Journal of Health Organization and Management

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:42

The Meaning of Emotion 

For all of us emotion exists like a Greek chorus in the play which is our life. Sometimes it is just a gentle hum in the background: sometimes it takes centre stage. However, the fact that something plays a significant part in our life does not mean that psychologists research it. Like every human activity, psychology has fashions. Certain topics become fashionable to research: certain words become fashionable to use. For most of my career as a psychologist ‘emotion’ was considered to be unmentionable and ‘subjectivity’ was scorned. Psychologists had to be ‘objective’ and ‘impersonal’. Now fashion has changed and ‘emotion’ is definitely in fashion. Unfortunately the years of neglect meant that the problems in understanding what emotion is have not been tackled. 

Emotion has always been very difficult to define. When I ask colleagues what they mean by emotion I am given a list of emotions or told – usually in many words – that it means ‘feelings’. Definitions of ‘emotion’ always turn out to be circular and explain nothing. Collins Dictionary define ‘emotion’ as ‘(1) strong feeling, excitement, and (2) any specific feeling as love, hate, fear, anger etc.’ Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘an affective state of consciousness in which joy, sorrow, fear, hate, or the like is experienced.’ Ask what ‘affective’ means and the Macquarie Dictionary will tell you that it is ‘pertaining to feeling or emotion’.

You can spend a happy hour with any dictionary looking up ‘emotion’, ‘feeling’, ‘idea’, ‘cognition’, ‘volition’, ‘thought’, ‘belief’, ‘attitude’, ‘opinion’ and find yourself going round and round in circles as the dictionary defines each word in terms of the others. Some fine distinctions are made, but these are merely different aspects of the one thing, something that we all know very well because we do it all the time but we cannot define it because we cannot contrast it with anything else in the way we can define, say, ‘chicken’ in terms of animals, birds, and motor cars.

What are we doing when we are thinking, feeling, wishing, believing, opining, and attitudinising? We are creating that mysterious thing, meaning, and imposing it on everything we encounter. Creating meaning is what we do. We breathe and we create meaning. For a short time we can not breathe, but we cannot not create meaning. We create meaning when we are asleep or intoxicated, and we can create meaning consciously or unconsciously. Asleep we dream, and we unconsciously create the meaning ‘I am uncomfortable’ and change our position without waking up. What we cannot do is conceive of the opposite of meaning. We may say, ‘That is meaningless’ as in ‘meaningless violence’ but even this has the meanings of ‘I cannot quite think of what meaning to give this’ or ‘I find this unacceptable.’ We live in meaning like a fish lives in water. 

Like thoughts, opinions, beliefs, attitudes and wishes, emotions are meanings, but they are a special kind of meaning. We can create a meaning about, say, the moon, and that meaning have nothing to do with us, but when we create the kind of meaning we call an emotion, when we feel angry, or frightened, or loving, or joyful, or guilty we are at the centre of that meaning. Our emotions are all about us. Even when we profess some high-minded emotion as in, ‘I am angry that the rich countries have not abolished the debt of the poor countries’ we are talking about our own feelings. Emotions are meanings which you create about yourself. You do not have to put an emotion into words but it is always possible to do so. The subject of these verbalised emotions is always ‘I’. 

Our Sense of Being a Person

Who or what is the ‘I’ at the centre of the meanings we call emotion? It is hard to define, yet we are all aware of what ‘I’ is. In fact, ‘I’ is awareness, but it is more than consciousness. The best definition we can give of it is, ‘It’s what I mean when I say “I”, “me”, “myself”. When we are asked to describe the person that we are we answer in terms of our appearance, our gender, age, family, nationality, race, religion, class, occupation, affiliations and interests. These are all ideas, as are our memories which inform us who we are. 

At about 26 weeks gestation our brain becomes capable of creating meaning and of setting up connections between these meanings. In the womb a baby becomes capable of noticing that one event invariably precedes another and of using the occurrence of the first event to predict the second. Many babies are born knowing that a certain sound, a piece of music, always precedes their feeling of pleasure which comes when the mother relaxes by sitting or lying down, thus giving the baby a more comfortable space. Once born, these babies show pleasurable anticipation when the music is played. Many British babies have been found to associate pleasure with the music of the television soap Neighbours.  

All our meanings connect together and form a meaning structure which is constantly evolving and changing. This meaning structure is what you experience as ‘I’, in other words, your sense of being a person. There is no little you sitting inside your head and creating meaning. You are your meaning structure: your meaning structure is you. 

The research on neuronal patterns of connections in the brain and the learning process suggests that the neuronal pattern in the person’s brain is the site of the person’s meaning structure, though how a neuronal connection is also a meaning is far from being understood. This neuronal pattern/meaning structure develops from the person’s past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same experience, no two meaning structures are the same. This is why we are all individuals, all different from one another. 

Neuroscientists have shown that our brain is incapable of giving us an exact picture of what is going on around us. It constructs pictures of what is going on, and these pictures are informed by our past experience. We each see what we have learned to see. Thus our brain forms a theory about what is going on, and this theory is based on our past experience. Our meaning structure is made up of a set of theories or guesses about what actually is. For you to feel secure you/your meaning structure needs to be validated. Your guesses must be shown to be right. Events must confirm your predictions. Other people must show by their words and deeds that you/your meaning structure are as you believe you are. 

Alas, events and other people often fail to provide the validation we need. Every day some of our ideas are challenged and invalidated. The letter we expected did not arrive; our boss did not accept our work plan. These are small errors of judgement. Sometimes our error of judgement is huge. Perhaps your job for life suddenly disappears. Perhaps you find that the person you love no longer loves you. Perhaps you had always believed that if you were good nothing bad would happen to you, and then something bad happened to you. These are invalidations so huge that your sense of being a person starts to fall apart. You feel yourself crumbling, shattering, disappearing. You are terrified. Even if you understand that what is falling apart is a significant part of your meaning structure, the ideas which no longer fit your circumstances, you feel anxious and uncertain until you can construct new ideas which better reflect your new situation.[1] 

Our fear of being annihilated as a person is far greater than our fear of death. We can in some measure come to accept our death, provided that we can believe that some important aspect of our sense of being a person will continue on, be it our soul or spirit, our children, our work, or just in the memories of those who knew us. Being annihilated as a person means to us that we shall vanish like a wisp of smoke in the wind, never to have existed. 

Thus it is that we need to survive both physically and as a person. However, we can find ourselves in a situation where we cannot do both. In such circumstances very few people choose to survive physically and to let go of the person they know themselves to be. Some people, who have emerged from prolonged, degrading torture feeling that the person they had once been has been destroyed, find that they can never be themselves again. They feel that they have become a no-thing and that life can only be endured, not lived. Rather than exist in this way most people choose to die, perhaps heroically, perhaps by their own hand. When Private Johnson Beharry received the Victoria Cross from the Queen he denied that he had been courageous. He said, ‘I knew I had to get everyone out because I couldn’t have lived with myself otherwise.’[2] All heroes and heroines who survive their heroic act say that about themselves. If they had not done what they did they would no longer be able to think of themselves as being the person they want to be. Acts of suicide follow from the person deciding that the situation they are in is one where they cannot be the person they know themselves to be. A young woman I once knew saw herself as being intrinsically incapable of mothering her child to the standard that other people, particularly her mother, expected of her. Rather than be exposed as a failure and shamed, she killed herself.  

Surviving as a person, not being invalidated as a person, is our absolute top priority. Emotions are meanings devoted to surviving as a person.  

The Origins of the Emotions

The purpose of life is to live. In some measure all living things create meaning in order to survive. Trees may not be consciously aware or even have a brain but their internal system creates a meaning to do with striving towards the light and towards water. Ants work purposefully. To what degree apes and chimpanzees have some measure of consciousness is hotly debated amongst scientists. According to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, ‘Consciousness, as we experience it, is nothing more than the emergent property of electrical activity in the brain as interconnected neurones exchange electro-chemical messages.’[3] If we think of our meaning structure as a kind of scaffolding structure floating in a vast dark space, a structure where every part (a meaning) is connected to every other part, then consciousness is like a torch light moving around that structure, lighting up certain parts, and generated by the structure itself. The light of consciousness tells us we exist, but it also reveals how fragile our meaning structure is. 

Our brain generates meaning. It is not surprising that the part of the brain which generates the meaning ‘survive’ develops early in our gestation. Neuroscientists see the amygdala in the limbic system in the brain as the source of our earliest emotions of fear and anger. However, there must be something else present, a sense of being alive and a need to stay alive, which together form a kind of primitive pride which says, ‘I am here and I intend to stay.’ Newborn babies struggle to breathe, to eat and to avoid pain. When their needs are not met they complain. To generate the emotions of fear and anger a newborn’s brain must contain some emergent property that might be called ‘the proud I’, proud because ‘I’ has as its purpose its survival. Fear is the meaning, ‘I am in danger’, but anger is the meaning ‘How dare anything get in my way’. 

Consciousness develops slowly. The neuroscientist Susan Greenwood likens it to the turning on of a dimmer switch. A newborn may not be conscious but right from birth a baby is interested in surviving not just physically but as a person. The development of our sense of being a person comes very much through our interaction with other people. Within a few minutes of being born a baby will imitate an adult who sticks out his tongue by sticking his tongue out at the adult. Within five days of their birth babies show very clearly that they prefer to look at human faces, even cartoons of faces, rather than anything else, to listen to human voices rather than listen to anything else, and to watch human movement rather than the movement of objects. Babies are born with the ability to distinguish people from objects. 

Interested though he is in people, initially a baby assesses his situation solely in terms of himself. The fear, anger and joy he shows are the uncomplicated meanings of ‘I am in danger’, ‘How dare things not be what I want them to be’, and ‘Everything is as I want everything to be’. However, as the baby gets to know people, his emotions become more complicated. 

In her studies of siblings Judy Dunn has observed that, ‘There is a marked difference between the general distress shown by a one-year-old when his brother takes away his toy, and the frustration shown by an eighteen- or twenty-four-month-old, an anger that this person can act in this way towards me. A new vindictiveness is shown – I’m going to get back at this person in a way which will hurt him.’[4]  

Hitting your brother because he has taken your toy may be no more than venting your anger on somebody who has frustrated you but Judy Dunn has shown that by as early as sixteen months a child knows how to invalidate another member of his family. One example Judy Dunn gives is of three-year-old Anne and her brother, sixteen-month-old Eric. 

Anne is playing with her teddy bear, her favourite comfort-object. She is making a ‘tent’ for him in the kitchen with a chair and a cloth. Eric watches. Five minutes later both children are in the front room, and they have a fight over the possession of a toy car. Anne wins the fight. Eric is angry. He runs back to the kitchen, pulls Anne’s ‘tent’ to pieces and hurls the teddy across the room. Anne bursts into tears.[5] 

Eric knew how horrible it is to have something you have built destroyed and to have something you love and need injured, so he could see in Anne needs and desires similar to his own. However, by the time they are eighteen-month-old toddlers also understand that other people have desires which may be different form their own. Alison Gopnik and Betty Repacholi found that toddlers of this age, who showed very clearly that they preferred Goldfish crackers to raw broccoli, willingly fed Betty with the broccoli after she had shown them by making faces and saying ‘Yum’ or ‘Yuck’ that she preferred the broccoli to the crackers.[6] Thus Eric used his knowledge of his sister to upset her while these toddlers used their knowledge of the nice lady who played with them to make her happy. 

The birth of another baby in a family often reveals a sibling’s precocious knowledge of what would upset his mother. Judy Dunn reported,  

One child, whose mother and baby sister were gazing at each other in a long absorbed exchange, picked up his cup, which had a lid with holes in the top, and looking across at to the baby and his ecstatic mother, started to sprinkle his milk all over the sofa. A second child ran into the garden and laughingly let down the line with a full load of washing on to the muddy grass.[7]

A four-year-old can understand the manipulative value of guilt. One such child ‘put it quite explicitly to his mother on the birth of his brother: “Why have you ruined my life?”’[8] Small children understand revenge, the emotion that says, ‘You have hurt me and now I’m going to hurt you.’ They also understand what empathy is, as Alison Gopnik discovered one evening when she arrived home after a terrible day at work and found that she had failed to defrost that evening’s dinner. She flung herself on the sofa and cried, whereupon her son, who was not yet two-years-old, ran into the bathroom and returned with ‘a large box of Band-Aids, which he proceeded to put on her at random all over; this was clearly a multiple-Band-Aid injury. Like many therapists, he made the wrong diagnosis but his treatment was highly effective. She stopped crying.’[9] 

Empathy is a very complex emotion. ‘Real empathy isn’t just knowing that other people feel the same as you do; it’s about knowing that they don’t feel the same way and caring anyway. Babies aren’t born with this deep moral insight, but, by the time they are two, they have already begun to understand it.’[10] 

Judy Dunn has commented, ‘In their relationships with their siblings children display powers of understanding far greater than those attributed to them on the basis of experimental studies.’[11] The studies to which she refers are those associated with the Theory of Mind which concerns how we are able to imagine what another person thinks, believes or feels. Judy Dunn’s work shows that we learn very early that the people closest to us have feelings about themselves, while research by psychologists using versions of the false belief test to examine the Theory of Mind shows that children take longer to understand the impersonal meanings which other people create. One example of a false belief test is the Smartie Test. 

In this test you show a child a tube of Smarties and ask: What do you think is in this tube? The inevitable answer is: Smarties. You take the cap off and the child sees that the tube actually contains pencils. After replacing the cap, you say to the child: I’m just going to bring your friend Jim into the room. What do you think Jim will say is in the tube? Up to the age of four, children invariably say ‘pencils’ because they cannot distinguish between their own knowledge of the situations and someone else’s; but after about four and a half, they will reply with rapidly increasing conviction, ‘Smarties.’[12] 

Children who fail the false belief tests are not being presented with a situation which involves the danger of being invalidated or the opportunity to invalidate someone else. Whatever their answer to the psychologist’s question, the psychologist praises them. It is not imperative that children learn very early in life that other people can hold beliefs which are wrong, indeed believing that your parents are infallible is a great comfort when you are small, whereas it is imperative that children learn very early how to defend themselves against invalidation by validating or invalidating others. 

It is in the bosom of our family that the most wonderful and the most dangerous validations and invalidations take place. For instance, praise from a parent can be at the one time validating and invalidating. The child’s belief that his parent loves him may be validated, but the fact that the parent praises the child for something the child knows he is not is invalidating because it shows that his parent does not understand him. It is through our interactions with our family that we begin to create the complex meanings which express safety by being validated and danger by being invalidated. 

Simple and Complex Emotions

The simple emotions of joy, fear and anger involve only ourselves and our feelings of safety, danger or frustration. These are the only meanings of which we can be absolutely certain. This is what we feel when we feel it. If we then ask ourselves why we feel joyous, fearful or angry our meanings become guesses because we cannot be absolutely certain of the situation which validated or invalidated us. (‘Did the person who praised me mean what he said?’) Many people destroy these absolute truths by qualifying them with ‘oughts’ (‘I don’t deserve to be happy’), or lying to themselves about what they felt. Many people say that they never get angry, and call their anger fear. Others deny that they are ever afraid because to them fear means chaos, something they cannot control. 

Languages differ in whether or not they have terms for complex emotions. Japanese, so I am told, has a word for ‘regret for feeling regret’, an emotion many of us would recognise when we look back over our life and try to call it happy. Within a particular language terms for certain complex emotions change with changing circumstances. That complex of peculiar isolation, despair and guilt which we now call depression was called ‘accidie’ in the Middle Ages and in those religious times was considered to be a sin. In Elizabethan times, when a melancholic stance was fashionable amongst those who wished to be seen as significant, accidie became melancholia.[13] 

Whatever they are called, complex emotions are inevitable when people live together in groups. Societies function because children are brought up to believe that as they are they are not acceptable and that they have to work hard to be good. Such education teaches a child, first, how to create the emotion of shame (‘I am exposed and I shall become a nothing in other people’s eyes’), and second, guilt (‘I have erred and shall be punished’). Siblings compete to be seen as good in their parents’ eyes, and so learn how to create the emotion jealousy (‘I have been deprived of something that was rightly mine’), and later envy (‘I have been deprived of something that I want and another person has’). 

Roget’s Thesaurus contains many more words for invalidating people than for validating them. When we are validated by events or other people we can feel secure and satisfied, and go about our business, but when we are threatened with one form or other of invalidation we have to go on thinking about that situation while we try to work out how to make ourselves safe. Thus it is that a vast range of complex feelings are lumped together under the words ‘love’ and ‘happiness’, while the range of emotions involved in invalidation is analysed and carefully labelled.  

Every interaction between people is laden with possibilities for validation and invalidation. I may think that by being concerned about your health and welfare I am validating you, but if you interpret my words and deeds as being patronising I am invalidating you. There is no simple solution to the perils of communication, but by recognising the importance of emotion we can begin to understand what emotion means.


[1] Dorothy Rowe Beyond Fear second edition, HarperCollins, London, 2002.

[2] Guardian April 28, 2005.

[3] The Human Story Faber and Faber, London, 2004, p.71

[4] Sisters and Brothers Fontana, London, 1984, p.34.

[5] ibid p.30.

[6] Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl The Scientist in the Crib, HarperCollins Perennial, New York, 2001, p. 37.

[7] op cit p.20.

[8] ibid p.63.

[9] Gopnik et al, op cit, p.38.

[10] ibid p.39.

[11] ibid p.41.

[12] Robin Dunbar op cit p.44.

[13] Dorothy Rowe Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison third edition, Brunner-Routledge, 2003.