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Emotional Intensity

Some people like the thrill of falling from a great height, while many others find it hard to decide about taking a jump from a high diving board.

Both groups pay attention to what they’re doing. We can call them aroused. They differ on their decisions to jump, presumably because the adventure strikes some as exhilarating and others as terrifying.

Psychologists divide emotions along two dimensions, intensity and valence. Intensity is arousal, from low to high, while valence is bipolar, ranging from unpleasant to neutral to pleasant.

Both intensity and valence offer puzzles and surprises. For example, the valence can vary with external circumstances, as when college students misattribute their arousal to exhilaration instead of fear. That example reveals the extent to which emotions are a matter of interpretation.

But covering both dimensions will be too much for one post, so let’s take intensity for a starting point. Emotional intensity is sometimes described as a personality trait revealed in very sensitive people, but we will be concerned with it rather as a state that is evident in almost everyone. Although it is a kind of arousal, it is not associated with the reticular activating system but with the autonomic nervous system* and sympathetic arousal. Sympathetic activation is what triggers the emotional intensity you feel on a roller coaster ride, as these British physicians did. It’s a big part of the acute stress response.

The Cannon-Bard explanation of emotion predicted that when our minds grasp the situation we’re in, we generate appropriate hormones to deal with the situation. A rival concept, the James-Lange theory, argued that our response to a threat was what generated the hormones and informed our minds of how we should feel. For the James-Lange theory to hold, our sympathetic arousal should differentiate among the different bodily responses that lead to specific emotions. If there is autonomic specificity for different emotions, then each emotion should be associated with a unique pattern of autonomic responses. However, the evidence is mixed and many psychologists regard the connection between our emotions and the autonomic nervous system as a two-way street. That is, both James-Lange and Cannon-Bard theories are partly right; positioning them as opposites is a false dichotomy.

*Short. Shorter. Longer. Even longer. Fuhgeddaboudit.

Crying Baby

BIO: Genes have shaped our emotions and our emotions shape the way our genes express themselves. It would be a waste of time to search for specific gene-emotion pathways in development because emotions change during development and the biological definition of an emotion is problematical. While some researchers report meaningfully that fruit flies are restricted to four emotions without attributing consciousness to them, a neurologist argues that it is feelings themselves that have evolved. Joseph LeDoux proposes a way out of the confusion by studying “survival circuits” instead of feelings.

If emotions lack an obvious biological definition, LeDoux’s route may returns us to firmer ground—if we remember that the localization of emotions in the brain is as controversial as their behavioral definition.

Starting with the limbic system should be noncontroversial by now, though referring to an emotional “centre” (as the linked articles does) will trigger teeth-grinding in a few folks. Within the limbic system, writers always pinpoint the amygdala as a crucial source of feeling.

Additionally, anterior cingulate cortex has been targeted as a source of emotion, and has strong connections to the six-layered expanse we call the cerebral cortex, or neocortex. A neocortical representation of emotional intensity has been proposed for a region of temporo-parietal cortex (research here).

Most of us become skilled at controlling our emotional intensity by a number of strategies that appear to rely on the prefrontal cortex and its connections to the amygdala, which reveal themselves to the initiated.

The limbic and neocortical regions that give us our emotions are supported by a number of fiber tracts and nuclei in the brainstem that feed sensory stimuli upward, relay commands for emotional expression downward to the cranial nerve nuclei and the spinal cord, or modulate interaction between the ascending and descending systems.

But localizing emotions in the brain depends on your view of what emotions are. Consider the “psycho” approach in our model.

PSYCHO: One perspective on emotion, that of Lisa Feldman Barrett, argues that we can’t localize emotion in the brain because emotions are made up on the spot, according to the situation.

Another view is that we can pinpoint emotions in the hypothalamus because of their link to motivation. This seems compatible with the view that emotions are hormone-based.

Or you might favor a Goldilocks approach that regards those approaches as either too hot or too cold and posits a middle position supporting large, distributed brain circuits that rather flexibly generate different emotions.

However, what Damasio and others have been suggesting is that the whole body participates in emotion, just as James and Lange first argued. Emotion may not be just hormones or just a brain process. We need to consider “components” of emotion and not only feelings or isolated behaviors.

It’s getting hard to find the words “emotion” and “consensus” in the same sentence. Are there four basic emotions? Or six? Are there 27? Or hundreds?

It’s an interesting question whether we can dig down to the granular, indivisible, basic emotions to establish their biological, cognitive and behavioral components. It’s interesting for this topic because some psychologists imagine that all emotion differentiates from a single process of arousal in a newborn infant, so that emotional intensity is built into all emotional activity.

However, emotions may be more situational and more variable than an inherited toolkit for decision-making might suggest. That would not mean that environmental stressors pluck at each autonomic response independently, although outwardly, emotions are body responses, not only mental states or feelings. Emotions do represent different patterns of autonomic activation, but the expression of emotions employs multisensory codes in which numbers of bodily signs coordinate together to signal each different emotion. The linked article is discussed more here.

We have to be careful: Just because you know what you’re feeling doesn’t mean that I can look at your face and know what you’re feeling, according to Feldman Barrett and other researchers!* But emotional intensity does increase the accuracy of identifying emotions in others.

(Do microexpressions accompany microemotions? Maybe. Is this why faces evolved?)

Depending on your view of emotion, it may make sense to ask whether the body and our conscious awareness experience emotional intensity together.

A popular view of emotions is that they conflict with rational thought. Emotional intensity is the key to this conflict, and the body is held responsible: Panic defeats reason, but it’s more complicated than that, though an adrenal “stress hormone”, cortisol, is known to impair memory retrieval. And the unmanaged intensity of anxiety may cause procrastination.

However, it is important not to treat these dual processes, now labeled system 1 and system 2, as either-or alternatives. They both go on together, though not always equal in intensity. In fact, they may reflect quantitative differences instead of qualitative differences in brain activity.

*Nevertheless, reading faces is an evergreen topic, especially for Psychology Today, which has featured it here, there, and yonder. It’s popular all over the Web.

Even the quizzes can be found in multiple places. Here are Simon Baron-Cohen’s test of empathy and Greater Good’s test of emotional intelligence, all based on face-reading.

How does this work? Do people reveal emotions and other conditions involuntarily or are sneakier motives at work?

SOCIAL: Emotions can influence our perception, and that includes social perception. For example, intense emotional states reduce the social distance we perceive; other people appear closer to us.

In a sort of reciprocal way, emotional intensity itself depends on social influence. These influences raise the question whether emotion is just a kind of social interaction.

The evidence of how emotion evolved in mammals urges us to accept it as a biological imperative, but emotions are not reflexes. They are interpretable body sensations—interpretable, that is, not only by each experiencer of emotion but by those around him or her as well.

As a final point, then we must distinguish between the intensity of an experienced emotion and its intensity as an expression.  People who do not express emotion have stimulated interest  in alexithymia, an inability of some people to express emotion, even if they can feel some of them. What we used to regard as stoic and disciplined individuals are increasingly viewed as impaired.

We vary in several ways when it comes to emotions–such as in how clearly we distinguish among our emotions. Also, we are different in expression. Expressing an emotion like fear or rage seems to involve the relation between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. People who suffer from emotional dysregulation disorder (aka borderline personality disorder) or intermittent explosive disorder show inappropriate extremes of emotion that are not in proportion to the situation. This emotional dysregulation may be the result of an abnormal relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

Experiencing emotions seems instead to involve the connections between the amygdala and the subgenual cingulate cortex. (That’s the ridge of tissue beginning under the genu, or knee, of the corpus callosum, that extends up, over and back above the corpus callosum as the cingulate gyrus.) The genu of the corpus callosum is shown at bottom left, and the subgenual cingulate cortex is at bottom right.

When the cingulate cortex is divided into just anterior and posterior portions, the subgenual cortex is part of the anterior cingulate cortex. Some researchers try to put this all together, but it gets complicated, and the anatomy isn’t much help.

Illustration credits:

Shows mid-sagittal section of human brain.
Mid-Sagittal Section Emphasizing Cingulate Cortex

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