Why do we have emotions?

caring hands

Thursday 27th February 2014

Two students showed to the rest of the group a pair of emoticons: one a smiley face and the other a sad face and both were represented in different colours.  The original question, the students explained, was ‘To what extent and why does colour effect our emotions?’

Students began, by expressing the idea that emotions are involuntary – often, you can’t help feeling what you feel about something or someone.  On the one hand, these emotions guide us to action of some sort and on the other hand they are protective and keep us from doing dangerous things.  All students agreed that emotions are somehow ‘built’ into our bodies and that ultimately, one of the most important emotions is ‘care’ or ‘empathy, which is crucial to shaping our human identity.  Without emotions, one student claimed, we’d be mechanical.

This led to clarification of an evolutionary based response:  emotions guide us to survival in terms of flight or fright responses to our environment. This led to an interesting digression to distinguish between ‘emotion’, ‘instinct’ and ‘intuition’.

One student explained that ‘instinct’ was primal; it stays the same, whereas emotion changes.  Instinct is somehow a pre-programmed reaction – an automatic action – in response to an external or internal stimulus. For example, a baby’s cry is a programmed or innate response to its need for food; honeybees communicate through an instinctively dance in the direction of a food source.

‘Emotion’ is somehow grafted onto instinct; it evolved as a way of helping us to process instinct in fight or flight responses.

This leaves ‘intuition’: a form of quick thinking in pattern recognition which allows us to make connections between random observations and come to snap conclusions about ourselves, others and our environments without the help of reason or logic.  We just see the solution.

‘Intuition’ is something learned and grounded in instinct, emotion, memory, imagination and everything that contributes to our experiences of ourselves and our world.

What all three qualities have in common is that they are generally fast and bypass the step by step process through which our rational minds work.  There are both advantages and disadvantages to this.  An advantage is that sometimes we find ourselves in a situation where we have to judge and decide immediately; think on our feet, so to speak, and swiftly find a solution to a problem (think of job or Oxbridge interview).  A disadvantage is that sometimes, you forget that you have time to think a situation through and so fall into hasty choice (“He told me he loves me, so he must be the man of my life.”)

So we have emotions because they form the basis of a psychology which helps us to respond swiftly in crucial situations; because they connect us to others in a mutually cooperative way towards the ultimate aim of survival and because they help (and this is for a later discussion) to reinforce our moral sense of right and wrong…

6 Responses to “Why do we have emotions?”

  1. RaushanMarch 22, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

    I think that we have emotions as a way of coping with different situations. Emotions, I think, help humans to recognise sadness, happiness and anger and other feelings so that we can portray them to others. I believe that this coping mechanism brings people together and makes us understand what similarities and differences we have with others. However, I don’t believe that emotions have always been within a human’s body. I think that through evolution, people have learnt to use this idea of emotions and body language to show how they feel and how certain things make them feel.

    • trekMarch 23, 2014 at 8:44 am #

      Dear Raushan,

      You make some really thoughtful points about the importance of emotions as a way of developing social bonds between people, but it’s not quite clear what you mean when you say that emotions haven’t always been ‘within a human’s body’: where else would they be?

  2. RaushanMarch 24, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

    I think that they would come under the title of instinct and then developed into the category of emotions as humans evolve. I don’t really know whether this is right or not but I think if you look back to ‘cave-man’ times, people fought for their lives through instinct mainly not emotions because their brains hadn’t fully comprehended what emotions were or meant.

    • trekMarch 26, 2014 at 6:49 pm #

      Right, but ‘instincts’ are also ‘within the body’ aren’t they? Whether we’re talking about instincts, emotions or intuitions, these have a physiological basis, don’t they? As you say, even our primitive ancestors had physical brains which, even if they took a long time to evolve the capacity to prcoess emotions, regulated our instinctual reactions to our envronment. Think about it this way: can psychological events happen without a body/brain? If you think ‘yes’, where does this take us?

  3. RaushanMarch 29, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    I think that psychological events can happen without a body or brain. I don’t know whether this relates or not but if you are hungry, your brain tells you that you are hungry but I don’t think that you need a brain to tell you this in order to survive. Maybe it can be a superficial aspect to you that allows you to have the knowledge to eat something in order to stay alive. I now do think that maybe you do need a brain to allow psychological events to occur but human instinct, I think, is different to emotions and that is what makes you survive.

    • trekApril 7, 2014 at 9:51 am #

      Isn’t instinct, whether animal or human, a ‘psychological event’? If so, then there needs to be a brain… Some research suggests that even when we feel like we have ‘out of body experiences’, it’s the brain that causes us to have these. As for survival, while instinct and other capacities help us to survive, the overall process of natural selection through which evolution takes place may be something that happens ‘outside’ individual bodies and brains…

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