Focus On EmotionsHealth & Wellness

What are Emotions? Turning the Inside Out

Welcome to Focus On Emotions, an article series that will delve into our emotional depths, getting at one inalienable truth: emotions matter. Our culture generally teaches us that feelings are to be avoided, suppressed, and controlled; that feelings lead to irrationality. But I have learned, and affective neuroscience would suggest, that feelings are central to self-knowledge, self-management, and good decision-making. This series is designed to help us better understand our emotions, how to work with them, and, when needed, how to heal them.

I love the films Inside Out and Home. These films brilliantly capture the interplay and complexity of human emotions. Inside Out features a cast of primary emotions (Anger, Fear, Disgust, Joy, and Sadness) all living inside the head of the protagonist, Riley. Throughout this movie, we—the audience—get a behind the scenes fantastical view of emotions and memory in everyday life, their impact upon decision-making, relationships, thoughts, and behaviours—including a brilliant metaphor for depression as a breakdown of our emotion systems.

There are many things I love about Inside Out: the clarity with which it portrays emotions, quite literally, as embodied experiences; the portrayal of something emotion researchers call “emotions schemes” through different internal “islands”, each fuelled by a small set of core memories, each with a different feel, each driving patterns of behaviour and thinking, and each anchoring a part of Riley’s personality in her memory system.  I love that this movie portrays the clear impact of “core” memories in defining ourselves and the importance of all of our emotions in helping us to make effective decisions and live in balance.

But—what, actually, are emotions?

Sarah, you’ve been avoiding writing. Remember your dissertation and how hard it was to find “your” voice. You’re procrastinating again. You have deadlines coming up! You’ll never get this series done. Don’t embarrass yourself. You should play it safe; just give up!

You are nervous about putting your voice out there in this way. This is a growth arc for you, and that is part of what makes it exciting. Give yourself time and space to grow, to play, to think, and to be creative. Have fun!

First, it’s important to know that there are only a few “basic emotions” that we experience as a human species. Dr. Paul Ekman, renowned psychologist and researcher of emotions and facial expressions, has varied in his estimation of basic emotions over time. In 1999, based on his own research, he argued for the existence of 11 basic emotions, later reducing this to 6 or 7. Stepping back and surveying other leading experts in the field, he has been part of a collaboration to create an interactive atlas of five widely recognized basic emotions: disgust, fear, anger, sadness, and enjoyment. (Others argue that shame, and surprise need to be included as well.)

However many discrete emotions you believe exist, it is clear that emotions are the result of very rapid neural processes, and that emotions live in the body. Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, argues that emotions are fundamentally a system of automatic physical reactions to stimuli that facilitate the survival of any given species. He contrasts this with feelings—which result from the awareness of emotion.

But for neuroscience, emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli. When we are afraid of something, our hearts begin to race, our mouths become dry, our skin turns pale and our muscles contract. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. Feelings occur after we become aware in our brain of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of fear.
— Antonio Damasio

Defining "Emotion" — More Than A Feeling

What you need to know in reading the emotion literature is that writers use the words “feelings”, “emotions”, and “affect” in different ways. Some define them differently, some use the words interchangeably. But the underlying concepts are very similar. For the purpose of this series, we’ll stick with the idea that an “emotion” refers to an automatic process in our brain whereby an incoming message from our environment, memory, or imagination creates an automatic biological change in our nervous system. Joseph E. LeDoux, neuroscientist, uses the example of encountering a snake to illustrate this concept.

When you encounter a snake—and by that I mean a snake enters your field of vision—information that a snake-like shape is in front of you travels to an area of your brain called the amygdala. This information travels to your amygdala faster than that same information travels to your occipital lobe (the part of your brain where you “see”) or your cerebral cortex (where you think complex thoughts). As a result, before your brain knows you have seen an object called a snake, named the object as a snake, and determined whether or not this particular object called a snake is dangerous, your amygdala has already begun to initiate the physical, emotional response: fear. When you suddenly become aware that your heart is racing, that you see a snake, that your muscles are tense—only then do you feel fear.  

Why are emotions important?

So why are we wired this way? Why, when it comes to emotions, is speed so important? The simple answer is that emotions prime us for action.

Take a moment to think about the stimuli that you are perceiving right now.

Try to identify every sound you can hear. Look around. Notice every colour, contour, shadow, and reflection you can see. Pause. Now, notice what you can taste, what you can smell. Pause. Now take a moment to attend to each physical sensation registered by your skin. Now notice any sensations arising from inside your body: muscle tension, stomach gurgles, itches.

Now multiply your observations by the approximately 1000 minutes you are awake every day.

Imagine scenarios such as driving, crossing the street, hunting in territory frequented by grizzly bears, or simply picking your outfit for the day. In some circumstances, your capacity to quickly sift through hundreds of pieces of sensory data, to notice small and large changes in your environment, and to respond quickly and effectively—can be a matter of life or death. In other circumstances, it simply helps you make a quick decision without expending too much energy or time.

Affective neuroscientists (scientists that study emotion centres in the brain) believe that our emotions have developed to be highly sophisticated and rapid signal detection systems that alert us to changes in our environment, and predispose or prepare us to respond in certain ways, a great example of which is our fight/flight/freeze response.

Sarah, your stomach is tight. Your mind is racing. You can’t focus. You’re adding too much detail. The more you include, the more likely you are to make a mistake. You are casually and briefly referring to vast bodies of literature—you’re sure to mess up somewhere in your understanding or explanations… then everyone will see what a fraud you are!

Breathe. Relax. Enjoy. You may make a mistake. If so, hopefully someone will graciously correct you, allowing you to learn even more from this process. It is OK to fail and learn from it. You believe in this project.

In the movie Home (spoiler alert!), the terrible villain, Gorg, chases the alien species known as ‘the Boov’ around the galaxy threatening them with extinction. As the Boov travel the galaxy, they repeatedly experience fear, acting on their impulse to flee from the Gorg and other dangerous interstellar fauna. In exploring new planets as they seek a safe home to settle, individual Boov see many terrible monsters. In each case, Boov do not have the time to engage in complex cognitive processes:

“Oh, a giant Boov-eating worm with sharp teeth. I wonder if it is friendly or …”
One deceased Boov.

Boov: "Wait...what just happened?"

This is not how our brains work. Instead, our brains are adept at rapidly processing massive quantities of incoming perceptions, using patterns in sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations to produce near-instantaneous shifts in our internal states that selectively direct our attention and predispose us to react in certain ways (like running away when we cross paths with a snake).

Now consider this: our immediate environment is not only determined by what we perceive through our senses (what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch), but also by our capacity to experience reactions to the images, thoughts, and memories in our own minds. It’s no wonder we need a fast acting operating system to manage in the world!  

According to Damasio, each affective or emotion state signals a basic human need and an action tendency to fulfill that need. In a fearful state, associated needs are for safety, and an action tendency to achieve that safety is through flight or self-protection. In a curious state, needs will include gaining understanding, with an action tendency of  exploration, investigation, and expanding one’s horizons.

Indulge me for a moment while I provide one more example:

Imagine that you are about to go for a walk along a stream in the woods at dusk, on a cloudy, calm fall day. Imagine that, before your walk, you are required to watch a video of songbirds of Ontario. Imagine what feelings this might instill in you. For some of you Joy may be sitting at the controls in your mind. For others, Curiosity (a derivative of Surprise, the feeling Pixar left out). For others, you might simply be bored, focusing instead on your internal world and the interplay of memory and all of your Inside Out cast. For the sake of my example, imagine that for you, Joy would be in charge of your emotional control panel to direct your attention, your engagement with your environment, and your experience of the walk.

(Can you see it? Can you sense in your own body the feelings you might have as Joy guided you on this nature hike? If you can’t, don’t worry—you may simply be a “dandelion”, not an “orchid”; more on this later in the series.)

Now, imagine instead, that before embarking on that same long walk by the stream in the woods on a cloudy fall day, you had instead been required to watch the Blair Witch Project, or a film on venomous snakes of Southern Ontario.

A forest as the sun goes down, tall dark trees, bright orange ground.

Photo by: Anthony Gotter via

For many of you, embarking upon this walk now—with sunlight fading, skies overcast, and fresh knowledge of venomous snakes in your head—Fear may be firmly embedded at the controls of your neuroaffective system, activating instead patterns of hypervigilance, fear, muscle tension, directing your attention selectively towards each rustling bush off to the side, or every twig within a 10-foot radius of your path.

If there were actually supernatural vengeful spirits, or coiled masses of venomous snakes along the path, having Fear at the controls might help to keep you alive (at least in the case of snakes). Your body is more likely to avoid dangers when you are primed to look for them, and when your physiology is primed to jump away from any possible danger. As LeDoux has said, “You’re better off mistaking a stick for a snake than a snake for a stick.”

Leaving aside life and death circumstances for a moment, for lesser decisions (“It’s Tuesday, do I wear the red shirt or blue shirt?”), our emotions are simply a little signal that helps us cut through cognitive stalemates to quickly decide which among many equally rational options is likely to be the better decision in this moment because—well, because it feels better. I might have a flash of joy as I recall how comfortable and cozy I felt in the red shirt last week.

In essence then, emotions are biological reactions that, as psychologist Dr. Les Greenberg likes to say “set a problem for reason to solve.” They also give big clues for what needs to happen to solve it: fight, flight, freeze, snuggle, explore.

Why is all of this important for SA Professionals?

As students, as employees, as leaders, as people, we all make decisions every day. Emotions, feelings, and “emotional intelligence” contribute directly to self-knowledge, to effective decision-making, and to empathic leadership.

Join me over the next few months as I take us deeper into the pragmatics of emotions and how they play into our decision making processes. Along the way I’ll offer advice on attaining beginner, intermediate, and advanced level competencies in Empathy and Emotional Intelligence. Whether emotions mystify you or are your comfort zone, we’re going to inspire the feels as we bring together the science and art of emotions to allow you to better read yourself and others.

Focus On Emotions is a year long series, published monthly, written and researched by Sarah Thompson. Stay tuned in the coming months for more on how to identify emotions and manage triggers, understand the impact emotions play on decision-making, and understand the difference between “orchids” and “dandelions”, all within a student affairs context and beyond.

  • Rachel Barreca

    Imma gonna learn so much.

    • Sarah Thompson