We all know what emotion is. We know what feelings we would normally define as emotions. But when it comes to defining and measuring emotion precisely, or even predicting it, we are less clear. What is it? How strong is it? Where does it come from? When does it come? Why does it pass? When is it good or bad? What effect does it have on us? We know what part of the brain controls emotion, and we have become reasonably skilled at controlling difficult and dangerous emotions, but we still have only vague answers to all of these questions.
So into this relative vacuum I offer some thoughts on emotion. As usual, they are the observations of a lay observer, and no expert.
First, the Latin root ‘mot-‘ means movement, and ‘e’ can indicate out, from, away, maybe even beyond. Emotion and movement are closely linked. When we feel emotion we say we are moved, and we talk of being moved to laughter or tears. However this movement is of a unique kind. It is not always externally visible. It is not a physical motion as such, although it is felt physically. It is a movement nevertheless that displaces us. It is a powerful force.
Second, emotion is always a response and has a trigger, which is often identifiable. Emotional response is always instantaneous. It is almost impossible to control and is often unwanted. Emotional responses can be minimised and repressed with practice but they are extremely difficult to erase.
Thirdly, emotional responses are not rational and considered. They are instinctive and spontaneous, and often momentary. They often surprise us.
Fourthly, they are impermanent. We talk about a ‘wave’ of emotion for this reason and also because emotional feelings tend to increase to a peak and then vanish. So even deep emotions are transient and fade away.
Fifthly, emotion impels action. We are almost always visibly moved. We act on impulse. Even when we think our actions are considered they are almost always emotionally triggered. We only have to look at Hamlet to see how thinking makes action impossible. We might even go further, and say that emotion and action are so inextricably linked as to be the same thing.
And finally, emotions are uniquely defining of experience. Extreme happiness or suffering mark the most intense responses of our lives. It is our emotions that give our experiences meaning. However, we do not necessarily remember everything that we feel or experience. It is often the intensity of feeling that we remember, not the duration.
From this, we can say that emotions are immediate and experiential. They are extremely difficult to predict with any precision. They are uncertain in nature, extent and duration. They are contingent on events as much as on our response to them, which is equally contingent and in turn varies according to other emotions and events. They have no intentionality and occur regardless of outcome. An outburst of emotion can lead to actions and further decisions that unexpectedly change our lives. And finally, they are hard to recall and describe in detail. We talk about ‘reliving’ events which we experience emotionally. It is almost as if, in the effort to remember, we need to recreate them, and in the case of very painful emotions this is often disturbing and difficult. In fact, it is generally accepted that replaying powerful negative experiences is harmful. Emotions are not like memories.
This means that if emotions are a movement they are not linear. They do not remain at a constant level. The movement of emotion is instead wavelike. It surges suddenly, and then fades away. Our memories may recall exceptional emotion as an event, but fail to recollect the feeling itself. Like an exceptional tide, we note only the high and low water marks. We are very familiar with this wave/sea analogy in the way we talk about and remember emotion. It reflects the movement of emotions, their unpredictability, and also perhaps their wild and often savage nature.
This all means that while emotions form our most intense and important experiences, they are also the least accessible part of experience to memory when we look back on them, and for most people at least our emotions and the emotional parts of our minds are the least well understood. They can cause us discomfort, guilt and even shame when we try to explain them. In fact, we often regard our emotional responses in a pejorative way, as if they are of a lesser order than rational, thought through responses. This is strange. Why would we demote the source of our most important experiences?
A further interesting paradox also suggests itself. Emotions like fear and surprise are obviously key to our survival, not just because they tend to keep us away from danger but because they short cut rational processes. In evolutionary terms emotions are a critical advantage. But our emotions also make our behaviour radically unpredictable. In fact, they make our actions indeterminable since they lead to sudden, random impulses which may sometimes be contrary to all reason. For anyone who has a determinist world view it is therefore better to ignore the workings of the emotions. They’re wild cards. Emotions do not care about outcomes and mean that anything can happen.
Now, in the spirit of emotional response, lets take a wild leap.
We live in an increasingly fragmented, digital, data driven world. Everybody has a gut feel that the world is not governed by data, but nobody has put forward a plausible or cogent argument why it is not.
This, I suspect, is because the more detailed our data pictures are, the more divorced they are from reality. What if, instead, the whole universe is emotional? That is, the universe behaves in an emotional way which is not comprehensible to data our rational analysis?
In fact, quantum physics reflect exactly this state of existence by acknowledging that all events – even events that appear to be happening ‘now’ – can be measured only by probability.
Just as human beings are contingent and just as part of our brains are governed only by probability and uncertainty, so too is the whole fabric and matter of the world in which we exist. So we might say that the mathematical way of measuring emotion is very familiar to us. It has already been identified by quantum physicists as the way in which matter events must be evaluated, through probability.
What is the link between probability and emotion?
Anything that can be felt will be felt. Emotion is our connection to and comprehension of the probable world. Emotion reflects events that may happen, could happen, are happening or have happened. Like probability, emotional is therefore conditional. However, the feeling is the same whatever the probability of the event. The cause is sublimated into the feeling, whatever that cause might be.
In this sense, emotion is not personal but universal. We recognise these universals as compassion and suffering. Emotions are not governed by our human data bank any more than by data we generate. Genes don’t determine emotions, or at least they do so only in the same way that they make us respond to gravity, or the fact that the the earth revolves around the sun. Emotion and its expression as suffering and compassion are a natural forces. Our genes make us emotional because that is the way we understand and negotiate the universe. We are emotional creatures in an emotional world.