Emotion, Human in the Encyclopaedia Britannica

22 Jan 2013

The following text is the exact text of the entry ‘Emotion, Human’ in the Encyclopaedia Britannica CD 98. Copyright Encyclopaedia Britannica 1994-1998

any of a number of extremely complex phenomena that are a synthesis of subjective experience, expressive behaviour, and neurochemical activity. Though psychologists have not found a simple yet comprehensive definition of emotion, they have generally agreed that emotions entail, to varying degrees, awareness of one’s environment or situation, bodily reactions, and approach or withdrawal behaviour.

A brief treatment of emotion follows.

Contemporary thinking on emotion is grounded in psychological experimentation, but the use of the experimental method in psychology came only after about 1850. The pioneer in this area was the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, who performed experiments in which subjects provided introspective reports of their responses to stimuli that were varied in a controlled way. Contemporary with Wundt’s work was a theory, offered by English naturalist Charles Darwin, that helped to focus investigation into emotion. In this theory Darwin suggested that emotional behaviour in animals was a vestige of adaptive behaviour from an earlier stage of the given species’ development.

A particularly influential early theory of emotion was proposed independently by the American psychologist William James and the Danish physician Carl Georg Lange. The James-Lange theory firmly links mental states to physiological processes: it holds that an emotion is a perception of phenomena within the body. When a person sees a frightening sight, for example, the body immediately responds in certain ways (e.g., the heart rate increases). The perception of bodily response to the original stimulus constitutes the emotion of fear, according to the James-Lange view. Thus people are happy because they smile, sad because they cry, and afraid because they flee.

It has been shown that emotions are accompanied by physiological changes manifested by excitation of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system; specifically, these changes can be detected in the galvanic skin response (see psychogalvanic reflex), in which the electrical conductivity of the skin varies, and also in the heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, and others. But according to the James-Lange view, these physiological changes would themselves be stimulated by a perception. It is argued that, by the time a signal from the senses reaches the appropriate centre in the brain, physiological changes have already taken place to cause the signal which then produces the feeling of the emotion. This element of the James-Lange view raised some serious objections.

An American physiologist, Walter B. Cannon, proposed a theory that became one of the chief arguments against the James-Lange view. Cannon showed that subjects reacted emotionally even when nerves connecting the central nervous system to various organs were severed, suggesting that physiological changes were not necessarily the primary cause of emotion. Cannon also proposed that signals from the senses may be received by the thalamus, which performs the dual function of providing the emotional content to the appropriate perceptual centre and transmitting the stimulus to other parts of the body.

Further research has called into question Cannon’s view of the preeminence of the thalamus for emotions. But the basic insight of his theory continues to be upheld, with more sophisticated anatomical support. Cannon’s successors examined a structure called the reticular formation, in the centre of the brain stem. Electrical activity throughout the brain was found to be accompanied by electrical activity in the reticular formation. Emotion is held to be the result of a certain level of reticular-formation activation, a level less than that necessary to sustain such brain functions as perception and behaviour. Because the reticular formation serves to integrate virtually all brain activity, any perception or action is necessarily infused with emotional content.

A perceptual-motivational theory of emotion was individually proposed by American psychologists Magda Arnold, in 1960, and R.W. Leeper, in 1965. According to the theory, emotions are no more than strong motivational or drive states (see motivation). A motivational state is an inner condition of imbalance (for example, thirst) that provokes an organism to take some remedial action (in this case, to search for a drink). Although this approach to emotion was shown to be incomplete, later research gave evidence of what appear to be anatomical mechanisms of motivation. Significantly, these mechanisms serve a function in emotional behaviour as well.

The mechanisms in question involve the hypothalamus, a small structure near the base of the brain. The hypothalamus plays a very complex role in regulating a variety of physiological processes. It is also involved in behaviour that expresses the emotions of anger and fear. The results of complicated experiments involving electrical stimulation of the hypothalamus and related brain structures have led researchers to propose that emotions result from a dynamic process of stimulation and inhibition of certain bodily movements, as regulated by the hypothalamus.

An objection to this view is that it ignores the cognitive element in emotions. Presumably the same physiological events might be said to underlie emotions directed at different objects; how then are the emotions to be distinguished? It is here that the importance of perception and learning to discussions of emotion is apparent. However, the cognitive element in emotion cannot be processed by the relatively simple brain structures considered so far. While these can lead to emotional expression, the cognitive element must be processed by more complex structures found in higher parts of the brain.

Modern researchers often view emotions in three components, physiological, expressive, and experiential, each of which can be studied in terms of structure and functions.

What is E M O T I O N

An emotion, as it is commonly known, is a distinct feeling or quality of consciousness, such as joy or sadness, that reflects the personal significance of an emotion-arousing event. In modern times the subject of emotion has become part of the subject matter of several scientific disciplines–biology, psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, and sociology. Emotions are central to the issues of human survival and adaptation. They motivate the development of moral behaviour, which lies at the very root of civilization. Emotions influence empathic and altruistic behaviour, and they play a role in the creative processes of the mind. They affect the basic processes of perception and influence the way humans conceive and interpret the world around them. Evidence suggests that emotions shape many other aspects of human life and human affairs. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists often describe problems of adjustment and types of psychopathology as “emotional problems,” mental conditions that an estimated 1 in 3 Americans, for example, suffers from during his or her lifetime.

The subject of emotion is studied from a wide range of views. Behaviorally oriented neuroscientists study the neurophysiology and neuroanatomy of emotions and the relations between neural processes and the expression and experience of emotion. Social psychologists and cultural anthropologists study similarities and differences among cultures by the way emotions are expressed and conceptualized. Philosophers are interested in the role of emotions in rationality, thought, character development, and values. Novelists, playwrights, and poets are interested in emotions as the motivations and defining features of fictional characters and as vehicles for communicating the meaning and significance of events.


Orators, literary artists, and philosophers have recognized emotions as part of human nature since recorded history. Homer’s Iliad contains vivid descriptions of the emotions of the characters; the goddess Athena frequently goes among Agamemnon’s troops playing upon their emotions, attempting to allay their fears and bolster their courage for battle. Ancient philosophers discussed the emotions at length, and from these discussions it appears that the basic meanings of emotion concepts are timeless. For example, in the Rhetoric, Aristotle described the significance, causes, and consequences of the experiences of anger, fear, and shame in much the same way as contemporary writers. He observed that anger is caused by undeserved slight, fear by the perception of danger, and shame by deeds that bring disgrace or dishonour. His understanding of the relations among emotions also has a modern ring. In contrasting the young and the old, he said of the young, And they are more courageous, for they are full of passion and hope, and the former of these prevents them fearing, while the latter inspires them with confidence, for no one fears when angry, and hope of some advantage inspires confidence.


The use of emotion words in literary works serves several purposes. They help define the motivations and personalities of the characters in a play or novel, and they help the reader to understand and identify with characters and to experience vicariously their emotions.

Shakespeare, for example, was a master at expressing emotion through his characters and eliciting emotions from the audience. His work also contains quite accurate descriptions of emotional expressions. An example in Henry V is the king’s effort to ready his soldiers for battle:

Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage; Then lend the eye a terrible aspect; Let it pry through the portage of the head Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it As fearfully as doth a galled rock O’erhang and jutty his confounded base, Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean. Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit To his full height.

(Act III, scene 1)

In modern times James Joyce used emotion words and words with emotional connotation to powerful effect. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, much of Stephen Dedalus’ mood and character are revealed in a few lines describing a time when he was drinking with his cronies and trying to overcome his sense of alienation from his father:

His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. . . . Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.

According to the literary critic Rosemarie Battaglia, the emotion-arousing words cold, cruel, loveless, dead, lost, and barren resonate with a sense of Stephen’s withdrawal from his social world.

Other modern writers have made frank use of psychological concepts of emotion and emotion-related processes, particularly those introduced by Sigmund Freud. Thus, for example, the author’s characters may be motivated by unconscious processes, feelings they cannot label and articulate because the fundamental underlying ideation associated with the feelings has been repressed.

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