The famous brain researcher Antonio Damasio explained that emotions are purely physical signals of the body which react to external stimuli. Feelings arise when the brain interprets these as “emotions”.
Emotions consist of three components:
● physiological changes, such as arousal of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. (The person is usually unconscious of this at first).
● the person’s own subjective feeling of an emotion (e.g. happiness)
● associated behaviour, such as smiling or running away.
One of the cognitive factors in emotion is appraisal, both of how the situation will impact us personally, and (if we feel that it will have a negative impact) of our own perceived ability to cope with it (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984). The emotion comes after the appraisal of the situation. Appraisal is influenced by personal characteristics such as motivation, beliefs about oneself and the world, and environmental variables such as the nature of the danger and the strength of one’s social networks.
- problem focused coping – aimed at changing the problematic situation that causes emotional stress. Some of the methods used are taking control of the situation, information-seeking, and evaluating the pros and cons of different options.
- emotion focused coping – aimed at handling the emotions rather than changing the problematic situation. This is often used when a person feels (rightly or not) that it is impossible to change the situation. Some of the methods used here are escape, self control over expression of emotions, seeking social support, or attempting to provide a positive reappraisal of the situation.
However, Speisman (1964), in a very clever experiment, showed that the cognitive appraisal of a situation and the subsequent emotion, can be cleverly manipulated by something as simple as the addition of a particular type of music or spoken text to a clip of film, or having no commentary or music at all. Try viewing this piece of inspirational film firstly with the sound turned off, and then with the music and observe your own reactions.
_______________________________________________________________________________Tips for learning about cognition and emotion: 1. Realise that there are two main focuses: the effect emotion has on cognition, and vice-versa (flashbulb memory, cognitive appraisal); and the effect of biological and cognitive factors on emotion (the short and long path to arousal, LeDoux). 2. The question is not only whether the cognition is involved (Panksepp, 2003, says emotions and cognition are entirely separate), but which comes first, the emotion or the cognition. 3. If cognition and emotion act together, why are we sometimes surprised by our emotions?