The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but just felt within the heart. [Helen Keller.]
It was a summer of limitless bites,
Of hungers quickly felt
And quickly forgotten
With the next careless gorging.
[John Tobias, “Reflections On a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.”]
I will be presumptuous enough to offer a few words of advice about emotions. Many years ago as we humans count these things, I knew someone who said that emotions lie. That has not been my experience. We may misinterpret our emotions but perhaps nothing gets to the core of Truth better than they do. The trick is in knowing how to read them and avoid misinterpreting them. Being aware of one’s emotions appears to enhance rationality. Recognition that emotion is useful in decision making is associated with higher reasoning scores.
Our emotions are more powerful in driving human behavior than are our rational thoughts. Often, this is detrimental. For example, smokers experience an aversive reaction when being told about smoking’s adverse effects. “Reliance on emotion produces belief in fake news”. “Emotion trumps reason at the ballot box”. Most people “are motivated to defend their beliefs and attitudes in the face of discrepant information”. Among jurors too, emotionality often trumps reason. In general, people are inclined to feel their way to decisions, a phenomenon known as a “framing effect”. One researcher has proposed seven factors as influences on the role of emotion and cognition in decision making. Thinking about the future tends more toward rationality than does thinking about the past. A theory of rational-emotive therapy has been developed. However, a study on self-control suggests that after the fact, “individuals experience higher satisfaction with restraint the more they rely on reason than on feelings”. Reappraisal can be used as a successful strategy for emotion regulation.
Researchers have used real-time MRI technology to study factors including regret, reputation of others, risk assessment, risk-taking, emotional outcomes of decisions, evaluation of lying and truth-telling, self-control of impulsive desires, stability of personality traits and reward choices, reward learning, rationalization, tribal love versus romantic love, and psychopathology. This real-time brain-activity mapping opens a wide range of possibilities for behavior modification, which of course can include beneficial therapies but also cynical manipulation.
The brain’s emotional networks have been and are being mapped, with particular emphasis on the amygdala, the hippocampus, the parahippocampal gyrus, the temporal poles, the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. A “social brain” has been identified and mapped, and found to predict the future mental states of others. Brain activity has been measured relative to moral dilemmas, the structural and functional connectivity of the human brain, the prisoner’s dilemma, the ultimatum game, Machiavellian emotion regulation, decision-making in people with cancer, Crohn’s disease, bilingual decision making, work-related stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, gambling and aviation tasks. A “3d mind model” has been constructed for measuring the state of mind in other people. Human emotions – all of which have been mapped on fMRI imaging – include happiness, sorrow, joy, grief, fear, anxiety, shame, cheerfulness, anticipation, despair, enthusiasm, kindliness/kindness, caring, compassion, empathy, sympathy, calmness, boredom, agitation, trust, love, passion, indifference/apathy, admiration, anger, surprise, horror, disgust, pity, indignation, envy, nostalgia and peacefulness. One of the beneficial uses of an ethical framework like the one offered here could be in putting the growing body of research into a more complete framework. This could become an important foundation for teaching values and constructing an enduring ethical models for a more just society. Of course, this must be underlain with a healthy dose of humility and an unwavering commitment to the worth and dignity of all people.
We have a wealth of research and scholarship on the evolutionary development of emotion. Though the midbrain is a primary seat of emotional development, neocortical development also played a significant role throughout evolution. Emotional responses related to death, predatory hunting, have been studied.
When people say that emotion comes “from the heart,” probably they are referring to the heart’s central location in the body and perhaps to sensations we have “in our gut” when we experience emotions. In truth, our emotions are processed in the hypothalamus, amygdala and other parts of the midbrain.
That is why integration of every part of our Being is important, and a central part of spirituality in every major religious tradition. An emotion is a revealed Truth, but unlike the so-called revealed truths of theism, it illuminates the inner life and makes little or no claim about the objective-external world. To understand that is to understand what a revealed Truth is.
Properly read, our emotions always tell the inner Truth of our Being, and will always lead us to that Truth if we respect them, nurture them and take them for what they are. In a way, they are the only means we have to know the Truth of our lives and the lives of others.
Emotion is the tree in the middle of our garden of Being, the centerpiece that gives meaning to all we sense, think and do. It belongs at the center of our first liturgical week.
When we eat of that tree, we enter the world of joy and sorrow. We cannot know the former without the latter. “Without a hurt the heart is hollow.”
Be careful with your emotions in two ways. First, guard against unhealthy attachments. Know that relationships may end. When that occurs, whether by choice or by circumstance, move forward, secure in the knowledge that the relationship served the great cause of happiness, and that knowing the other has helped make you whole. (No one promised that life would be easy. It is not permanent.)
Second, do not confuse Truth with truth. Do not let your emotions cloud your thinking. Our internal lives answer to our emotions and our sense of meaning, but we live in a material world to which our desires must yield sometimes. Each of us is at the center of our personal universe but none of us is at the center of the material universe or the universe of all-Being. Know the difference. Avoid the laziness in thought and action that has led so many well-intentioned efforts astray. Let your emotions be a perfectly formed, healthy tree that gives your life beauty and meaning, not a vine that crowds out, strangles or distorts everything else.
Be whole. Give your emotions their indispensable place in your life, then move beyond them into the wholeness of your Being.
Technical and Analytical Readings
The reader may wonder why, if this is to be a narrative, have I not yet told any stories. Where are Melville and Shakespeare and Dickens? They were not yet writing when humans evolved, and though they have much to say about human emotion, their treatment of the subject is usually rather specific. On this day, our interest is in emotion itself. So I tell this part of the narrative, as I must, through what we know of our evolutionary history as a species, again by citing some of the leading but widely available writings on the subject.
- Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy - and Why They Matter (New World Library, 2007).
- Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (Harcourt, 2003).
- Lisa Feldman Barrett, Paula M. Niederthal and Piotr Winkielman, Eds., Emotion and Consciousness (The Guilford Press, 2005).
- Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
- Michael Lewis, Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones and Lisa Feldman-Barrett, eds., Handbook of Emotions (Guilford Press, 2008).
- William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
- Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (Simon & Schuster, 1996).
- Robert C. Solomon, What Is an Emotion?: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Oxford University Press, 2003).
- Paul J. Whelan and Elizabeth A. Phelps, eds., The Human Amygdala (The Guilford Press, 2009).
- Robert Plutchik, The Psychology and Biology of Emotion (Harper Collins College Publishers, 1994).
- Giovanna Colombetti and Evan Thompson, Emotion Experience: A Special Issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (Imprint Academic, 2005).
- Robert Plutchik, Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology, Biology and Evolution (American Psychological Association, 2002).
- Fay Bound Alberti, Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, and Emotion (Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Victor S. Johnston, Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions (Perseus Books, 1999).
- Charles Darwin, On the Expression of the Emotions In Man and Animals (1873).
- Marc Haug and Richard E. Whalen, Eds., Animal Models of Human Emotion and Cognition (American Psychological Association, 1999).
- Frans de Waal, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019): “Emotions are neither invisible nor impossible to study; they can be measured. Levels of chemicals associated with emotional experiences, from the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin to the stress hormone cortisol, can easily be determined. The hormones are virtually identical across taxa, from humans to birds to invertebrates.”
- Antonio Damasio, Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious (Pantheon, 2021): “It is feeling, he thinks, that can bridge the conceptual abyss between the physical body and the conscious mind.”
See also the following journals:
Documentary and Educational Films
- Raising Cain: Exploring the Inner Lives of America’s Boys
- Raising Cain: Protecting the Inner Lives of Boys, Part 1; Part 2
- Philippe Goldin, The Neuroscience of Emotions
- Kerry Ressler, The Neuroscience of Emotions
- Ginger Campbell, Neuroscience of Emotion
- Jack Panksepp, The Science of Emotions
- Lisa Feldman Barrett, The Neuroscience Behind Emotions
- Brain and Behavior – The Neurobiology of Emotion and Stress
So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. [The Bible, Genesis 4:5.]
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
[Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book III, # 21 (1855).]
- John Keats, “A Draught of Sunshine”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Perhaps the rawest music emotionally is Fado, Portuguese music of exquisite suffering. “In Latin, fado is 'fatum', that is, destiny and sings of life’s encounters and mismatches, using saudade, love, melancholy, and sadness as inspiration.”
- Amália Rodrigues: “Queen of Fado” album; “Melhores Músicas Do Amália Rodrigues”; live in Paris April 24, 1987; “greatest hits” compilation
- Madredeus: “Essência” album; O Paraíso album
- Ana Moura playlist
- Mariza: Fado Mariza Melhor Música Portuguesa 2018
- Nemanya Sekiz in concert
- Clube de Fado collection
Portuguese pianist and composer Júlio Resende has created three albums based on Fado. They do not reach the same emotional depths.
Carl Nielsen composed his Symphony No. 2, Op. 16, De fire temperamenter (The Four Temperaments) (1902), after visiting a village restaurant, where he saw a picture portraying four temperaments: in order of composition, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. Of the picture, Nielsen said: “The choleric individual sat on a horse, a long sword in his hand, with which he gesticulated wildly through the empty air, his eyes bursting out of his head, his hair flapping madly around his face, which was contorted with rage and diabolic hatred to the point that I could not help but burst into laughter. The other three pictures were in the same style, and my friends and I were heartily entertained by the naiveté of the pictures, their overblown expressions and comical seriousness.” This treatment of the emotions as unrestrained and buffoonish evokes something akin to their raw state. Top performances were conducted by Blomstedt in 1990, Schønwandt in 1999 and Gilbert in 2012.
Stephen Foster was a songwriter in the American South before and during the Civil War. Many of his songs were blatantly racist. Still, they drip with emotion, apparently sincere. Perhaps you can focus on that quality in the albums and collections linked below, and overlook the context of his work, just long enough to appreciate the music, and some of the lyrics.
- Robert Shaw Chorale, “Stephen Foster Songbook”
- Jan DeGaetani, Leslie Guinn and Gilbert Kalish, “Songs by Stephen Foster”
- Compilation of songs
- Lorenzo Carulli, Suites des Sentiments: “Suite des Sentiments is born from the desire to describe how emotions belong to every time and every place; they undoubtedly symbolize the force that nourishes the human being, the strength that could bring us down and at the same time rise us again to a new life and unexpected joy . . . . Feelings will always be our instinctive way for striving and fighting toward a better road, the most important instrument to understand who we are and what we need. In other words: the answer we all are looking for.” [the composer]
- Händel, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740), a pastoral ode studying two alternating moods, or tempers.
- Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Plateaux, for piano & orchestra (2005): a piano concerto, consisting of nine brief pieces, covering a range of raw emotions.
- Fauré, La chanson d'Ève, Op. 95 (1910): the emergence of emotion, with the biblical Eve as the title character
Albums from Becca Stevens, a queen of melancholy:
- Joe Lovano, “Garden of Expression”
- Jiha Park, “Philos”, a minimalist exposition on emotion: “Using no more than three instruments on each track, Jiha’s music expresses as much emotion as words could convey”.
- David Helbock, “Emotions” (2012)