Neuroscientific perspectives on Emotions

3 December 2019, Comments: 0

Neuroscientific perspectives on Emotions


It was previously believed that emotions arose from deep primitive faculties in the brain, and that there are six or seven basic emotions which have to be tamed or controlled. This perspective is now referred to as the classic perspective. The contemporary perspective states that emotions do not arise from deep structures, in contrast with cognition. Emotions are instead viewed as cognitive processes, generated by our brains to match the situations we are in. Emotions are therefore not something that erupts like a volcano, they are rather the subjective and contextual meaning we attribute to affective feelings in the body. In other words: specific emotions arise as a result of what happens to me and around me.

This new perspective has significant consequences for the way we understand emotional intelligence. If emotions are not something we must learn to control, but instead something we generate, we have to learn to notice when and why we generate them. Learning about this and growing in emotional intelligence means something quite different than in the classical perspective. Furthermore, we now know that emotions are of the utmost importance for human actions, because we primarily use our intuition, rather than reason, to try and understand our world. 



Since European philosophy emerged in ancient Greece, emotions have been regarded as something animalistic and opposed to reason. Paul MacLean’s triune brain hypothesis, which he developed in the last half of the 20th century, has had an impressive impact on formal psychology and in the wider world. MacLean’s hypothesis is that the human brain is divided into three evolutionary layers. The R-complex, which is the reptilian part of the brain, the limbic system, which is the mammalian emotional part of the brain, and the neocortex, which is the human rational part of the brain. The first problem with this is that humans are not descended from reptiles, so we can’t have a reptilian brain. The second problem is that other animals also have a cortex and that primates, apes and other mammals have a neocortex. 

The tide turned when neurologist Antonio Damasio’s book, Decartes Error, was published in 1997. In this book, Damasio describes how patients with damage to structures that play a role in emotional processing were not able to make decisions. Decisions were previously believed to be a cognitive process and not an emotional one. Damasio re-wrote René Decartes’ famous quote “I think, therefore I am”, by saying “I feel, therefore I am”. Both the neurosciences and the cognitive sciences have recently been through a major transformation, moving from classical dogmas on rational thinking, reason and knowledge, to a more evolutionary perspective. Humans are not as smart as they think, and our cognitive abilities did not evolve to find the truth about the world, instead “[the mind] is a flexible problem solver that evolved to extract only the most useful information to guide decisions in new situations” (Sloman & Fernbach 2017;5).

According to the classical perspective, the faculties found in the limbic system are the root cause of emotions. Findings from functional neuroimaging, on the other hand, indicate that emotional processes and cognitive processes are always present at the same time (Pessoa 2013, 2014). In the classical perspective, emotions arise from subconscious layers and are therefore not conscious until after they have emerged. In the contemporary perspective, emotions seem to be a higher order phenomenon, meaning that emotions are constructed in neocortical circuits in the same way as higher order conscious experience like reason (LeDoux & Brown 2017).  

The latest research on overall brain function suggests that the brain, rather than being a passive stimulus-response machine, is an active inference system (Bubic et. al. 2010, Feldman & Friston 2010, Friston 2012). The brain tries to predict incoming sensory stimuli, as well as the preferred motor-response to the upcoming situation, before an event occurs. We might experience that, for example, when we feel dizzy after standing up too fast due to a loss of blood pressure in our head. The brain needs to predict the state of the body for all future processes in order to make sure that the optimal state is in place at the exact moment it is needed and not a few seconds after. This means that when we stand up the brain needs to know before you might make this conscious decision so that it can signal to the heart and blood vessels to increase blood pressure. 

And in the same way, the brain also tries to predict which emotional state is most suitable for the situation you might find yourself in within the next few seconds. That is why we might feel that emotions take control over us, because we feel that the emotions guide our actions. In reality, however, it most likely occurs the other way around (Laird 2007). The James/Lange theory of emotions was the first serious break with the classical perspective. In the late 1880’s, American psychologist William James and the Danish physician Christoffer Lange independently proposed a new theory of emotions. We run and then we get scared. We smile and then we get happy. We do good deeds and then we feel good. Emotions are a somatic (bodily) phenomenon and therefore involve the activation of both motor and autonomic processes in the body. 


The biased animal

In the classical perspective, reason is something that is unique to humans. That perspective has recently changed. It is believed today that reason is flawed, biased and intuitive – not caused by logical deduction (Mercer & Sperber 2017). Robert Burton has convincingly shown that being certain is not due to a deductive logical process of conscious reasoning but to unconsciously produced cognitive feelings (Burton 2008, 2010). We don’t think we are certain, we feel certain, and that is why it is so hard to convince someone that they are wrong, because we don’t hold our beliefs in a conscious space of the mind, we just feel intuitively that we are right, and therefore we build our arguments around that feeling. That is precisely why psychologists say that reason is both biased and lazy. Instead of questioning our beliefs, we find ways to justify them.

Because reason is intuitive, emotional and highly flawed, only people with a certain level of emotional intelligence are able to see how much of their instinctive reasoning is irrational. Mercer and Sperber have argued that the evolutionary purpose of reasoning is not to inquire into the wonders of the world, but to convince others and yourself about your reasons. Reasoning therefore has a social purpose. Sloman and Fernbach have reached a similar conclusion about knowledge from a slightly different angle. They define knowledge as something that we do not produce as individuals. Knowledge is a social phenomenon, and therefore we know as groups, not as individuals, because this knowing is a feeling (Sloman & Fernbach 2017).    


The body is where feelings emerge

Without the ability to feel our bodies, we cannot feel our emotions. For many years researchers believed that the thick diameter lemniscal fibers ascending up through the spinal cord to the somatosensory cortex conveyed precise and objective feelings from the body. Researchers have since found that this is not the case. Small diameter lamina I fibers innervate all tissues in the body and transmit rich, highly subjective input to an area of the forebrain called the anterior Insular cortex (AIC). The AIC processes these rich, subjective feelings about the homeostatic condition of most of the tissues in the body (Craig 2014). And according to one of the discoverers, Alexander Craig, the evolution of emotions has its basis in homeostatic regulation of the body. When the body is safe, well-regulated and energized, we feel good. In fact, the sense of self might derive from the fact that we feel a physical body (Craig 2009). 


The brain is just part of it

Affective feelings from the body are not the same as the emotions we experience. Emotions are multicomponential (Russel 2015;188). Schacter and Singer have argued this very elegantly in an experiment about arousal and the emotional categories we attach to this experience. Subjects was injected with adrenalin to create an aroused state in their bodies. One group was exposed to an exhilarated confederate, the other group to an angry one. The group exposed to the exhilarated confederate reported feeling exhilarated or elated, the group exposed to the angry confederate reported feelings of anger (Schacter & Singer 1980). 

Theories of constructed emotions claim that emotions are based on lingual categories, for instance fear. Fear is not a feeling, fear is a word, a concept, that we have learned to attach to certain affective states of the body. A high blood pressure and a racing heart don’t necessarily mean that we are afraid, it could just mean that we have been running up the stairs. But if we are not too keen on visiting the person at the fifth floor, our elevated arousal, due to the physical effort of climbing the stairs, might make us dislike the visit even more. According to some theories of constructed emotions, there are three vital components in every construction of an emotion. Every emotional episode is constructed by (1) representing basic sensory information from the world; (2) representing basic interoceptive information from the body; and (3) making meaning of internal and external sensations by activating stored representations of prior experience (Oosterwijk et. al. (2015). These three components can be referred to as “exteroception”, “core affect” and “conceptualisation”. What we end up thinking we feel is based upon the situation, our past experiences with similar situations and the internal state of our body. If we are full of energy, we might not dread an unpleasant conversation as much as if we are low on energy. 

Contrary to the classical perspective, emotions seem to be produced by the same networks of the brain as other cognitive events, for instance thinking (Kleckner & Quigley 2015). The executive control network, located in the prefrontal cortex, plays a major part in the foundation of emotions. This contradicts the common belief that it is the so-called emotion centre in the middle of the brain that produces emotions and that the role of the prefrontal cortex is then to inhibit these emotions.  


Affective realism

The brain is believed to be a prediction system that tries to predict the future all the time, and the same goes with emotions (Barret et. al. 2015). Every time we step into a situation, the brain tries to predict what is going to happen next based on prior experience of similar situations, combined with cues from the current situation and our bodily state. This is why we so often construct the same emotions in similar situations, and why it is so hard to change how we feel in certain situations. We are, in other words, always a few steps behind our brain. We can, however, start to take notice of the fact that we don’t get controlled by emotions but instead construct them. We tend to go along with our emotions because the bodily affect that accompanies them  is so strong and we therefore believe them to be true, although we may in fact be experiencing a case of affective realism. 

Affective realism has been studied in different contexts, and in one particular study the evidence was overwhelming. Researchers found that thousands of rulings by judges where strongly correlated with lunch time and concluded that this couldn’t be a coincidence. In turned out that none of the inmates were granted parole before lunch, but after lunch most were granted parole. The study strongly indicates that low blood sugar and mental fatigue made the judges perceive the inmates as untrustworthy – showing the unfortunate downside of affective realism (Danziger et. al. 2011). The affect (low blood sugar and tiredness) became the reality. Recent studies have found that our evaluation of faces is significantly influenced by bodily affect (Wormwood et. al. 2018; Siegel et. al. 2018). Deciding whether a person’s face is neutral or slightly angry/unpleasant depends on the state of the observer’s body.  

We can learn to become more emotionally intelligent if we train our attention and learn to focus at the same time on both the core bodily affect (interoception) and the signs of the situation we are stepping into (exteroception). We must learn to wait rather than to draw biased conclusions about what we believe to be the reality of the situation. This process is sometimes called emotional reappraisal (van´t Wout et. al. 2010). 

In fact, interoceptive awareness (awareness of the body) has been correlated with many positive features such as better affect and emotion regulation (Craig 2015), as well as better decision making (Dunn et. al. 2010). Bodily states also have a significant effect on cognition in general (Critchley & Garfinkel 2018).

For example, a study has found that when the heart beats (systolic) we notice danger, and when the heart is at rest (diastolic) we notice features that are not dangerous (Garfinkel et. al. 2014). If we then step into a situation without knowing the effect our heartbeat has on our perception of the world, we might begin to notice threats where there are none. This might also be one of the reasons why we so often end up in conflicts with other people when we are stressed, because elevated stress levels increase heart rate.    


Ahead of the body

Every moment offers us a possibility to learn (Clark 2016). In fact, the brain always learns by trying to reduce the difference between its predictions and reality. This means that we can become conscious learners when we start to notice the relationship between body, mind and world. But the brain doesn’t only try to predict perceptions of the world, it might also predict the state of the body (Barret & Simmons 2015). That is why, for example, we become hungry a few hours after breakfast, even though our bodies can go for days without food. The problem is that, as well as often making bad predictions about exteroceptive perceptions (what is outside of us), the brain can also easily make bad predictions about bodily states. 

As Barret and Simmons argue, the physiological pathologies of disorders like depression involve the interoceptive network. The interoceptive network is critical to predicting the state of the body. The same accounts for metabolic disorders. The brain predicts that the body needs energy even though it doesn’t, and then feelings of food craving are developed into an emotional episode of feeling hungry, accompanied by activation of core motivational networks. The motivational activation is hard to resist so we eat. Emotional intelligence therefore seems to be very much connected to our ability to tune in to what is happening around us and in us at each moment, in order to keep our brains from going on autopilot.  



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Johan Mellerup Trækjær

I am currently an assistant professor at University College South Denmark, working in the fields of action research, organisational psychology and cognitive science. I have provided consulting for many major organisations and institutions. My background is in military and security services. 

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