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Emotions: what are they? Theories explained

The definition of emotions is far from unanimous! If the literal definition considers that an external event triggers emotion, many philosophers and neuropsychologists defend the addition of internal causes, related to our thoughts. Did I first physically feel an emotion, or did it first manifest itself through my thought? The debate is also about the categorization of emotions. For Antonio Damasio, physician, professor of neuroscience and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, there are three types of emotions: primary emotions, background emotions, and social emotions. Primary emotions are the basic emotions of every individual. They group together six emotions (the number varies significantly according to the theories) which are common to all human beings regardless of their culture: joy, anger, fear, sadness, disgust and surprise. Primary emotions would be like the primary colors (yellow, blue, red) at the base of the emotional rainbow that every human can feel.

What are emotions?

Emotions are the state of feelings that brings many psychological and physical changes that consequently influence behavior and thought.

The theories on emotions

There are three main theories of emotions that can be divided into 3 main categories:

- Physiological theories: These theories suggest the responses that are responsible for feelings.

- Neurological theories: These theories are all about the brain activities that cause emotional responses.

- Cognitive theories purpose the mental activities and thoughts that are responsible for the formation of emotional states.

The emotions are a sign that there has been a change around you either in the internal or external world.

The other components that make up emotions are the cognitive (or appraisal) assessment by the individual of a certain emotive antecedent, physiological (or arousal) activation of the organism (for example, changes in the heart and respiratory rate, sweating, paleness, redness, etc.), verbal expressions (and for example the emotional lexicon) and non-verbal expressions (facial expressions, posture, gestures, etc.). Moreover, the tendency to action is also the component of the emotion and finally, the actual behavior, generally aimed to maintain or modify the ongoing transactional relationship between the individual and the environment.

Among the components of the emotional experience, we also find the hedonic tone (or hedonic value) which refers to the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the emotional experience (positive vs negative hedonic value) for the subject who is experiencing it. In particular, the cognitive evaluation of the emotive antecedent induces a change in terms of tendency to action, which is accompanied by variations in physiological activation and expressive responses, resulting in specific behavioral responses.

In terms of time, it is important to underline that emotions have not been, but rather processes in continuous evolution. The temporal course of emotions can be extremely different: in some cases, the emotions have a clear beginning and a clear end, with a stable intensity over the time period; in other cases, it is more difficult to define the time course precisely as they have a more discontinuous and fluctuating pattern also in terms of intensity.

Often the common belief sees emotion as a dichotomous contrast to cognition: however, since the 1950s, most theoretical approaches to emotions show that cognition is interdependent and part of the emotional process itself. The variability of emotional experiences is, therefore, also due to the variability of the complex multidimensional process of this cognitive evaluation. This does not mean that emotions always arise on the basis of analytical knowledge and complex reasoning. There can often be very quick and almost automatic assessments of the trigger emotional situation.

The James-Lange theory

The James-Lange theory is the most famous example when it comes to elaborate on the physiological theory of emotions. Both psychologists Carl Lange and William James suggested the same theories on the emotion.

Both wanted to challenge what they called the common-sense theory that when someone is asked "why are you crying?" he replies: “Because I'm sad”.

This response implies the belief that sensations come first, which, in turn; produce the physiological and expressive aspects of the emotion.

According to experts, we must fight the theory of common sense, since we do not cry because we are sad, but we feel sad because we cry; we do not tremble because we are afraid, but we feel fear because we are trembling. The heart does not beat faster because we are angry, but we are angry because the heart beats faster.

The emotional reaction depends on how the physical reactions are interpreted.

The Cannon-Bard theory

Walter Cannon in 1927 published a critique of the James-Lange theory which convinced many psychologists that it was an unsustainable theory.

Cannon pointed out that research had by no means shown that emotion is accompanied by a single physiological event. The same general state of sympathetic nervous system activation is present in many different emotions.

For example, the visceral states that accompany fear and anger are exactly the same that is associated with feelings of cold and fever. It does not, therefore seem possible that physiological modifications in the visceral organs cause recognizable differentiated emotional states.

This hypothesis was later elaborated by Philip Bard (1929), according to whom the thalamus plays a critical role in the emotional experience. For Cannon and Bard (Cannon-Bard theory), the nerve impulses that pass sensory information are then retransmitted through the thalamus by receiving this input upwards from the cortex (causing a subjective emotional experience) and downwards to the muscles, glands and visceral organs (producing physiological changes).

Do cognitive or emotional processes come first?

In recent years, two theories of normal emotional experiences have been advanced, theories that devote relatively little attention to the role of biological modification and physiological activation. There is a controversy which one should come first, whether a cognitive assessment or subjective sensations.

This theory elaborates the process of cognitive evaluation. This evolution starts from the series of events that involves stimulus, thought and then bring about the emotion or immediate physiological response. For instance, you are hiking in the woods, and you suddenly saw a lion, you realize that this could be a great danger for me. Here, the fear is the emotional experience that is associated with the physical reactions, i.e. fight or flight.

What are the main emotions?

There are two types of emotions: basic emotions and complex emotions.

The fundamentals are also called primary emotions since they occur in the initial periods of human life and unite us to many other animal species. The newborn shows three fundamental emotions that are defined as "innate": fear, love, anger. Within the first five years of life, it manifests other fundamental emotions such as shame, anxiety, jealousy, envy.

The 8 primary emotions are:

Anger: It is generated by frustration and can manifest itself through aggression.

Fear: It is an emotion dominated by instinct; it has as its goal the survival of the subject in a dangerous situation.

Sadness: It originates as a result of a loss or an unfulfilled goal.

Joy: it is a positive emotion of those who consider all their desires satisfied

Surprise: It originates from an unexpected event, followed by fear or joy

Disgust: The repulsive response characterized by a facial expression specific to this emotion

Complex (secondary) emotions

They are the combination of primary emotions and develop with the growth of the individual and social interaction:

- envy;

- cheerfulness;

- shame;

- anxiety;

- resignation;

- jealousy;

- hope;

- pardon;

- offense;

- nostalgia;

- remorse;

- disappointment


Emotion can be defined as an intense subjective/affective reaction, of an adaptive character, to an internal/external, pleasant or unpleasant experience, which has consequences on the behavioral, physiological, affective and cognitive level of the individual. It is characterized by an acute and short-lasting onset determined by an external or internal stimulus with peculiar somatic, vegetative and psychic reactions. 

The memory represents one of the main human cognitive functions and consists of the brain's ability to store and retain information over time in order to be able to retrieve or recognize it. In order for the mnemonic process to take place, it must go through three moments:

- (PHASE OF THE CODIFICATION) the information that arrives from the outside is encoded, i.e. 

- entered into the system (STORAGE PHASE) 

- and then stored, i.e. preserved over time subsequently (RECOVERY PHASE) the retrieval takes place, 

It is the way in which the information is extracted from the system. The relationship between emotion and memory has assumed great importance following the flourishing of ecological research on the memory of emotionally intense and traumatic autobiographical events,

Link/context: A context within which the theme of memory and emotions is appropriate is the school one since it has been seen that the emotional dimensions affect cognitive and mnemonic performance.

Theory: In this context, Bower's studies emerge, who in his theoretical model “Associative network model” argues that emotion can influence memory. The model assumes that emotions constitute the central nodes of an associative network, connected to ideas, events, neurovegetative activity and specific patterns of muscular and expressive reactions. As new stimuli are learned, they are associated with the nodes active at that time. Consequently, the stimuli learned in a particular affective state are connected to the corresponding effective node. 

When an emotional node is stimulated, the activation spreads along the different branches, increasing the activation of all the other nodes connected to it. The activation of a node within a certain threshold determines the awareness of the material that is represented there. In one experiment, Bower induced a state of hypnotic trance in some subjects to cause them to reach a joyful or sad state of mind. 

Once the desired state of mind was reached, the subjects were subjected to a learning test of a word list, after which they were brought to a state of relaxation and were taken out of the trance. The re-enactment was then performed at a variable distance of time, under hypnosis, both in an affirmative and divergent state from that experienced in the learning phase. The re-enactment of a sad mood of a list of words learned in the same mood, reaches 80% of the material, while it stops at 45% if the material was learned in a different mood. From this, it can be deduced that memory is facilitated in the case of a concordance between the mood in the learning phase and in the recall phase. At the same time, there is an inhibition of memory in the case of discordance of moods in the learning phase and in the recall phase. 

Bower, therefore, believes that emotion can affect memory through two effects: State of dependence (coupling of the emotion at the time of learning and at the time of recovery) and congruence (correspondence between the affective valence of the stimulus at the moment in which it has acted) the emotional state at the time of recovery). Considering an emotion as an active unit of memory also allows us to understand a heterogeneous series of clinical data, such as the difficulty in remembering dreams due to the different emotional condition between the waking state and the sleeping state. Furthermore, in the child, as in the adult, the emotional dimension plays an essential role for learning, so much so that the decision to transfer experiences from the short-term to the long-term compartment is very often taken on an emotional basis.

Investigation methods: As regards the investigation methods, in addition to the experimental method used by Bower, there are several test batteries that measure, among other factors, also the memory capacities, such as WAIS, the Reagent of complex figures by Rey, the Rivermead Behavioral Memory Test, useful for highlighting memory deficits in everyday life. Conversely, the interviews allow us to investigate the subject's emotional experience and how this is connected to the various memories; there is also the meta-cognitive questionnaire on Cornoldi's study method which investigates the cognitive, motivational and emotional component of learning.

Application implications: The application areas on the theme of memory and emotion are varied. In the light of the previous considerations on the facilitation of memory following particular emotional states, mnemonic techniques aimed at favoring a more efficient use of the memory function are important. At the clinical level, however, memory and emotions are relevant in the context of psychological disorders. Memory disorders are often found in severe psychotic patients, where the disorder related mainly to short-term memory, is particularly connected to difficulties in paying attention to the outside world. 

As far as emotions are concerned, they play a key role in the field of psychopathology. There are, in fact, forms of schizophrenia in which the individual shows reduction or a complete absence of emotionality. It is also important to observe the congruence between the emotional experience that the individual shows and what he communicates verbally. In the school environment, the theme of memory and emotions is particularly meaningful, in fact, it has been seen that in the child the emotional dimension plays an essential role for the purpose of learningEmotions, so much so that the decision to transfer experiences from the short-term memory compartment to long term is very often taken on an emotional basis. The child can learn only if he is in a reassuring and serene context that will allow the activation of effective memory retention mechanisms and favor the positive association between the material to be learned and the learning context. 

Author: Vicki Lezama

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