How feelings can be defined


The definition of feelings in the mirror of science

Clearly, defining feelings and their triggers is a task that generations of scientists and philosophers have been gritting their teeth on. In contrast to the popular view which assumes sensory perception as the trigger of emotion, modern feedback theories consider expression as the immediate trigger of emotion.

As William JAMES did over a hundred years ago so feedback theorists claim today that the sensation of emotion is secondarily caused by muscle innervation that determines the expression of emotion. That is, the subjective sensation of an emotion is perceived primarily as a consequence of mimic muscle changes, accelerated activity of the heart muscle or respiratory muscles.

The word “expression” translates the Latin term emotion, which establishes the energetic-bodily relation with the actual feeling. This manifests itself as a muscular movement, an expressive sound or cry. CHARLES DARWIN stated (which is especially true for the primary emotions yet to be explained) that “they reveal thoughts and intentions of others, truer than words do which can be falsified”. He observed that it is possible to induce feelings via certain bodily postures. 

J. LEDOUX focused his attention on the cognitive evaluation of a stimulus in the brain (both neocortex and midbrain). For him the emotion is observable expressive behavior, behavior caused on this evaluation, it is the sensory stimulus, the subsequent experience or more or less conscious sensation of an emotion.

FREUD, in connection with his theory on instincts, early was concerned with the affects, which initially he considered to be the only driving force in the spiritual life of a soul. Affects for him have been synonymous with unsatisfied instincts that had become “sour”, as it were in the sense of a metabolic disorder. 

In his typology C. G. JUNG distinguishes
three further functions in addition to thinking:
1. Feeling as a rationally evaluative emotion,
2. Sensing as that which can be perceived by the senses, and
3. Intuiting as that which is perceived unconsciously.

Feelings in Behavioral Psychology

In behavioral psychology, until recently feelings have been largely considered as epiphenomena which could be altered externally or by will. Accordingly there has been a strong emphasis on the proportion of cognitive influences to the development of feelings, that is being influenced and controlled by the cerebral cortex .

JOHN WATSON was probably the first to conduct scientific experiments on young children in connection with the formation of feelings and he demonstrated that feelings are not only trained but later on can be dissolved, no matter how deeply anchored they seem to be.

On the one hand, he showed how little Albert, initially delighted to make contact with rats, could be made to fear not only them, but even, in the sense of a generalization effect, to be afraid of rabbits and dogs, and even cotton and human hair. On the other hand, he was able by a slow process of post-conditioning to bring Peter – who lived in mortal fear of rabbits – to the point where he could hold a rabbit in his lap.

WATSON overshot the mark in his educational instructions for parents, he considered positive feelings of little use: children should never be hugged or kissed, never allowed to sit in mother’s lap; shaking hands with them was all that was necessary and desirable. “For children to conform to group norms, it is important to truly infuse fear in them.” 

While emotions have long been leading a shadowy existence among neurobiologically interested behavioral psychologists, the page has now turned. Thus KLAUS SCHERER recognizes an essential task of the emotions in decoupling the external stimulus and the response of the organism to this stimulus. This enables a meaningful dialogue to be established between two people, which has a favorable influence on the quality of a communication.

Thus, emotional phenomena, formerly thought to be illogical suddenly become vital, so-called purpose-driven.

Modern philosophers and feelings

For modern philosophers such as THOMAS METZINGER, who strives for a naturalistic theory of mental representation, human emotional qualities are a crucial expression of a system’s interest. As a result of their close relations to the body, they convey information signals that concerning reliability and stability are superior to those of purely cognitive processing models. 

The close relationship between emotions and communication can already be demonstrated in experiments with plants. DAGNY and IMRY KERNER report dozens of studies in which a wide variety of plant species have responded in unambiguous ways to “positive” and “negative” feelings of their caretakers.

A flood of new information on the debate about feelings has emerged through the observation of infants and even fetuses in the womb. 

On the Development of feelings in modern theories

In the “Textbook of Emotion Psychology” (1995) LOTHAR SCHMIDT writes:
“It is a fascinating question how emotions occur.”

Fascinating probably above all because to this day no conclusive answer has yet been found. “The obvious thing to do is to look at the events or other external conditions that trigger an emotion. Theoretically, however, this is rather unsatisfactory. Indeed, the relationship between events and emotions is not as close as one might suppose at first… “

“The other group of explanatory approaches boils down to attributing one subcomponent (e.g. experiencing) to another (e.g. expression). In addition, there are mixed explanatory approaches. One subcomponent of emotion (e.g. physical excitement) leads to another subcomponent (e.g. experiencing) in combination with another variable (e.g. cognitions).” 

An influential and at the same time one of the oldest “modern” theories in this context is that of JAMES and LANGE (1885). According to this, emotions are a consequence of body changes. In the sense of an immediate trigger the perception of external stimuli is answered by the brain with physical reactions which then are perceived by the individual. So far however, even in complementary efforts this theory has not been confirmed.

Amygdala and thalamus – crucial processing points

One of the more recent ideas but by no means intended to be valid for all emotions, is the one of LEDOUX (1993). According to him, the central processing point for emotions is located in the brain, specifically in the area of the amygdala, which on one hand receives its information from the neocortex and on the other hand from phylogenetically much older and thus more primitive structures in the thalamus.

The neocortex is thought to provide information from sensory external stimuli as well as imagined and stored events. The older thalamus transmits only sensory, that is external stimuli, but it does so much faster. 

ANTONIO DAMASIO in his detailed study “Descartes’ Error,” has addressed the central importance of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex as well as the somato-sensitive cortical fields of the right hemisphere. These brain areas play a central role in the connectivity between emotion processing and thinking.

Most investigators combine individual emotions into groups. Attempts to bring these groups into law-like relationships so far have failed; accordingly, individual emotions are usually studied scientifically independently.

Finally, SCHMIDT remarks in his textbook of emotion psychology:
“Today’s attempts to explain can be understood as variations of the James Lange theory. … The origin of an emotion is understood as a cognitive process involving the processing of information about one’s own physical state of excitement in addition to the situational context … although so far the central hypothesis cannot be confirmed. … »

“Overall, a complex and still very incomplete picture of the central control of emotions emerges. Based on the current state of research it can be assumed that it is not individual structures that are important, but rather several that are interconnected in a network-like mode.” 

Observations Through infant research

B. BRAZELTON has used video recordings to analyze in detail the patterns of interaction between a sixty-day-old infant and his (good) mother. In this dance, tuned to each other in mutual harmony, there are repeated patterns of excitement varying in intensity:
“…his smiles, vocalizations and flailing arm and leg movements come and go in a two-second rhythm. This creates small cycles of attention and movement … After each outburst his face becomes serious, his limbs calm and she (the mother) calms down as well as he does …”

Referring to the infant’s feelings, MARTIN DORNES writes:
“I assume … that affects and their changes are felt and perceived as differential feelings even by the smallest infant and that the integration of sensory and perceptual data in the brain leading to feeling at this elementary level is not a cognitive process.”

And he adds another crucial observation:
“In observing infant-adult interaction, it has been clearly established that inside the infant or toddler, body and psyche are still so closely connected that sensation and experience are directly expressed in behavior. (concordance of expressive behavior and feeling).”

“Affect expression is not yet socialized, feelings cannot yet be concealed or repressed, and therefore expressions of feeling, bodily motor activity and other behavioral manifestations are the best and most reliable informants of the presence or absence of particular feelings.” 

Cross-modal perceptions of children

Infants are not only capable of perceiving different emotions and imitating corresponding facial features of adults already in the first weeks of their life, they are also able to perceive incongruent parental behavior in a discriminating way and respond with “corrective” behavior.

Their very early developed ability for cross-modal perception enables them to relate perceptions made with different sensory organs (e.g. to connect what is sensed with what is seen). This early ability explains the mysterious certainty with which even young children are able to detect discrepancies in parental behavior.

When parental behavior is correspondingly incongruent in the sense of contradictory double messages, fatal insecurity regarding the correctness of one’s own perception may arise in young children at a very early age.

Sooner or later this uncertainty leads the infant – usually under the existential pressure to survive, which includes the need for parental approval – to decide interpreting the perception expected of him as “correct” and his own perception as “incorrect.”

With this the world is seemingly back in order, the child is socialized and thus adapted. 

Feelings in the womb

Recent examinations of feelings as been carried out on fetuses, bring serious but also complicating insights to their understanding:
ALESSANDRA PIONTELLI on the basis of ultrasound examinations succeeded in demonstrating that babies already in utero are able to express their feelings in an extremely differentiated way. A comparative observation between their behavior and that of their mothers showed an astonishing match.

It must be assumed that not only the behavior but also the maternal feelings are adopted in some way by the unborn and very likely to be perceived. 

Early on a wide range of stimuli is evident to influence the fetus in various ways. These influences show up in movement responses, but they also allow conclusions to be drawn about other levels of perception, such as emotional, auditory and olfactory. In this context it is easier to observe negative phenomena such as withdrawal and dismissive gestures than to identify lustful situations with certainty. 

Induced feelings by the mother

An essential question for our approach is of the perception registered directly by the fetus – independent of the mother’s perception. Also, the possibility of the adoption of maternal and thus induced feelings. In this context the possibility arises, at least theoretically, that the unborn is influenced at a very early stage by so-called secondary feelings of the mother.

The variety of ways in which the early childhood emotional world can be influenced has been reported by DANIEL STERN and VIRGINIA DEMOS, among others under the titles tuning and affective competence.

Memories of birth

From Niklaus von Flüe who lived in central Switzerland in the 15th century, it is passed down that he remembered exactly the faces of the people who have been present at his own baptism shortly after his birth.

This may not be surprising for a person who was revered as a saint even during his lifetime. But the memory capacity of the “ordinary” infant also is less and less in doubt.

Since STANISLAV GROF reported on analogous experiences with patients under LSD and ARTHUR JANOV on the early primal scream, science has also begun to deal with the phenomenon of “early infantile memory”. At the latest since the hypnosis experiments of D. CHAMBERLAIN we know that every human being “remembers” his birth.

The disharmonious that is non-loving separation from the mother in the first hours and days after birth may lead to severely traumatizing experiences for the newborn.

From the research of the Italian psychoanalyst ALESSANDRA PIONTELLI it can be concluded that the infant “understands” everything even before birth (even if this does not necessarily correspond to the common concept of memory). Since it cannot speak the infant succeeds only with difficulty to make himself perceived – especially if the mother has little empathy.

VERNY and KELLY have been able to demonstrate that unborn babies are capable to perceive an astonishing lot during pregnancy and recognize their mother (and father) even before birth. 

GEORGE DOWNING has studied the effect of body therapies in the context of psychoanalytic techniques and concludes that via body access, early childhood memories are exposed surprisingly quick. This phenomenon is related to the fact that in the patient the bodily defense mechanisms of psychological resistance are partially dismantled.

Stimulated by body experience, experiences occur early in therapy in which patients relive a wide variety of situations from their childhood “close to skin, body, even smell and sound” as if “it were right now.” These experiences are attributed to regression by DOWNING.

Feelings and gender

Men look at different body parts than women

According to a compilation of the magazine “Geo”, women and men differ in their brain functions. Thus during a first encounter men primarily look at the middle and lower part of a woman’s body, while women are more interested in the upper body of a man.

Generally in men the two hemispheres of the brain seem to be more specialized; linguistically men largely use only the left hemisphere and for mathematical-spatial-visual requirements they use the right hemisphere, whereas in women the two hemispheres of the brain more often cooperate in intensive ways for example while choosing words.

A corresponding difference has also been demonstrated in older parts of the brain: Since primeval times within the limbic system emotions are controlled. Researchers now discovered a relatively new area – gyrus cinguli – which has only developed more strongly in primates. It appears to be much more active in women whereas men, while “thinking of nothing” intensify more primitive and thus older parts of the limbic system.

Differences are also apparent in the ability to recognize emotions: women are faster and more accurate; for example unlike men they have no problem recognizing sadness on women’s faces.

The reason given for this difference is that it was vital for women, who in prehistoric times were largely dependent on the power-driven behavior of men. To a limited extent women still today need to be better able to detect as early and as accurately as possible the momentary emotional state of the person they are referring to. 

In general women are more emotional than men.

In scientifically conducted surveys it was found that women respond and react more in terms of both positive and negative emotions. However, for children until puberty these differences are not yet significant.

In contrast differences that can be detected on the basis of epidemiological studies with respect to the two basic reactions, depressiveness and anxiety, are unambiguous: Girls predominantly tend to depressive behavior before puberty, whereas boys increasingly tend to anxiety and superficially to antisocial-aggressive behavior patterns. Then, at puberty, there is an increase, though temporary, in depressiveness in boys.

With respect to desire JEAN-DIDIER VINCENT postulates a fundamental and thus decisive difference between men and women: in both the central location for actions is the brain.

In females, however, it is predominantly the neurons responding to the “male” hormone testosterone, whereas in males (and in male monkeys and rats as well as in males in which corresponding castration and replacement experiments have been performed) the operational location for pleasure appears to be predominantly in neocortical memory.

From these findings we can deduce the great importance that fantasy occupies in the erotic life especially of men.

Feminist writers disagree with these views.

American NANCY FRIDAY points to the striking changes toward more “masculine” behavior that have taken place in women’s lives over the course of a single generation – and that are very likely to take place in the hormonal realm as well. Whether they are psychological-behavioral or more likely caused by environmental influences is an open question. 

These changes which have occurred within the past one or two generations, especially under the influence of women’s economic independence, are however contrasted with gender-specific behavioral patterns that are thousands of years old and from which women cannot easily escape.

When do we speak of feelings?

The different meanings that can be ascribed to the terms “feel” or “emotion” are difficult to distinguish. Theoretically a receiving and a giving component can be distinguished for each feeling:

1. Feeling as sensation (receiving)

This is feeling in the strict sense, what I feel respectively sense. This sensing can refer to a variety of phenomena:

  • as perception of external stimuli through the senses;
  • as perception of internal body sensation in the sense of proprioception (tension, pressure, “energy”, etc. );
  • as perception of a “psychic bodily sensation” (which is largely identical to the preceding one);
  • as perception of a “psychic” sensation provoked by imagination (cognitive imagination/memory).

2. Feeling as emotion (giving)

Here we are concerned with feeling in the sense of moving (E-motion, derived from Latin ‘movere’), i.e. of showing oneself to the outside, of expressing oneself. 

In a first step, at least as long as we do not hide behind a mask, we express our emotion to the environment through facial expressions and thus communicate our state of mind. But we can also go a step further by actively “moving out of ourselves” expressing our state of mind, our mood by gestures and actions, by an exclamation or a cry.

In addition to adequate emotional expression however, there is a way of showing emotion that outsiders experience as unauthentic. When someone is commonly referred to as “hysterical” it is meant the behavior is exaggerated or even artificial and not congruent.

This evaluation can be very subjective because it is possible that the “receiver” himself has a disturbed relationship with his feelings and therefore perceives any emotional expression as threat. Instead of questioning himself he tries to invalidate feelings in the other person. 

3. Feeling as scoring

By dividing emotions into receiving and giving components, a central sub-phenomenon that many scientists consider to be the very essence of emotions is lost because we hardly “feel” this part, other than from a diffuse headache or a certain excitement: It is all about valuation

This addresses the actual processing which, regardless of whether it takes place in the conscious realm, i.e. cognitively, or whether it is predominantly unconscious constitutes an important part of the emotional loops. The evaluation into “good” and “not good/bad” can be demonstrated to extend into the physiological basis: valence is an important criterion in researching emotions; via the blink reflex feelings can be objectively assigned to one of the two basic evaluations.

Accordingly a mechanism can also be demonstrated in the neuroendocrine system that operates on the principle of reward and punishment. There is much to suggest that evolutionary development rewards experiences of dealing with negative feelings better than states of happy satisfaction. 

Basic feelings

Primary feelings are love, hate, desire, joy, sadness, fear, shame…

In the 17th century DESCARTES named six basic emotions:
wonder, love, hate, desire, joy and sadness. In his standard work, the American behaviorist JOHN WATSON counted rage, anxiety and love (in the primitive sense of a “dependency”) among the basic feelings from which according to him all other feelings arise. 

Subsequently, a variety of investigations, in particular attempts to record the facial muscles involved in emotional expression, led to the demonstration of various expressions of affect which differ from one another in several respects, so-called primary or basic affects or basic feelings. The infant researcher DORNES e.g. names nine: joy, interest, curiosity, surprise, disgust, anger, sadness, fear, shame and guilt. 

Personally for reasons arising from my model of emotion, I consider primary excited love as the positive basic emotion, while I consider the physical and the psychological primary pain as well as the elementary reactions to it, the psychological primary rage and the psychological primary anxiety to be negative basic feelings.

In addition to these predominantly sensorimotor (in the area of the skin senses as well as the locomotor system) effective feelings I also count the positive feeling appetite effective in the intestinal area as well as the negative feelings hunger (felt almost painfully) and disgust/vomiting as basic feelings. 

Dr. Kurt Eugen Schneider
Dr. Kurt Eugen Schneider