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Emotional rollercoaster

Cute portrayal of a range of different emotions

Words: Jonathan McIntosh

According to Oscar Wilde, our lives revolve in curves of emotion. The renowned writer’s wisdom is well observed. From flashes of annoyance to bubbles of happiness, emotions influence nearly every decision we make in our lives, big and small. Let’s get in tune with our emotions…

First of all, what exactly are emotions? They can be described in simple terms as reactions to events or situations that we find ourselves in. The specific emotions we feel depend on the circumstances that trigger them. A straightforward one, perhaps, is when we get good news, such as a job promotion – we’ll experience joy (especially when planning how to spend our healthier salaries). In a stress-filled environment, we may feel anxious or fearful. Scientists break these complex responses into three types: subjective, physiological or behavioural.

In the eye of the beholder

Emotions begin with a reaction to an event or experience but these responses are influenced our beliefs, personalities and life experiences. This means an event may cause different emotional reactions in different people. These are our subjective emotions. One person stuck in a traffic jam may feel angry that congestion is disrupting their plans, while another might be happy that it gives them extra time to sing along to the radio – something their passengers may not be so delighted with. Although we’ve given them broad labels, like happy and sad, emotions are multifaceted. And we don’t experience them in these purest of forms either. It’s common to experience mixed emotions, like being both nervous and joyful about getting married.

Mapping emotions in the body

Ever felt your heart beat faster when scared or excited? Then you’ve experienced the power emotions have over our bodies. These physiological responses are caused by the autonomic nervous system – which controls involuntary bodily responses and regulates our fight-or-flight response – reacting to emotions we’re experiencing. Studies have shown that autonomic physiological responses are strongest when a person’s facial expression closely resembles the expression of the emotion they’re experiencing.

Research into the brain’s role has found that the amygdala – linked to behaviour and motivational states, such as hunger and thirst – also has a significant part in our emotional states. Brain imaging studies have revealed that this collection of nuclei deep in the temporal lobe activates when we view threatening images. Worryingly (another emotion), damage to the amygdala has also been shown to impair the fear response.

Express yourself

These are the manifestations of an emotion, such as a sigh, a laugh or eyerolling. While facial expressions – like frowning to express annoyance or uncertainty – are universal, cultural and societal norms can influence our behavioural responses and interpretations.

How love is expressed across different cultures is a good example of this. Public displays of affection in South Korea are typically frowned upon, so couples wear matching outfits with their partners to show affection. This contrasts with countries such as Spain, Italy or France where cheek-kissing and hand-holding are commonplace.

Expressing our emotions, both negative and positive, is now understood to be good for your health. The traditional British ‘stiff upper lip’ may well have a lot to answer for! We can start by boosting our mood with a smile. In addition, being able to understand emotions that are being expressed by others plays a huge part in the development of our emotional intelligence.

A whirlwind of emotions

How many emotions can you name? There’s much debate among researchers about the number of such reactions we can experience. In 1972, psychologist Paul Ekman argued that there are six universal basic (also known as primary) emotions: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, joy and sadness. By 1999, he had expanded this list to include embarrassment, excitement, contempt, shame, pride, satisfaction and amusement.

The ‘Wheel of Emotions’ was created by psychologist Robert Plutchik in 1980. He argued that humans have eight primary emotional spectrums and defined them as: joy versus sadness; anger versus fear; trust versus disgust; and surprise versus anticipation. And he believed that different emotions mix to create more complex ones, such as happiness and anticipation combining to make excitement.

In addition to these ‘primary’ feelings, we can also experience secondary emotions. You may be feeling afraid and that, in turn, might lead to you feeling ashamed. Interestingly, research from the University of Glasgow suggested that there may only be four easily recognisable basic emotions. This study found that the pairs ‘anger and disgust’ and ‘surprise and fear’ shared the same facial expressions – suggesting the differences between these emotions is sociological rather than biological. Despite conflicting research in this fascinating field, it’s generally agreed that there is a series of universal basic emotions that are, quite literally, written over our faces.

“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them and to dominate them.” As impassioned as these words from Oscar Wilde are, emotions are far too powerful to be fully dominated. But we can use our emotions to our advantage. Joy and love can build resilience and boost motivation, while frustration and fear can identify potential risks to avoid. We may be at their mercy, but we can use emotions to help shape our lives for the better.

Theories of emotion

Read the major theories that researchers, philosophers, and psychologists have proposed to explain the how and why behind our feelings. 

The science of emotion

Emotions and science don’t mix, right? Dr Dean Burnett – author of Emotional Ignorance: Lost and Found in the Science of Emotion – thinks otherwise.

The importance of emotional intelligence

High emotional intelligence can foster better personal and professional relationships. Read Forbes’ take on why.

Join the discussion

Have your emotions ever got the better of you or do you try and keep a firm handle on them? Do you find it easy to ‘read’ what other people are feeling or is it all a bit of a mystery? Share your experiences within Mensa Community.

Our new online community, Mensa Community, provides a digital space for you, our members, to discuss any number of topics and issues. If you haven’t already signed up, you can log in here using your My Mensa login details.

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Emotional rollercoaster

Words: Jonathan McIntosh

According to Oscar Wilde, our lives revolve in curves of emotion. The renowned writer’s wisdom is well observed. From flashes of annoyance to bubbles of happiness, emotions influence nearly every decision we make in our lives, big and small. Let’s get in tune with our emotions…

First of all, what exactly are emotions? They can be described in simple terms as reactions to events or situations that we find ourselves in. The specific emotions we feel depend on the circumstances that trigger them. A straightforward one, perhaps, is when we get good news, such as a job promotion – we’ll experience joy (especially when planning how to spend our healthier salaries). In a stress-filled environment, we may feel anxious or fearful. Scientists break these complex responses into three types: subjective, physiological or behavioural.

In the eye of the beholder

Emotions begin with a reaction to an event or experience but these responses are influenced our beliefs, personalities and life experiences. This means an event may cause different emotional reactions in different people. These are our subjective emotions. One person stuck in a traffic jam may feel angry that congestion is disrupting their plans, while another might be happy that it gives them extra time to sing along to the radio – something their passengers may not be so delighted with. Although we’ve given them broad labels, like happy and sad, emotions are multifaceted. And we don’t experience them in these purest of forms either. It’s common to experience mixed emotions, like being both nervous and joyful about getting married.

Mapping emotions in the body

Ever felt your heart beat faster when scared or excited? Then you’ve experienced the power emotions have over our bodies. These physiological responses are caused by the autonomic nervous system – which controls involuntary bodily responses and regulates our fight-or-flight response – reacting to emotions we’re experiencing. Studies have shown that autonomic physiological responses are strongest when a person’s facial expression closely resembles the expression of the emotion they’re experiencing.

Research into the brain’s role has found that the amygdala – linked to behaviour and motivational states, such as hunger and thirst – also has a significant part in our emotional states. Brain imaging studies have revealed that this collection of nuclei deep in the temporal lobe activates when we view threatening images. Worryingly (another emotion), damage to the amygdala has also been shown to impair the fear response.

Express yourself

These are the manifestations of an emotion, such as a sigh, a laugh or eyerolling. While facial expressions – like frowning to express annoyance or uncertainty – are universal, cultural and societal norms can influence our behavioural responses and interpretations.

How love is expressed across different cultures is a good example of this. Public displays of affection in South Korea are typically frowned upon, so couples wear matching outfits with their partners to show affection. This contrasts with countries such as Spain, Italy or France where cheek-kissing and hand-holding are commonplace.

Expressing our emotions, both negative and positive, is now understood to be good for your health. The traditional British ‘stiff upper lip’ may well have a lot to answer for! We can start by boosting our mood with a smile. In addition, being able to understand emotions that are being expressed by others plays a huge part in the development of our emotional intelligence.

A whirlwind of emotions

How many emotions can you name? There’s much debate among researchers about the number of such reactions we can experience. In 1972, psychologist Paul Ekman argued that there are six universal basic (also known as primary) emotions: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, joy and sadness. By 1999, he had expanded this list to include embarrassment, excitement, contempt, shame, pride, satisfaction and amusement.

The ‘Wheel of Emotions’ was created by psychologist Robert Plutchik in 1980. He argued that humans have eight primary emotional spectrums and defined them as: joy versus sadness; anger versus fear; trust versus disgust; and surprise versus anticipation. And he believed that different emotions mix to create more complex ones, such as happiness and anticipation combining to make excitement.

In addition to these ‘primary’ feelings, we can also experience secondary emotions. You may be feeling afraid and that, in turn, might lead to you feeling ashamed. Interestingly, research from the University of Glasgow suggested that there may only be four easily recognisable basic emotions. This study found that the pairs ‘anger and disgust’ and ‘surprise and fear’ shared the same facial expressions – suggesting the differences between these emotions is sociological rather than biological. Despite conflicting research in this fascinating field, it’s generally agreed that there is a series of universal basic emotions that are, quite literally, written over our faces.

“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them and to dominate them.” As impassioned as these words from Oscar Wilde are, emotions are far too powerful to be fully dominated. But we can use our emotions to our advantage. Joy and love can build resilience and boost motivation, while frustration and fear can identify potential risks to avoid. We may be at their mercy, but we can use emotions to help shape our lives for the better.

Theories of emotion

Read the major theories that researchers, philosophers, and psychologists have proposed to explain the how and why behind our feelings. 

The science of emotion

Emotions and science don’t mix, right? Dr Dean Burnett – author of Emotional Ignorance: Lost and Found in the Science of Emotion – thinks otherwise.

The importance of emotional intelligence

High emotional intelligence can foster better personal and professional relationships. Read Forbes’ take on why.

Join the discussion

Have your emotions ever got the better of you or do you try and keep a firm handle on them? Do you find it easy to ‘read’ what other people are feeling or is it all a bit of a mystery? Share your experiences within Mensa Community.

Our new online community, Mensa Community, provides a digital space for you, our members, to discuss any number of topics and issues. If you haven’t already signed up, you can log in here using your My Mensa login details.

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