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What Are Emotions?

New developments in emotion science.

Key points

  • Emotion science is a growing and thriving field, but it currently lacks consensus.
  • Evolutionary perspectives shed light on what emotions are and how they work.
  • An upcoming book tackles emotions from the perspectives of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, biology, and psychiatry.

What, exactly, is an emotion?

Emotions are crucial to our lives, so you might be surprised to hear that psychologists don’t have a consensus definition of what they are or how they work.

Despite the chorus of different voices, there are some things emotion scientists agree on. Most researchers agree, for example, that all emotions have a physiological component, a phenomenological component (what it feels like to experience that emotion), and a behavioral component (for instance, some emotions prime you to fight, whereas others make you more likely to play).

There’s a prominent evolutionary view that expands on this idea. According to this view, an emotion is a coordinating mechanism or a “mode of operation” for the entire body and brain. In other words, when an emotion like fear takes hold, it affects everything in your body and mind: it influences what you can see, what you are able to focus on, what is readily available to your memory, where metabolic resources are distributed in your body, the manner in which you categorize objects as safe or dangerous, how you prioritize your goals, and pretty much everything else about the way you parse the world.

The key idea is that an emotion doesn’t just have the components of physiology, phenomenology, and behavior. Instead, being in the throes of an emotion influences a great many things: your memory, what you see, the inferences you draw about the world, how you learn new things, how you interpret ambiguous stimuli, and much more. This view is called the “superordinate mechanism” or “coordinating mechanism” view of the emotions, because it posits that emotions are umbrella modes of operation that orchestrate the activity of a large number of cognitive, perceptual, and physiological mechanisms in your body and mind. You can read more about this view of the emotions here, here, and here. We’ve also discussed how this approach differs from other evolutionary views of emotions here.

Recently, I co-edited a book that unpacks what this and other evolutionary approaches have discovered about the emotions—what emotions are, how they affect our lives, and why they work the way they do. The book is titled The Oxford Handbook of Evolution and the Emotions, and it is expected to be published in 2022. It will include more than 60 chapters by scholars from all over the world, including researchers from psychology, anthropology, biology, primatology, psychiatry, and more.

We explore four main things in this work:

  1. Different ways of thinking about emotions from an evolutionary perspective.
  2. Evolutionary approaches to specific emotions, such as romantic love, pride, shame, hatred, guilt, gratitude, disgust, boredom, humor, contentment, and more.
  3. Emotions as they pertain to other domains of life, with chapters on emotions and politics, the legal system, morality, intergroup conflict, forgiveness, rationality, emotions in dogs, emotions in the Great Apes, and more.
  4. Emotions in psychopathology and clinical psychology, with chapters on the connection between emotions and narcissism, psychopathy, addiction, phobias, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder, and more.

Emotions, I would argue, are key to decision-making, to a life well-lived, and to what it means to be human. I hope you enjoy diving into them and seeing how much light an evolutionary perspective sheds on this important aspect of human nature.

We’re fortunate to be alive at a time when we’re discovering so much about the human mind. Happy discovering and happy holidays, everybody!

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.

-- Virgil

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