Dr. C. George Boeree

So far, our theory is rather cold and mechanical. What about feelings? Well, they're there, to some degree, in every interaction.

Imagine this: In the middle of the night, you get a bad case of the munchies. So you leave your bed and head for the fridge. It's very dark, but you know your apartment like the back of your hand, so you don't bother with the lights. The coffee table is in the middle of the room and you anticipate its presence and maneuver around it. Perhaps you reach out your hand to touch the edge to confirm your anticipation. You're almost there - five more feet to the fridge - when WHAM! you walk into a solid six foot...something: The unanticipated!

What do you feel at that moment? Perhaps fear, surprise, perhaps sheer terror. Whatever it is, it is rather unpleasant. Let's call it distress.

You are, at the same time, busy "generating anticipations" -- making guesses about the nature of the beast, taking actions that might alleviate some of your fears, dashing for the light switch. The lights come on... you're expecting a sex-crazed psycho-killer....

And lo and behold, it's the fridge. You cleaned behind it for the first time in 30 years and left it pulled out. Now how do you feel?

Perhaps you feel relief, a sensation of pleasant resolution. You heave a great sigh, perhaps laugh. Things make sense again. Life is on the right path again. Let's call it delight.

(Note that you might still feel some negative emotion as well, as soon as the initial relief is behind you - like annoyance at your own stupidity. That problem has yet to be resolved!)

Another example: Notice the people coming off one of the "sooper-dooper" roller coasters. Notice their frozen smiles. That's their way of saying "yes! I am alive!"

Let's be more precise: When interaction is problematic, we feel distress. For example, (1) when we fail to anticipate something--like the fridge in our face--we are distressed.

We also feel distress when (2) we anticipate more than one thing at the same time: conflicting anticipations. Which of your roommates is actually the chain-saw killer? Each time you are alone with one of them, you don't know whether to feel secure or to run like the blazes.

And (3) we also feel it when we are faced by general uncertainty: Which way is that cockroach, or rat, or snake going to move next? Perhaps this is the root of our common phobias of these delightful creatures.

Distress can be mild, an irritation or annoyance: When your pen runs out of ink just as you sign the receipt at the local supermarket.

It can be a bit more intense: The frustration of you car breaking down; the fear as your car careens out of control on the highway; the disgust you feel when you discover that your lover bites the heads off of live chickens.

Delight is the resolution of our distressful problems. We are, actually, developing or elaborating our understanding of the world when we feel delight. Delight is the emotional side of adaptation, of (believe it or not!) learning.

It too can be mild: The pleasant feeling of finishing a crossword puzzle or winning at a game or sport. Or it can be a bit more intense, like the relief you feel when you realize that the roller-coaster only felt like it was leaving the tracks; or the joy of scientific discovery, artistic creation, or a mystical experience.

Notice that since solving problems requires having problems, delight depends on distress. Even physical pleasure seems to work like this: You enjoy it more after doing without it for a while, whether "it" is food, drink, or sex! Too much of it, and it doesn't seem to satisfy quite so well. (Note that our response to this is often to try doing it even more! Hence some of our neurotic attitudes towards sex, food, gambling, attention....)

Facing a problem doesn't cause distress - it is distress. The distress is just the feeling-side of the situation. The same points apply to delight. It isn't caused by problem-resolution, it is problem-resolution. And distress and delight don't cause you to seek a solution; they are not "motivating forces."

But there's no doubt that the situations in which you feel distress may be ones that you avoid in the future. Or, if they resulted in delight, they may be ones you seek out in the future. It is the anticipation of distress or delight that is motivating.

Anxiety is the distressful anticipation of distress. From experience, you expect that the situation before you will be unpleasant. This expectation is itself unpleasant: it conflicts with your desire to be a happy, carefree individual. And, often, you try to avoid the situation.  Anticipating final exams illustrates the idea perfectly.

Hope is the delightful anticipation of delight. From experience, the problem before you will be resolved, and this is a happy thought. Depending on details, we could also call this eagerness, or even anxiety, as in "I'm anxious to get started!"

Now, the "basic" distress and delight don't usually happen at the same time, since one is the problem and the other the solution. But anticipatory distress and delight - that is, anxiety and hope - often happen at the same time. We call this "mixed emotions."

Skimming across deep water on little sticks at 30 miles per hour can make you nervous; water-skiing, on the other hand, sounds like fun. You feel both anxiety and eagerness. You decision whether to try it will be based on how these two balance out for you. Notice I said "for you." The decision is very much a subjective one, based on what makes you anxious and and what makes you eager.

Anticipation can also help us make sense of other emotions, such as anger. Anger is distress with an expectation of external change. The problem is "out there" and anger is the build-up of energy needed to solve it. Just try to hold back a baby from crawling, and see what you get.

Sadness is distress with an expectation of internal change. The problem is "in here." I realize that I must adapt to it. Grief is the most obvious example: You can't get them back; you can only learn to live with their absence. Many of our major learning experiences involve sadness, such as coming to understand our own limitations, or the limitations of our loved ones, for example.

Notice that anger is a little more hopeful; sadness is a little harder to take. People tend to be angry at things before they settle down to accept what they can't change. That says something very important about us: We resist major changes in the self; If possible, we try to make the world fit our expectations.

Sometimes people persist in these emotional states. A person who is always trying to make the world - especially others - fit his expectations we call aggressive, and his emotional state hostile.. Often, what he really needs to do is change himself, adapt to the situation. But for some reason - his culture, for example - giving-in is taboo. Like physical pleasures, when it doesn't work right, we do what we always do, only more!

Likewise, a person who is always trying to make himself fit the world - and especially others' expectations - we call compliant and his emotional state is commonly depressed. He is always trying to adjust himself to others, when often what he needs is to get angry.

Most common of all is avoidance: When we see a problem coming, we give in to our anxiety and run away, physically or psychologically. With avoidance, we are really trying to get out of an emotional situation and back into a peaceful state. Unfortunately, if you avoid problems and their distress, you also avoid the delight of solutions. Think of some of the common "psychological" ways we avoid life's problems: Alcohol, drugs, television. The goal of avoidance is to be unconscious, or at least unconscious of problems.

These three "types" - aggressive, compliant, and avoiding - are so common that a number of theorists have independently come up with them (Adler, Horney, Fromm, and others). These types may even have a genetic component to them, so that some of us are more likely to deal with our problems by turning to aggression, others with compliance, still others with avoidance.

More mature people tend to take on problems with an eye towards a solution: They face distress and anxiety with hope and eagerness. This takes a little something special: an ability to focus on your goals, and to ignore the pains of getting there. This has been called will-power, self-discipline, need for achievement, delay-of-gratification, and emotional intelligence. I just call it will.

Theories about emotions

It has always been assumed that the first thing that happens is that we have the experience an emotion, and then and only then do we start reacting to the situation physiologically.  But over a hundred years ago, William James, the father of American psychology, and Carl Lange, a Danish psychologist, separately introduced the idea that we have it all backwards:  First, they said, we have physiological responses to a situation, and only then do we use those responses to formulate an experience of emotion.  This is called the James-Lange theory.

Walter Cannon and Phillip Bard came up with a variation on the James-Lange idea in 1929:  They suggested that there are neural paths from our senses that go in two directions.  One goes to the cortex, where we have a subjective experience, and one goes to the hypothalamus, where the physiological processes begin.  In other words, the experience of an emotion, and the physiological responses occur together.  This is (as you might expect by now) called the Cannon-Bard theory.

In 1937, James Papez noted that the physiological side of emotion is not just a matter of the hypothalamus, but is a complex network of neural pathways -- the Papez circuit.  In 1949, Paul McLean completed and corrected Papez’s ideas, and called the larger complex the limbic system, which is what we call it today.  It included the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, and is tightly connected with the cingulate gyrus, the ventral tegmental area of the brain stem, the septum, and the prefrontal gyrus.

Paul McLean is also the founder of the triune brain theory.  He suggested that there is a certain evolutionary quality to the structure of the brain.  Reptiles, he said, function entirely in terms of instinct, and their brains are little more than what we call the brain stem in people.  He called it the archipallium or reptilian brain, and it includes the medulla, cerebellum, the pons, and the olfactory bulbs.  Above this is the paleopallium, or old mammalian brain.  This is the limbic system and the portions of the brain we call the old cortex.  Of course, this adds emotions to the reptilian picture, and allows for simple learning.  And on top of the paleopallium is the neopallium (aka new mammalian or rational brain, or neocortex).  This is where more advanced activities occur, including awareness.  McLean adds that, in human beings, these three “brains” don’t always behave cooperatively, which leads to some of the unique problems we have!

Basic emotions

One question that is asked repeatedly is “what are the basic emotions?”  There have been dozens of answers to this, none of which have been completely satisfying.  This is, no doubt, due to the fact that emotional response is complex to begin with, and is made even more complex by the fact that we add our thoughts and interpretations to them as well as just “experiencing” them as they are.  I suggest that we can organize emotions into seven families:

The Surprise Family

surprise, startle, astonishment
bewilderment, confusion, shock
The Fear Family
fear, threat, terror
doubt, caution, suspicion
The Anger Family
anger, rage, frustration
hatred, hostility
envy, jealousy
disgust, contempt, annoyance, indignation
The Sadness Family
sadness, sorrow, depression
anguish, despair
grief, loneliness
shame, embarrassment, humiliation
guilt, remorse, regret
The Eagerness Family
eagerness, anticipation, excitement, confidence
curiosity, interest
The Happiness Family
happiness, elation, joy, gladness
contentment, satisfaction
self-satisfaction, pride
love, affection, compassion
amusement, humor, laughter
The Boredom Family
boredom, ennui, complacency
That pretty much covers all the bases, I think, without getting too technical about it.  But we will see what future research has to say!

©Copyright 2002, 2009, C. George Boeree