Thursday, February 28, 2008

What Exactly is Emotion

Chapter 1 from the book: Emotion: The Essence of Life, published by Unistar Books.

Are you a bit ashamed of being emotional. Do you think shedding tears or expressing love is a sign of weakness. Do you feel you do not reason properly, and are unable to make any decision because of your emotional profile. Do you think reason alone should be relied on in decision making, in relationships, in getting along in the world. You need not have such fears, for current research into the emotional domain shows that without emotions, you would neither be strong, nor intelligent, nor caring, nor would you be able to achieve anything in life. And those who think that reason alone ought to be our guide in life do not know that without emotions one cannot reason at all. You would be a cold automaton unable to experience the richness of life, unable to love, unable to hate, unable to share the finer sentiments that make us what we are.

It is rather surprising that those who have denigrated 'emotion' have done so very passionately, they have been very emotional about it, very touchy about it. The dichotomy between emotion and reason, however, is very ambiguous. The head versus the heart debate goes back to antiquity, yet nothing much seems to have been achieved. First of all people do not agree on what is 'emotion' and what is 'reason', yet they go on arguing endlessly about them. The first task, therefore, ought to be to understand the two terms, the concepts behind them, and the mechanisms behind them. Only then can there be some fruitful argument about them.

Emotions: Conceptual Issues

We use the word 'emotion' frequently, but if asked to define it, to explain it, we are at a loss. This is because though emotions are an integral part of our daily experience, they are extremely difficult to understand. Philosophers and psychologists say that emotions are mental states that were called 'appetite' by the Greeks, and 'affect' and 'passions' by other philosophers such as Rene Descartes and David Hume. The sheer range of phenomena covered by the word 'emotion' and other related terms makes it difficult to define it. The problem was summed up well by J. S. Brown and I. E. Farber in their theoretical paper on emotion. They begin by saying that no 'genuine order can be discerned within this field. Instead, examination of current treatments of emotion reveals a discouraging state of confusion and uncertainty. Substantial advances have been made in recent years with respect to theories of learning and motivation, but the phenomena of emotion have not, as a rule, been considered in these formulations and remain a tangle of unrelated facts'.[i]

Such theoretical difficulties in the study of emotions have led some theorists to deny the very existence of emotions. Predicting the redundancy of the term 'emotion', M. F. Meyer said in 1933: 'Why introduce into science an unneeded term, such as emotion, when there are already scientific terms for everything we have to describe? . . . I predict: The 'will' has virtually passed out of our scientific psychology today; the 'emotion' is bound to do the same.'[ii]

Not all go to such extremes however, but among the numerous difficulties in analysing emotions, one is due to the fact that so many systems of the body are involved in emotion. A second problem has been the tendency to separate emotion from cognition or rational thought processes. Recent studies show that the physiological and psychological processes that are responsible for the emotions are, however, interrelated.

The study of emotions remained neglected for centuries because it is believed that one the characteristic features of humans that separates them from the rest of the living creatures is the capacity to reason. It is no wonder, therefore, that thinkers have always emphasised this aspect at the expense of others.

The Problem of Terminology

The use of the word emotion in philosophy and psychology is comparatively modern. Hume wrote about it, but even he speaks generally rather of 'passions' or 'affections'. As various thinkers have used the word 'emotion' and other related terms, there has always been confusion and disagreement. A. Baier has noted, for example, that while 'emotion' used to mean 'violent passion', we now seem to use 'passion' to mean 'violent emotion'.[iii] Later, when the word 'emotion' gained currency its application was very wide.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 'emotion' is an 'agitation, tumult, physical disturbance, disturbance of mind or feeling, affection of the mind. The word, the dictionary says, was rare before the second half of the 17th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) tells us that the word emotion is an adaptation of Latin noun 'Ä“motion-em', which means 'of action'. In psychology, the word emotion means 'a mental 'feeling' or 'affection' (e.g., of pleasure or pain desire or aversion, surprise, hope or fear, etc.), as distinguished from cognitive or volitional states of consciousness. In German the word for emotion is 'affekt', and the Italian word for it is 'emozione'. Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology goes on to define 'emotion' as a total state of consciousness considered as involving a distinctive feeling-tone and a characteristic trend of activity, aroused by a certain situation which is either perceived or ideally represented.[iv]

Regarding other terms, let us take first take 'passion' which in Latin was chiefly a word of Christian theology, and that was also its earliest use in French and English: the suffering of pain, now usually the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross. Another entry in The Oxford English Dictionary on 'passion' calls it any kind of feeling by which the mind is powerfully affected or moved; a vehement, commanding, or overpowering emotion.

There are other words that are frequently used in connection with emotion, sometimes believed to be its synonyms: feelings, moods, sentiments, reflexes, instincts, and drives. It ought to be stressed here that there is a great deal of vagueness in how we use these words in our daily lives, and how they are used in philosophy and psychology. Even philosophers and psychologists often disagree about their meaning, and they use them variously.

Distinguishing between emotions and moods, Paul Ekman, a leading investigator and theorist on emotion, says that emotions typically last for a very short time, a second or even less, while moods last longer.[v] Davidson and Sternberg point out that the concept of mood refers to the feeling state when the object or cause is not in the focus of attention. In fact, people are often unaware of the causes of their moods, which may include minor events such as finding or losing some amount of money, as well as background variables such as a lack of daylight or exercise. Hence, moods lack a specific referent and usually come about gradually, are of low intensity, and may endure for some time. These differences are apparent in ordinary language when we say that we are afraid 'of' or angry 'about' something, but we are 'in' a good mood. As a result, emotions draw our attention to the eliciting event and are likely to interrupt other ongoing activity. Moods, on the other hand, remain in the background, and it is this diffuse and unfocussed quality that accounts for their pervasive influence.[vi]

Now we can take up the word 'sentiment' which in everyday use refers to conscious feelings. Shand and McDougall define 'sentiment' as complex dispositions acquired through individual experience, which underlie feelings and ideas. As for 'feelings', the notion of an 'inner sense' which perceives the perceiver's emotions is lent plausibility by the use of the verb 'to feel' in reports both of emotional states and of perceptions.

'Impulse' means a sudden wish or urge to do something. 'Reflex' is a simple pattern of response that is determined by a characteristic pattern of stimulation and by a preorganised bodily structure. 'Instinct' differs from 'reflex' as instinctive patterns are more complex and more persistent. Instinctive behaviour is more plastic, variable, adaptable to environmental conditions than reflexes. Instinctive acts are commonly determined by hormones, but a sustained chemical excitant is not characteristic of reflex actions, according to Paul Thomas Young.[vii]

The words 'instincts' and 'drives', however, have generated heated debate among thinkers, because to some they suggest some kind of biological determinism. This created problems for Darwin when he suggested that certain behaviours are innate and passed on, and Freud who suggested the idea of 'Eros' and 'Thanatos', the love and death instincts. But such objections are unjustified, for though human beings could be said to posses a free will, we are also biological beings, and most biological features are given to us by nature. Certain behaviour of most organisms is innate, and the organism will be predisposed to behave that way even if it grows in total isolation. Without some basic innate programme, most organisms would not be urged to do anything. William James put it aptly: 'Now why do the various animals do what seem to us such strange things, in the presence of such outlandish stimuli? Why does the hen, for example, submit herself to the tedium of incubating such a fearfully uninteresting set of objects as a nestful of eggs, unless she have some sort of a prophetic inkling of the result?'[viii] We might as well mention 'tropism' here, a term biologists use to designate a persistent orientation of the organism to a field of force, such as a moth, for instance, maintains a fixed orientation towards the candle flame.

Distinction must also be made between emotion state and trait. An emotion state, suggests Richard Lazarus, usually refers to a transient reaction to specific kinds of adaptational encounters. We say that someone is displaying or experiencing anger at a particular time and place; the state comes and goes with the circumstances. An emotion trait, on the other hand, usually refers to a disposition or tendency to react in a particular emotional way to an adaptational encounter. To speak of trait implies frequent recurrence of the state in diverse but specifiable circumstances.[ix]

Another word that we often use in everyday language is 'temperament'. A temperamental quality usually refers to an inherited profile of behaviour that predisposes a person to experience a particular affective reaction, given a relevant incentive. Like a mood, a temperamental quality is an individual difference construct. But, unlike mood, which does not imply a genetic pedigree, a temperamental quality does imply some genetic influence. Jerome Kagan clarifies this with an example: The state of fatigue provides an appropriate analogy. The fatigue produced by a poor night's sleep is an acute feeling state. A mood of chronic fatigue can be due to responsibility for caring for triplets for the first five years of their lives. Finally, the fatigue of a person who inherited a mild hypothyroidism is analogous to a temperamental quality.[x]

Certain instincts or drives are decidedly hardwired, but it does not mean that we are total slaves to them. As Steven Pinker explains, 'Saying that the different ways of knowing are innate is different from saying that knowledge is innate. Obviously, we have to learn about Frisbees, butterflies, and lawyers. Talking about innate modules is not meant to minimize learning but to explain it.' [xi]

[i] J. S. Brown and I. E. Farber, 'Emotions Conceptualized as Intervening Variables', Psychological Bullettin, 1951, pp. 465-95, quoted by James Hillman, Emotion, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1960, pp 6

[ii]M.F. Meyer,, That Whale among the Fishes ― Theory of Emotions; Psychological Review, 1933, pp. 300, quoted by Hillman, James, Emotion; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960, pp 32

[iii] A. Baier, What Emotions are About. Philosophical Perspectives, 4, 1-29, quoted in Companion to Philosophy of Mind, 1990.

[iv] Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, Macmillan & Co, 1901

[v] Ekman, Emotions Revealed; Weidenfield & Nicolson 2003, p 50

[vi] Janet E. Davidson and Robert J. Sternberg (Eds), The Psychology of Problem Solving; Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp 265-66

[vii] P.T. Young, Motivation and Emotion; publisher not known as the front pages were found torn in the library Panjab University Library copy, pp. 79-80

[viii] William James; Broody Hen; quoted by Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, Penguin Books, 1997, p185

[ix] Richards Lazarus, The Stable and the Unstable in emotion, in Nature of Emotion, Fundamental Questions; Ekman, Paul and Davidson, Richard J (Ed). Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 79

[x] Jerome Kagan, Distinctions Among Emotions, Moods, and Temperamental Qualities, in Nature of Emotion, Fundamental Questions; Ekman, Paul and Davidson, Richard J., Eds. Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 74

[xi] Steven Pinker; How the Mind Works; Penguin Books, 1997 SP; pp 315

1 comment:

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