When you’re feeling really angry, how do you know that you’re feeling that way? While this question might seem almost absurd, it actually points to something very deep and significant about emotions: they happen in our bodies. In the example of anger, you know that you’re angry because your brow is furrowed, your eyes are narrowed, your jaw is thrust forward, and your lips are tight. If it’s particularly strong anger, you may feel your heart pounding, a quickening of breath, and your fists clenching. The body is preparing you for a fight, and that is a signal both to yourself and others that you are angry.
Cognitively, you are aware of the reasons for the anger, but those reasons are not the emotion itself. That is found in the sensations of body. Charles Darwin was the first to write about emotions as embodied experiences, because he understood that emotions in humans must have evolved from similar emotions in animals. While lacking the high-powered cognitive capacity of a human being, animals have functionally equivalent bodies and seem to express some very similar emotions. The fact that emotions are expressed in the same ways by humans worldwide also points to their evolutionary origins. So when someone asks you how you are feeling emotionally, you may want to check in with your bodily sensations.
The idea that emotions occur in the body has been strongly criticized by some scientists, because early expressions of this idea (James/Lange theory) seemed to imply that the body was reacting on its own, without the involvement of the brain. Of course, it is the brain that evaluates the external situation and decides how to react, releasing the hormones and neurotransmitters that trigger the emotional response. The response itself, however, is expressed and felt in the body. This flies in the face of the common belief that emotions are cognitive events, and that people can accurately describe the reason that they are feeling a particular emotion. “I’m happy because I got a raise,” is a typical expression of a conscious reason behind an emotion. There are many situations, however, in which a person has no idea why they are feeling a particular emotion, or has the wrong idea about why they are feeling it. In these cases the evaluation that gave rise to the emotion occurred subconsciously, outside the person’s awareness, and the conscious reason given is a product of the imagination filling in a plausible, if erroneous, motivation.
photo by bing ramos