“I am happy! I feel sad. I’m angry!! I love you…” the list of emotions that we feel is seemingly endless. What each of these expressions shows us is that emotions are subjective experiences, which are experienced from a personal point of view.
Emotions are fascinating, as they shed light on the character of people. Arguably, it is emotions that add colour to our lives – else, we would be closer to being machines than being human! There are many theories in psychology regarding Emotion, which we will briefly go through in this article.
One of the first theories was called the James-Lange theory, proposed almost simultaneously around 1884 by the brilliant American psychologist and writer, William James as well as by Carl Lange. The theory is very interesting in our understanding of ourselves and the way we function. It is different to what most of us commonly believe about emotion. Most of us would say that the Bodily responses (eg, heartbeat rate going up, perspiration and so on) is a direct result of us experiencing an Emotion (in this case, getting angry!) However, this theory proposes the exact opposite. It states that our Body undergoes certain changes based on the surrounding environment, and then we ‘experience’ the emotion – as a method to make sense of the bodily actions that have occurred. In simple terms, for example: Somebody screams or hits you; as a response your body immediately begins to manifest a faster heart-rate and there is perspiration; then what you ‘experience’ or feel is Anger, which is actually your method to interpret what your body is experiencing! Sounds a little perplexing?
William James further claims that “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and neither we cry, strike, nor tremble because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.”
It is interesting to note that many therapies that we may practice derive from this theory – for example “Laughter Therapy”, where an individual or group of people begin to laugh as an exercise (without a normal situational trigger or a joke). The result often is that the people end up feeling ‘relaxed’ and less stressed after the practice which may last up to a few minutes!
This is classified under the range of Somatic (body-related) theories, and certainly has its merits. This theory however lost popularity during the 20th century.
Of course, the counter argument would be the Cognitive theories- which say that cognitive activity in the individual is necessary for an emotion to occur. Cognitive activity would refer to thoughts, judgments – that can be either conscious or unconscious. Cognitive theories are many in number, but generally they are a closer match to what we believe about emotions- namely, we first experience an emotion (wrought on by our thinking and cognitive activity) and then that emotion causes bodily changes as well as behaviors and actions. For example, we are screamed at or hit by someone; the cognitive activity makes us angry; this results in the body showing changes like faster heart-rate and perspiration; and finally in our behaviour and action – that we may strike the person or flee from the scene.
Through the neural mapping of the brain, researchers have found that the limbic system of the brain plays a vital role in emotions.
Are Women more Emotional?
From time immemorial we have believed that women are more emotional than men. Art and culture are replete with stories of emotional women and stoic men. This is in fact a societal stereotype. ‘Boys don’t cry’ has been a mantra fed to every growing boy, who then feels the need to suppress his emotions right through adolescence and manhood. The irony is that the same Boy is later in life criticized as being insensitive!
Recent research has delved into the fact of whether women are actually more emotional then men or just more expressive of their emotions. Neurobiological findings point toward a difference in the brain activity of the limbic system, especially that of the amygdala, of men and women as they experience emotions. However, most studies show that the marked difference between men and women is in the extent to which they express their emotions.
Emotions on the Path of Spirituality
Bhakti, the Indian term for the path of Love is an essential yet difficult path on the way to God. As Jesus preached that “Love is the only commandment”; most spiritual masters have proclaimed the need to love oneself, one’s neighbour and God. This is in tune with the Sufis’ intense love and longing for the divine.
However, on the other hand we find scriptures teaching us about the need to transcend our thoughts, beliefs and even emotions. That at the core, we are nothing but Peace and Silence. All modifications with our thoughts and emotions lead us to pain. Although these two viewpoints – one, encompassing emotion, namely Love, in our quest for God; and the other seeking to elevate above Emotions in our path of Meditation – may seem contradictory, it is not so. Quite simply, it is impossible and perhaps unhealthy to generalize – so then, to each his own. For one Love may work, while for the next Emotion may need to be transcended.