What is Emotion?

I’m a big Star Trek fan. I started off with The Next Generation, where Captain Picard was in charge of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D. But, of course, it all started with The Original Series; you can tell I’m a proper fan, because I’ve capitalised The Original Series – us fans do things like that. The three main characters were Captain Kirk, Mr Spock, and Dr McCoy.

Spock was the Vulcan science officer, dedicated to logic and calm reflection, each action carefully considered. McCoy, on the other hand, was passionate, emotional, and concerned about a person’s feelings.

Two extremes; logic versus passion. In the middle of these two extremes was James Kirk, trying to find a balance between outright animal passion and cold logic, devoid of any feeling. That balance is innate in most of us – sociopaths and psychopaths aside; to find a way to think clearly and carefully, whilst also allowing emotions to run deep inside us. We all sit somewhere along that spectrum; each of us has a Spock and McCoy inside of us, representing our rational and emotional sides. Some of us find a total balance more easily than others, whilst a lot of us (I suspect) will be more towards one end than the other – with occasional veering when we’re triggered by a particular situation.

If we endeavour to emulate Spock, we might never feel spontaneous joy at a friend’s good news, or spontaneous empathy at a relative’s bad news. If we’re entirely ruled by our passions, however – an uber-Dr McCoy – then we would not be able to regulate ourselves at all. We wouldn’t be able to exist in regular society because of our inability to control our spontaneous responses.

From that, we could conclude that emotions are in need of control and regulation, and it’s our rational side that does just that. But our society’s view of emotions is more nuanced than that; we often consider ourselves “overcome” by emotion and “carried away” by a particular feeling, like emotions are something external that attacks us in particular situations. Our reason – our Spock – is seen as a line of defence, trying to think calmly about a problem and navigate the muddy waters of our feelings.

Even the images we think about when we experience our emotions, and the words we use to describe them, are very passionate – very … aha, emotive. Emotions come from our gut or our heart; reasoning comes from our brain. We feel our emotions, we think about our reasoning.

Even the terms “reasoned” and “emotive” can come across in different ways; if you are seen as reasoned, you’re thoughtful, deliberate, and well-planned. If you’re called emotive, then you are impetuous, impulsive, and chaotic. Reason is respected, emotive is frowned upon.

Our capacity for reason is what sets us apart from other animals, of course; they can reason too, but we have the capacity to reason at a higher, more conscious level. Our own sentience has evolved, and we as a culture have developed a scale of comfort with our emotions; delight and joy and sorrow are entirely normal, within limits. When our emotions get too vocal, too powerful, too forceful, we share a certain collective discomfort. We can feel uncomfortable if we are met by intense emotions, especially in public; we can often (but not always) feel embarrassed by it.

But what is emotion? Scientifically, the best people to answer that would be neurobiologists, neurophysiologists, and psychologists. They might talk to us about patterns of behaviour in the brain and nervous system. Cognitive researchers might be more interested in how emotions affect the way we think and act. This is science; verifiable, testable, and factual.

But how do we understand them and put a language to them – to explain what we’re feeling? How do we process our emotions, and perhaps even change the zeitgeist so that emotions can be understood and accepted in a different way?

First, we need to understand that emotions aren’t viewed the same uniformly across the world. In Spain and Greece, emotions are displayed a lot more vividly and loudly; normal to Spaniards and Greeks, but anathama to Brits. Men showing sadness through tears is still a taboo in some cultures – eastern ones more so, although the west still doesn’t always tolerate it.

Our emotions cannot always be easily controlled; they do not bend to our will, and have the inconvenient ability to persist no matter how rational we are. When we feel intense emotions, we struggle to let them out – as we are often afraid of the consequences. Will people shun us if we admit how we’re feeling? We then feel obligated to “present” in a particular way.

 “If you’re looking for different results, don’t keep doing the same thing over and over.” It’s alleged that Einstein said that, although the evidence is rather scanty. Irrespective of who said it, it’s important to appreciate its truth; if we continue to prefer a limited range of acceptable emotions in a rational society, we risk not understanding the full range that we are capable of.

Some such emotions can indeed be intense and passionate – and not rational, so certainly not suitable for when you need to discuss something calmly. But that doesn’t mean you should not accept that they exist; we need to learn how to accept them, and not feel shamed when they wash over us, so that we can deal with the entirety of our self.

In some ways, accepting emotions means also accepting that emotions will change. When we are happy, we have to accept that happiness is a short-term condition; we will not always be happy. This goes for every type of emotion, from fear to anxiety to sadness. Feelings are fleeting and usually go away within seconds, minutes, or hours. As the more intense emotions pass, we are afforded the chance to think rationally – not by suppressing the emotions we experience, but by giving us an understanding of our entire selves and what we think, feel, and need from a situation. Our emotional responses can often inform our rational discussions, and we should be more compassionate – an important emotion to engage with more – as we respect the depths of feelings we are capable of.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Copyight © 2014 MM