Feelings and the feeling of feelings

9 02 2010

When I was a Zoology undergraduate I read Darwin’s “The Exression of Emotion in Man and Animals”. It was an absolutely fascinating read but it didn’t leave a lasting impression and it wasn’t one of the books that survived the downsizing coup when I moved house three years ago.

Having recently read an article in the New Scientist “Emotions You Didn’t Know You Had” , where five new emotions were suggested as additions to the six that psychologists agree apply the world over, I revisited my dismissive attitude.

But it would appear that I was not alone in not paying much attention to emotion as a research topic. By the late 1800’s Charles Darwin had been joined by William James and Sigmund Freud in making significant contributions to the literature on the subject yet from that point, and continuing throughout the 20th century, emotion was not subjected to scientific study. It was thought to be too subjective, too elusive, too vague.

In recent years scientists have returned to the study of emotion and even the accepted opposition of emotion to reason has been challenged.

So, what are the six primary emotions? Most people will correctly guess some and add in some of their own but the six agreed by psychologists as being experienced and expressed by humans across the globe are happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust.

There are many other behaviours that are labelled as emotions. In his book “The Feeling of What Happens” Antonio Damasio suggests secondary, social, emotions such as guilt and pride and tertiary (background) emotions such as malaise and stress.

However it is only the primary emotions that are expressed with reproducible clarity in the faces of anyone experiencing that emotion and in such a way that we would all recognise the emotion being expressed. Background emotions may not be so clearly discernable in the facial expressions but often subtle body changes can be detected which allow most of us to detect most emotions most of the time.

I started out by mentioning Darwin’s “The Exression of Emotion in Man and Animals” and with that title it is clear that emotion is not a uniquely human attribute.  So why do we feel that emotion is so distictly human?

it is because of the human capacity for feeling. Feeling is what is engendered by the emotions. Our feelings are inwardly directed and personal and outwardly displayed as emotions. The lasting impact of feelings requires consciousness and this is the uniquely human aspect.

So when people say that they can hide their feelings they are, to use a modern idiom “mispeaking”. Feelings are experienced internally. A person may, if expert enough, be able to hide the outward expression of the feeling; that is they can hide the emotion.  For most of us the spontaneous smile caused by a feeling of genuine delight is impossible to hide, which is why we are prepared to pay large sums of money to see great actors who are skilled inthe deliberate manipulation of their emotions.

And what of emotion and reason? Over the years I have become increasingly interested in the area of emotional intelligence – a juxtaposition of words that would have been totally unacceptable to my student self. Emotion, or so I thought, was the enemy of reason. I was on the side of Mr Spock not James T Kirk on this one! However recent experiments have shown that emotions are an integral part of decision making. Several individuals who where extremely rational in their decision making up to the time that they suffered a serious head injury which had caused loss of certain emotions, were shown to have also lost their ability to make rational decisions in matters concerning relationships.  While they retained the ability to tackle problems of logic and to create a rational picture of the world they had lost the ability to make rational decisions in personal and social contexts.

So in fact the old enemies motion and reason may in fact be partners.

In business this is starting to be more clearly accepted. It is not that gut feeling should be allowed to take precedence over careful analysis of a business situation but the way we “feel” about a decision cannot be simply ignored.

The way we feel about something may well come from our subconscious. Sometimes we know why we feel a certain way. We may, for example, see a familiar face and feel happy. A certain place may bring back memories of an unhappy time and we feel uneasy, uncomfortable.  At other times we feel uneasy but cannot put a finger o exactly why we feel that way but we know that there is something there, lurking just out of reach of our conscious mind, but tangible none the less.

To ignore this feeling in a business situation is to ignore a vital piece of information in the decision making process. We must analyse all of the information available to us ; balance shhets, ROI, a CV, whatever is required but how we “feel” about the decision must play a part too.