Emotions, particularly those that are subconscious, were not seriously studied by the scientific community until relatively recently. For much of the 20th century, psychologists were more interested in studying our conscious awareness and didn’t think that it really mattered what might be going on beneath the surface of consciousness.
Paul Ekman has gained a great deal of notoriety recently (the new TV show “Lie to Me” is based on his work) and his pioneering work demonstrated that people from all of the different cultures of the world experience and show the same emotions via their facial expressions. His work is detailed in his book, Emotions Revealed, and is fascinating reading. Dr. Ekman and others have also conducted research that shows that emotions cause very specific reactions in the body that are distinct. In other words, emotions are universal and they are indelibly attached to specific physical reactions. This work has helped to explain why someone may develop back pain when angry and another person may develop headaches.
Another giant in the study of emotions has been Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University. Dr. LeDoux has done studies to help us understand how emotions are generated and processed in the brain. His excellent book, The Emotional Brain, details what we know about how the brain handles emotions and we have learned a lot!
We now know that emotions are part of our survival mechanism and are part of the brains of all creatures. We are hard wired to constantly scan the world around us for danger. We do this as part of being alive by subconscious brain mechanisms. When we encounter something that might be dangerous, such as a snake, a menacing look, or a car heading towards us, we instantly react (even before we are truly aware of the danger) in order to avert the danger and save our life. These reactions are controlled by the amygdala and the autonomic nervous system. We pick up cues to potential dangers and these nerve signals are instantly transferred to these centers; the amygdala is the center that processes emotions such as fear and anger and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our heart, lungs, bowels, bladder, blood vessels and muscles. The ANS acts to generate the fight or flight reaction (actually the fight, flight or freeze reaction), which causes our bodies to react to danger. These systems operate in all creatures on a subconscious basis, meaning we are not consciously aware of these systems. Continue reading