Our brains seem to cue our affective states (including extremes ones like depression) through a continuous series of predictions of what physiological state will most efficiently promote our short-term survival.
The symptoms are physiological, but the emotional label is psychosocial.
The physical symptoms that accompany emotions – such as a racing or slowing heartbeat, flushed cheeks, tense or relaxed shoulders – are automatically produced, but it is the story we generate as we interpret those symptoms that leads us to identify an emotional state, such as anxiety or joy.
We experience emotions as our brains and bodies compare the external and internal sensory data we are currently picking up with memories of similar situations from the past. Emotions are part of a system that helps us predict what attitudes and actions will help us survive (and thrive) in the near term.
The key point here is that our emotions are not a direct mechanistic reaction to what is going on now, but rather a feature of our basic biological design that enables us to form predictions or hypotheses about what is important right now and what we may need to do about it.
As we experience similar situations a number of times this process triggers the development of stories so that certain situations and people become associated with certain emotional responses.
Since this process is dynamic and unique to the experience of each individual, there is variation in the emotional responses of different people to similar situations. The emotions we experience in relation to a type of situation may also evolve over time as we learn that the emotions and stories we created in the past were not the most useful ones.
Emotions play a key role in learning. They provide us with signals about changes in our environment that may require adjustments to our attitudes and behavior. By learning how to step back and pay attention to and learn from our emotions in different situations, we can sometimes choose how we want to rewrite the stories those emotions are telling us. This over time can enable us to experience emotions in a way that enhances rather than undermines our survival and happiness.
© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.