What Emotions Do for Us


The philosopher René Descartes and his famous saying, "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), laid the foundation for modernism. With modernism came the assumption that thoughts trump emotions and are our most sophisticated human faculty.

Today, many continue to believe that cognition is king and that we are wisest to control our emotions. In the field of mental health, thoughts have been deemed most important by popular forms of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and rational emotive behavior therapy.

Growing Acknowledgement of the Importance of Emotions

The idea that thoughts rule emotions has become less popular over time, especially in fields such as psychology and neuroscience. Emotional intelligence is a term made popular by psychologist Daniel Goldman's book on the subject and has gained considerable attention since then. Emotional intelligence involves being in touch with one's own emotions as well as those of others, and knowing how to best utilize emotions in decision making and action taking. 

Emotionally focused therapy is one of the most well-researched forms of couples therapy, and as its name implies, it works with a sharp focus on the emotional experience of each partner. Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist and researcher on emotions, points to the evolutionary importance of emotions and indicates that we are about as likely to be able to stop our emotions as we are to stop ourselves from sneezing.

Despite how often people believe that we can outsmart our emotions, we simply cannot. With greater ​attention on emotions in general, there has been more of a focus on emotions in the field of mental health.

What Emotions Do for Us

A very simplified explanation of what emotions do follows. The emotional area of our brain, known as the amygdala, sends signals to our bodies based on situations that we find ourselves in. Such signals prepare us to deal with the situations that we encounter.

Picture the mother who finds her child at risk: her fear causes a flood of hormones and brain chemicals to wash over her body, and she is suddenly stronger, sharper and faster as a result of this physiological process. We can thank the brain structures involved with emotions for the safety of her child.

There are still many unanswered questions about emotions. But, with greater attention to this critical aspect of our human experience, scientists are learning more.

The Physically Felt Experience of Emotions

In the quest to learn more about emotions, Finnish scientists have learned that people report that emotions register in their bodies in a relatively universal way across several different cultures. Even though respondents did not completely experience each emotion physically in the same way, researchers found common patterns in the way that basic emotions were physically felt. 

Depression, for example, dulled feelings throughout the body, whereas fear lit up sensations in the chest area. Happiness and love were two experiences that activated the entire body.

This research sheds a whole new light of possibility on the idea that love can help us heal. It is also consistent with Damasio's proposal that our brains consciously identify emotions based on the physical sensations that we experience. 

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Article Sources

  • Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., & Hietanen, J. (2013) Bodily Maps of Emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 1-6.