Table of Content

Today we will discuss emotion, the protagonist of my Ph.D. project! Actually, I feel quite unexpected that, on my learning path of psychology, which is driven by pure interest, I find something strongly relevant and important to my research. The extra-curriculum relaxing activity is now granting me guidance and inspiration!

We shall start by clarifying some terms. In affective neuroscience, the emotion concept varies for different contexts. Feelings are subjective representations of emotion. Moods are diffuse affective states that last for much longer durations than the feeling, and have less intensity. And affect is an encompassing term, which is used generally for the topics of emotions, feelings, and moods.

In this section, let’s first see the emotion theories, which intends to explain the mechanism of emotion. It answers an interesting yet confusing question:

Do we cry because we are sad? Or being sad because we are crying?

Followed by discussing the two representative emotions – anger and happiness. In the end some evident-based suggestions are provided for making a happy life.

Emotion Theories

Return to Table of Content

Expressive Motor Theory

Return to Table of Content

The first theory is called the expressive motor theory, which is originated from Darwin’s evolutionary theory. It tends to take emotions as the granted ability for surviving, which means, the feeling and expression are manifested from an innate mechanism, of which the feelings, emotions, and moods are simply a direct reflection. Therefore, there exist some universal expressions, like happy, sad, fear, and angry, etc. It has several assumptions.

  1. One certain stimulus will result in the activity of a certain neural structure, and finally a particular emotion. The connections between stimulation and particular neural structures can be innate, conditioned, or learned.
  2. Activity in the underlying neural structure produces feelings and expressive motor behaviors, such as postural and facial changes.
  3. The pattern of expressive motor behavior is specific for each emotional state.
  4. Feedback from expressive action to subjective feelings exists.

According to the expressive motor theory, you cry because you feel sad, and you are sad because the scene you saw reached the cerebral area particularly for perceiving sadness, and thus elicit the sad feeling.

Body Reaction Theory

Return to Table of Content

The second theory is James-Lange theory, or the body reaction theory. It raises a new direction for research in emotion by providing a hypothesis stating that conscious awareness comes first, then the feeling. James believed that the nervous system lacks areas for creating feelings. He thus believed that motor reactions were the critical factor to add feelings to experiences.

According to James-Lange theory, you feel sad because you are crying. You feel sorry because you cry. You are angry because you strike, afraid because you tremble.

However, Jamesian cannot explain the fact that abundant yet fleeting feelings may span a very short period of time, whereas the bodily responses – heart rate, body temperature, etc – are too similar and slow.

Central Neural Theory

Return to Table of Content

The third theory is called Cannon-Bard theory, or central neural theory. It proposes that our bodily responses and experienced emotions occur separately but simultaneously.

According to Cannon-Bard theory, the scene you saw traveled to our sympathetic nervous system, causing the arousal of your body. Meanwhile, the stimulus also traveled to your cerebral cortex, make you aware of your emotion. Your pounding heart is not the cause of your fear, nor did your fear cause your heart to pound.

Soldiers with high spinal cord injuries, who have no feeling below the neck do report that their feelings (e.g., anger) are much less intense than before the injuries. Whereas those with low spinal cord injuries, who lost feeling in their legs, report little change. This phenomenon is consistent with Cannon-Bard theory.

Two-factor Theory

Return to Table of Content

The fourth theory is called Schachter and Singer two-factor theory. It states that arousal and label constitute emotion. Emotion has two ingredients, the physical arousal, and cognitive appraisal.

According to the two-factor theory, when we saw a scene, we have some raw feeling. By raw I mean it is not interpreted consciously. Then, our cognitive process labels the raw feeling according to the context. Thus, we fear if it’s a spider, joyful if that’s your longed-for partner.

Feelings that one interprets as fear in the presence of a sheer drop may be interpreted as lust in the presence of a sheer blouse.

Arousal fuels emotion; cognition channels it.

However, does cognition always precede emotion? Why do we sometimes like something or someone immediately without knowing why?

Two-pathway Theory

Return to Table of Content

The fifth theory has no name. I shall call it the two-pathway theory for convenience. It states that we have many emotional reactions apart from, or even before our interpretation of a situation.

The two different brain pathways are another elegant duality of us humans. Recall that we have also duality on consciousness and memory, here we have one more!! And we can guess that the low road is once again a way to save computational power for our good.

The thinking high road features complex feelings like hatred and love. The stimulus following this path will travel to the cerebral cortex for high-level processing. It will be label there, and then cause the response. Interestingly, positive and negative emotions usually tend to trigger more left and right frontal lobe activity, respectively.

Fear stimulus $\rightarrow$ Thalamus $\rightarrow$ Sensory cortex $\rightarrow$ Prefrontal cortex $\rightarrow$ Amygdala $\rightarrow$ Fear response

The speedy low road features simple feelings like fears and happiness. The stimulus following this path is sort of on a shortcut, bypassing the cortex. Therefore we have a seemingly instant response before we consciously feel and interpret it, just like speedy reflexes. In this case, only the limbic system is involved. It is presented below.

Fear stimulus $\rightarrow$ Thalamus $\rightarrow$ Amygdala $\rightarrow$ Fear response

It is worth noting that the amygdala sends more information to our brain than it receives back. As a result, we tend to be lead by our feelings, instead of our thinkings. That’s why we may fear a giant spider even if we know it is harmless.

According to the two-pathway theory, when you hear strange noise nearby you tend to jump and run first, leaving it to your cortex to decide later whether the noise is made by a snake or by the wind.

The difference between the fourth and fifth theory is that the latter separates the emotions into complex and simple categories, where the latter requires no labeling.

Other Theories

Return to Table of Content

Apart from the five theories, there are also other theories. One of them attempts to model the emotion from the social constructivist perspective. Unlike the former theories who view emotions as primarily biological, physiological and individual, social constructivists believe that emotions are the cultural product of social rules we learned.

Emotions are not just remnants of our phylogenetic past, nor can they be explained in strictly physiological terms. Rather, they are social constructions, and they can be fully understood only on a social level of analysis.

Interestingly, your face is more than a billboard that displays your feelings; it also feeds your feelings. Expressions not only communicate emotion, but also amplify and regulate it. This is called the facial feedback effect. For example, activating one of the smiling muscles by holding a pen horizontally in the teeth makes stressful situations less upsetting.

More interestingly, behaviors have also such feedback effect. For example, walking a few minutes with short shuffling steps while keeping your eyes downcast, then walking around taking long strides with your arms swinging and eyes looking straight ahead. You may feel a different mood!


Return to Table of Content

Anger can be triggered by daily hassles, blameless annoyances, and someone’s perceived misdeeds, especially those that are willful, unjustified, and avoidable.

The ways to vent anger are varied depend on the gender or cultural context. Boys tend to walk away from the situation, or work it off with exercise. Girls tend to talk with a friend, listen to music, or write. Individualist cultures encourage people to vent their rage, while collectivist cultures encourage to suppress.

Can venting the anger truly calm us down? Partly. Research indicates that it is true only if the justifiable counterattack is directed toward the provoker and the latter is not intimidating. Failed to satisfy the requirements leave us feeling guilty or anxious.

Instead, expressing anger usually breeds more anger. It may provoke further retaliation, amplify a minor conflict to a major confrontation. This phenomenon is also a demonstration of behavior feedback effect, that acting angry can make us feel angrier.

Anger is not always wrong. It can communicate strength and competence, and motivate people to take measure and achieve goals. Controlled expressions of anger are more adaptive than either hostile outburst or pent-up angry feelings. They lead people to talk things over with the offender, and thereby lessening the aggravation and resolving conflicts.


Return to Table of Content

We aspire to, and wish one another, health and happiness. Happiness and unhappiness can color everything. When your mood is bright, the world is perceived as safer. When your mood is gloomy, the life as a whole seems depressing and meaningless. Let your mood brighten, and your thinking broadens and becomes more playful and creative.

Happy college students are more likely to marry and less likely to divorce. They also earn significantly more money than their less-happy-than-average peers. Happy people tend to do good deeds, such actions in turn breed happiness.

Do you think you would be happier if you made more money?

Interestingly, raising low incomes will do more to increase happiness than raising high incomes. Once comfort and security are guaranteed, piling up more and more matters less and less. Experience luxury diminishes our savoring of simpler pleasures. In this sense wining a lottery is not a good thing in a long-term perspective.

Ironically, striving hardest for wealth usually lead to lower well-being, especially when people seek money to prove themselves, gain power, or show off rather than support their families. Instead, those seeking for intimacy, personal growth, and community contribution experience a higher quality of life.

Yesterday’s marvelous becomes today’s mundane.

Happiness is relative to our own experience. We tend to judge various stimuli in comparison with our past experience. At first we have our intact neutral levels. After an initial surge of pleasure, improvements become our new neutral levels, and we then require something even better to give us another surge of happiness. Satisfaction has a short half life, ditto disappointment.

Beggars do not envy millionaires, though of course they will envy other beggars who are more successful.

Happiness is relative to other’s success. We are always comparing ourselves with others. And whether we feel good or bad depends on who those others are. Seeing others succeed may inflate our own expectations, and when expectations soar above attainments, the result is disappointment.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy.

Tips for Happiness

Return to Table of Content

Here are some evidence-based suggestions for a happier life.

  • Realize that enduring happiness may not come from financial success, because our expectation is changing.

  • Take control of your time by setting goals and gradually achieve them. We usually underestimate how much we can accomplish in a year, given just a little progress every day.

  • Act happy. According to the feedback effect, manipulating your face into a smiling expression can let you feel better.

  • Seek work and leisure that engage your skills. When you are absorbed in tasks that are challenging but not overwhelming, you may experience the state of flow, which might be the happiest experience in one’s life. Instead, passive forms of leisure like watching TV often provides less flow experience.

  • Seeking for shared experiences rather than things. Compared with money spent on stuff, money buys more happiness when spent on experiences that you expect, enjoy, remember, and talk about. Purchasing a fancy car provides less enduring happiness than that from the experience of a college education.

  • Do aerobic exercise, because it relieve mild depression, anxiety, and promotes health and energy.

  • Give your body the sleep it wants, or it may result in fatigue, diminished alertness, and gloomy moods.

  • Cherish your intimacy. Confiding is good for soul and body. Happy people engage in less superficial small talk and more meaningful conversation. Nurture your closest relationships by not taking your loved ones for granted.

  • Do good deeds for others, because doing good feels good.

  • Record your gratitude. Keeping a gratitude journal can boost well-being. When something good happens, take time to appreciate and savor the experience. Record positive events and why they occurred. Share your gratitude to others.

  • Nurture your spiritual self. Faith provides a support community, and provides a sense of purpose and hope.