What exactly is an emotion?

Well, The Merriam-Webster Online Collegiate Dictionary, tells us that the word comes from the Old French word, esmovoir, and the Middle French word emouvoir, to stir up, and the Latin word exmovere, to move away, disturb. The evolution of the word in modern Western culture has led the Collegiate to define it as: a psychic and physical reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling and physiologically involving changes that prepare the body for immediate vigorous action. (Oh, my...lions, tigers, and bears!)

Britannica.com gives us this definition: A distinct feeling or quality of consciousness, such as joy or sadness, that reflects the personal significance of an emotion-arousing event. Britannica.com fills in some loose ends by also telling us: Emotions are central to the issues of human survival and adaptation. They motivate the development of moral behavior, which lies at the very root of civilization. Emotions influence empathic and altruistic behavior, and they play a role in the creative processes of the mind."

Well, if I were to judge the two explanations in a contest, I would have to give the edge to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary as something that "prepares" the body for some sort of action. However, Britannica.com stresses correctly the importance in telling us that "emotions are central to the issues of human survival and adaptation." But even if we combine these two explanations, we still walk away confused about what are emotions. What is a feeling? What's personal significance? What's an emotion-arousing event? What's a psychic and physical reaction subjectively experienced? What does that mean? Well, these are the questions that we will attempt to explain in this section of the web site. But since this web site deals with human behavior from an evolutionary perspective, do be forewarned that many of my explanations will be heavily influenced with that perspective.

Below is a list of emotions that I have complied from The Handbook of Emotions, 2nd edition along with others that I selected from Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus. 

The "primary" emotions: those that emerge in the first 3 to 4 years of life:

All emotions listed below are currently known to be, under study as, or are speculated to be emotions.  I have listed the known and most likely in capital letters; those listed with question marks are those considered speculative or overlapping but need to be confirmed through further study and debate, I have put these in lower case and with a question mark.

Scientists today are using various paths or approaches to isolate and study emotions. Science loves to break things down into bite-sized pieces and examine them up close. But because emotions are so complex, Think of these different perspectives, or approaches as important way-stations that are unique, but only in combination do they begin to give us an overview explanation of emotions. We will examine them all in some detail, but, afterward, with hunger for more knowledge driving you forward, I strongly suggest that you locate the books and science journals that I have placed at the end of each section as a pathway to gain the greatest illumination.

Looking closer

Think of emotions as "biological signals" we get inside our minds and bodies, but must start with the brain. In most cases the brain "takes notice," by hearing, feeling, and tasting outside things and events through the sense organs, which send signals to the brain as coded chemical messages unique to each sense organ. The brain then "uptakes" these chemical signals, sorts them by "danger expediency" -- the most dangerous get top billing; your decision as what to wear for work is pretty low.  The brain then "decides" what to do about these messages; makes up its own coded chemical signals, then sends its own biological signals to other parts of the brain and body.

Now, that is the brain reacting to external events. But we humans are "reasoning," sentient beings. Usually, in times of "non-danger," which was rare in our ancestral hunter-gatherer past, we "think internally" of people, places, or things which stimulate the internal emotions that we feel. We can reflect on the loss of a loved one, the beauty of a sunset, or remember our past victory of our clan over another clan -- all of which could evoke "feelings," or emotions. At this point, you must understand that we view the world we live in as two perceptual concepts: as "the self" -- internally -- or "the other" -- external things, events, or people. Burn this concept into your brain. Grok it.

Now, begin to look at more detail of each approach listed above.


Copyright, Evolution's Voyage, 1995 - 2009