Emotions are a preparation for action with an expectation that the action will meet a need. Sounds simple, deceptively simple. One of the useful aspects of recent research in psychology is the focus on the emotional brain (often called the ‘limbic system’) or that part of the brain that operates largely automatically and without the influence of the rational thinking part of the brain. Another useful recent focus is the role context plays in our understanding of the brain. Up until fairly recently, cognition (knowing or perceiving) was thought of as an essentially individual affair – what’s going on in a person’s head. However, we don’t think inside a vacuum, it takes place in a context, an environment of some sort. So these two aspects – the part of the brain that has first call on all sensory information and can act without much input from our thinking; and the notion of interaction with our environment, give us a good start in un-ravelling our definition of emotions.
Let’s look at the three parts of this definition. Firstly emotions prepare us for action. Now there is a chemical (neurotransmitter) explanation for this preparation; certain chemicals get us focused and moving, leading to the somewhat faulty view that if people can’t get focused or moving, it is a lack of certain motivating chemicals. If the problem is defined as a chemical one, it follows that the solution will be framed in chemical terms. However, unless we are in the business of marketing chemical treatments, this explanation has little benefit for people looking for a better understanding of emotions.
A better explanation of the preparation for action can be found in a basic law of organic life: every living thing interacts with its environment to get its need met. (I can feel another blog topic coming on already, and this from a reluctant blogger!) In other words we are interacting with our physical, social, personal, non-physical and even virtual environment all the time. Emotions are a vital part of that interaction, they stimulate the action around four basic drives – food, love, sex and achievement. So, emotions are more than chemistry, they are an essential part of staying alive by interacting with our environment.
Secondly, this interaction with our environment has a purpose: to get a need met. The need may be physical; hunger drives us to search for food, and the act of eating leaves us with a sense of having our appetite satisfied. Or, equally important is the range of non-physical or emotional needs; a need for connection with another person is satisfied with a sense of companionship driven by a powerful emotion called love. While physical needs have been understood for a long time, it is only recently that emotional needs have been recognised as an essential part of being human. For lower forms of organic life, survival is the main game, but with humans, they have more in mind than just staying alive. They need to flourish; to be challenged and solve problems; to feel in control and have some sense of autonomy; they need to derive meaning and significance from their interaction with their environment, and so on. Getting these needs met contributes to emotional wellness; not getting them met arouses the emotional brain to prepare for action, usually with a corresponding reduction in our capacity to think clearly. Remember, emotions are designed for action, not thinking. Raise the emotional arousal – such a someone ‘doing their block’ – and thinking virtually shuts down.
Now, for the third aspect of the definition – the expectation that the action will meet a need. Emotions are innate, they are purposeful (to get a need met), and they are below awareness in that they are pre-thought, pre language. Hunger carries an expectation eating will satisfy the need for food. Love carries the expectation that intimacy will satisfy a deep longing for such connection with another person. Expectation completes the sequence: emotion prepares us to do something; it carries an expectation of result; action usually results in the need being met. In this case the emotion is discharged, the expectation is fulfilled and validated (ready to have the same expectation again), and the need met. A healthy cycle, a characteristic of emotional wellness.