The messiness of human emotion

I was thinking about emotions the other day. Quite randomly, I pondered these feelings (turns out they are not really feelings) and their use to us. Today I want to share my thoughts. Let’s start at the beginning. There are six basic emotions – happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise and anger. Beyond these, researchers have identified at least 21 additional distinctive emotions that can be derived from the primal six emotions. This made me wonder. What is the evolutionary purpose of emotions? Why do we feel? A quick Google search provided some insights.

Animals feel

Emotions are not distinctively human. (In fact, it is said that the only two distinctive features of humans are that we cook food and are intensely evil. Ouch.) Emotions, on the other hand, can be found throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in mammals. This tells us there is some evolutionary purpose behind it. They must trigger some survival mechanism in the brain that allows us to control our interactions with the environment.

Coping mechanism

Darwin was the first person to propose that human emotions have evolved throughout history. Each emotion then has been shaped by natural selection as a coping mechanism to meet the demands of our environments. As any self-help book will tell you, emotions are much more about what is in your body than what is in your mind. They regulate the body in line with environmental cues. For example:

  • Fear = to cope with danger. The eyes widen, and the digestive system shuts down (so that more blood is available for the extremities). The emotion of fear prepares our body to fight or flee.
  • Disgust = to cope with poisonous foods. The openings of the face automatically narrow when you feel disgusted to protect you from inhaling any potentially dangerous fumes.

Communicative tool

More research is needed on the physiological purposes of some emotions. Happiness, for example, does not trigger any noticeable physical responses. My own little thought would be that the absence of threat would laps the body into repair mode. But besides being a coping mechanism, research found that emotions are also a communicative tool. Just look at these examples:

  • Sadness = to gain sympathy. Tears block the vision, which have no real purpose to us in isolation. But in a community setting, they say to others that we are vulnerable and need protection.
  • Anger = to signal dominance. Anger again appears to have no use in isolation. But the clenching jaw and upright (fighting) position signal to your peers that you are not to be messed with.

The messiness begins

Fast forward about 200,000 years later and things become messy. Really messy. We all know that evolution is playing catch-up with our modern-day environment. Eating all the fruit you could find in prehistory times was a smart survival tactic. Eating an entire roll of biscuits nowadays is detrimental to our health. The same goes for our emotions. Sadness has a function. Depression doesn’t. Equally fear has a use to us, whereas anxiety doesn’t. Our modern-day environment emits cues that are processed by the brain in a way that was useful millions of years ago. Now our ancient brains cause an epidemic of depression and anxiety.

It is not a feeling

During my stint with severe anxiety, I learned that stress causes a highly intricate bodily chain reaction. Hormones are emitted in response to environmental cues. The body doesn’t differentiate here between the approach of a sabre tooth tiger or a nearing deadline. Then these hormones cause all sorts of different bodily reactions (check out my article on the physiology of stress to learn more). In prehistoric times the sabre tooth tiger would eventually walk away (or eat you!). In modern times, there is always another deadline luring or a trend not to be missed or a stream of information to consume. Our primal brain is bombarded with cues that emit a stress response. So, our body is constantly in a state of fear (stress is a form of fear) without any real danger lurking. We are suffering as a result of a rapidly changing environment that the slow process of evolution cannot keep up with. In other words, emotions have become messy.

There you have it. My little exposé on the messiness of human emotions. I find it fascinating to ponder about the way that ancient mechanisms shape and dictate our interactions with the environment. How whenever we allude to ourselves as sophisticated, our primal brains whips us right back into primitivity.

I would love to know if you ever think about emotions in this way. And what is your favourite emotion?

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