the use of ultrasound, they were able to discover that unborn babies smile and even that they show expressions associated with crying. This proves that even in the placid and silent universe that is the uterus, human beings already start “activating.” They begin training in that instinctive and essential language which will guarantee their survival. A single smile will help show well-being and satisfaction. Crying will fulfill its function as an effective “alarm system.” Through it, the baby will express its most basic needs.

Emotions grant us with humanity. Although we often make the mistake of classifying them as negative or positive emotions, they are all necessary and valuable. After all, they fulfill an adaptive function. Nothing is as important as understanding them in order to be able to use them “intelligently” for our own benefit.

The face of a smiling fetus in a sonogram.

What are emotions?

Paul is working on his thesis. When he gets home from college, he goes straight to his bedroom to keep progressing. He sits at the computer desk and opens a drawer because he needs to consult some documents. He looks inside and right on top of the folder he needs there is a huge spider. Terrified, he closes it immediately. Shortly after, he notices how his body temperature rises and his heartbeat speeds up. He feels like he’s short on oxygen and gets goosebumps.

A few minutes later, he says to himself that he’s been silly. He needs to continue with his work and cannot waste time. He opens the drawer again and realizes that the spider was not as big as he initially perceived. In fact, it is rather small. Feeling embarrassed by his irrational fear, he picks up the spider with a sheet of paper and leaves it in the garden, feeling satisfied and laughing at himself.

The three dimensions

This simple example shows us how within a few minutes we can experience a wide range of emotions: fear, shame, satisfaction, and fun. In turn, all of them have combined three very clear dimensions:

  • Subjective feelings: Paul is afraid of spiders and that emotion allows him to flee from them, to protect himself.
  • A set of physiological responses: His heartbeat accelerates, and his body temperature rises.
  • An expressive or behavioral conduct: Paul closes the drawer immediately after seeing the stimulus (the spider) which scares him.

The most complex thing about the study of emotions is that they are very difficult to measure, describe, or predict. Each person experiences them in a different way. They are very particular and exclusive subjective entities. However, it’s easier for scientists to evaluate the physiological responses. This is because, in that aspect, we all react in the same way. Regardless of our age, race, or culture. For example, adrenaline is released in all experiences associated with fear, panic, stress, or the need to escape.

One woman showing many different expressions.

Why do we get excited?

Emotions have a very specific purpose: to guarantee our survival by allowing us to adapt to our surroundings. This was indicated by Charles Darwin when he proved that animals also had feelings and expressed emotions. He said that such a gift made it easier for them, and for us as well, to advance as a species. Also, to collaborate with each other to achieve this purpose.

Darwin was possibly one of the most successful figures in terms of explaining what emotions are and what they are useful for. However, throughout history, there are other names, different approaches, and more theories focused on giving us more answers on this subject.

The Book of Rites

The “Book of Rites” is a Chinese encyclopedia from the first century which we should all take a look at. It’s part of the Confucian canon and addresses ceremonial and social topics, but above all, it deals with aspects of human nature. If we reference this book, it’s because it also explains what emotions are. Even more, the basic emotions are described in this work: joy, anger, sadness, fear, love, and repulsion.

In the 19th century, William James and Danish scientist Carl Lange explained that emotions depend on two factors: the physical changes which happen in our organism when faced with a stimulus and the subsequent interpretation we make about them.

“When I say ‘manage emotions’, I only mean the really distressing, incapacitating emotions. Feeling emotions is what makes life rich.”
-Daniel Goleman-

The Schacter-Singer model

Let’s go to the 60s now, to the prestigious Yale University, to meet two scientists: Stanley Schacter and Jerome Singer. They both further polished the existing theories about emotions. They also shaped their own well-known and interesting model.

Schachter and Singer taught us that emotions can indeed appear when interpreting the peripheral physiological responses of our body, as was explained by William James and Carl Lange. However, and here comes the novelty, they can also occur as a result of a cognitive assessment. This means that our thoughts and cognitions can also trigger an organic response and the posterior release of neurotransmitters which will activate a certain emotion and an associated response.

Paul Ekman, pioneer in the study of emotions

If we want to know what emotions are, it’s almost mandatory to go through the work of Paul Ekman. When this psychologist from the University of San Francisco began his studies on this topic, he believed that emotions had a cultural origin. This belief was shared by most of the scientific community.

However, after more than 40 years of studies and analyses which involved a great part of the world’s cultures, he concluded something which Darwin had already stated in his time. Basic emotions are innate and a result of our evolution. In this sense, and within his theory, Ekman established that human beings are defined by a set of basic and universal emotions:

  • Joy
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Surprise
  • Sadness

Later on, at the end of the 1990s, he expanded this list after studying facial expressions more deeply:

  • Guilt
  • Embarrassment
  • Contempt
  • Complacency
  • Enthusiasm
  • Pride
  • Pleasure
  • Fear
  • Disgust or repulsion
  • Satisfaction
  • Surprise
  • Shame

The Wheel of Emotions, by Robert Plutchik

Robert Plutchik’s theory explains what emotions are from a more evolutionist point of view. This physician and psychologist provides us with an interesting model in which 8 basic emotions are well-identified and differentiated. All of these emotions have guaranteed our survival throughout our evolutionary process. We would have to add to these other secondary and even tertiary emotions, which we have developed over time to adapt much better to our surroundings.

This whole interesting approach gives shape to what is already known as “Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions”. In it, we can appreciate how emotions vary in degree as well as in intensity. Thus, and as an example, it’s interesting to remember that anger is less intense than fury. Understanding this will help us regulate our behavior a little bit better.

How to achieve emotional well-being

At this point, there is one aspect to take into consideration. It’s not enough to know what emotions are. It’s not enough to know which neurotransmitter is behind each emotional state, each physiological reaction, or each sensation. That’s like having an instruction manual about a machine, but not knowing how to really use it in your favor.

It’s essential to transform our theoretical knowledge into practical knowledge. Also, it’s just as important to manage our emotional universe to promote our well-being, to improve the quality of our relationships, productivity, and creativity. Basically, to improve our quality of life.

If, as Darwin stated, the ultimate goal of our emotions is to facilitate adaptation, survival, and coexistence, then let’s learn how to make them our own without fearing, hiding, or disguising them.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.