1. Nature and Culture

Emotions and Culture
Emotions and Rationality
People tend to believe that emotions make us do
irrational things.
But emotions must be beneficial. Otherwise natural
selection would have eliminated them.
Emotions are conscious experiences, but they seem
immune to conscious control (one cannot decide to
feel guilty, jealous, joyful,...).
Emotions are valuable functions in linking
motivations to thought and action.
E.g.: one avoids actions which make one feels bad,
one pursues positive emotions.
Among cultural animals the emotional system is
highly plastic.
E.g.: one feels sad about one’s team result, envious
about someone’s car, …. Thus culture can influence
people’s behavior.
The nature of emotions
emotions vs. affects:
The former are complex, the latter are simply
positive or negative feelings (anxiety, anger,
jealousy, … are all grouped together as negative
Affects are fast reactions, while emotions can take
some time to develop.
Affects seem linked to the automatic mind while
emotions seem more closed to the conscious
Emotions are usually conscious experiences.
Affects can occur at the margin of consciousness.
Emotions have two components:
(i) physical arousal and
(ii) mental label.
The arousal doesn’t produce an emotion but it
makes it likely to be felt.
The mental label is based on how one interprets
the situation and thus determines which emotion
will be felt.
The temporality of emotions
Emotions are triggered by changes and departures
from the status quo. As such they help drawing
one’s attention toward something that just
Affect is one important component of attitudes. So
attitudes toward most things can be assessed on a
scale that simply ask for one dimensional rating:
liking vs. disliking.
The human psyche has two separate emotion
systems, one for positive and pleasant emotions,
the other for unpleasant ones. This reflects a
mixture of contradictory patterns: one cannot feel
good and bad simultaneously.
Another dimension of emotions is high/low
arousal (e.g. sadness is low in arousal).
Four categories of emotions: 1. high arousal +
pleasant; 2. low arousal + pleasant; 3. high arousal
+ unpleasant; 4. low arousal + unpleasant.
Emotions and Cultural Differences
People from different cultures can translate emotion
words and recognize facial expressions of emotions.
Thus some aspects of emotions are universal
and innate.
Innate emotional tendencies: babies express
various emotions long before they could learn them
(e.g.: blind babies smile when happy).
Facial expressions
They “translate” the natural innate part of
Can teach people to conceal their feelings.
E.g.: people don’t maximally express their facial
The role of culture is not to create emotions but to
restrain and conceal them.
Culture can use emotions to control behavior
insofar as it can teach people to have various
emotional reactions to some particular events.
The purpose of emotions
Emotions help to evaluate events in helping to
compare current circumstances to some goals or
They typically use one’s needs and wants as the
basis for evaluation.
So emotions apprise events as good/bad depending
of one’s strivings.
Emotions communicate from motivation to both
cognition and action.
They help keeping the cognitive system focused on
things that matter.
Emotions and Belongingness
Emotions operate to guide and support the effort to
Positive emotions are linked to forming/upgrading
E.g.: unpleasant emotions coming from damaging
or breaking off relationships.
It’s the most powerful form of emotional distress.
Two main categories: (i) less common and less
powerful is the fear of death and accident;
(ii) more powerful and common is the fear of social
exclusion (e.g.: rejected by loved ones, by partner,
Shyness and social anxiety often have the effect of
making one avoiding other people for fear of being
Emotions link motivation and cognition
Emotions force people to think about things that
matter (as defined by one’s wants and needs).
One doesn’t have emotional reaction about things
one doesn’t care about.
Mental effect of emotional arousal
During emotions one is alert and typically focused
on the present.
One performs better at an intermediate levels of
No arousal means indifference while high arousal
can be disruptive.
Emotions get the body ready for action and arise in
connection with the image of the anticipated
As such they help planning.
Yet the emotional system doesn’t distinguish well
between different probabilities.
It works on the definitely/maybe scale without
recognizing the varies scales of maybe. This
facilitates quick actions.
Emotional distress makes people react quickly,
ignoring risks and focusing merely on the outcome.
Hence emotions don’t always produce the optimal
Emotionless people
Patients (with brain damage) lacking emotions find
it difficult to make up their mind. They’re unable to
make choices.
The thinking system merely contemplate and
envisage plenty of ideas and potential outcomes,
but it is unable to evaluate them.
E.g.: a patient was unable to chose among two
dates and he finally accepted the doctor choice.
Emotions are vital for evaluation.
Evaluation is done by reference to what is
important (considering the people’s set of wants
and needs).
Emotions are a crucial link between motivation and
Anticipated emotions enable people to compare and
chose among various options that seemingly have
noting in common.
E.g.: should I go for a walk, watch the game, do
the homework, clean the house,…?
The option that promises the best emotional
outcomes is probably a good choice.
Nature furnished us with some way to chose among
multiple diverse outcomes and to make of rational
analysis a good guide.
Otherwise cultural animals would freeze up at all
sort of dilemma, like a computer lacking the
program enabling it to select the data.
Choosing by effect and emotions is a remarkable
solution to the design problem.
Emotions and Actions
Emotions prepare the body for action (more blood
and thus more oxygen is sent to the brain and
muscle so one notices more, focuses, …).
But emotions don’t cause behavior in a direct and
reliable manner.
Behavior is based on the outcome.
Emotions affect behavior only insofar as they affect
how people process information and envisage
potential outcomes.
It is thus wrong to think that emotions’ primary
function is to be the initiators of behaviors and
even more wrong to think that they trigger
Emotions are an important consequence of
behavior rather than a cause.
Emotions and Learning
Emotions contribute to learning and, therefore,
future actions benefit from past experiences (i.e.,
past emotional outcomes).
Without emotions people may fail to profit from
It may be the best candidate for the view that
emotions directly causes action.
But in most of the cases people don’t react fast
enough when they face a dangerous situation.
Fear like most emotions may be slow to rise. One
often feel fearful after one faced a dangerous event
or situation.
It is a good example showing that behavior
pursues emotions.
Guild doesn’t directly make one to move one’s
body; guilt comes after one has done something
Emotions stimulate counterfactual thinking, i.e.
imagining events and outcomes that differ from
reality. This is ideal for learning and planning.
People experience emotions when performing new,
unfamiliar actions (routine does not stimulate
Habitude and routine do not generally require
learning, while new and unfamiliar actions are
linked to learning.
Thus emotions can facilitate learning by making
people think and analyze their recent actions.
Learning based on emotions is highly suited
for a cultural animal who understand action
within a system of values, expectations,
communications, etc..
Emotionless people’s reactions are often bad and
they tend to engage in dangerous behaviors, for
they don’t fear the outcome and the emotional
The effect of emotions is to consolidate one’s lesson
so as to influence future behavior.
Studies on sadness show that sad people are more
likely to engage in helping. Sadness seems to
influence behavior.
A better explanation may be that sad people
engage in helping to feel better. If this is the case
we have behavior pursuing emotions.
Sadness leads people to helping only if the sad one
thinks that helping will change her mood.
Helping is a strategy for bringing about a change in
one’s emotional state.
Aggression is also done for the sake of improving
one’s mood.
Angry people tends to behave more aggressively
because they think that aggression make them feel
But if angry people are told that they got a moodfreezing pill they don’t act aggressively.
Again, one behaves in order to change one’s mood.
Depressed people eat more cookies and junk food
than happy people because they expect the food to
make them feel better.
Again, the patterns is behavior pursuing emotional
Representation of emotions
The ability to represents other people emotions is
as important as mindreading.
Deficit in this ability (e.g. autism) may result in
devastating social impairments.
Feelings (cf. Damasio. 1994. Descartes’ Error)
It is wrong to consider the working of the brain and
mind as separate from the working of the body.
The mind is part and parcel of the body.
E.g.: background feelings, i.e. the underlying
awareness of the state that your body is in.
Background awareness depends on the various
neuronal and hormonal signals arising from the
body organs (skin, hearth, …) that are sent to and
processed by the brain.
These signals provide a continuous update on the
changes that your body state undergoes.
These background feelings provide our sense of
We process information emanating from our entire
Hence, we wouldn’t be the same person if our brain
were transplanted in another person.
For the body would provide different information.
On top of background feelings we also have
stronger feelings arising when we experience
emotions in response to particular events.
New born babies tend to show only primary
emotions (e.g. fear) which are innate and preorganized.
As we grow we develop and make more use of
secondary emotions which are primary emotions
tempered by experience.
Emotions become associated with particular
experiences. Thus their link with learning.
Somatic markers (Damasio 1994)
They are a special category of secondary emotions
and are used in decision making (often
They can function either as alarm bells (in the case
of a negative somatic marker such as fear or
sadness) or add incentive (positive somatic
Somatic markers can speed up the process of
decision making by ensuring that only the most
reasonable options are considered.
They may be an integrated component of our
theory of mind by biasing our mindreading abilities
toward the most appropriate predictions for other
people behavior and mind states.
Are neurotransmitters produced in the brain.
They are also active in the human immune system
and endocrine system.
Hence, they participate in the constant relationship
between the brain and the body.
Brain and emotions (cf. LeDoux. 1994. The
Emotional Brain)
Information is transmitted to the brain in two
distinct ways:
1. “quick and dirty” route via the amygdala: this is
unconscious and trigger instinctive responses
2. via the cortex: this produce conscious
awareness of the emotion (e.g. feeling of fear).
The cerebral cortex is a brain structure in
In non-living, preserved brains, the outermost
layers of the cerebrum has a grey color, hence the
name "grey matter". Grey matter is formed by
neurons and their unmyelinated fibers while the
white matter below the grey matter of the cortex is
formed predominantly by myelinated axons
interconnecting different regions of the central
nervous system. The human cerebral cortex is 2-4
mm (0.08-0.16 inches) thick and plays a central
role in many complex brain functions including
memory, attention, perceptual awareness,
"thinking", language and consciousness.
The amygdala are almond-shaped groups of
neurons located deep within the medial temporal
lobes of the brain in complex vertebrates, including
humans. Shown in research to perform a primary
role in the processing and memory of emotional
reactions, the amygdalae are considered part of the
limbic system. (Wikipedia)
In complex vertebrates, including humans, the
amygdalae perform primary roles in the formation
and storage of memories associated with emotional
events. Research indicates that during fear
conditioning, sensory stimuli reach the basolateral
complexes of the amygdalae, particularly the lateral
nuclei, where they form associations with memories
of the stimuli. The association between stimuli and
the aversive events they predict may be mediated
by long-term potentiation, a lingering potential for
affected synapses to react more readily. (Wikipedia)
Memories of emotional experiences imprinted in
reactions of synapses in the lateral nuclei elicit fear
behavior through connections with the central
nucleus of the amygdalae. The central nuclei are
involved in the genesis of many fear responses,
including freezing (immobility), tachycardia (rapid
heartbeat), increased respiration, and stresshormone release. Damage to the amygdalae
impairs both the acquisition and expression of
Pavlovian fear conditioning, a form of classical
conditioning of emotional responses.
Amgdala is evolutionary ancient (it’s present in
many vertebrates).
This doesn’t mean, though, that it is not involved in
higher cognitive processes.
It is associated with several aspect of the theory of
The interconnections between the cortex and the
amygdala runs both ways, but the amygdala can
exert a much stronger influence over the cortex
than vice versa.
This is why we often let our emotions getting the
better of us.