If you're ever hit in the nose hard enough to make your eyes water, you may also notice that your skin will grow hot, your mouth will go a bit dry and your pulse will become elevated. You'll find that your head begins to swim with a strong desire to hit something in return, possibly to shout while you do. Eventually, you'll find that you've overcome this sudden influx of physical and mental stimuli. What you've just experienced -- the basic emotion of anger -- has passed.
Why a slight impact to the nose leads to a series of physiological and mental changes has long been a matter of speculation, but most psychologists agree that a basic emotion like anger exists as an evolutionary trigger. We humans -- and most other animals -- appear to be equipped with a set of predictable responses to situations. We call these the basic emotions: anger,
Over time, this list of basic emotions has been added to, subtracted from and reshaped based on the idea that human emotions are universal. This notion suggests that for any given situation, like being hit in the nose, any individual in any culture would experience something like anger. This view of emotions as largely objective is widely accepted, although there is an emerging school of thought that believes emotions to be far more subjective: Rather than six or 11 basic emotions, there is an emotion for every possible human experience [source:
Under almost every explanation of emotions is the premise that they're a naturally-occurring response to a situation. Whether this response is the result of our own evaluation or an automatic one remains to be seen. In the field of
Over time, research has also separated other emotions that most in the scientific community believe are only experienced by humans and some other primates. These higher or moral emotions are based on self-awareness, self-consciousness and ability to empathize with others [source:
Like basic emotions,
Whether discussing the origin or nature of basic or higher emotions, one question remains: Why do we experience them in the first place?
Why do we experience emotions?
Emotions may signal a change in our environment, a change within us or a change in both. These signals are generally fleeting in comparison to other states of mind. As a result, emotions are distinct from moods, which can last for hours, days or even weeks. They're also distinct from personalities, the lifelong set of traits that comprise our individual, predictable reactions to situations [source:
But why do we experience anger from a smack on the nose or shame from stealing?
Here, the debate ends and scientific consensus emerges. Emotions are motivators. From an evolutionary standpoint, emotions are the agents of change and reaction. Disgust is a quick, nasty response that we experience when we encounter something that might make us sick.
Coupled with our ability to empathize with others, emotions also serve to
There are plenty of examples of how emotions help further society. Imagine raising offspring without the emotional attachment associated with one's own children. The feeling of loneliness leads to the emotion of sadness, which prompts us to seek out the company of others. Higher, self-conscious emotions like shame prevent us from repeating behavior that is harmful to others, like stealing.
It would seem, then, that society was able to emerge as a result of our ability to experience emotions based on our interactions with others. Or did it happen the other way around? Interestingly, the social constructionist theory of emotions says that society begins to dictate the emotional response to an individual, rather than vice versa. As a person grows older, emotions develop from knee-jerk physiological reactions to predictable, conditioned responses [source:
Lots More Information
- Changing Minds. "List of emotions." Accessed August 24, 2010. http://changingminds.org/explanations/emotions/basic%20emotions.htm
- Changing Minds. "Purpose of emotions." Accessed August 23, 2010. http://changingminds.org/explanations/emotions/emotion_purpose.htm
- Eckman, Paul. "Basic emotions." In Dalgleish, T. and Power, M., eds. "Handbook of Cognition and Emotion." Sussex. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd. 1999.
- Heery, Erin A., et al. "Making sense of self-conscious emotion: linking theory of mind and emotion in children with autism." Emotion. 2003. http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~keltner/publications/heerey.emotion.2003.pdf
- Penn Arts and Sciences. "Food for thought: Paul Rozin's research and teaching at Penn." University of Pennsylvania. Fall 1997.http://www.sas.upenn.edu/sasalum/newsltr/fall97/rozin.html
- Ratner, Carl. "A social constructionist critique of naturalistic theories of emotion." Journal of Mind and Behavior. 1989.http://www.sonic.net/~cr2/emotions.htm
- Simons, Ilana, Ph.D. "The four moral emotions." Psychology Today. November 15, 2009. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-literary-mind/200911/the-four-moral-emotions
- Simons, Ilana, Ph.D. "Why do we have emotions?" Psychology Today. November 14, 2009. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-literary-mind/200911/why-do-we-have-emotions
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Emotion." February 3, 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/emotion/#5
- Swiss Center for Affective Sciences. "What are affects and emotions?" Accessed August 23, 2010. http://www.affective-sciences.org/emotion-details
- Thagard, Paul. "What are emotions?" Psychology Today. April 15, 2010. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hot-thought/201004/what-are-emotions