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Summary: Emotions

Emotions and motivation are intimately related. Things that move us emotion­ally are things that motivate us as well.

Emo­tions usually involve either approach or avoidance. From Descartes on, theorists have offered lists of basic emotions, usually ending up with from six to eight.

James and Lange speculated in the 1889s that bodily reactions, especially from the viscera or gut, come first and provoke the reactions we feel as emotions. There is some truth to this, although Cannon showed in 1929 that dogs without nerve connections to the gut could still express emotion.

Facial expression is an important indicator of emotions in humans. Paul Ekman designed a system for coding facial muscles. He identified over 80 action units that can be used to define various facial expressions.

Ekman proposed six basic emotions, based on universally recognized facial expressions. However, a computer program designed for facial expression analysis found 21 distinct facial expressions, using Ekman's system to analyze a large database of face images.

Modern biological approaches to emotion emphasize areas of the brain specialized for emotions. The limbic system or midbrain contains several structures key to emotion and motivation, including the pleasure centers and the amygdala.

The amygdala is part of a warning system for external threats. Humans who suffer amygdalar damage (or have their amygdalas surgically removed) lose their fear of dangerous situations, scary animals, and threats to their person.

People without amygdalas still retain the ability to feel panic when breathing carbon dioxide. They lose their fear of external threats, and they know this is unusual. Some of these patients feel uncommon empathy for others, perhaps because threat perception is removed.

Happiness or subjective life satisfaction has been studied intensively by psych­ologists. Ratings of self happiness seem to reflect social factors more than material factors.

Most of the big ups and downs of life result in temporary changes in happi­ness, then a person returns to a char­acteristic baseline level. Two events that produced longer lasting changes in happiness were divorce and loss of a job, both of which produced decreases in happiness lasting more than five years.


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.


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