22 Jan 2013

In academic discussions of the functions of emotions the focus is usually on the phenomenological, or experiential, aspect of emotions. For purposes of this discussion, however, the functions of emotions are examined in terms of the three structural components–physiological, expressive, and experiential.

Physiological functions.

The functions of physiological activity that is mediated by the autonomic nervous system and that accompanies states of emotion can be considered as part of the individual’s effort to adapt and cope, but, of course, physiological as well as cognitive reactions in extreme emotion usually require regulation (expressed through cognitive processes and expressive behaviour) in order for coping activities to be effective. For example, adaptation to situations that elicit a less extreme emotion such as interest require a quite different physiological and behavioral activity than do situations that elicit intense anger or fear. The heart-rate deceleration and quieting of internal organs that occur in interest facilitate the intake and processing of information, whereas heart-rate acceleration in intense anger and fear prepares the individual to cope by more active means, whether through shouting, physical actions, or various combinations of the two.

Functions of emotion expressions.

Emotion expressions have three major functions: they contribute to the activation and regulation of emotion experiences; they communicate something about internal states and intentions to others; and they activate emotions in others, a process that can help account for empathy and altruistic behaviour.

Role of expressions in emotion experiences.

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals Darwin clearly revealed his belief that even voluntary emotion expression evoked emotion feeling. He wrote: “Even the simulation [expression] of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.” Thus, Darwin’s idea suggested that facial feedback (sensations created by the movements of expressive behaviour) activate, or contribute to the activation of, emotion feelings. A number of experiments have provided substantial evidence that intentional management of facial expression contributes to the regulation (and perhaps activation) of emotion experiences. Most evidence is related not to specific emotion feelings but to the broad classes of positive and negative states of emotion. There is, therefore, some scientific support for the old advice to “smile when you feel blue” and “whistle a happy tune when you’re afraid.”

Darwin was even more persuasive when speaking specifically of the regulation of emotion experience by self-initiated expressive behaviour. He wrote:

The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it. On the other hand, the repression, as far as this is possible, of all outward signs softens our emotions.

Experiments by more contemporary researchers on motivated, self-initiated expressive behaviours have shown that, if people can control their facial expression during moments of pain, there will be less arousal of the autonomic nervous system and a diminution of the pain experience.

Role of expressions in communicating internal states.

The social communication function of emotion expressions is most evident in infancy. Long before infants have command of language or are capable of reasoning, they can send a wide variety of messages through their facial expressions. Virtually all the muscles necessary for facial expression of basic emotions are present before birth. Through the use of an objective, anatomically based system for coding the separate facial muscle movements, it has been found that the ability to smile and to facially express pain, interest, and disgust are present at birth; the social smile can be expressed by three or four weeks; sadness and anger by about two months; and fear by six or seven months. Informal observations suggest that expressions indicative of shyness appear by about four months and expressions of guilt by about two years.

The expressive behaviours are infants’ primary means of signaling their internal states and of becoming engaged in the family and larger human community. Emotion expressions help form the foundation for social relationships and social development. They also provide stimulation that appears to be necessary for physical and mental health.

Role of expressions in motivating response.

One- and three-day-old infants cry in response to other infants’ cries but not to a computer-generated sound that simulates crying. Infants as young as two or three months of age respond differently to different expressions by the mother. The information an infant obtains from the mother’s facial expressions mediates or regulates a variety of infant behaviours. For example, most infants cross a modified “visual cliff” (an apparatus that was originally used in depth perception study, consisting of a glass floor that gives the illusion of a drop-off) if their mother stands on the opposite side and smiles, but none cross if she expresses fear.

Facial expressions, particularly of sadness, may facilitate empathy and altruistic behaviour. Darwin thought facial expressions evoked empathy and concluded that expression-induced empathy was inborn. Research has shown that, when mothers display sadness expressions, their infants also demonstrate more sadness expressions and decrease their exploratory play. Infants under two years of age respond to their mother’s real or simulated expressions of sadness or distress by making efforts to show sympathy and provide help.

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22 Jan 2013, and is filled under Emotions.



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