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Neuroscience Breakthroughs Since Graduate School - Part 6: Emotion

Updated: Apr 16

Neuroscience research in the last decades has fundamentally changed our understanding of emotion. Bottom-up and top-down pathways generate emotions. The gut-brain axis regulates emotions and overall mental well-being. There are no "happiness" or "sadness" centers. Instead, emotions involve different activation patterns in structures comprising affective networks. The amygdala's role in emotion has been expanded from anxiety and fear to detecting salient stimuli (e.g., reinforcers and threats). Mindfulness research has challenged the popular belief that we should be able to dismiss difficult emotions. Efforts to control the uncontrollable exhaust of our finite glucose stores and reduce our ability to select adaptive responses. Finally, the intra-individual variation (IIV) perspective has challenged trait explanations of emotion, emphasizing situational factors in hourly and daily emotional variability.

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Emotion is a complex psychological state involving subjective experience, physiological response, and expressive behavior.

Emotions can be defined as organized affective and behavior-promoting reactions to significant internal and external events . . . emotions do more than mobilize behavior. They also often involve the experience of emotional feelings (affect). Emotional feelings may amplify motivation.
Motivation can be defined as the process that determines the direction (i.e. defining which goals an organism seeks to approach or to avoid) and energization (i.e. the mobilization of resources to carry out an action) of behavior (Cromwell et al., 2020, p. 205).

Plutchik's model of emotion, also known as the "Wheel of Emotions," was developed by psychologist Robert Plutchik in 1980. This model proposes that there are eight primary emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. These primary emotions are grouped into four pairs of opposites: joy-sadness, trust-disgust, fear-anger, and surprise-anticipation. Plutchik suggested we can combine these emotions into more complex and subtle emotions, creating a color-wheel-like structure for understanding human emotions (Plutchik, 1980).

The model also incorporates the concept of emotional intensity, where each primary emotion can vary in intensity. For example, annoyance can intensify into anger and further into rage. The Wheel of Emotions visually represents these emotional relationships, making understanding and identifying emotions in various contexts easier.

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Ekman's model of emotions, developed by psychologist Paul Ekman, is an influential theory in the field of emotion research. Although Ekman originally proposed six basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise), his later work expanded the list to include two additional emotions—contempt and interest (Ekman & Cordaro, 2011).

Ekman's model of emotions

The model suggests that these eight emotions are universal, meaning they are experienced and recognized across all human cultures and result from evolutionary processes. Ekman states these emotions are associated with distinct facial expressions, physiological responses, and behavioral patterns.

The support for Ekman's model comes from various cross-cultural studies demonstrating the universality of facial expressions associated with basic emotions (Ekman, 1972; Ekman & Friesen, 1971). However, the model has faced some criticism from researchers who argue that the universality of emotions is overstated (Russell, 1994) and that emotions might be more diverse and context-dependent than Ekman's model suggests (Barrett, 2017).

The Illusion of Control

Langer's (1975) illusion of control refers to the tendency of individuals to overestimate their ability to control events and outcomes, particularly in situations where chance or external factors play a significant role. The illusion of control has important implications in various aspects of human life, including decision-making, risk-taking, and stress management. It can lead to overconfidence, resulting in poor choices or increased vulnerability to negative consequences. Additionally, the illusion of control can contribute to the development of unrealistic expectations and the inability to cope with failure. Khazan (2019) cautions that we cannot control thoughts (e.g., don't think about a white bear) or emotions (e.g., anxiety), although people believe that they should. Distraction and suppression tactics do not work in the long run, can increase unwanted thoughts and emotions, and this failure can reduce perceived self-efficacy. Moreover, these futile attempts deplete the glucose needed to fuel adaptive responses.

You use up glucose on tasks that are not under your control, namely, suppressing your difficult thoughts and emotions, and then you do not have adequate resources left to exercise control over tasks that are otherwise controllable: your actions in response to these difficult thoughts and feelings (Khazan, 2019, p. 137).

Khazan (2019) likens struggling with uncontrollable thoughts and feelings to thrashing in quicksand. Instead of flailing and sinking deeper into several feet of water, you can lie flat and paddle to safety.