Stories from the Field, Part X: But what is it? Defining Emotion.

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness impacts the students I work with (and in return, how they impact me), in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a STEM high school in Portland, Maine:

 Anger, fear, joy, disgust, and sadness from  Inside out

Anger, fear, joy, disgust, and sadness from Inside out

I like Pixar's Inside Out as much as the next person.  If I'm being honest, I probably like it way more than the next person. I use these characters to think about my emotions as harmless little muppets who I can comfort and soothe. I think the whole film gives us great insight into our mind. However, watching the movie just offers us a way of symbolizing, and even working with, them. It does not really give us a clear picture of what emotions actually are. 

The challenge of defining "emotion" 

So take a minute to grab a pencil and paper. Write down the word "emotion."  Then, write the definition.

How'd it go?  We might we know emotions so well, but when it comes to defining them, things get muddy quickly. 

Here's how the conversation with my high schoolers went on the first day we tackled this topic. 

Me: Okay, so tell me what you wrote down as the definition of emotion.

Student: A feeling.

Me: Can you explain what you mean by feeling?

Student: Um...emotion?

Defining an "emotion" is incredibly challenging. It is not just hard for us laypeople, but even scientists are still hotly debating the issue. At article in The Atlantic titled, "Hard Feelings: Science's Struggle to Define Emotions" explores this difficulty. Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience and director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU, stated, "'It's been said that there are as many theories of emotions are there are emotion theorists.'" The field is still evolving, and what we believed to be true in the 1950s when scientists first turned their attention to emotions has been challenged repeatedly. 

Carroll Izard compiled surveys from 34 emotional researchers and created this description: 

Emotion consists of neural circuits (that are at least partially dedicated), response systems, and a feeling state/process that motivates and organizes cognition and action. Emotion also provides information to the person experiencing it, and may include antecedent cognitive appraisals and ongoing cognition including an interpretation of its feeling state, expressions or social-communicative signals, and may motivate approach or avoidant behavior, exercise control/regulation of responses, and be social or relational in nature.

Our response as a class: Huh?

Emotions....Physical sensations

 Image from  PNAS study

Image from PNAS study

I asked the class to come up with our own personal, intelligible definition. We started by trying to understand the physiological component through a Mindful Schools exercise I have dubbed the "emotional vaccine." I spoke an emotion at a time and asked them to notice what sensations arose in their bodies. After three emotions, we would open our eyes and share out. While there was some consistency for what students reported out about their experiences— a swelling of the chest for "pride" or sinking in for "sadness"— there was also some diversity. For example, some students reported feeling anxiety in their heads and others in their bellies. We followed this by reading a study published in PNAS called "Bodily maps of emotions" that showed cross-cultural consistencies in body sensations in response to specific emotions. Then, we read the afore mentioned Atlantic article, which began with Paul Ekman's study demonstrating the universal correspondence of facial expressions to particular emotions.

Whether or not body sensations were universal still seemed up for debate from our experience, but we decided there is definitely a physiological component. 


Emotions....caused by chemical release in the brain

So it has something to do with physical sensations, but what else? This short video helped us understand where they might originate in the body:  

From it, we learned, "emotions are the effect of...chemical messages traveling from our brain to our body." By adding the two together, and doing a little word smithing, my students came to consensus on this definition:

Emotion: (n) An instinctual reaction to a circumstance that is caused by chemicals released in the brain creating bodily sensations.

"It's so sterile to describe something know?" one student remarked. 

"I do know," I replied like the English teacher I once was, "that's what poetry is for."

Poetry and Pixar.