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What are emotions, and why do we have them?

What are emotions, and why do we have them?

No absolutely agreed on definition for emotions exists. Many dictionaries refer to “feelings” or “moods” when defining the word; this further begs the question of what they are. Scientists who attempt to study emotional phenomena characterize them in terms of their particular interest, and thus, definitions change depending on whether the scientist is studying the biological, psychological, or social basis of emotions. This, of course, further complicates the understanding of emotions.

Historically, the mind was thought to be separate from the body and part of the soul. In fact, psyche is the Greek root for “soul”. With the advent of a more scientific understanding of the brain and mind, some scientists attempt to liken the mind to software and the brain to hardware. In actuality, however, it is not quite so simple. A simultaneous change in brain activity accompanies every change in thought, feeling, perception, or action. Today, scientists increasingly appreciate the fact that no sharp demarcation exists between the brain and the mind.

Despite the fact that mind and brain are essentially unified, drawing a boundary between the two allows for practical differences between them to be conceptualized in everyday lives. For example, such a boundary permits distinction between acts and motives. Distinguishing acts from motives helps with negotiation through everyday social interactions. For example, consider the feelings generated when standing in line and having your toes stepped on. With the immediate sensation of pain comes the feelings of shock, surprise, and probably anger. The feelings experienced are immediately followed by an assessment of the person’s motives or state of mind. Action on that assessment is guided by feelings. Emotions therefore serve to engage the body to act in some manner. The manner on which an action is taken usually carries some survival value to a given individual.

Thus, lack of emotions could be likened to the lack of physical pain sensation. There would be numbness to the environment and thus problems in interaction with it appropriately. Without the ability to feel anger, joy, sorrow, fear, or love, humans would be incapable of generating priorities to action. Emotions help to prioritize – to decide when to act and when not to act. Without such abilities, choosing between arrays of decisions that are confronted on a daily basis would be unfeasible.

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