XI. The Emotions

Whereas feeling is a vague and transient mental state, emotion is a higher order of mental activity. Emotion is dependent upon a representative idea for its expression, direction, and duration.

Emotion generally manifests itself in a physical reaction that poises a person to take action - as described by Darwin. It follows that emotions do not cause people to act: they poise them for action, but there is a separate mental process as an individual decides whether to carry through with the action.

(EN: EEG studies in recent years have confirmed tis. The emotional expression is likened to a reflex, in that it occurs automatically buy is very brief - about three milliseconds - before the rational mind engages to ratify or veto the emotional reaction. Hence, the claim of "acting on emotions" is a fiction - the reality is that the emotions suggest an action, and the rational faculties decide.)

Back to reactions: the author maintains that the raw emotional states of mankind are universal, but the way in which emotions are expressed is cultural. It can be seen that among different cultures, there are different manners and degrees of emotional expression, which correspond to the manner in which cultural values train people from a very young age to exaggerate or suppress the urges they receive from their emotional states.

Atkinson briefly mentions the conjecture that mimicking the physical expression of emotion can evoke feelings that underlie the emotion, which suggests that a person can make himself happy, angry, or sad merely by mimicking the expressions of that emotion. If this is true, then it would explain how emotions seem to build.

Consider the example of a person who "grows" angry. The physical manifestations are very subtle at first, but the emotion builds over time and becomes quite intense. This could either be the acceptance and encouragement of emotional suggestions by the rational mind (we feel that we are right to be angry, so we continue to become angry) or it may be that there is a feedback loop between emotion and expression - that the subtle behaviors resulting from anger are expressed, then the expressions create feelings of greater anger, and it builds like steam pressure.

However, it can also be observed that people are capable of interrupting the cycle by controlling their physical expressions. A person who feels the first blush of anger forces himself to smile and speak calmly in order to prevent the bodily expressions from exacerbating his emotional state.

There is various folksy wisdom about emotions that seems supported by these notions. The advice to "count to ten before venting your anger" or "put on a happy face to chase away sorrow" or "whistle away the fear" seem to acknowledge that it is possible to interrupt and even reverse the urges of emotional states.

The degree to which emotional expression is acceptable is, again, cultural. The author cites carious sources that favor both controlling and expressing emotions. For his part, he feels it to be a matter or choice to decide which emotional expressions are beneficial and which are harmful - but in general takes a dim view of "emotional excitement" and "indulgence" as an obstacle to rational thought.

But most significantly to the purpose of this book, it also means that emotional expression is learned and can be trained, as any other habit. It is possible to control anger, to recognize when the feelings that stir anger settle upon us, and to develop the habit of suppression until anger is "conquered and inhibited."

He goes a bit further in that emotions may arise from thought as well as experience, and suggests that a cultivated person would do well to recognize the thoughts that creep into their mind and provoke unwanted emotions - and to develop the habit of shitting out ideas that excite emotional states.

All of this requires some effort, but if practiced regularly and consistently, the manner in which we express emotions will become a regular habit that is exercised with minimal effort.

Classifying Emotions

Various attempts have been made to list, describe, and classify the emotions of man - but there is very arbitrary and there is no widespread agreement over how emotions are to be defined and classified.

The approach Atkinson plans to take is to divide the emotions into six general classes according to the circumstances in which they arise;

  1. Instinctive Emotions
  2. Personal Emotions
  3. Social Emotions
  4. Religious Emotions
  5. Aesthetic Emotions
  6. Intellectual Emotions

He will devote a chapter in this book to the consideration of each.