What Are Emotions?

Written by  //  January 30, 2013  //  THOUGHTS, TIMES  //  No comments


Years ago, I heard a neurologist on Charlie Rose define Emotions as “Physiological states of readiness.” He only mentioned this briefly and then went on to talk about the brain, but his definition stuck with me. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what that definition means and have added my own thoughts and interpretations to the idea in an effort to explain what that phrase means.

“What are Emotions?”

A simple way to think about Emotions is to understand them as physiological states of readiness. This means that when we experience an emotion, what we are actually ‘feeling’ is all of the individual cells and neurons throughout our body getting ready to engage in some given behavior based on the circumstances we are in. Each individual cell and neuron is designed to act a certain way as a response to given situations, in order to prepare us to respond in a given way. Some of how cells ‘know’ how to get ready for these situations is based on instinct and some of it is based on our past experiences.

So, when someone approaches me with a hot stick, I might feel anxious because my body is automatically getting ready to take evasive action.

When I see someone I have had a great deal of positive experiences with, my body might fill with the energy that I need to approach them, to smile, to laugh, and to converse all in an effort to maintain a healthy interpersonal exchange with that individual. This is called happiness.

If I am feeling threatened and sense impending loss or upset in my life, my body might prepare to take aggressive, demonstrative action in order to force change on the environment so I can get my way. We call this emotion and the associated behaviors anger.

When I am feeling overwhelmed by a set of circumstances, my body might tense up and cause me to shake or to cry. These physiological changes increase others’ awareness of my need for help and encourages them to approach me to offer assistance. We call this emotion sadness.

Whatever we’re doing and however we feel about it is fundamentally based on what our instincts and our experiences tell us to anticipate about the present situation. Emotions are physiological states of readiness that prepare us to deal with life’s everyday, complex and ever changing circumstances and to do so in an efficient, intuitive way -almost as if our body is on autopilot. Indeed, this is why so many people have the sensation that emotions are ‘happening’ to them; in a very real sense, they are. Most of the physiological changes that occur in cells and neurons operate outside of the realm of mental consciousness and take great skill to bridle and to influence.

On a related note, what we call “intuition” is our emotions acting a little bit smarter about the current situation than our mind can. In other words, emotions can very directly give us intuitive awareness of how we might proceed to achieve successful outcomes in any given situation. Unusually, since this occurs outside our conscious processing of the circumstances, intuitive sensations often feel as though they come out of thin air. Furthermore, this is one of the paramount reasons that appropriately attending to, heeding, and expressing one’s emotions can be so very important to overall well-being and success.

The fact that emotions are tied to physiological states of readiness and the associated behaviors is demonstrated by the following dynamic. When an individual is experiencing an emotional state that is very difficult for them to describe using one emotional word (e.g. I was happy; I was sad; I was angry), they will usually resort to using the phrase “I felt like…” followed by several action words:

“I felt like jumping up and down.”

“I felt like just giving up.”

“I felt like I needed to leave.”

“I felt like smashing his face in.”

These emotionally charged phrases reveal what actions the cells and neurons were preparing the individual to engage in. In other words, the body was physiologically ready to take a very specific action. While our emotional states are very often easy to interpret and describe, there are other times, as we can see, when we have to rely on behavioral analogies to convey their content.

Having that said, something that is essential to this discussion is the awareness that emotions which grow out of our basic instincts are relatively easy for ourselves and for others to understand. For example, if a person drops a hammer on their foot, others might wince with sympathy about the pain and anguish that that person is experiencing (by the way, pain is an instinctual emotion that helps us to take action to avoid damage to our body and to our well being).

However, our deepest and most complex emotions –the ones that are the most difficult for others to understand (notwithstanding ourselves)- are not born of our instincts, but extend directly out of our unique and personal life experiences. This is fundamentally what makes them difficult for others, who have not experienced our own past, to fully comprehend and understand without some kind of interpersonal roadmap that guides them through our past experiences and helps them to see where our deepest emotions are coming from. In fact, if we have not made these connections ourselves, our emotional states might be very confusing to us, as well.

Indeed, one emotional indication that a person is still attempting to recover from a past traumatic experience is the tendency for them to raise their voice or physically act out on their environment in a destructive way. Their failure to cope with and overcome past trauma repeatedly plays itself out in the emotional aftershock of those original experiences as they are faced with present circumstances that contain similar features to their past ones. Thus, if someone is yelling at you, you very well may be the intended recipient of their message, but are not likely the cause of their intense emotional display, which, by definition, is fundamentally tied to their past experiences and the physiological states of readiness that they learned to experience and act out on many years ago. As a side note, if you have had an extended relationship with someone, you might consider that you are, in fact, the original source of those intense emotions after all. Whether or not this is the case, it is likely that the person who is yelling has very little awareness that some episode from their past is the primary culprit for their current display. This is why talking through our emotions in a supportive, caring environment can be so healing and can lead to so much personal growth and interpersonal appeasement.

Ultimately, emotions, if fully understood, appropriately expressed and contextually appreciated, are a truly wonderful gift that can help us to secure greater well-being for ourselves and those around us.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.