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Defining Emotion, Thought and Feeling

July 21, 2012

We can now see the gradual emergence of a new language for the discussion of human experience. Although precise definitions in this field are not at all simple, we can begin to understand more about the similarities and differences being conveyed by words such as ‘thoughts’, ’emotions’ and ‘feelings’. They are all distinct, connected, intelligent activities within the body that are closely linked to activation of the nervous and hormonal systems.

The words ’emotion’ and ‘feeling’ in particular seem to be subject to confusion and interchangeable usage.  Antonio Damasio, David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience and Professor of Psychology and Neurology at USC, defined the terms ’emotion’ and ‘feeling’ as follows in an interview with David Hirschman on July 2nd 2010:

an emotion is a very well orchestrated set of alterations in the body that has, as a general purpose, making life more survivable by taking care of a danger, of taking care of an opportunity, either/or, or something in between. And it’s something that is set in our genome and that we all have with a certain programmed nature that is modified by our experience so individually we have variations on the pattern. But in essence, your emotion of joy and mine are going to be extremely similar. We may express them physically slightly differently, and it’s of course graded depending on the circumstance, but the essence of the process is going to be the same, unless one of us is not quite well put together and is missing something, otherwise it’s going to be the same……………Then the feeling is actually a portrayal of what is going on in the organs when you are having an emotion.  So it’s really the next thing that happens. If you have just an emotion, you would not necessarily feel it. To feel an emotion, you need to represent in the brain in structures that are actually different from the structures that lead to the emotion, what is going on in the organs when you’re having the emotion.  So, you can define it very simply as the process of perceiving what is going on in the organs when you are in the throws of an emotion, and that is achieved by a collection of structures, some of which are in the brain stem, and some of which are in the cerebral cortex, namely the insular cortex. ”

Damasio suggests that feelings are private and remain within, while emotions are public and expressed into the outside world. His work has looked at how a new thought might register in your conscious thinking because of a sensory feeling – you touch, see, hear something – or because you have an emotion and that triggers a thought, or because you have a thought that triggers another thought.

In his book “The Feeling of What Happens ” {Damasio, A. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc.} Damasio discusses how the brain’s ability to build a map of the state of the body using electrical and chemical messages creates different kinds of consciousness. According to his work, “Core” consciousness involves the brain’s “automatic” processes – breathing, heartbeat and many other automated, biological functions. “Extended” consciousness involves abilities such as memory, conception and thought which gradually emerge as a “self” as the brain continually maps changes in the body’s experience resulting from internal and external stimuli.

But what exactly is ‘thought’? There are certainly different kinds of thought ( ie image-based or sound-based ) and it seems from a great deal of research that before one experiences a conscious thought, unconscious brain processes have already been working to generate that thought. It appears, as Damasio suggests, that thought is a process of cognitive mapping.

Certainly we are beginning to understand that emotion can trigger thought and vice versa. In fact, we can have feelings about both emotions and sensory stimulus, we can have cognitive (thought) and non-cognitive based emotions, we can have emotional and non-emotional thinking, we can have thoughts that trigger emotions and feelings………..the connections are varied and complex.

Despite the complexity of this field of research it is fascinating that with the benefits of psychology and neuroscience we can now start to understand changes in the central nervous system and organ function relating to different psychological states and activities. I will return to this subject in future posts and see how it relates to the ancient wisdom of The East.

Spencer Joseph

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