Woman is Looking Out a Window.


We make up a lot of what we see and hear. Most situations are ambiguous. Every perception is an interpretation, a choice among alternatives. Consider the McGurk effect, for example, or mondegreens. We decide on an interpretation using context, including the context of our bodies, and mood.

Damasio has argued that moods and emotions are accompanied by somatic markers that help us make decisions by preserving a sense of their possible outcomes. In this view, emotions are body functions that help regulate the brain and muscles.

To Feldman Barrett, it is mood—affect—that biases our responses because it is linked to a feeling of knowing, also called a belief.

Our bodily sense of how to interpret what we’re experiencing is a mood. It differs from an emotion by being longer-lasting, less differentiated, and often less intense, but it’s a feeling that can be positive or negative, pleasant or not, that acts as an intensifier of more specific emotions. The positive or negative valence of a mood should not be presented as a false dichotomy: Pious, skeptical, sly and defensive moods are not as polarized as pleasant and unpleasant.

Because we experience moods as feelings, it’s tempting to regard them as purely mental, but they’re embodied cognition; that is, the body affects the way we think about the world. Sometimes when we react moodily to a perception, we may be quite aware of the bodily functions that mediate the process. At other times, it’s an unconscious mediation.

That implies that experiencing moods in a healthy way presupposes bodily health. This is not to say that mood disorders are physical diseases, but that we can defend ourselves against adverse environments and perverse cultures best if we begin with helpful genes, brains, and gut bacteria. Like all behavior, moods are interactive. They illustrate the biopsychosocial model of behavior.

Two things we might keep in mind as we chew over the possible uses of moods is that, like emotions, moods that feel similar can have very different behavioral effects; and both moods and emotions serve as  important social signals that promote cohesion among group members. They are not necessarily private.

Man Shows clenched fists and a triumphant expression.

BIO: Any number of bodily aches and urges might be contribute to moods, but a frequent contributor is the gut—the intestines. One the one hand, the gut is full of bacteria that influence the brain, and on the other hand, it’s positioned next to a little brain in the peripheral nervous system, the enteric nervous system, which not only gives bacteria access to an inside sense called interoception but acts somewhat like its big brother/sister in the head. (It also fights disease, though it’s mainly concerned with keeping the bowels on schedule* with the help of enteric glia).

The “brain” in the gut and the brain in the head communicate in both directions by hormones in the bloodstream, immune pathways, and the long vagus nerve, already noted in the topic about stress and depression. Moods are one reason to take vagal tone seriously. You can get into it more deeply through this video, provided by the BrainBook charity organization and its supporting medical professionals.

It might be prudent to take eating seriously as well, considering the reliance of digestion upon the intestines. Foods can affect the survival of bacteria that thrive in the gut (along with drugs**, stress, disease, and intestinal viruses), so they might influence mental health. Some probiotics have sometimes been recommended, with due caution regarding market-oriented messages.

The availability of foods, changes in weather, and a variety of other environmental and internal conditions affect the decisions we make, particularly (and most primitively) the decision to approach or withdraw from the objects and organisms around us.

Moods may have developed through biological evolution as well as the cultural evolution described with the SOCIAL approach below. That is, they may have some adaptive value and there are correlations between genotype and the incidence of mood disorders. On the other hand, there’s some danger of invented stories that make evolution plausible and there are patterns of familial transmission of traits that do not involve genes, as with drug abuse, for example. Epigenetic transmission might also be a factor.

Speaking of invented stories, an odd coincidence between foods and moods arises in the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, M.D. Have there ever been more famous episodes of euphoria and melancholy than those of Sherlock Holmes, whose moods appeared and vanished as often as his meals. If Holmes’s moods seem extreme, consider how often Holmes “notoriously” skipped meals or breakfasted on “kidneys, kedgeree, ham and eggs and even chicken curry”. Only the ham and eggs might predict an even mood nowadays. Today the organized fans of Sherlock Holmes sometimes imitate his diet, and I wonder if that might be the reason they call themselves the Baker Street Irregulars, ostensibly to spotlight Holmes’ ragamuffin errand boys but perhaps also to confess the alimentary ravages of a Holmesian regimen.

The neural events that produce moods probably reach consciousness only during processing in the cerebral cortex, including the limbic portions. By most methods, moods and emotions represent a collaboration among brain circuits rather than a reflexive center. Attempts to localize different emotions and moods, separately, to  small or isolated regions or a few distinct patterns of activity strike me as premature as long as the transience and universality of moods remain in doubt.

*Lots of psych courses don’t mention the gut, and it’s a slightly peripheral topic here, too. But you can get a quick review of the gut microbiome and the gut-brain axis at the high-school, adult, and medical student levels, all presuming some knowledge of how the bowels work and their fascinating product.

**The bacteria-drug relationship could be called a two-way street.

PSYCHO: A large twin study estimated the heritability of depression at 38 percent, which suggests that mood disorders, and maybe moods in general, are the joint product of heredity and experience. Although depressive disorders make life difficult, sometimes impossible, in today’s world, the same mechanisms that produce depression could once, prehistorically, have been adaptive for our distant relatives.

Our long-term dispositions—our temperaments—can bias our behavior: in shaping personality, for example. It tends to remain stable across years of development. Mood swings over days or months, for example in cases of bipolar disorder, and emotional lability across minutes or hours in borderline personality disorder reveal a continuum of affective responses. They can influence perception, helping behavior (altruism), and decision-making, including the decisions of consumers.

Consumer decisions, in turn, affect business revenue. If weather affects our moods, and moods alter spending money, then predicting the weather might predict consumer purchases. Even better: if bodily changes can affect our moods*, then technology that predicts moods might give sales a boost.

Do you remember mood rings? They were a harmless fad half a century ago, but they may have given a few folks some manipulative ideas about monitoring people’s moods to predict their consumer behavior. But moods and emotions are not fixed and universal, or at least have not been proved to be, and linking them to facial expressions is particularly risky.

You don’t even have to risk a trip outside into a contagious community to give the technology a try. But it’s buyer beware. Does this mood tracker look like a safer bet? The Army has put considerable effort into this kind of technique.

*This is a good time to consider the inverted-U relationship. If a little coffee has an immediate beneficial effect on mood, we can’t assume that a lot of coffee will have a long-lasting effect of the same kind.

Not all cause-effect relationships are linear, as was demonstrated by the old Yerkes-Dodson law that every psychologist should be familiar with. The 1908 research article is here. Even the inverted-U can be overinterpreted, and that has provoked complaints in the literature (click “download”). Some writers think it’s about Goldilocks and the Three Bears. ☺ But it’s not.

SOCIAL: Moods and emotions are not only private experiences but social signals that bond or alienate, attract or isolate. It works that way in the octopus, too. Since moods bias our reactions, they betray our feelings. Like emotions, they are contagious, too, perhaps through mimicry. Shared moods are common as well.

This means that we are connected by our moods, and perhaps that cultural differences could alienate people emotionally. But normal moods are typically less intense than emotions, and less well differentiated, perhaps even more primitive.

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