Friday, 20 March 2015

Classifying Different Emotions

We interact with many individuals daily and most of our interactions have an exchange of emotional expressions which we try to decipher. We too have experienced many, many emotions throughout our lives, yet only a few of us are experts in depicting and differentiating them. However, as with most things, we can learn to be better at emotions. But where to begin? Emotions are so complicated and confusing as there is a whole kaleidoscope of textures and nuances of what we can feel. Although these emotions may seem haphazard and disconnected, they actually are connected like colors of the rainbow, flowing into each other from on end to the other of the emotional spectrum. They just need be classified so that we can understand them better.

However understanding the realm of emotions is beset by an elemental difficulty: The meaning of words that refer to an emotion are so confusing that we hardly know what we are talking about.  Emotion terms, especially in English, are wildly ambiguous; what one calls envy would be jealousy for another. Even the current vernacular usage of some well defined emotions has changed. For example FEAR which meant as the emotional signal of physical danger to life or limb is now used to mask other emotions, expecially shame and humiliation. "I fear rejection" or "social fear" has nothing to do with danger of bodily harm, rather they refer to the anticipation of shame or humiliation.

Another large piece of evidence that disputes the universality of emotions is language. Differences in languages directly correlate to differences in emotion taxonomy. Not all English words have equivalents in all other languages and vice versa, indicating that there are words for emotions present in some languages but not in others. Emotions such as the schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune) in German and saudade (deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves) in Portuguese are commonly expressed in emotions in their respective languages, but lack an English equivalent. In english usage, a clear distinction is made between embarrassment and shame however in Spanish the same word verguenza means both.

So now lets begin to understand emotions in the realm of the scientific, where experts have tried to define and differentiate emotions.


In understanding emotions it is important to see that there are basically only two emotions one that feels good and one that feels bad. The one that feels good is giving us a yes answer to whatever we are doing or thinking, and the one that feels bad is giving us a no answer to whatever we are doing or thinking. The body reacts to the feel good emotions by entering into a healing / growth mode and in case of the feel bad emotions it enters a protection flight / fight mode and the body can be only in one mode or the other.

As this simplistic classification fails to define all the emotional upheaval we face, many phycologists have tried to differentiate emotions in a more scientific way. One such psychologists and researcher Robert Plutchik has simplified the study by developing the psychoevolutionary wheel of emotions. Plutchik correlates different emotions to colours in this wheel. Just like primary colours can be mixed to form different colours, basic emotions too combine to form complex emotions.
In the adjoining image of Plutchik's wheel we find emotions arranged according to intensity. More intense emotions are at the centre of the wheel. Rage is the stronger form of Anger, while Annoyance is the weaker. Also this theory suggests the existence of 8 bipolar emotions - joy versus sorrow, anger versus fear, acceptance versus disgust and surprise versus expectancy.

Basic emotions combine just like primary colours to form complex emotional dyads - primary, secondary and tertiary. Thus love is a combination of joy and trust. Still more complex emotions are formed when dyads combine with basic emotion. Eg.- contempt and joy combine to be smugness.

Emotion is actually a chain of events, with cognition at the beginning of the chain followed by the feeling state which then causes the behavioral reaction. Cognition can be influenced by events happening later in the chain through a feedback process.
Overall, emotion is a kind of homeostatic process in which behavior mediates progress towards equilibrium. This means every emotion has a function and Plutchik's integrative theory based on evolutionary principles is consistent with psychodynamic thinking. Emotions are adaptive and have a complexity born of a long evolutionary history. As seen in the chart fear serves an evolutionary function to help us escape to safety and anger helps us overcome the perceived obstacle. 

Thus we can now successfully identify the emotions we feel and also know its function. However in some cases emotions face an identity crisis. Sometimes we behave as if we are in the grip of an emotion (mostly fear, shame or anger), while we deny feeling that emotion. Thus it is perfectly possible that individuals sometimes remain unaware of their emotion states, which is one reason that subjective experience isn't used as the sine qua non of emotion. It is in such cases where the knowledge about the expression of emotions is useful.


The ability to express and interpret emotions plays an essential part of our daily lives. We express our emotions in a number of different ways including both verbal communication and through nonverbal communication. Social interactions and communications are regulated by subtle expressions of emotions - smiles, eye contact, nods, postural shifts and vocalisations. Body language such as a slouched posture or crossed arms can be used to send different emotional signals. One of the most important ways that we express emotion, however, is through facial expressions.
Research by Dr. Paul Eckman tells us that there are 6 basic facial expressions that even blind people make the same faces to express the same emotions. These are: surprise, fear, disgust, anger, sadness and joy. While the facial expression of joy and sadness are distinct, fear and surprise share the wide open eyes. Similarly, anger and disgust share the wrinkled nose. 
It is these early signals that could represent more basic danger signals. Later in the signaling dynamics, facial expressions transmit signals that distinguish all 6 facial expressions. These first, early danger signals confer the best advantages to others by enabling the fastest escape. Secondly, physiological advantages for the expresser - the wrinkled nose prevents inspiration of potentially harmful particles, whereas widened eyes increases intake of visual information useful for escape - are enhanced when the face movements are made early.

While the facial expressions of the six basic emotions are innate and hard-wired in the brain for a purpose, there are many other factors that influence how we reveal our inner feelings. Social pressures, cultural influences, and past experience can all help shape the expression of emotion. Sometimes we consciously mask our true emotions when our interests are in conflict with others. Also a threshold may need to be crossed to bring about an expressive signal, and that threshold may vary across individuals.Emotions thus do occur without any evident signals. So in such cases, is there any other way to identify the emotions?


Emotions have evolved to deal with fundamental life tasks, hence they not only provide information through expressions, but also show physiological changes preparing the individual to respond differently in different emotional states. Different emotions cause different messages to be sent through the nervous system to the heart, face and body. Chests puffing up with pride — and happiness felt head to toe — are sensations as real as they are universal. And now we can make an atlas of them, thanks to experiments aimed at mapping the bodily sensations in connection with specific emotions.
Researchers found statistically discrete areas for each emotion tested, such as happiness, contempt and love, that were consistent regardless of respondents’ nationality. Although each emotion produced a specific map of bodily sensation, researchers did identify some areas of overlap. Basic emotions, such as anger and fear, caused an increase in sensation in the upper chest area, likely corresponding to increases in pulse and respiration rate. Happiness was the only emotion tested that increased sensation all over the body.

In the research laboratory, one of the easiest ways to see how emotions and feelings affect the nervous system is to look at how the heart speeds up and slows down. The changes in the heart's rhythm reflect the activity in the two branches of ANS (autonomic nervous system). There is evidence for distinct patterns of ANS activities for fear, anger, disgust and sadness. These ANS patterns evolved because they subserve patterns of motor behavior which were adaptive for these emotions, preparing the individual for quite different actions. If no specific pattern of motor activity had survival value for an emotion,  then there would be no specific pattern of ANS activity as seen in case of joy, trust and anticipation . However they have different patterns of CNS (central nervous system) activities as all emotions have a distinct expression in our brain. Now that advanced brain scanning can map the way our brains light up with each thought, word, or action, it’s clear that no experience escapes the brain and we can now identify our emotions with their neural signatures.
In everyday language we often use the terms 'emotions' and 'feelings' interchangeably. This shows how closely connected emotions are with feelings. But for neuroscience, emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli. When we are afraid of something, our hearts begin to race, our mouths become dry, our skin turns pale and our muscles contract. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. Feelings occur after we become aware in our brain of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of fear. Our heart activities have a significant influence on how we feel as seen in the adjoining image. The brain is constantly receiving signals from the body, registering what is going on inside of us. It then processes the signals in neural maps, which it then compiles in the so-called somatosensory centers. Feelings occur when the maps are read and it becomes apparent that emotional changes have been recorded—as snapshots of our physical state, so to speak.

A new study released by Carnegie Mellon University represents the first time researchers have been able to map people’s emotional state based on their neural activity. It makes use of the fMRI or Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology.  When a person lies in an fMRI machine, scientists can see their brain activity in real time.
Each of the emotions examined fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and joy; was characterized by consistent neural correlates across studies, thus providing evidence that different emotions have distinct neural signatures.
To know more about the basic structure of emotional experience and how is it represented in the human brain check this video.

The gold standard for understanding how people feel has been, quite simply, to ask them, "How are you? How are you feeling? How was your day?" But with the above information about how emotions express themselves physically, physiologically and through neural maps we can accurately point out the emotions involved even if the answer seems contradictory.  Although it is important to pay attention to emotions, always remember that though we might know the emotion, we don't know the cause. If someone seems angry, upset or disinterested it could be for a number of reasons other than the current conversation. Hence its best to extend this inquiry and care to ourself and  to acknowledge our own emotions. 

Every emotion - from joy to sorrow, trust to disgust, love to remorse - is a movement of life energy which has tremendous effect on our behavior as well as health.