The Emotions

Chapter 7

What are the emotions?

We all feel different things all the time. But, like the fish of the proverb that is not aware of the water as it is in there all the time, so most of the time many people are not aware of their feelings and other bodily sensations because they are perpetually with them.

It is not customary, nor acceptable or proper or nice to admit that "the real motivation behind all human activity (our own included) is emotional". It is difficult for members of our culture - especially the more sane and serious of us - to come to terms with the fact that we are not really rational creatures. It is hard for them to admit that each of the main facets of our life is regulated and controlled by one of the innate basic emotions.

Unlike the fish, however, most human beings are not usually satisfied with the feelings, sensations and emotions they have. They devote a great deal of effort towards changing them. Many ask themselves about the essence of emotions, and some even share this with the public at large. More than a few have even bothered to publish their meditations and other verbal products - mostly poets, writers, philosophers, publicists, and even a relatively small number of scientists in the various psychological fields.

Our culture - the culture of the industrial societies at the end of the 20th century - does not encourage the acquisition of emotional proficiency. More often it even discourages steps that are taken to achieve it. Most of the views and ideologies of the modern world (including a few of the religious ones) are based on the supposition that man is basically a rational being. These views, as well as those of less modern world views, do not encourage a synthesis between the emotions and rational thinking.

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As a result of the split between emotion and logic, we are not used to paying attention to our own emotions and to those of others unless they are prominent. Because of this split and neglect, we are not used to sharing actively our ongoing emotions with others. The various shades and nuances of the quality and strength of our emotions remain, usually, unknown to family members or even to our dearest friends.

It is amusing to see just how minimal a part the subject of emotion plays in the educational programs of various schooling institutions. It is even more astonishing how small is its part in the programs of the institutes which specialize in education and psychology, that deal directly with human emotions. The most astonishing of all is the lack of sufficient attention paid to the bodily sensations felt during psychotherapy.

As a matter of fact, all the bother of writing this book and the development of the technique is dedicated to repairing the cumulative results of the estrangement between us and our emotional system.

Like many processes and phenomena of the human body and its ways of life, which are a source of amazement with regard to their complexity, so are those of the emotional system and the ways in which they express themselves. Although it is not customary to acknowledge it, the fact is that the complexity and refinement of this system is what mostly differentiates us from the lesser developed animals* (including other primates so similar to us).

*Many people regard the emotional system as the main component of the automatic mode of the mind processes, and thus as having a lower status. They contrast it with verbal thinking and the abstract processes of problem solving which are the main component of the willful awareness mode, regarded as having the higher status.

Actually, the overlapping between "hot" emotion and the automatic mode, or between "cold" cognition and the willful and awareness mode, is only partial. As a matter of fact, there are many "cold" cognition processes that we are unaware of (most of them). Moreover, the will itself - aware and unaware - is one of the main emotional processes... and sometimes is very "cold".

This system - and not the higher abstract and verbal thinking processes of problem solving, which receive more credit than is due them - enables us to navigate through the storms of life and survive them all... except for the last one!

Of the different phenomena in our lives, we are most amazed by those that are the result of the swift changes between the two main modes of activation of our life systems - the automatic mode and the voluntary mode. The way our respiration is regulated is a good example of this: usually our breathing is automatic and out of the focus of awareness.

Most of the time we do not pay it more than passing attention. Sometimes we pay attention to the sensations that result from the automatic functioning of the respiratory processes. Only on special occasions and mostly for very short periods of time, do we exercise a limited amount of will power over the different characteristics of the breathing process-stopping it, deepening it, regulating it, etc.

The relations between the emotional processes, and the automatic versus the non-automatic mode, are not static. In infancy and in early childhood, the influence of the automatic innate mode is overwhelmingly dominant, and more so with regard to the emotional processes.

During growing and maturation, new components join and integrate with the original ones (and with acquired ones that joined the original ones before them). Part of these new components tend more to the automatic mode but a growing part involves awareness and will. In young adults, the components involving will and awareness have already reached dominance in daily behavior.

In the system of mature adults, most of the subjective experience of emotion and nearly all its verbal and nonverbal expressions are subject to the supervision of the "advanced" non-automatic processes and programs. Very often, especially with intensities that are not extremely high or low, the influence of the "mature and advanced" components is decisive.

It is heredity itself that decides, during each level of maturation and experience, which processes can be released from the absolute control of the innate (and acquired) routines of the automatic mode of operation. Usually, even will combined with focused awareness, cannot claim the right to access (and thereby directly influence) basic maintenance processes.

The short indirect influence we can have on the basic chemistry of the body (like that of the hormones), and on basic maintenance functions (like breathing and digesting), are "the exceptions that prove the rule". In most of these processes the direct influence of the average person is negligible.

In some of the processes that "change their affinity and loyalty", heredity itself is responsible for their extraction from the automatic mode. This is mainly "the fate" of the processes that are responsible for purposeful behavior, that manage the satisfaction of needs and desires directly or closely pertinent to them. For instance, grownups usually refrain from crying as opposed to babies and very young children. Instead, when circumstance allow it, they try to do something.

For many of the other ex-tractable processes, the extracting itself and the measure of extraction from the automatic mode are due to many influences. The most common influences are those resulting from education, learning, and socialization (11).

For instance, as a result of learning, informal influences and socialization pressures - differently applied to male and female - the sexes do not react in the same way when in intense pain or sorrow. In these circumstances, the overwhelming majority of adult males do not cry, while for females, the opposite is true. Because of this difference in socialization, there is rarely an adult female who will never cry, but within the male population there are many who will not, or cannot, even when willing.

Usually, following this in the same trend, any serious discussion of emotion as a main subject arouses automatic opposition: "what can really be known about emotion that is valuable" or "this is not the most important thing". However, the subsystem of emotions is the most important component of the brain and mind of mammals (animals who suckle their young). Moreover, the higher a species of this family is on the of evolutionary scale, the more central and essential is its emotional system.

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In contradiction to the assumptions of most modern people, and the wishful thinking of those biased towards rational thinking, the emotional system is more of "the humane in the animal" than "the animal in man". It seems that it is more appropriate to call the human beings of our time "Homo Emotionalis" than Homo Sapiens".

Even at birth, the function of emotions differs entirely from that of the reflexes* - which are the basic (and nearly automatic) mode of operation in creatures which are "lower" on the evolutionary scale (like insects etc.).

*The reflex arc is activated automatically whenever a specific stimulus is applied to the right receptor of a creature with enough intensity. In man, one of the small number of reflexes active even in grownups is that which makes the eye blink when objects approach swiftly; another is the one that causes the lower part of the leg to jump when the neurologist taps below the knee.

Even at the very beginning of life, when the emotional processes are activated nearly automatically, they differ widely from the reflexes. We can see, even at this early stage, that the relationship between stimuli and responses is not on a one to one basis. Even at this early stage, it is not the case that a certain stimulus, and only it, causes a certain response. From the beginning, a few stimuli can, together or each by itself, cause a certain individual response or a group of responses.

For instance, even when the newborn baby is only a few hours old, different patterns of strong stimuli like loud noise, intense light or an unexpected and swift change in the position of the body, cause a complex pattern of responses of the "classic" or innate fear. This pattern includes various components such as facial expression, typical voices, quickening of the pulse rate and increase in blood pressure.

The biological basis of the emotions

At the beginning of life, the human baby is equipped with a complex neurological system. This system receives input unceasingly through a wide spectrum of sensorial receptors of diverse characteristics. For instance, receptors of light (mainly the eyes), receptors of noise (mainly the ears), receptors of heat and infrared radiation (the coarse ones are all over the body - the most delicate ones are mainly in the forehead and around the eyes), receptors of taste, smell, pressure, movement & balance, etc.

Various parts (or centers) of the brain (which is the center of the neurological system) are simultaneously fed by this plethora of fresh input(5), and an even larger amount of "conserved" ones, stored in the memory. The new and the old inputs are processed by various components of the brain in divergent ways in order to act upon and/or to memorize them for later reference.

During the analyzing and the recycling of the new and old input (stored results and references of previous processing included), many processes occur in the brain. Small parts of those processes are sufficiently slow, long, strong and important that they involve our awareness. The majority are too short, weak, or of a content or mode, that do not access to the awareness at all, or perhaps do so but only in certain circumstances.

The initial steps of the processing are mainly swift and inaccessible to the awareness. They mainly consist of (and result in) perception, identification and subjective evaluating of each item and pattern. This initial step can decide what will be the amount and the nature of the effect a specific item of input will have on the ongoing happening and on future ones. This weighting is done in accordance with a subjective bias that can deviate widely from the objective one.

During initial processing of the input (and more so during the recycling and deeper processing of conserved ones), new organizations, conceptualizations, summations and decisions are achieved, at various levels of organization and functioning of the brain.

Part of the processes occur in steps that have a stable order. In some of them, the order of the steps is dependant on the result of the initial steps, or the advance of the whole process. In most cases, various steps of the processing are taken parallel to each other. The processes of these steps can (and usually do) interact with each other.

Frequently, they not only interact among themselves but also with other processes that are ongoing in the brain and mind at the time. The most complicated mode of processing in the brain, which is also the most typical, is called by the experts the "procession-in-parallel" mode.

The integrations done during the input and the advanced steps of processing have a topographic (or geographic) facet. Part of the steps or aspects of the processing can be related to large parts of or to almost the entire brain. Part can be related to small or large neurological paths and areas. Specific parts of the processing can be located in small neurological structures, in a small group of neurons or even in a particular neuron.

Process products that reach awareness are usually the result of the simultaneous activity of many regions or nearly all of the brain. Only complicated and ingenious tactics can succeed in the task of isolating stages, or in the effort to relate them to regions.

The emotions (sometimes called moods, feelings, sensations, subjective experience, passions and their like), that are the subjects of this book, are also processes of the brain. They too have specific neuronal paths and organization centers for their main facets. They too involve fresh input and recycled ones (including previous processions of them) stored as memory traces, which they integrate at various levels.

For instance, the processes of the fear emotion can be engaged by inputs from receptors of the same sense located at different part of the body - as in unexpected pain signals. Fear can be aroused by inputs of various senses like seeing danger or hearing a threat or feeling the loss of balance. It can involve recycled input of previous processing about the measure in which a specific person or event is dangerous, as it caused harm in the past.

It can also involve all these in combination and higher level processes, like thinking and imagery. It is typically so in the evaluation of a specific situation in the present or the future, that has no similar precedents - according to its components, circumstance and/or the probability of its development and transformation.

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The same principle, but with more complex integrations, is expressed in movement. The regular daily walking in the house from one room to another - which is relatively simple when the lights are on - is based on the input of the eyes, the ears, kinesthetic inputs of the muscles, the sense of balance, memory of the environment and furniture arrangement, and knowledge of the neighbors' windows, our clothing, our curtains and our sensitivity of being spied on.

Usually, this kind of movement does not involve the emotional subsystem to any great degree. However, when the movement is part of a dance at a ball, with a partner who is a stranger and whom we are courting - and the dance is not one we know too well - it will surely involve the emotional subsystem to a great measure. A whole book will be needed to describe the relevant processing of the input done by the brain* and the various subsystems involved.

*Since the relationship between the mind and the brain is a bit blurred, it is worth clearing up the use of the concepts of brain and mind in this book. They are used here essentially as two main aspects of what our head is about.

It is known that the acts of thinking, perceiving, learning, remembering, feeling, believing and the like are the main aspects of the mind. It is also known that those are, at the same time, products of processes mainly done in the brain.

The relationship between the mind and brain can be likened to that which exists between the bicycle and the rider as a physical entity, and the act of traveling.

The basic emotions

Many scientists label certain processes in the brain as "Basic Emotions1". Each of them is based, to a large extent, on its own specific multi-neuronal structure. These structures are part of the "Limbic System", which is the mammals' "old brain". The basic emotions are in essence the modern heir of Descartes' "Primary Passions of the Mind". Mixtures of these basic emotions are the apparent emotions of daily life. (Established beyond any reasonable doubt by scientific studies.)

These emotions are basic in the same sense that the colors red, blue and yellow are basic colors. They are so called because by mixing them one can create any other color and shade. The "Basic Emotions" are called basic since they cannot be composed by any mixture of the others.

The relation between observed emotions and basic emotions, resemble the relationship between simple chemical mixtures of air, sea water and soil. Like the substances of the compounds, the contribution of each basic emotion is relatively independent of those of the others. Like the chemical elements of the compounds which are rarely found by themselves in natural condition, so it is with basic emotions. When one needs them in a relatively pure condition, one must use laboratories or other artificial conditions and interventions.

In principle, each instance of emotional phenomena can be broken into its main components or in other words, it can be discerned which of the basic emotions contribute most to its emergence and expression. Actually, we often discern with relative ease the weight of the three most prominent basic emotions at a given moment. Though a difficult and impractical process, each of the emotional phenomena can be broken down to reveal the relative contribution of each of its basic components (i.e. the contribution of each of the basic emotions to its emergence).

Each of the neuronal structures which form the strata of a basic emotion involves several subsystems and processes. These are responsible for the six main functions or aspects of each of the basic emotions. The most prominent one is the experiential aspect, which is the source of the name of emotional phenomena in many languages.

This aspect is the main "interface" between the unaware, swift and short duration changes of the basic strata of emotions, and the processes of awareness and consciousness. The other aspects and components are that of perception, integration, intra-organismic responses, behavior and expression.

For instance, we perceive that we are slipping on the banana skin; we integrate this perception with the perception of the hard surface of the floor and previous memories of falling on it. We feel the emergence of fear or even panic; the autonomic (vegetative) neuronal subsystem responds to the imminent danger with internal changes: a quickening heart beat, perspiration, etc.; the hands are recruited to behave as shock absorbers; a cry accompanied by a facial expression of surprise and fear is emitted. While we are slipping on the banana skin, it is easier to experience than to analyze the relative contribution of the basic emotion of fear, that of surprise, and that of other basic emotions.

The basic emotions are of the bipolar type of the more advanced kind of biological structures. These structures and their functioning are based on two contradictory processes and sometimes, as with the subjective experience of basic emotions, even with contradictory neurological subsystems.

These structures (or subsystems) are active all the time and they can be described as a pair of contradictory forces or vectors, one opposing the other. These structures respond faster and to less powerful influences than the unipolar structures of the more primitive kind.

Consequently, we do not have two different structures of basic emotion for the assessment of danger - one for fear and one for feelings of serenity. Instead, we have one bipolar structure that contains both. The activity of one subsystem of this neurological structure signals and acts in order to create fear. The other subsystem does the opposite. The end result of each moment (i.e. fear versus serenity) and its intensity is the balance of the two opposing processes.

The state of each basic emotion and its contribution to the existence of the individual, including that of fear versus serenity, has two main aspects:

  1. The quality of the emotion created, which is the result of the balance between the two contradictory poles. In the case of fear v. serenity, this emotional quality can be described as a temporary point of equilibrium, placed on the bipolar continuum, with fear as one pole and serenity as the other. When the activity of one of the poles overwhelms the other, the point depicting the resulting emotion is at one of the poles, and we have clear-cut fear or serenity.
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    In the other cases, the balance will place the point somewhere in between, either nearer to the fear pole or nearer to the serenity pole - according to the specific balance of the moment. When the proportion of the fear pole contribution rises, the point of demarcation moves toward this pole, serenity is lowered and fear rises. When that of serenity increases, the point moves in the opposite direction, and so does the subjective experience.

  2. The intensity of the basic emotion, which is the sum of the activity of both subsystems (and contradicting processes) is relatively independent of the quality of the emotion. For instance, we can be in a clear state of fear or serenity and still experience each at a very mild intensity. The precise level of intensity resulting from the activity of a specific basic emotion depends on the level of general arousal of the individual and the relative weight of the other basic emotions.

One of the two poles of each basic emotion has usually more survival value than the other. Therefore, we tend to experience it more often and in stronger intensities than the other. Sometimes, when things are complicated, we can experience a quick fluctuation of the experience between the two poles of a basic emotion or a number of them.

The following is a tentative list of 15 basic emotions:

  1. Contentment (Pleasure - Sorrow)
  2. Concern (Love - Hate)
  3. Security (Fear - Serenity)
  4. Play (Seriousness - Frolic)
  5. Belonging (Attachment - Solitude)
  6. Will power (Volition - Surrender)
  7. Energy (Rigor - Flimsiness)
  8. Frustration (Anger - Leniency)
  9. Involvement (Interest - Boredom)
  10. Self Respect (Pride - Shame)
  11. Eminence (Superiority - Inferiority)
  12. Respect (Adoration - Scorn)
  13. Vigilance (Wariness - Dreaminess)
  14. Expectancy (Surprise - Routine)
  15. Attraction (Disgust - Desire)

If you try to analyze an emotional experience, and some of the ingredients are too hard to fit to any of the 15 basic emotions, it might be because the list is not complete, as the studies in this area are still in the probing stage.

This edition of the book will not expand on each of the basic emotions. It will focus on characteristics, factors and denominators which are common to all, and are most interesting or most important for the understanding and use of the General Sensate Focusing Technique.

The essence of emotional phenomenon

Emotions have one aspect which is most known to each one of us, and whose existence and emotional nature are indisputable, that is, what we perceive with our internal-body-senses (like muscle tension, pain, pressure, etc.) when we feel. In other words, the bodily sensations accompanying the activation of fear, anger, happiness, etc. i.e. the subjective experience of emotion we are aware of.

The most known to us about the emotional expressions of others, come from their facial expressions and the inflection in the voice intonation. When the facial expression or the pitch and melody of the voice are clear and unequivocal, it is possible to deduce the main emotion that person is experiencing. Most of us do this quickly, surely and frequently within the "reality" of daily living. Alas, we seldom do it for the expressions of more than the two or three prominent emotions.

Another expression mode of other people from which we can learn about their emotions, moods, feelings, etc. is their verbal communication, "live" or "recycled". Many emotional contents are communicated by means of verbal messages such as conversation, singing, writing, and exclamations like: "help!", "damn it!", etc.

However, one can rely on the verbal expressions only in very specific instances. Immense quantities of prose, poetry, and scientific essays were written about this form of communication and the amount of truth to be gleaned from them. There is a great difference between the amount of truth conveyed by the two kinds of communication of emotions, i.e. the verbal and the non-verbal, and the level of clarity of that information.

However, the most essential difference between these two communication channels is not in their truth value, but in the richness of their content and the immediacy of their transfer. Each one of us who tries hard to convey an emotion finds it nearly impossible to describe in a few words or a crude sketch, what the feeling is.

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Verbal language is indeed not fit for conveying precise emotional content, even when deceit or any other kind of censorship is not intended, even when one is most gifted in verbal communication, and even when one does one's best.

The essence of emotional phenomena does not consist solely of the internal activity, which is responsible for most of the subjective experience and external expression; it also has a few other important components some of which can also be observed in daily life.

There are those which are expressed through changes induced into the pattern of muscle activity of the body, capable of taking part in intentional behavior - like walking and manual work - and are easy to observe. These components are expressed also in less purposeful behavior of recreation and leisure, that are prone to include more idiosyncrasies and are thus more obvious to the observer.

Some expressions are also involved with subtle patterns of activity such as balancing the body, the tension from vigilance, etc. that are only apparent to the eye of a keen observer. Others are even less discernible as they involve smaller areas of the body and tender tissues, for the tracing of which both the scientists and the unsophisticated lay observers need electronic instruments like the Electro-Myo-Graph - E.M.G.).

The activity of components of the emotional system is expressed also in the "Autonomic Nervous System", which is responsible - among other things - for blushing, paleness, cold sweat etc.

For instance, the systematic bio-electric rhythm of parts of the brain, tested by the Electro-Encephalo-Graph (E.E.G.) is used in medicine to trace anomalous effects of tissue damage (Epilepsy included). However, this rhythm is also related to the emotional system and its activity. Therefore, the E.E.G. is used in research as a means of measuring systematic changes induced by various psychoactive drugs and other interventions to the emotional climate.

The emotions include within their intra-body activity and behavior very subtle physiological expressions that can be traced only with the help of bio-chemical tests and electronic gadgets. These observations are very common within the medical field but not only there.

The internal influence of the activity of the emotional system is expressed even in subtle chemical changes. These changes are difficult to relate unequivocally to emotion and to malfunctioning of the emotional system in each of their occurrences. It is even harder to discern and assess the relative contribution of the emotional system in cases where other systems of the body are significantly involved.

For example, the plethora of "psychosomatic" disturbances; the variations caused to the semi-stable hormonal rhythms of women; the unwanted changes induced in the levels of the brain's neuro-transmitters (especially in the autumn); etc. It is still very expensive to conduct studies in this field and many moral, ethical and technical problems are involved.

How are the emotions of daily life created?

It is worth stressing here that the term emotions has many "relatives". These are mostly different names for the same processes - providing different "nicknames" to the same phenomenon in the various circumstances in which they are expressed or demonstrated. This is done mainly because of the idiosyncrasies of the language, the insufficient development and accumulation of human knowledge, and the influence of prejudice. The most common names for emotional processes in English are: Emotions, Moods, Feelings, Sensations and Passion.

At the beginning of life and at the appearance of each of the emotions the first activations of which occur at later points of the maturation process, we can see a direct connection between a small number of patterns of stimuli, and the activation of each of the basic emotions.

In this early period, the "innate emotional programs" (or plans - as depicted by the well known investigator and theoretician Bowlby) are active all the time and respond to the right input in a reflex-like fashion. At the beginning of life, these programs (plans) are solely responsible for the management of the multi-neuronal integration subsystems of emotion - a specific program for each basic emotion.

While the original program is active, the relevant perception processes of each basic emotion feed the integrative part (portion or stage or component) of the basic emotion. For each topic (or perception or subject of perception) after the perception stage is completed (i.e. a verdict is reached about the contemplated topic), the integration process of that emotion can reach its conclusions and pass them on.

The integration stage consists mainly of the assessment of the perceived stimuli, with regard to the specific aspect of life for which it takes charge. The integration stage terminates in one kind of message or another, conveyed to the behavioral part (portion or stage or component) and, parallel to it, sends the appropriate messages to the intra-organismic component as well as the expressive and the experiential components.

(These post integration processes are not only receptors of input but also sources of output, as they supply feedback to the integrative component, feed each other with important information and supply input to nearly all the rest of the emotional subsystem. Actually, none of the systems of the brain are independent. They are constantly in one kind of contact or another and are regarded as entirely different entities only for ease of conceptualization and research. They are called subsystems - and not systems - wherever this aspect needs to be stressed.)

The specific emotional experience of each moment of our life is, in essence, the sum of the sensations created by the activity of the biological sub-strata of life (among which the contribution of the basic emotions is the greatest) and the recycled traces of past ones from our memory, projected on various locations of the body.

Usually, the overwhelming majority of the changes in our felt sensations are induced by the Activation Programs2 of the Basic Emotions3 - whether as "originally emotional sensations", or as ones which are emotional responses to purely physiological ones with which they tend to integrate.

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Therefore, at any point on the time continuum, the sum of the sensations felt, and the emotional experience we are aware of are nearly identical. It also means that the differential treatment and conceptualization of the felt sensation, regarding many of them as "not related to emotion", is mostly arbitrary.

Most of the time, the level of activity of the emotional system functions in the middle range and not at its extremities. The most frequent verbal labels of these intensities are names of moods and feelings. These tend to answer the question "how are you", with the lengthy answer: "I am in a bad mood" or "I have strange feelings".

In these situations, it is harder to discern the relative contribution of each basic emotion. This is the main reason for the use of the somewhat "abstract" labels of adverbs and other qualifiers that accompany mood, feeling, sensations and experience - instead of names of emotions.

The weakness of the discrimination power of our awareness in the emotional domain is most clearly revealed when one tries to apply it to common mild emotional experience. The power of discrimination of the focused awareness with regard to classification and labeling of feelings and sensations is even worse and is restricted to the few most prominent basic emotions in situations of high emotional arousal. Therefore we cannot rely too much on this faculty when we want to study or manage the climate of our emotional experience.

The activity of the system of the basic emotions creates, in its various combinations, a huge divergence of specific emotional mixtures, that are constantly changing. Though we are not aware of it, we never experience twice the same emotional mixture. Even the vocabulary of the most "emotional" language does not include names for more than a fraction of this variety. These are the main reasons we find it hard to give a name to the feelings of a specific moment or at least to define it in words.

The gap between the small number of basic emotions and the abundance of the specific emotional mixtures of daily life can be translated into numbers: according to scientists investigating the emotional phenomena, we have between 10 to 20 different basic emotions. According to some of these scientists we can encounter in one day thousands of different emotional mixtures, drawn from the pool of the most common tens of thousands of emotional mixtures.

The mathematically-oriented reader can appreciate the total number of possible mixtures if he takes into account the number of possible permutations for 10 basic bipolar emotions even if each has only 4 steps between the two poles: 1) substantially towards on pole; 2) mildly so; 3)mildly towards the other direction; 4) substantially towards the other pole. The result is 410 which is more than a million.

This might seem to be impossible if one does not take into account that, in the stream of emotion, change is the rule not the exception. Usually, even an extremely intense emotional mixture lasts in its original state (as to quality and intensity) no longer than 10 seconds.

In this stream of emotion, only in extreme cases is the weight (and thus the quality) of one of the basic emotions so prominent that it "leaves all the others in the background". In cases like this, people (and scientists too) tend to regard that mixture as a "pure" expression of that basic emotion.

The level of activity of the system of basic emotions is constantly changing, both absolutely and relatively to the other subsystems of the brain. Sometimes, the level of activity of one or a few basic emotions rises until the individual seems to be flooded by a certain emotion, or a specific mixture. This condition is usually of only a short duration. However, when the homeostasis controls fail, it can last a whole hour or even longer.

Usually, even the highest levels of emotions experienced in daily life by adults are not so intense and do not flood the individual. When they do occur, one can discern in them the simultaneous expression of three or four basic emotions.

For instance, when injustice is inflicted upon us, we feel intense anger that usually "leads" the resulting "emotional convoy". Nearly always this "convoy" includes sorrow for what has been done. Frequently these two emotions are accompanied by helplessness, especially if it was a happening we had foreseen but could not prevent or if we could not extract ourselves from a bad situation. Very often we also feel shame or regret too - if there was an opportunity to evade the disaster which we neglected or overlooked. Sometimes, the emotional convoy includes hatred toward the wrong-doer if he is perceived as an enemy or a rival.

The emotional experience

In daily life, we experience simultaneously the presence and activity of all the basic emotions. The results of their recent activity is experienced too, mostly as diminishing echoes. Occasionally, we label a mixture of basic emotions with a single emotional word taken from the list of pairs of emotional words that delineate the extremes of the basic emotional continuum.

Usually, but not always, a mixture is named after the most prominent basic emotion of that time, using words like: sorrow, happiness, pride, shame, fear, security, love, etc. At other times, we refer to a mixture by the name of a milder intensity of the emotional words that delineate basic emotions (i.e. sadness - instead of sorrow; contentment - instead of happiness; liking - instead of love; etc.).

As the number of verbal labels is scant, they are mostly used as pointers to a general direction of a "cloud" of emotional mixtures, without a detailed address for a specific one. When a more precise communication is needed - in life, prose, or poetry - a more pictorial language is used and detailed descriptions of the circumstance are added.

The system of basic emotions is responsible for the most fundamental assessments of life in each of us. Each of them is in charge of an aspect of life that is essential to our survival. The relevance of each event and aspect of the circumstances of the surrounding world - real and fictional, past or future, material or spiritual, directly or circumstantial - is scrutinized by the emotional system. It is assessed and tested simultaneously by all of the 15 or so basic emotions, for its relevance to the 15 aspects of life the basic emotions are monitoring. Part of the results of these assessments reaches our awareness.

The emotional experience we are usually aware of, such as emotion, sensation, feeling, mood, desire, felt sensation of the body and their like, is the main interface between the emotional system and the consciousness.

The combined emotional experience we are aware of at each moment is, in essence, like a parcel of 15 announcements delivered from the emotional subsystem to the subsystem of conscious processes (the aware cognitive15 processes). The flowing stream of emotional experience of which we are aware, is like the melody of a grand chorus containing 15 "voices" that are constantly "singing" to the awareness subsystem of the brain and mind (system).

We can regard the emotional experience we are aware of as the summing up of the plethora of the emotional information and processes we are not aware of. This emotional experience serves several main purposes:

    • When it is very intense, it is aimed at concentrating almost all the attention and other resources of the individual in order to deal with a condition suspected or decided upon as an emergency.
    • The different emotional intensities and qualities sum up and label the various happenings or other targets of assessment in order to influence their integration and further processing by other subsystems. These subsystems combine the 15 emotional "verdicts" with their own processing. They file them together in memory; use them in the shaping of ad hoc activation programs and the various programs they are based on; build with their "help" new programs and routines; use them to induce minute changes to the ongoing operations of the ad hoc activation programs that are responsible for actual behavior - the regular activities and the one-time ones. And most important of all - they are used as natural biofeedback in order to induce improvements, updates and amendments (accommodation and adaptation) into the emotional supra-programs(9) themselves.

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  • The enduring emotional experiences - and especially those that are with us for long stretches of time (usually called moods) - are like constant reminders (and verdicts) about the nature of the general condition of the facts of life. They are usually based on many erroneous judgments and illogical conclusions. For instance, an ongoing tension is like a constant sounding of an alarm to remind us that we are in a state of continuous danger. However, many people are extremely or at least excessively tense most of the time, even when they are in supremely secure conditions and benevolent environments.
  • The specific emotional experiences of a certain circumstance, with their unique quality and their relative intensities, label both the situation as a whole and its various components. Thus they contribute to the assessment of the relative importance of various components of the situation and its importance in comparison with other situations, past and future.
  • The emotional experiences and moods of various intensities and durations, are one of the most important means of demarcating the long lasting aspirations of the individual. They are also used to discern the long lasting ones from those of the short term.
  • The most prominent function of the emotional experience is to attract our attention and so divert part of it - or most of it when needed - from other ongoing activities, and focus it on a specific target in order to deal with it more favorably. The added resources may be used to influence behavior, thinking, expressions, the further development of subjective experience itself and a plethora of other processes that do not engage awareness directly.
  • The sharp changes in the emotional experience we are aware of, which occur very frequently to some of us and less so for the majority, are a means for hasty changes in focus of attention. Sometimes these sharp changes even transform abruptly the whole state of mind.
  • Whether the emotional experiences emerge sharply or gradually, when they are strong, last long enough and are of the appropriate quality, they may dominate awareness for short or even long periods of time... and not let us forget.
  • The less dramatic and less prominent milder or "mini" changes in the emotional experience, which do not have a crucial quality, do not dominate the awareness processes and do not receive exclusive attention. They are treated as more or less important announcements, according to their specific nature, to be joined and processed together with the other ongoing preoccupations of the brain and mind system.
  • Prolonged emotional experiences, usually called moods, are used for recruiting most of the flexible brain resources (not tied up at the time with more urgent tasks) for dealing with a specific problem (mostly in the background). The consolidating of a "family" of emotional mixtures, as a mood, is a kind of "declaration" by the emotional subsystem: It specifies chronically, recurrently or for a specific period, that something important must be done, or that a certain central problem must be solved.
  • The emotional experience, with its various intensities, qualities, durations, etc. is the means by which the genetic apparatus (supposed by some to be shaped by the "natural selection of the species") directs us to survive.

Actually, the emotional subsystem and the aware experiences
it creates is the main (and may be the only)
motivation system of the individual.

In essence, we are not "programmed by our nature" and not educated by our upbringing to do specific things in a specific manner. What we are really shaped into is to feel certain things in certain circumstances, to strive to keep the emotional experience felt within specific boundaries, and to acquire proficiencies (and short cuts) that help us to achieve this aim.

It means that we are not directed to achieving a plethora of specific aims but to preferring certain emotional qualities. Our main survival programs are not intended to achieve specific conditions and perform specific acts, but to achieve more flexible and "abstract" targets of emotional experiences. The best means for this mission is the ability to improvise, based on the plethora of emotional supra-programs built and improved during life.

next: The Activation Programs

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2009, January 12). The Emotions, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: July 22, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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