• AscendPsychology

What are Emotions?

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Imagine waking up one day and you didn’t have any emotions. You would not feel excited about a date you planned, nervous about the presentation due in two days, or annoyed about the cacophony from the construction site that disturbs your afternoon nap every day. In all probability you would have no driving force to get dressed for that date, prepare for the presentation or persuade the workers to pause work for an hour when you nap.

Our emotions have a very important role in our lives. As we go through our daily lives, we experience a range of emotions.

According to the American Psychological Association, Emotion may be described as a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioural, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event. The specific quality of the emotion (e.g., fear, shame) is determined by the specific significance of the event. For example, if the event involves threat, fear is likely to be generated; if the event involves disapproval from another, shame is likely to be generated.

Emotion processes are backed by multiple cortical sub-cortical architectures and circuits. Different regions overlap and interconnect in the processing of emotions. The subsystems involved in emotional processes are collectively referred to as the limbic system of the brain.

Let’s understand this better by looking at the neural activity in the brain that would occur when you’re watching a scary scene in a horror film, alone in your room.

At first, visual information about the horror scene enters the eyes. Visual information about the scene (rotting face of the demon, things flying around the screen, the creepy atmosphere created in the film) to a structure in the brain called the thalamus. The thalamus transmits the neural information to another part of the brain called the visual cortex which transforms the neural signals into the image of a creepy rotting demon. This data about the demon is then transmitted to the amygdala. Now, the amygdala interprets the neural information and signals the presence of a fear inducing stimulus, followed by trembling, and probably squeals and covering one’s eyes to avoid seeing the creepy threat on screen. All this neural activity takes place in a span of 0.12 second only!

There is evidence of an even faster circuit for identifying threatening stimuli. Visual information about the demon enters the eyes. This neural information about the demon is then transmitted to the thalamus, which sends the neural information directly to the amygdala, skipping the visual cortex. In other words, the amygdala recognizes the threatening demon and triggers a fearful response almost immediately after seeing the wolf. Thus, the emotion occurs sans awareness or conscious thought.

We experience difference types of emotions. Fear, disgust, surprise, anger, and joy are primary emotions. These are automatic, less automatic and arise from sensory experience and are processed through the limbic system. These emotions are universal and are recognized across all cultures.

Embarrassment, pride, shame, and anxiety are Secondary or Social emotions. These require higher cortical processing which is orchestrated by the prefrontal cortical networks. Secondary emotions are also linked through the limbic system, but are generated through higher cortical processes and arrive at the limbic system over a different route from that taken by primary emotions generated through sensory experience. Once in the limbic system, the brain processes the experience of primary and secondary emotions in a similar fashion. Secondary emotions are acquired through learning and experience.

Over the years, psychologists and researchers have proposed different theories to explain how human beings experience emotions. They have been outlines below:

The James–Lange theory of emotion

This theory was proposed by psychologists William James and Carl Lange. According to this theory, as we experience different events in our daily lives, our nervous system develops physical reactions to these events, such as an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, trembling, sweaty palms, etc. These physical reactions then create emotional reactions such as anger, fear and surprise.

For example, imagine you have to speak in front of an auditorium full of people. As the moment draws closer, your heart rate increases, your legs are shaky and your palms get sweaty. These physical responses can be interpreted as you being scared. And what you are experiencing is fear.

Cannon–Bard theory

This theory was proposed by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard in the 1920s.

It states that our emotions are regulated by the reaction of the thalamus. It's the thalamus that would sense, for example, an attacking dog lunging toward you. This sensation instantaneously causes the primitive reactions in the body and the subjective experience in the brain. However, this theory eventually was discredited as it could not endure experimental scrutiny. While the thalamus may be involved in emotional regulation to an extent, the amygdala is responsible for emotions such as fear, rage, and jealousy.

Singer- Schacter Theory

According to Schachter and Singer, physical arousal has a primary role in emotions.

The two-factor theory of emotion focuses on the interaction between physical arousal and how we cognitively label that arousal. In other words, simply feeling arousal is not enough; we also must identify the arousal in order to feel the emotion.

So, once again in the example of watching the horror film, this is typically what one might experience: You see the demon on the screen and your heart starts racing and you are trembling. You realize that the increased heart rate and trembling are caused by fear, and you get scared!

Thus, the process begins with the stimulus (demon), which is followed by the physical arousal (increased heartrate and trembling). Added to this is the cognitive label (associating the physical reactions to fear), which is immediately followed by the conscious experience of the emotion (fear).

Emotions are very complex. Our emotions ready our bodies for immediate action, influence thoughts and it can be said that they are important motivators of future behaviour.

By studying them, we gain a better grasp on how critical they are and how they impact our lives.


  1. Zillmer, E. A., Spiers, M. V., & Culbertson, W.C. (2008). Principles of neuropsychology (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA : Thomson/Wadsworth.

  2. Plotnik, R., & Kouyoumdjian, H. (2011). Introduction to psychology. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth CENGAGE Learning.

  3. VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/14646-000

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