Emotions (from Latin emotio, meaning “movement”, “impulse”) are a multi-componential process, articulated in several components: mental and physiological states associated with psychological changes, internal or external stimuli, natural or learned. They represent an inner process triggered by an event-stimulus relevant to the interests of the individual, have a time course and are activated by internal or external stimuli. Emotions, therefore, play an important role in the processes of reasoning, judgment and decision-making.

The emotion is characterized by being a short-term alteration of the mood but, of greater intensity than a feeling. On the other hand, feelings are the consequences of emotional states, so they are more durable and can be verbalized.

Emotions are the cause of various organic reactions that can be physiological, psychological or behavioral, that is, they are reactions that can be both innate and influenced by previous experiences or knowledge. These organic reactions that generate emotions are controlled by the limbic system, which consists of various brain structures that control physiological responses. However, an emotion can also produce a behavior that can be learned in advance, such as a facial expression. To summarize:

  • An emotion can be defined as a complex response of the body to stimuli (imaginary or real), manifested by specific patterns of actions (e.g., flight or avoidance) and measurable bodily changes (heart rate, body temperature, etc.).
  • An emotion is a reaction to a stimulus (imaginary or real), characterized by physiological aspects (changes in heart rate, sweating, etc.) and cognitive aspects, that is, the cognitive evaluation of physiological changes and the nature of the stimulus (appraisal).
  • In general, emotions are complex responses to relevant events, characterized by certain subjective experiences and a physiological reaction.

Emotions, unlike moods, moods and feelings, are intense and short-lived responses.

The components of emotion

  • event
  • evaluation of the relevance of the event (appraisal)
  • Phenomenological tone or hedonic quality
  • physiological reactions
  • expressive manifestations
  • preparation to the action
  • action

What is not an emotion?

A first distinction should be made with phenomena that are conceptually similar: affect, feeling, mood and mood.

  • State of mind and mood are characterized by low intensity and high duration.
  • Feeling, like mood and mood, is a more stable and long-lasting phenomenon, but is characterized by a well-defined object (feeling towards someone or something).
  • Affect is a broader, more general term that defines the affective state of emotional experience and defines its valence (positive or negative).

Functions and theories of emotions

Emotions typically perform three basic functions:

  1. They activate us on a neurophysiological level, preparing us for action: prompting us to enact behavior that is critical to our survival, without the mediation of reasoning. They allow us to save time in case of danger or emergency;
  2. communicate to others how we are feeling: facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, gestures and actions provide others with an important signal about our state;
  3. inform ourselves of how we are: these are signals that speak to our internal state, our levels of satisfaction and well-being. For example, they tell us whether or not we are achieving our personal, emotional, and interpersonal goals.

In general, there are two main currents of thought on the nature of emotions. The innatistic one refers to the theories of Charles Darwin, according to which emotional manifestations are residues of responses that were once functional to the evolutionary process (for example, laughter would be the residue of the growl with which the animal prepares to attack). The anti-innatistic theory is based on the observation that many emotions have a different meaning from culture to culture and, in the same subject, from moment to moment, so it is impossible to establish a correspondence between situation and emotion, while it is likely an interpretation of emotion as an individual variable dependent on the history of significant relationships and cultural context.

The main theories of emotion can be grouped into three main categories: physiological, neurological, and cognitive.

  1. Physiological theories suggest that responses within our bodies are responsible for feelings.
  2. Neurological theories propose that activity within the brain leads to emotional responses.
  3. Cognitive theories argue that thoughts and other mental activities play an essential role in the formation of emotional states.

Broadly speaking, we can distinguish the main contemporary theories of emotion as follows:

  • Neurophysiological theories
    • James-Lange theory: the subjective emotional experience is perceived at the end of a process that takes place in the body: it is called peripheral because before experiencing the emotion something must happen in the body, while the emotion is the subjective perceptual sensation of what happens. For example, seeing a car approaching while crossing the street activates an emotional stimulus (which causes an emotion): in our body physiological changes occur, due to expressive and behavioral responses, but only at the end of these changes we feel the objective sensation, that is the subjective perception of all the movements that have occurred in our body, in this case we subjectively perceive fear. James and Lange therefore propose that emotion is biologically rooted in the body, especially in the visceral muscles. With the famous words: “we do not tremble because we are afraid, but we are afraid because we tremble”, overturning the common sense, James argues that we do not cry because we are sad, but sadness is the name we give to the changes we feel, including crying. The emotion would then be determined at the conscious level by the perception of the body’s responses to stimuli that cause fear, anger, sadness or joy (eg., following a terrifying stimulus, an escape reaction occurs and the somatic sensations related to the race, together with the sensations of visceral responses induced by the autonomic system, determine the sense of fear); would we be able to feel an emotion in the absence of the physiological correlates to which we are accustomed, such as accelerated heartbeat or abdominal contraction? This theory was tested experimentally and several criticisms were made starting from the observation that, for example, the absence of communication between the viscera and the nervous system has no effect on the emotional reaction, and that the same physiological changes that occur in an emotion are also activated in other situations without emotional coloration (eg. tachycardia after a race), and finally that the viscera have too little sensitivity, undifferentiated motility, a response too slow to justify the rapidity of onset of emotional perception.
    • Cannon-Bard theory: Cannon and Bard (1927) proposed instead a so-called central theory: according to this theory, the emotional stimulus triggers an immediate subjective emotional response mediated by the brain. The stimulation of specific nerve centers would give rise simultaneously to the subjective sensation, the activation of the autonomic nervous system and the expressive-behavioral manifestations. According to this theory, emotion does not occur at the visceral level but at the cerebral level in the circuits of the paleoencephalon (in particular the thalamus and the hypothalamus, areas of the central nervous system that are located below the cortex and that receive and organize external and internal inputs), which would activate cortical functions and, later, visceral ones. In this theory, therefore, the flow of events proceeds from the emotional event to the Nervous System (in the areas of the Thalamus and Hypothalamus) and from this simultaneously to both the viscera and cortical areas for cognitive processing of the event itself. Cannon studied in particular the reaction of “emergency”, highlighting the action of sympathetic arousal, that is the set of neurophysiological responses that appear simultaneously to the emotion: acceleration of heart rate and respiration, sweating, gastroenteric and skin vasoconstriction, increased blood sugar levels, decreased salivation, pupil dilation and piloerection. Despite criticism of both theories, researchers later agreed that both the central and peripheral theories captured important aspects of emotional experience.
  • Cognitive theories
    • Arnold’s theory (of pleasantness/unpleasantness)
    • Schachter-Singer Cognitive-Activational Theory
    • Appraisal Theory of Lazarus
    • Cognitive-Computational Theories (for example that of Frijda)
  • Neoevolutionary Theories
    • Theory of Tomkins – years ’60, of Izard – years ’70
    • Plutchick Theory – 60s until today
    • Neurocultural Theory of Ekman
  • Constructivist Theories
    • Averill Theory – 1980
    • Trevarten Theory – 1990

Types of emotions

Emotions can be divided into primary emotions (or fundamental) and secondary emotions (or complex). Primary emotions are fundamental emotions (or basic), are innate, expressed universally, by all in any time, place and culture, occur in the early periods of human life and share us with many other animal species, they are:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Joy
  • Surprise
  • Expectation
  • Acceptance

Complex (secondary) emotions, on the other hand, are the combination of a primary emotion, or several, and develop as the individual grows and social interaction occurs:

  • Love
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Happiness
  • Contempt
  • Wrath
  • Resignation
  • Admiration
  • Adoration
  • Aesthetic appreciation
  • Amusement
  • Anxiety
  • Awe
  • Embarrassment
  • Boredom
  • Calm
  • Confusion
  • Burning or sexual desire
  • Empathic pain
  • Ecstasy
  • Excitement
  • Horror
  • Interest
  • Nostalgia
  • Relief
  • Satisfaction
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