Emotions are, alongside personality, the psychology topic, we more often refer to in our daily lives. We talk about how we feel -or felt- in a certain situation and how those emotions influence our conduct and choices.
Experimental research in the field of psychology and neuroscience has provided us with a deeper understanding of emotions and how they affect us. The general agreement among researchers is that there are six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise. They are considered our basic (or primary) emotions because they seem to be present cross-culturally. Another important feature of basic emotions is that each of them is associated with a specific pattern of physiological activity and facial expression.
It seems obvious that we experience a wider range of emotions than those basic ones. Complex or secondary emotions -like annoyance or envy- are made up of basic emotions and probably came about, and stayed with us, by way of cultural conditioning and association.
The function of emotions
Emotion is undoubtedly a defining aspect of humans and animals, and a factor that (still) differentiate us from machines. Emotions also have a profound effect on our thoughts and actions which can lead to both a positive and negative outcomes.
So, apart from making us what we are, do emotions serve us a purpose? Yes, they do. Emotions have an important adaptive role as they get us ready for action when it’s most needed. A good example of this would be fear. We experience fear when we perceive a danger or imminent threat. In this case, the flight-or-fight response is triggered making us more alert, shifting our attention to negative stimuli and preparing the body -increased muscle tension, blood flow- to fight or escape.
However, a lengthy state of fear will have negative consequences. If a person is worried about losing their job and experiences it with fear and intense anxiety, the emotional response will probably be prolonged in time. Such person won’t be able to focus on their daily tasks and will have trouble sleeping at night because of this emotional activation.
Emotional states can cause cognitive and memory biases. A clear example is how anger clouds our judgment and keeps us from making rational decisions. When it comes to processing information, we prioritize the emotionally-charged stimuli over neutral ones. Emotions can also alter the content of our memories as well as how or when a memory is recalled. Memories consistent with our current emotional state are more easily accessible.
The effect of emotional states on cognition and memory is a broad field of research. It is also of vital importance to clinical psychologists as it helps us understand how the minds of those battling anxiety or depression work.
Human emotion is fundamental to the study and treatment of mental disorders as well as to the understanding of human cognition and behavior.