Popularly emotions are described as good (joy, love, hope) and bad (anger, sadness, nastiness). Emotions are not good or bad, they are informative. The only “bad” emotion is one that is either too strong or too weak to be useful, while the only “good” emotion is one that informs you correctly about the situation you perceive. It is not the emotion, in general, that is good or bad, it is the situation that generated that emotion that is good or bad.
Emotions can be split into three major types:
1) Basic / Primary
Basic or Primary emotions have been studied around the world to try to get to the biological response that all humans have in common. The studies have attempted to take out cultural bias, age of the person (for the most part), and time in human history. On average the basic emotions are described as between 5 and 8 different basic emotions. For this article, I am going to use 6 – Anger, Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Surprise and Fear.
You may notice that only one of these is seen traditionally as “good” while the other five are traditionally seen as “bad”. This type cast is because on average we like to feel “joy” while we don’t like to feel any of the other five basic emotions. If I could choose which basic emotion I was feeling, “joy” certainly would be the one I pick.
Liking our emotions isn’t really what our emotions are for though. Our emotions are here to inform us about the world we perceive. “Perceive” is the key word here, as it isn’t what we sense at all. Our senses give us raw data about the world we live in, in a timely sense, which has no bearing on the past or future. This raw sensory information is filtered, passed through a pattern recognition section of our brain (which is generated via our past experiences) to create a prediction for what is coming such that we can act now to survive.
As a slight aside, consider that everything you see and hear right now is in the past. You can not sense the present as by the time the information gets to your body (let alone your brain), the thing that has occurred has already occurred, it isn’t occurring. We are always slightly behind what is going on. If we try to catch a falling ball based on the assumption that what we are sensing is happening now, we will never catch the ball because the place we move our hand to the ball has already passed. To catch that ball, we need to predict where the ball will be, not know where it has been. Then we can move our hand to where the ball will be and catch the not yet occurring event.
Now switch the ball heading towards us to a saber tooth tiger (mainly because I like saber tooth tigers). We only want to know where the tiger has been such that we can predict where it is likely to be, and for us to not be in those likely places. This keeps us alive instead of dead (when we are right).
To bring this back to emotion, one of the components of how we sort our senses is for our predictions to colour our sensory data with emotion. When we recognise a pattern from the past that hurt us, we predict that pain coming and taint the perceived current experience with the colour of fear. If we did not have that fear, we would not act to avoid the upcoming pain and we would be harmed. Seen in this light, it is clear that fear is working for our protection and safety rather than against it. This makes it “good”, right?
We often concatenate (that is put together and make as one) the situation that is good with the emotion we feel that tells us it is good, or alternately, the situation that is bad and the emotion that we feel that tells it is bad. We then mistakenly try to avoid or create the emotion instead of the situation. My intention here is to separate the emotion from the situation by understanding what the emotion is trying to tell you so that you can now use that source of information to analyse the situation you are in, and make intelligent decisions to act to change that situation into the situation you want, or preserve the situation if it is the situation you want.
As described above, the basic emotions are our biological survival mechanisms. These emotions are what helped each one of your ancestors get old enough to have at least one child, which eventually led to you. They must have done a pretty good job since you are alive to read this (I apologise to any undead who are reading this blog, but I have yet to receive proof of your existence – and technically your ancestors stayed alive long enough to produce you too).
The simple emotions are the culturally generated and acceptable emotions. Not all cultures share the same specific feelings or concepts. For example, razbliuto means the “feeling for someone you used to love but no longer do”, which is a single word in Russian, but is quite complex and poorly understood in English. Simple, but culturally specific. Often their are large amounts of overlap, such as guilt, shame, pity, tiredness and so on. Yet not all cultures express it the same way, or have these feelings triggered by the same stimuli.
Complex emotions involve complexity about what you feel based on what you are stimulated by, combined with distortions due to your past experiences or expected future ones. As I said, it’s complex. For example, the visceral feeling of fear you have in putting your hand in the outside bin to retrieve an item you accidentally threw out, complicated by your aversion to germs and cockroaches and knowing that often they inhabit these areas. Logically there will be germs, there may be cockroaches, but neither of these pose any significant threat to you. Yet if you have fears associated with these, your prediction of their presence creates an intense feeling of frozen fear baring you from retrieving that item, thus you accept that it is gone but kick yourself for being scared and wasting resources. Often you don’t analyse these complex emotions, so instead you just feel awful but don’t know why.
I will go into more depth about the basic six emotions I have hinted at above and throw in shame and guilt in a future blog.