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Previous: Importance of Emotions

What Are Emotions?

So how can we even talk about something that we cannot test, or prove something we cannot measure? Do emotions really even exist or are they just a trick of our brain that fills in the gaps?

For many years, science has been built up on the principle that if it cannot be verified, any theory become meaningless. We were taught as students that we can never really know what we or anyone else may feel, and even reports on thinking are likely to be inaccurate. So forty years ago we were told that the only thing that can be proven is the study of peoples behaviour - so we were only taught theories about behavioural learning such as Pavlov's dog who was conditioned to salivate. Today, our attitudes are relaxing as we are finding more ways to study our emotions and even "prove" theories, but the attitude of only studying behaviour continues with our recipe books for Psychiatric Diagnoses - which are now used by our courts as being the only real guide.

As a family doctor, emotional problems occur in more than half of the people that come to see us, and these can rarely be defined in terms of a Psychiatric Diagnosis - and so understanding peoples emotions first hand seemed to be the most sensible approach. This drive has lead me to my search to understand and talk about our emotions, and even commence this website. Many deny emotions or relegate them to parts of our animal brain that need to be overcome, but maybe there is more to emotions than we think, and maybe we have an ability to regulate and control them.

PLEASE BEWARE - the terminology in this site may seem confusing to some. I have deliberately avoided defining separate meanings for the words "emotion" and "feelings". For the purpose of simplicity, and as we use them in common language, I use both term quite interchangeably, and this is true for most terms. However, when it comes to "The Big Four", I do use specific meanings, but base this on common terms that we have used since early childhood.


What are Emotions? 

There are many ways to think about emotions:

1. As "Feelings" 

It is possible to just "feel" our feelings - in a way that is hard to describe, but in the same way that we can just "feel" our toes or "see" what's in front of us. At times we don't seem to be aware of them, but then we rarely thinking about our toes - until someone reminds us about it! The problem is that we seem to be only ever able to focus on any one part of ourselves at any one time and we tend to avoid our feelings.

By the way, although many people closely define a difference as to what may be an "emotion" and how this may differ from a "feeling", I find that we often mix them up, as we seem to have all too few words when it comes to naming them anyway.

Part of our brain appears to specifically dedicated to helping us to bring feelings into consciousness - the Limbic System, in the same way as out brain processes hearing, speech, vision or even smell.

2. As Chemical

Emotions are probably chemical responses in our brains and bodies, and our thinking is probably the electrical connections running down our nerves. This could explain why our thoughts are quick responses, and our emotions are slow and often delayed.

Our emotions are also closely linked with smell - both in function (smell can quickly transform our feelings) and from the close connection of our smell to the Limbic System, the are of our brain closely associated with our feelings.

Of course, the best evidence that emotions are chemical comes from the use of medicines and drugs that modify our feelings. However, the many theories as to how drugs are supposed to work, compared to what they actually do, is still a long way apart. We will discuss this later.

3. As Links

Emotions act as links between our Mind and our Body, and combine so many parts of ourselves.

If we rely too strongly on the motto "I think therefore I am", we separate our mind from our bodies, so our lives become divided. But our minds and our bodies live in the one person, so how do we bring them back together? But what comes first? Do we feel our emotions in our bodies and interpret them in our brain? Or does our brain and mind regulate our emotions that we then feel in our bodies? This was an argument many years ago where the answer seems to come back as BOTH - AND, with emotions both going up and down between our brains and bodies, and linking us into being the one person. 

So if emotions can link our minds and bodies, perhaps they are the source of the links to our past through our memories, links to our future through our hopes, links to other people through our relationships, links to associate different parts of our world with our thoughts and beliefs, and so many other links inside of us. By learning to understand our emotions, we can help to develop these links in a more constructive way.

4. As Mood

Emotions rarely exist by themselves, and we always need to consider where they may have come from, what they are related to, and where they may be going. But they do tend to combine into a general background as to how we may be feeling - as our current "Mood".

There are many individual feelings and variations as to how we feel, and in fact there are over 4500 words in the English language that relate to our emotions. There are many lists and many ways to split these up using word analysis, but from a purely biological (body) understanding, perhaps there are only a few basic emotions that combine to make up the many. We will discuss this later in The Big Four.

5. As Primary Brain Function

When we sit down to think about ourselves, we tend to think of our thinking as being a "higher" function in our brains, and the most important. However, maybe it is our emotions that actually run the workings of our brain as a Primary Brain Function.

Digital computers operate only by using 0's and 1's and programming arranges these in specific sequences to allow us to type, read text on a screen, send information to a printer, and the so many tasks a computer can do. Programming computers to do what we want is usually done by writing instructions that is then translated into the basic tools that merely arrange these 0's and 1's into a specific order. In fact, when I first began using computers, we had to use toggle switches on the front panel to "teach" the computer to even read a program tape. Computers do not need screens or keyboards to operate - they are only there for own convenience to allow us to communicate with the machine - we use the "higher" programming and touch screens to communicate, but all we are doing is sending strings of numbers. This is the basic or primary functioning of a computer.

Perhaps our emotions are also the underlying processes within our brain that regulate our function, and our thinking is only there to regulate and develop this function. Other animals do not have a complex language which seems to dominate our thinking, but they certainly do have feelings (as any dog owner would know).

6. As Autonomic Nervous system

Most of us are aware that the brain controls our movements and muscles through nerves that run down through the spinal cord, which if cut causes us to become paralysed. But our brain is more complicated than that - there are actually two nervous systems that run through our body. The first is the system that controls all our voluntary movements and muscles - the Voluntary Nervous System.

The second is much smaller and less dramatic, controlling our involuntary functions such as heart rate, breathing, bowel and bladder function. This is termed our Autonomic Nervous System. It also controls such functions as our Fight or Flight responses to danger or threats and connects to our hormones and glands, having a much more complex role than may first appear.

For example, think of our houses - we have two electrical systems coming into our home.The first is the big mains power that run the lights, machines and heaters. The other is our telephone or internet cables that are often only two thin copper wires (and one day even a thin glass fibre!) and yet carry a huge amount of information.

Our autonomic nervous system also carries much more information than we may think, often in chemical form, and most probably very closely linked to our emotional systems.

7. As Homeostasis

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Everything in the body lives in a balance so that any change in one area causes a counter change somewhere else. This is also one of the fundemental laws of physics and there it is called "entropy". Funny names. But when you think of it, our bodies quite quickly adapt to what is going on around us. If it is too bright, our eyes adjust so we can see around us. If we then walk into a dark room, before too long we can see again. We can cope with loud music or soft sounds. We just to freezing weather or tropical heat. And as a doctor I see that those poor unfortunate people who are overweight go on a diet, only to regain that weight not so long afterwards. This balance also exists in our emotions where we adapt to feeling happy or sad, but at times we prevent this balance and hold onto things which keep us sad or anxious, or more rarely too happy. So our task is to try to keep the balance as best we can, or at least to use an imbalance in a way that helps us to move forward or grow.

8. As Analogue 

We are all so familiar with the Digital world we have all but forgotten that there once was an Analogue world, where rather than using and manipulating only 0's and 1's, there was a continuous variability in both directions. Those who love old Vinyl records will be familiar with the concept - once you digitise the music into small steps, no matter how well, somehow you remove its soul. We now have lost Analogue phones, TVs, Radio, Clocks and even Analogue computers!

Analogue computers once existed with multiple variations and no beginnings or endings, looking like an old telephone exchanges. See for example: - But they were once great - and were granted to honour of being necessary to take land on the moon. Analogue may still have some advantages, and may actually be necessary even for such tasks as the development of Artificial Intelligence (a discussion for another time). Ultimately, we need to have a blend of the analogue and the digital in our machines, in the same way we need to learn to blend our own logical thinking with our emotions.

Perhaps the brain is indeed a special type of computer - not as a simple digital computer on steroids, but as a self programming analogue computer that sits in a chemical soup. But perhaps it is the chemical soup itself is that the real computer!

9. As Irrational

Our brain seems to be dependent on both well developed logical thinking as it does with emotional intelligence. But we spend so much time learning about the laws of logic and trying to be "rational" that we forget how to learn how to also be emotional and to learn how to successfully combine the them. 

But there are big differences between using Logic and understanding our Emotions, as can be seen as follows:

In Logic and Rationality:

1. There is no sense of ownership in logic (it can be shared by all),

2. There is no choice or flexibility and it remains constant over time

3. Logic has to be tested to see if it is valid

4. It is either True or False

5. It is predictable and always accurate / the same

6. It follows logical steps that are usually linear and unidirectional.

On the other hand, Emotions:

1. Belong (and best used by) to the owner

2. Are flexible and give us choice

3. Can exist on their own (outside of testing)

4. Exist is an entire range from none to all

5. Give us individuality but prone to error

6. Follow many paths in many directions (eg we can have mixed motives)

So when we are taught about logic, which is seen as rational and real, we begin to believe that our emotions are illogical and irrational, and so very often discarded as seen as fanciful. To combine the two directly is therefore not possible, but if our brain contains them both, then surely there is a way.

For now, we need to first discuss emotions by themselves.

10. As Thinking 

 This is a Website about Emotions, to help people to accept them as being an important part of ourselves, and just as important as our Thinking and rationality. I want to help to overcome the emphasis our society places on Thinking, with many believing we need to use our thinking to overcome our feelings as if it is a higher function.

For some, Thinking is a higher function that should be used to counter our emotions which are seen as inferior or belong to an older animal instinct that is not human. For me, we need both.

However, Thinking remains an important function that needs to be learnt and integrated with our emotions, and it is probably only with the help of language that we can learn to develop our emotions in a healthy way. But we often use our thinking to complicate our emotions and cause us harm, so we need to be careful. 

In a later section, I will discuss where I believe our thinking fits in our brain function in The Mud Map

So Thinking does remain essential and just as important - just not more important.


So what are emotions? Some questions to consider.

Are emotions necessary in modern life?

Are they just a primitive part of our animal nature - like our Appendix?

Just a little switch in the back of our brain?

Feelings in the body or Interpretations of the mind?

E - motion: that which moves us?

The hidden part of our brain?

Fuzzy Logic that provides variation ie choice, flexibility and free will?

Are Emotions just complex constructs of our thinking - do they really exist?

Emotional Complexity includes added thoughts and behaviours that adds “colour” to our lives

Emotions may be made up from simple physiological processes just as vision?

NB: Watch for problems with words - usually talked about in “myths” / stories


Next: The Big Four

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