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)

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