Gray Matters: The “irony” of studying feelings


When most people think about studying emotion, they think of psychology, and subsequently, some of the craziest theories of the mind that we have come up with. This is not a psychology column, unfortunately and thankfully.

I haven’t taken an official survey, but I imagine that if you ask the general public whether it is possible to study emotional experiences with the same rules that we study other scientific principles, the answers would be divided.

The way I see it, there are two fundamental ways to view emotional experiences and they are dependent on our answer to the made-up survey question.

One group would say, “Yes, emotions may be understood with logic and scientific principles, since emotions are the result of molecules attaching to receptors.”

The other group would say, “No, emotions are merely a response to our environment and they are subjective. We can mold our emotional world to be whatever we’d like it to be.”

If the first group were entirely correct, treating depression could be standardized: take 100 mg of Zoloft and use logic to realize that you shouldn’t be depressed. That obviously does not work.

If the second group were entirely correct, then it should be possible to be happy all the time. That also doesn’t seem to be true.

And so the question is: To what extent can we know our feelings using traditional scientific methods? That is the question that I hope to spend at least part of my career working toward, in some respect.

Neuroscience is a relatively new biological science, but even newer is affective neuroscience. Affective neuroscience deals with studying emotional processes systematically instead of through psychology’s theoretical approach.

It is exciting to me, because so little work has been done. And although it’s the kind of work I could imagine driving someone insane, since it tries to wrangle the subjective human experience with objective measurements, hopefully I’ll know enough about emotions at that point to decide not to go crazy. If not, uh oh, I suppose.

The term “affective neuroscience” was coined in 1998 by Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist credited with creating the branch.

He wrote a book with the same name; it was not particularly popular outside of science circles, but it was important to establish the branch’s goals.

Modern neuroscientific imaging technologies limit our ability to understand the way we experience emotion.

An fMRI might show that certain areas of the brain are more active than others while experiencing different emotions, but we can conclude almost nothing from this definitively.

It would show us that we have both brain activity and a person saying they feel “happy” or “sad,” but that means we can only infer a correlation between that brain activity and the report of a subjective feeling (which can be faulty!).

We cannot conclude that the brain activity causes the feeling or that the feeling causes the brain activity.

In psychology, the James-Lange theory proposes that when someone experiences an emotional stimulus, say a scary image, their body responds physiologically, which causes the subjective experience of fear.

The Cannon-Bard theory says that in response to the frightening stimulus, the body’s response and fear happen at the same time.

Nowadays, most psychologists and neuroscientists would probably interpret that the body’s physiological response and experience of fear contribute to one another in a cycle.

Affective neuroscience may seek to find, among many others, the exact mechanism by which a physical or imagined stimulus gives us the ability to experience an emotion. Why and how that cycle begins instead of not beginning, which is admittedly a far more philosophical question than a scientific one.

Another struggle is that we do not have it in our power to prove whether people really experience emotions similarly at all. Most people are familiar with the notion that you can never prove that two people see red in the same way, and the experience of emotions can be thought of as the same.

Emotions are at least partly relative; if two people feel emotionally “fine,” a person who is used to feeling badly would probably be more likely to say they feel “good,” while a person used to feeling good would be more likely to say they feel “bad,” since they may be comparing their current state to the way they usually feel.

This is why self-reporting can be a faulty mechanism—we often deflate or inflate the truth for any number of reasons.

That brings us to yet another problem with studying emotions: the limits of language. Research has shown that the words we use affect not only the way we communicate our experience of feeling, but also the way we experience emotion.

Another primary interest of affective neuroscience would be to sort through all of the factors that make the human emotional experience different and illuminate the ways in which it is the same.

From birth, babies know to smile when they feel good and frown when they feel bad. Hopefully, this inherent physiological knowledge means that the actual experience of emotion is similar across people—it’d be existentially isolating if it wasn’t. 

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  1. Robert Davenport on

    Thought provoking. “This is why self-reporting can be a faulty mechanism—we often deflate or inflate the truth for any number of reasons.” Self reporting is highly biased and often inaccurate because we are biased towards our analysis or lack of analysis (see an estimated 80% of Americans?)

    From an engineers viewpoint: emotions tell humans that something they consider important has occurred. The next step is to quickly put one’s brain in gear and evaluate the situation and a response to it. Easier said than done.

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