Five Things You Might Not Know About Human Emotion


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Humans are some of the most complex emotional creatures on earth. From our teenagers who roll their eyes in disdain to our toddlers who cry in frustration – raising kids has few emotional dull moments. What are we supposed to do with their emotions? Why are they so emotional in the first place?

Developmental science continues to unearth the pieces of the emotional puzzle, shedding light on why our kids are so emotional and how we are meant to help them. According to leading neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, emotional development in humans is as sophisticated as the development of logical reasoning. There are a number of key principles that are not well understood when it comes to emotion with the top five listed here.

  1. Emotions and feelings are not the same thing.

We often use the word emotion and feeling interchangeably but they refer to different things. Emotions are the raw impulses, chemical reactions, and action potential that is created when we become activated by something in our environment. The brain has a complex emotional system to deal with arousal which spurs our bodies into action.

Feelings on the other hand are the names and words we give to describe our emotion arousal. A feeling is the subjective appraisal we make for what has happened in our body that has stirred us up. The capacity to name our emotional state and give it a feeling name is something unique to humans and allows us to communicate with others and get our needs met. In short, emotions are the raw underpinnings that stir us up and feelings are how we use language to share this state with others.

  1. Emotions are part of the unconsciousness.

Freud argued for the existence of an emotional unconscious and saw it as instrumental in influencing human behaviour. He eventually abandoned trying to prove it’s existence given his lack of tools and technology to study the brain. I believe Freud would have devoured the neuroscientific evidence today that highlights how we are not always aware of what emotions have stirred us up.

Humans possess an emotional unconscious that we are not always able to access and for good reason. Emotion has work to do. Emotions are what drive us forward to solve problems and effect change when needed. Awareness is a luxury in an emotional system that was designed to work at getting our needs met. A child who cries is not always aware of what is not working for them. This doesn’t stop their emotional system from creating signs of distress so as to bring caretakers near who can help them.  In short, emotions are not problems – they are trying to solve them.

  1. Emotions are not always expressed in the situations they were created in.

Emotions can come out of our kids in the strangest of places and at the most inopportune times. Emotions can be displaced such as when our kids explode in frustration after school or when they become agitated before bed time. This is not a mistake but part of a sophisticated design to ensure emotions come out when it is safe for them to do so. It is often better for a child’s emotional system to press down on strong emotions at school as it isn’t always wise to express how you feel among peers.

Doorways to emotional expression can happen at any time or place, with big reactions coming out in the face of small upsets. Emotional displacement can be confusing for adults as they are left to piece together why their child has come undone. The emotional system is like a pressure cooker in many ways. When things get pent up too much or when there is an opportunity provided to open up, the lid can come off.

  1. Emotions need to be expressed.

Emotions are energizing and are meant to fuel us in moving towards getting our needs met. They can be expressed in a number of ways in order to discharge emotional energy. Emotions are expressed when kids play, move, scream, dance, or use their words. While they don’t always have control over how emotions are expressed because of immaturity, kids are moved to ‘get it out.’

Adults seem to hold onto the idea that if they give a child some room to express their emotions then that child might never stop expressing. The idea that expression leads to bigger emotional problems is faulty and fails to understand how emotion seeks expression in the first place. It is by helping a child ‘get it out,’ and dissipating the emotional energy that is trapped inside them, that we help them come to rest again.  The biggest problems are not created by expressing emotions but in the absence of this.

  1. Emotions can go missing.

We seem to operate under the false assumption that we are always capable of feeling our emotions in a vulnerable way. This is not true and unsupported by science. For example, children can get hurt yet appear unaffected. They can lack tears when faced with things that should upset them. Teens (and adults) can lack shame in the face of things they should be embarrassed by. The emotional system can  press down on strong emotions when needed, and this is not part of conscious awareness. This is not a sign of a faulty system but one that is working hard to prevent vulnerable feelings from coming to the surface. The brain has its own reasons for numbing out emotions, but over the long term this poses challenges for healthy development. When hearts have become hardened, the goal is to render them soft again.

Carl Jung said that one of the most fascinating things to make sense of was the human psyche. I couldn’t agree with him more. The mysteries of the mind beginning with the complexity of the emotional system are what make humans unique. Emotional immaturity poses some challenges when raising kids as they will likely be stirred up often. Their emotional reactions can stir us up too. The goal in raising kids is not to join them in their emotional immaturity and to bear in mind that growth takes time and patience.

Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a counselling and family resource center. For more information please see www.macnamara.ca and www.neufeldinstitute.org.