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To What Extent Can Emotion Be Viewed As A Biological Phenomenon

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  • Pages: 7
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  • Category: Emotions

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Emotion is a complex condition, yet it is one of the most basic feelings that a human can experience. It is closely related to the theory of motives such as hunger and sex. Emotions like joy and anger can activate and direct behaviour in the same way that motives can, and have often been known to accompany motivated behaviour. So emotions and motives are similar, but emotions are distinctive due to the fact that they are triggered from the outside and are usually aroused by external events. Emotional reactions are aimed at these types of events.

Alternatively, motives are activated from within, and are generally aroused by internal events and are directed naturally. Fridja in 1986 and Lazarus in 1991 state that an emotion arises in response to certain affectively toned experiences, and that an intense emotion contains at least six components. The most frequently recognised being the subjective experience of the emotion, involving the state and feelings associated with the emotion. The second component is the body’s reaction such as trembling or giggling. The body also has many internal reactions that have prompted psychologists to ask if emotion really is a biological event.

Two recent multi-level theories by LeDoux in 1992 and 1996 and Power and Dalgleish in 1997 attempt to put this case forward and try and answer the question stated. LeDoux focused all his attention to the area of anxiety. He highlighted the role of the amgydala; a small, almond-shaped mass located in the lower brain known to register emotional reactions, and stated that it was the brain’s ’emotional computer’ that helped to work out the emotional significance of stimuli. He believes that sensory information about emotional stimuli is relayed simultaneously from the thalamus to the amgydala and the cortex.

This suggests that anxiety is made up of two different emotion circuits. One is a slow-moving circuit that travels from the thalamus, to the cortex, to the amygdala, and includes a detailed analysis of sensory information. It triggers a rapid response in threatening situations, and can be valuable in ensuring survival. In contrast, the other is a fast-flowing circuit that travels straight from the thalamus to the amygdala, and so bypasses the cortex. It produces a detailed evaluation of the emotional significance in a situation; this allows an appropriate response to the situation.

It is based on simple stimulus features such as intensity. LeDoux related his theory to the Zajonc-Lazarus debate: “The activation of the amygdala by inputs from the neocortex is….. consistent with the classic notion that emotional processing is post-cognitive, whereas the activation of the amygdala by thalamic inputs is consistent with the hypothesis, advanced by Zajonc (1980), that the emotional processing can be preconscious and precognitive. ” In 1997, Power and Dalgleish introduced a ‘Schematic Propositional Associative and Analogical Representational Systems (SPAARS) theory.

It is relative to the above debate, and is made up of four systems. The analogical system is included in the basic sensory processing of any environmental stimuli, the prepositional system is an emotion-free system that contains information about the world and self, the schematic system combines facts from the prepositional system with information about the individual’s goals to create an internal model of the situation that leads to an emotional response if disturbed, and finally the associative system, Dalgleish described its workings in1998: If the same event is repeatedly processed in the same way as the schematic level, then an associative representation will be formed such that, on future encounters of the same event, the relevant emotion will be automatically elicited.

They believe that there are two main ways in which emotions can occur. Firstly as a result of cognitive processing through the schematic system, and secondly as an automatic reaction with no involvement from any conscious processing involved in the associative system. Power and Dalgleish (1997) also set out to discover the most basic emotions.

By using an earlier theory made by Oatley and Johnson-Laird in 1987, and gathering enough reasonable evidence from cross-cultural studies of facial expressions of emotion and emotional development in children, they came to the conclusion that there were five main emotions. Happiness, due to the progression made on a current goal, anxiety, by the goal of self-preservation being threatened, sadness, when the current goal cannot be achieved, anger, when the current goal gets frustrated or blocked, and finally disgust, due to the violation of a gustatory goal.

They concluded that many complex emotions were made up of different combinations of these five emotions. In 1991, Lazarus believed that emotional experiences are possible without conscious and deliberate cognitive appraisal and are restricted to undifferentiated positive or negative feelings. He stated that it might be possible that almost all emotions involve some type of appraisal if cognitive appraisal is defined broadly enough to include primitive or automatic evaluations of situations acquired through evolution.

Other evidence to suggest that emotion is biologically based is when an intense emotion like fear or anger is experienced. There are many biological changes such as rapid breathing and heart rate, a dry mouth, perspiration, trembling and a ‘sinking feeling’ in the stomach. Many of these symptoms are activated from the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. Other emotions such as joy, excitement and sexual arousal also produce the same types of response.

As the body prepares for action many changes occur such as an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, rapid respiration, dilated pupils, increase of perspiration, decrease of saliva and mucus, an increase of blood-sugar levels to create energy, a faster process of blood clotting and diversion of blood from the stomach and intestines to the brain and skeletal muscles. The hairs on the skin also become erect and cause ‘goose-pimples’. These changes show evidence of the sympathetic system gearing up the organism for energy output.

The parasympathetic system conserves energy and starts to takes over as the emotion subsides, and restores the organism to its original state. These events that take place in the autonomic nervous system are originally triggered by activity that takes place in certain regions of the brain, such as the hypothalamus that produces biological motives, and parts of the limbic system. These areas produce impulses that are transmitted to the nuclei in the brain stem that control the autonomic nervous system.

This reaction then acts directly on the muscles and internal organs to produce the bodily changes that are associated with emotion. It also acts indirectly on the adrenal hormones that are stimulated to produce other bodily changes. These types of reactions are similar for most types of emotion, but for feelings such as sorrow or grief, some of the bodily processes may be depressed or slowed down. Other components of emotion cognitions about associated situations, facial expression, reactions to the emotion and action tendencies.

None of these components create an emotion by itself, each component can influence another. So, to back up the statement of ’emotion being a biological phenomena’, I am going to discuss an experiment carried out by Hohman in 1962 as objective evidence. His aim was to discover a relationship between heightened physiological arousal and the subjective experience of an emotion. He studied the emotional life of army veterans with spinal cord injuries. When the spinal cord is severed, sensations below the point of injury cannot reach the brain.

This type of injury reduces the contributions of autonomic arousal to an emotional experience, as some of the sensations of emotion arise from the sympathetic nervous system. The subjects were divided into five groups according to the location of the damage on the spinal cord. One group was near the neck at the cervical level with no feedback from the sympathetic system to the brain, while another was near the base of the spine at the sacral level with possible partial feedback from the sympathetic nerves. The other three groups fell between these two extremes.

Collectively they represented a scale of bodily sensation, based on the idea that the higher the damage was caused on the spinal cord, the less the feedback from the autonomic nervous system to the brain. The participants were then interviewed to discover the different types of feelings the experienced in certain situations such as fear, anger, grief and sexual excitement. They were then all asked to recall an emotion-arousing incident that took place before and after the injury, and to compare the intensity of their emotional experience in each case.

The results concluded that the higher the spinal injury, the lower the emotionality after the injury, this was also true for emotions such as grief and sexual excitement. So a reduction in autonomic arousal resulted in a reduction in the intensity of experienced emotions. The comments made by the subjects with the highest spinal cord injury were analysed, and were found to suggest that they could react emotionally to an arousing situation, but couldn’t actually feel real emotion. One participant stated that for him, “It’s a cold anger.

Sometimes I act angry when I see some injustice. I yell and cuss and raise hell, because if you don’t do it sometimes, I’ve learned people will take advantage of you; but it doesn’t have the heat to it that it used to. It’s a mental kind of anger. ” He also commented on the fact that he doesn’t really feel the physical feelings associated with fear, such as tenseness and a shaken feeling. This study was not entirely objective, but it was important, as the subjects’ emotional situations varied, and they individually rated their own experience.

Another study was carried out in 1975 by Jasmos and Hakmiller, and proved to be more objective. All of the participants were exposed to the same situation, and independent judges rated their emotional experiences. Male participant wit spinal cord injuries were given pictures of clothed and nude females and told to imagine that they were alone with each woman. Their thoughts and feelings were then reported to and rated for expressed emotion by the judges. Participants with higher injuries on their spinal cords were rated as having a lower sexual excitement than those with lower injuries.

This once again concluded that the less feedback coming from the autonomic system to the brain, the less emotion was expressed. So to once again return to the question, the idea of emotion being a biological phenomena is very plausible, as without the knowledge of the biological structures of the brain and spinal cord, the subject of emotion could not be investigated. There are many aspects of the body that make up an emotional experience; it’s not just a cognitive process.

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