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Previous: What are Emotions? 

The Big Four

My proposition is our emotions fall into four basic groups based on our instincts and our body's responses, and can exist by themselves.

When we usually try to breakdown our emotions and put them into different groups, we try to use our word structures and thinking, but this becomes more and more complicated and harder to understand. But words get in the way with the emotions - words tend to belong to our more conscious and "electrical" parts, rather than our deeper, "chemical" and emotional parts of our brains.

Words also carry very different meanings to different people, making it hard for us to come to any agreement. So when we experience something rather unpleasant, most of us just end up saying we feel "Bad" - but does this mean upset, sad, angry, scared, or even a combination of these? Therefore, rather than trying to study words, I wish to discuss our emotions  from the body up rather than the mind down.

The first approach to understanding emotions this way came from our old friend Sigmund Freud (who was also a doctor), who wrote an interesting book called "Beyond the Pleasure Principle". Freud described how a simple, tiny single celled "animal" called a Paramecium, was both attracted and repelled from different things in its environment. While we cannot say this is felt by this "animal" as pleasure or pain, it does set up an example as to how we may all operate with positive and negative inputs.

The next approach of interest was the study of baby facial expressions. Babies tend to express six basic responses: Surprise, Joy, Pain, Anger, Fear and Disgust. Fortunately, babies are not good at hiding their feelings, and are good at communicating them with those around, so maybe these are our basic set of emotions. But Surprise may be just a sudden reaction to any of them, and disgust could be just a combination of Pain (the bitterness, or unpleasant taste), Fear (wanting to avoid that food) and Anger (spitting it out). This leaves us with a possible four basic emotions, which we shall further discuss.

Please remember that when I name any of these four emotional groups, each belongs to the group as a whole. So when I talk about "Anger" I am referring to the entire Anger group which may include Frustration, Annoyance, a simple Resistance or even or basic drives. Even though we may not actually "feel" anger, many of our emotional responses may be based Anger which inside. They certainly don't belong to our Pleasure group, or Fear group. This is important to note as although we may not be aware of that emotion, it can trip us up, and lead to unexpected results. In the same way, the colour Pink belongs to the Red Spectrum - not Blue or Yellow. We don't usually call pink a "Red", but to does contain Red. See "An Example of Vision" below.



Pleasure is something that we can all agree is an emotion, and fits in well with how the body works, not only in terms of our sexual function that enables us to propagate our species, but at lower levels in terms of eating, bodily comfort, gratification of any of our senses and even in our mixing with other people. Pleasure can be described in terms of many body functions, is related to many of our hormones, often expressed in terms different brain transmitters such as Serotonin or Dopamine (although I believe this situation is much more complicated), and there are even dedicated pleasure nerve endings and pleasure centres in the brain. So Pleasure is a Biggy.

The term Pleasure I believe is useful, in that it can be big or little, and applied to nearly all aspects of out lives. It also begs its own opposite of Pain which we will discuss next. In this way the term covers many other words relating to pleasure such as joy or happy, and Pleasure is the term that groups them all together as a spectrum, perhaps in the same way as we see Red as colour, but there are many different types of red.

Another easy way to think of pleasure and pain is in terms of Happy and Sad, and at times these are better terms to try to connect to our own feelings, but Happiness is different - it is a state we reach when we achieve a balance and acceptance of all of the emotions, not just pleasure alone. Also Love is even more complex (and the word is often abused) - but we will come to that later.


Pain is often thought of as the opposite of Pleasure. There are also pain nerve endings, pain centres in the brain, and is again very much dependent on our hormones and nervous system. In many ways, it is quite independent of pleasure in our bodies. However as emotions, Pleasure and Pain are very much connected to each other and are probably best thought of as being on a continuous line, in the same way as hot and cold. But hot and cold are easier to see as the same - they are both part of Temperature, and best accepted as a balance between them.

From an emotional viewpoint, Pleasure and Pain are best thought of as input emotions, coming in from our senses in the form of Like or Not Like - that is a Positive Input and a Negative Input. These are not Good or Bad - but Pleasure tends to speed us up, and Pain tends to slow us down.

But what of the others - the unpleasant emotions? We often talk in very simplistic ways as to how we feel - as good or bad. When we say good, we usually mean some form of pleasure, but what do we mean by "not so good" or bad. Sure, pain is unpleasant, but what of the others. 

When I first began to look for a biological understanding of emotions, I came across the study of baby face expressions. It seems that young babies only only exhibit a few emotional states and they classified these into enjoyment, pain, anger, fear, surprise and sometimes disgust. However I believe surprise is probably a relative change of any of the emotions, and disgust best thought of as a composite of pain and anger. So this brings us back to four basic emotions. I really wanted a neat triad of there, or even a nice five, but I couldn't expand of contract the four basic emotions any further, and so for the purpose of this discussion, I have limited the group to four - The Big Four.

Anger and Fear.

These two also fit in nicely into our basic emotions as they relate directly to our basic instincts of Fight or Flight - It is easy to see Anger as leading to fight, and Fear leads to running away, but they have much more to do than that - in fact they "do" everything. If Pleasure and Pain are our input emotions, Anger and Fear run our Output, our drive and control mechanisms leading to our actions, behaviour and our performances.

For the blokes (whatever gender you may have) who read this, it is possible to think of our emotions like a car. In this way, our anger is the engine that drives us, fear is the brakes, pleasure is the fuel, and our pains are all the dents (as reminders not to do this again!). The trouble is learning to drive and managing to combine all these forces together, rather than letting them run as instincts fighting in opposite directions.

It is not possible to be running away at the same time as fighting forward, but what are the other instincts? In medical school, we learnt our hormones and nervous responses were not only to fight or flight, but also to "fornicate", which would most properly belong as the instinct of Pleasure - which we also learnt was Immediate Gratification, but we will talk more about this later. The problem is then, what is last Instinct? Well Freud gave us a clue - if Pleasure is also the life instinct, then Pain would be the Death Instinct - to give in or give up. Perhaps a less gracious way to express this is the be "fornicated upon" - and although this may seem crude, unfortunately there is much our life that is crude. So we need to learn how to bring our emotions together is a helpful way so we can become less crude.

The instincts for Pleasure and Pain are more tricky.

For Pleasure I believe it is linked to our urge to wanting out Pleasure NOW - often described as Immediate Gratification in text book, and this seems very understandable.

However, the instinct for Pain is clouded by our usual response of reacting with Anger and wanting to Hurt those who have hurt us. When we are able to feel Pain, though, we are unable to move on, and just want to let go of everything - this is often described as the urge to Give In or Give Up.

I imagine a beautiful Gazelle bouncing over the plains suddenly being attacked by a group of lionesses (the boys are off enjoying themselves). One lion will chase and grab a leg, one will jump on its back and another with latch on to its throat, bringing the gazelle down into its final resting place. The gazelle will initially run out of fear, and try to fight back to get away - but eventually, as the lionesses are beginning to enjoy some lovely fresh rare steak, it will just let go and die. We may not experience anything quite so dramatic, but do understand the urge to just want to throw in the town and give up when things become too hard. If Pleasure is linked to a Sexual or Life Instinct, then Pain would be linked to a Death Instinct.

These four instincts or variations of them, then, pretty much control our behaviour and function.


Putting these together:

So we have two emotions primarily for Input, and two for Output. We also have two the speed us up, and two that slow up down.

In an effort to understand these better, I have put these together into a graphic that may help us to picture these together - BUT BEWARE - this is only one way these may fit together - our emotions all seem to have a mind of their own. However, at the very least, it will get us thinking and talking about how they work.



As pictured,  these emotions are linked to their basic instincts, which all operate in different directions and in different ways - they cannot seemingly operate together. To use them together, we need to break away from our instincts and learn how to use them more productively - see Growing Up. For now, if we can let go of Pleasure and put it in the future as something to look forward to, it will grow with anticipation, while we are using your Anger drive to work towards it - not to Fight others to get our pleasure, but as energy for effort for our goals. Our Fear can then slow us down, or let us speed up, at appropriate times, and our Pain can guide us where and how we may progress to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past.

Once we have defined basic emotions, we can begin to add more complexity to them and coming them in a way that brings all the parts of together. Our ultimate goal therefore is to find balance.

An Example from Our Vision

Our eyes are amazing. When computers started to reproduce colour on screens, we only had very few choices - initially only yellow, magenta or cyan (similar to modern printer inks), a concept that today seems strange. To match the quality of our eyes, screens rapidly developed to need 16 million colours, which represents 256 x red, 256 x green and 256 x blue (colours "opposite" to the original three) matching the red, green and blue receptors in our eyes. With only 256 variations of each basic colour, our eyes can "see" millions of different colours.

I would propose the same is true for our feelings. From out body's perspective, it is hard to propose another major emotional group. Perhaps all of our feelings are therefore made up of a combination or variation of these four basic emotions, attached to various circumstances or people in out lives. Even if there were only ten variations of each, 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000 different emotions.  It seems that there are about 3000 different words representing feelings in the English language so maybe we are not that far off.


Summary Table:









Gratification of the senses, feeling good,

Satisfaction. Likes.

A loss or withdrawal of pleasure. Dislikes.

Excitement caused by near danger, or expected pain.



Drive and motivation.  A reaction to pain to fight back, get even.


Reward for hard work. A counter balance to help us cope with the unpleasant emotions. Focus in future as a goal.

Necessary to help us learn from our mistakes, and respond quickly in emergencies. Makes us stop, lick our wounds and tell us what to avoid.

A brake to prevent us “walking in where angels fear to tread”. Necessary to help us “be prepared” and be sufficiently cautious.

The best motivator - when put into gear. Necessary to establish boundaries with others. Protects and energizes us.



 “I feel .......”































Immediately fulfill our “Appetites”

Give up, Give-In

Flight, run away, crawl into a hole

Fight, Kill.


Seeking pleasure and avoiding the hard work.

Using pleasure just to cover up the unpleasant.

Pain leads us to avoidance, but it is necessary to avoid the cause of the pain rather than the pain itself.


“The only thing to fear is fear itself”. Freeze up, go slow.

Capable of being used to hurt others. Destruction



Learn to delay pleasure and pick up later.

Learn from mistake and move on.

Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Be creative and constructive




Next: Pleasure


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