what are emotions and what good are they anyways
As to spiritual happiness, this is the true basis of the life of man, for
life is created for happiness, not for sorrow; for pleasure, not for grief.
– ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Honnold, Annamarie. Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá .
The origin of the word “emotion”
The word “emotion” comes from the Latin word émovere which means to be moved by
or a moving of the mind or soul. Emotions are those feelings which move us,
which stir us to action, which motivate us to do that which is in our heart.
This is a good thing! Pleasant emotions move us toward that which is pleasant.
Unpleasant emotions move us away from that which is unpleasant. All our
activities are motivated by emotion. The fruits of any efforts we make are the
result of our emotions moving us to action.
So, why do we have these emotions in the first place?
At the most basic level, emotions are a survival mechanism. For most of our
years on this planet, we have lived a very primal life where we needed to hunt
for food and protect ourselves from danger. We also needed to propagate the
species. The emotion of fear will cause us to flee danger. The emotion of anger
will cause us to fight to protect our lives or anything that threatens our
lives. The emotions of joy and love will cause us to choose a mate and propagate
the species and to choose friends (a tribe) to see to it that all our needs of
survival are met. We are designed in this way.
Some interesting discoveries about emotions
Dr. Paul MacLean, an evolutionary neuroanatomist and senior research scientist
at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), has studied the brain in
humans and in other mammals.
He shows that the human brain has evolved to three distinct but interconnected
layers. First, the brain stem, which is also known as the reptilian brain, is
responsible for basic functions such as breathing and heartbeat. The reptilian
brain is part of all living creatures.
Second, the limbic system is responsible for emotion and attachment to other
human beings. All mammals have a limbic system.
Thirdly, the neocortex is responsible for our ability to reason and makes human
beings distinct from other creatures on the planet. All mammals have a neocortex;
however, the human being has the largest one of all. This provides us with the
ability to reason, create language and to have complex abstract thought. Some
other mammals in order of decreasing proportion of size of neocortex are
monkeys, then dogs, then cats. Each layer of the brain is situated physically on
top of each other starting with the brain stem at the bottom followed by the
limbic system in the middle and with the neocortex at the top. Each newer layer
evolved at a later time.
The seat of the emotions
The Limbic system is known as the “seat of the emotions.” Of particular
significance is the amygdala. Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at the Centre for
Neural Science at New York University, performed ground-breaking research in
discovering the role of the amygdala. There are two amygdalas, one on each side
of the brain in the shape of an almond. These parts of the brain are involved in
the emotional matters of our life. There is a direct pathway of information from
the visual centre to the thalamus to the amygdala which activates the emotional
centre of the brain for action. There is also a slower pathway from the thalamus
to the cortex for interpretation and then to the amygdala. The faster pathway
allows the amygdala to respond before you even know what is going on. This
hair-trigger response can be the difference between life and death. The amygdala
will trigger the fight or flight response with heart rate and blood pressure
increasing and large muscles preparing for action....
(an excerpt from Chapter 1 of
Honouring Your Emotions - Why it Matters
by Johanna Vanderpol)