Here we are, mostly stuck indoors for the immediate future due to COVID-19, seemingly repeating the same sick day over and over again.
How do you feel? Amused, stressed, confused? Either way, you felt something, an emotion of some kind. That’s how that works, right? You react very naturally to certain stimuli with emotions and then they just happen to you? Well, perhaps that isn’t quite what happens and you may have more power over your emotions than you assume, even in the context of cake.
According to classical psychological theories, emotions can be split into three main components:
- Conscious experience: Most of the time, you can tell how you feel. You know when you are happy because someone offers you cake vs when you are upset because the cake is taken away from you.
- Physiological arousal: Your body reacts to emotions in predictable ways. For example, if you are given cake, endorphins (feel good hormones) will be released because you are looking at a delicious cake.
- Expressive behaviour: This is what you do when you feel an emotion. You will swiftly devour every last bit of that cake.
(Do you feel like cake now?)
Generally speaking, expressive behaviour has more variation across cultures so can differ from person to person. Conscious experience and physiological arousal show more signs of universality including commonality as to where people experience emotions in their body. In the image below you can see where emotions are “felt” in the body, and this appears to be common across cultures. When someone claims to have “butterflies in the stomach” for example, they are actually feeling something there.
Imagine it is your birthday. Your family have mumbled through the song and you are about to cut the cake (the stimulus); you can see and smell it just under your nose (perception). At this point, common sense would suggest that you are excited to eat the cake and so your physiological response is an increase in heart rate. William James and Carl Lange suggest that the physiological response would happen first, followed by the emotion. This would become known as the James-Lange theory of emotion. Later, this was developed further by Stanley Schachter who suggested that it is not only the physiological arousal that leads to emotion but also the initial perception of the stimuli that leads to the end emotion.
Essentially, the Schacter-Singer two-factor theory of emotion suggests that your brain attempts to figure out what emotion is most appropriate given the context of the perception and the physiological arousal. It is because there is cake in front of you that you interpret the increased heart rate as excitement. In a different context, an increased heart rate may be due to a scary movie and the emotion that follows might be fear. In both the contexts of cake and a scary movie, the physiological arousal is that of an increased heart rate. However, it is because of the difference in context that the emotions felt are different.
That might be difficult to get your head around so here is a diagram to illustrate:
Emotions under construction
The theories in the image above run alongside some major assumptions
- That emotions are genetic.
- There are specific circuits within our brains representing different emotions such as happiness, sadness and so on.
- Emotions are discrete states.
The theory of constructed emotion suggests something different.
In accordance with this theory, an emotion is a spontaneous construct formed by several regions of the brain as it interprets an instance of a continuous physical sensation in your body. The emotion itself is a link between what your body is feeling and what is going on in the world around you, so you know how to react. It is constructed by making predictions on how you should feel based on previous personal as well as cultural experiences.
For example, if you were to walk into a patisserie you would predict to find all sorts of lovely cakes (the stimulus) inside. As a reaction to this prediction, your body starts to prepare to eat cake by salivating and activating your stomach. This is what constructs the feeling of hunger. However, under a different set of predictions, the same activation in your stomach can be interpreted as churning and create the emotion of nervousness or worry.
This is very similar to the Schacter-Singer two-factor theory of emotion in the sense that a very similar physiological response may have two entirely different emotional outputs based on the context of the situation. The key difference being that the theory of constructed emotion runs on predictions about continuous feelings.
You make your own emotions
Understanding how emotions work through the theory of constructed emotion and the Schacter-Singer two factor theory empowers you. That is because you realise that you are not powerless in the face of emotions that you may experience, and you have more power over how you feel. This does not mean that people can suddenly bring themselves out of depression. Through, changing the fundamental mindset that causes the formation of certain predictions or cognitive labels, the output of emotion can also be changed for the better.
Just thinking about COVID-19 may bring a powerful heartbeat and cause anxiety or stress. But that same feeling in your heart can be interpreted as preparation to fight in a war against this pandemic and come out on top. It could be determination to win this war.
By changing your frame of mind, you can change your own emotions. Your emotions will change your outlook on life.
Stay calm and eat some cake!
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- The views expressed in this blog are of the author and not the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science or LSE.
- This blog post was originally written as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, a compulsory course on the BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science programme in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE. It has been published with the permission of the author. Visit the PBS website for more information on studying in the department: https://www.lse.ac.uk/PBS/Study.
- Image sourced via Canva.