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Emotion is an unconscious arousal system that alerts us to potential dangers and opportunities. Think of emotion as a biological thermostat that monitors and reports variations from normality. Emotional arousal activates our attention system, which identifies the dynamics of the challenge and then activates relevant problem-solving systems that consciously respond to the challenge. Everything we do thus begins with emotion, a key cognitive process that was poorly understood for most of human history.

The internationally renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has helped to unravel the mysteries of emotion during the past decade in a series of three excellent books written for both scientists and general readers?Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994), The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999), and this past month Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (2003). A basic understanding of our brain's principal systems and functions will enhance your understanding, but the books are quite accessible to general readers.

Damasio differentiates between emotions and feelings. Emotions unconsciously integrate sensory input from within and without and often publicly manifest themselves in facial, body, and speech displays. It's often important that we inform others of the kind and severity of the challenge that confronts us. Emotional arousal can lead to conscious feelings that (like the mental images we create) are hidden from others. Feelings elevate our involvement with the challenge and so play a key role in the subsequent design of our response.

Emotion researchers have identified about a couple dozen discrete emotional states that exist along intensity continua, such as apprehension-fear-terror, or annoyance-anger-rage. Some emotions are blends of simultaneously activated emotions, such as trust and fear blending into submission, or trust and joy blending into love.

Researchers have proposed several lists of primary emotions. Damasio's list includes fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and happiness. Some emotional states imply social relationships?such as sympathy, guilt, jealousy, envy, and gratitude. So it's been complex and confusing. Looking for Spinoza is Damasio's successful attempt to simplify and clarify things?including the identification of specific brain systems that process emotion.

Think of being in a state of current contentment (mental equilibrium, bodily homeostasis). Our sensory and/or memory systems detect an emotionally competent stimulus from inside or outside our body?a danger or an opportunity.

An immediate analysis of the relevant environment and the current state of our body/brain follows. The basic concerns: What are my current levels of alertness, strength, and energy? Are they such that I'm capable of successfully confronting the challenge?and further, am I motivated to do it? If the analysis is optimistic, Damasio suggests that various emotions that signal a joyful state will emerge (such as joy, anticipation, trust). On the other hand, if the analysis is pessimistic, emotions that signal a sadness state will emerge (such as fear, anger, grief). We'll thus move confidently forward towards a strategy that will resolve the challenge or we'll warily avert it.

If the analysis doesn't clearly place us in either category, an uncertain emotional state results (and surprise, confusion, and anticipation are relevant emotions for this state). The traditional fight/flight/freeze categories used to describe behavior in stressful situations thus also describe emotional arousal. We can often metacognitively sense this back-and-forth discussion going on in our brain while we're trying to decide on such things as a major purchase or what to do on a vacation.

These positive/negative emotional states often return after the fact, when we assess the results of our decision. Emotions such as elation and pride follow success, and shame and guilt follow defeat. The emotionally tagged memories of the experience pop up when subsequent similar challenges occur, and can bias that analysis.

Our innate temperament can also bias the analysis and the resulting emotional state. Temperament emerges by the age of two and is generally categorized as either bold/uninhibited or anxious/inhibited. The bold tend to go towards challenges in optimistic curiosity and the anxious tend to move away in pessimistic wariness.

Mood (which tends to exist over a shorter period from a few hours to a few days) can similarly affect this analysis in the direction of the positive or negative mood we're experiencing. We may thus eagerly tackle a problem on Tuesday that we would avoid on Thursday.

Drugs and illness can also bias the accuracy of this analysis and the consequent conscious optimistic or pessimistic feelings that result. We may thus incorrectly feel that we're capable of meeting certain challenges, or vice versa.

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