Friday, July 13, 2007


I know that anyone who has really thought about his or her emotional life probably knows the information which follows, yet, for me, it was not that long ago that I fully realized that emotions are really nothing more than physical states in the body. The names we give to various of those body states make us believe that emotions have an existence other than their embodied existence as neurological and chemical states, but Antonio Damasio explains the situation very thoroughly in the following paragraphs from his book, The Feeling of What Happens (pp.50-52). Once one begins to think of emotions as purely chemical or neurological states, he can begin to rethink so much he has been taught about the “morality” of emotional states. Emotions are neither wrong nor right, sinful or wholesome; emotions just ARE.

The mention of the word emotion usually calls to mind one of the six so-called primary or universal emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust. Thinking about the primary emotions makes the discussion of the problem easier, but it is important to note that there are numerous other behaviors to which the label "emotion" has been attached. They include so-called secondary or social emotions, such as embarrassment, jealousy, guilt, or pride; and what I call background emotions, such as well-being or malaise, calm or tension. The label emotion has also been attached to drives and motivations and to the states of pain and pleasure.

A shared biological core underlies all these phenomena, and it can be outlined as follows:

1. Emotions are complicated collections of chemical and neural responses, forming a pattern; all emotions have some kind of regulatory role to play, leading in one way or another to the creation of circumstances advantageous to the organism exhibiting the phenomenon; emotions are about the life of an organism, its body to be precise, and their role is to assist the organism in maintaining life.

2. Notwithstanding the reality that learning and culture alter the expression of emotions and give emotions new meanings, emotions are biologically determined processes, depending on innately set brain devices, laid down by a long evolutionary history.

3. The devices which produce emotions occupy a fairly restricted ensemble of subcortical regions, beginning at the level of the brain stem and moving up to the higher brain; the devices are part of a set of structures that both regulate and represent body states, which will be discussed in chapter 5.

4. All the devices can be engaged automatically, without conscious deliberation; the considerable amount of individual variation and the fact that culture plays a role in shaping some inducers do not deny the fundamental stereotypicity, automaticity, and regulatory purpose of the emotions.

5. All emotions use the body as their theater (internal milieu, visceral, vestibular and musculoskeletal systems), but emotions also affect the mode of operation of numerous brain circuits: the variety of the emotional responses is responsible for profound changes in both the body landscape and the brain landscape. The collection of these changes constitutes the substrate for the neural patterns which eventually become feelings of emotion.

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