jeudi 11 juin 2009

Chapter 2: The emotional process

2) The emotional process

Emotions fuel the reading of a book, make a movie stirring, and above all imbue our relationships with uniqueness. Emotions are ever present and unconscious most of the time, even when we would like to refute them. They have little to do with the ‘reason’ side of the brain. In the beginning, that is perhaps why we perceive emotions as a second source of information, after reason, whereas they are generally good appraisals of a situation. Thus, understanding our emotions better may help our well being in everyday life.

Because they are complex and happen so quickly – they can be volatile – it seems difficult to give a precise definition of what emotions are without going against their particularity. There is no one right answer to this; otherwise we narrow the parameters of the research. The question of what an emotion is has been debated for a long time, at least since an article by William James in 1884, and indeed the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is still contributing to this debate with some interesting discoveries about the brain. Many theories have been offered about the essence of emotions, how they are generated, how they are connected to cognition and motivation, and how they play a main part in decision-making. Such theories depend as well on the interpretative framework, such as the different approaches towards emotions, from a Darwinist evolutionary perspective, a neurobiological one, or else a cognitive one. But what emerges, above all, from all of these theories is that emotions are a process. To me, starting to think about emotions as a process and humanising them was an interesting starting point.

I therefore intend to conduct research into a sort of creative framework and suggest a comparison with cooking to enable another way of seeing what an emotion looks like. Indeed, cooking similarly involves a process, that is to say, a chain of facts or phenomena responding to a certain system and leading to a result, like a mechanism, a manner of creating something. The process of making is engaged: making a cake, creating a particular emotion… Is it possible to ‘create’ an emotion? As the cake needs many stages before it is baked, all the stages constitute the general process.

From some desires, needs and personal tastes, we are driven to buy those ingredients, to prepare this recipe, to make the meal in a particular way… It is not easy to say why we have reacted like that at a certain moment, overwhelmed by shame, let our anger get the better of us. To verbalize emotions is tricky, but that is part of why I have chosen to write about it constructively. Hopefully I will find some clues to the process, and to better control the links of the chain, or, at least, to better learn how to live with the uncontrollable.

Emotional processing expresses a flow in movement, a liquid or at least a kind of substance that transforms in a moment of time, beginning and ending. Indeed, can we not feel this sensation of an energy growing in our body, when the heart is bursting with joy, like the cake rising gently? The invisible smell that escapes from the oven delightfully titillates our nostrils. This first stimulus of our senses is the prelude to hunger. In the sequence of emotions, the stimulus occurs first and the feelings last. LeDoux examines William James’s approach to the components of the chain of emotions. James asked whether feelings cause emotional responses or vice versa. In answering that responses cause feelings, he started a century-old debate about where feelings come from. For instance, he argues that we do not run because we are frightened; we are frightened because we run. There is the stimulus, a response, followed by a feedback to the brain, and then the feeling. James’s theory was generally accepted and completed; other theories consider the emotion as an arousal in our body that we detect and label, appraising a situation for action. The stream of feeling, whatever paths it takes through the thalamus to the neocortex, is a movement. There is in any case a region in the limbic system called the tonsil that plays a significant role for emotions.

It is interesting now to come back to the etymology of the word ‘emotion’, which is based on the Latin emovere, from e- ‘out’ and movere ‘move’. ‘Motivation’ is also derived from movere. Thus the emotion is a sort of change of an affective state involving a high level of activation, visceral changes and strong feelings. This movement is made in order to adapt to a particular situation and to protect from the environment’s aggressions.

Generally unconscious, almost invisible, emotions, linked to cognition and motivation, however drive our behaviour and decision-making, giving a sense to our relationships with others. Feeling an emotion is really the expression of an energy that is moving and pushing us. And surprisingly to me at first, Damasio has said that we are efficiently able to stop one emotion as we can prevent a sneeze...

4. Ledoux, Joseph, The emotional brain, Phoenix, 1998, p.43
6. Ibid. p.16-20
7. Ledoux, Op.cit., p.43-45
8. Chevassus-Au-Louis, Nicolas, A quoi sert notre cerveau?, On se bouge!, 2007, p.43

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