Chapter 18: The Nature of Emotion
James Rowland Angell
Distinction Between Emotion and Instinct. -- Our previous study has already brought us into contact with emotion, once in our analysis of feeling, and again in our examination of instinct. But it still remains for us to discover more exactly the peculiarities of this form of mental experience, and especially to point out its functional significance in the economy of conscious life.
Although as they appear in human beings instinct and emotion are both psychophysical processes, the term " instinct refers primarily to physiological phenomena, and the term emotion " to psychological. This is brought out in James' statement that " an emotion is a tendency to feel, and an instinct is a tendency to act characteristically when in the presence of a certain object in the environment." As psychologists we are accordingly under obligation to describe the salient features of these hereditary feelings which accompany the instinctive activities. In the last chapter we found that impulse is present in all instincts, and we exhibited some of the modifications which the impulsive feelings undergo. We must now scrutinise certain other equally important features of the emotional psychosis.
When we feel ourselves in the grasp of any of the more powerful emotions, such as fear or anger or grief, we immediately refer the experience in toto to the object which is, as we say, its cause. We say we are afraid of the lightning, we are angry with our defamer, we are grief-stricken at the death
(316) of a beloved friend. In this way we come naturally enough to I identify the emotion with our consciousness of its immediate provocative, and this fact has often served to becloud the real psychological constitution of these experiences. Thanks to the acumen of two contemporary psychologists, James and Lange, we can now describe more precisely than formerly certain of the psychical conditions indigenous to these states of consciousness.
Physiological Accompaniments of Emotion. -- Let us take the case of a person who is extremely timid about thunderstorms. Such a person may be thrown into a paroxysm of fear by the sight of an ominous cloud approaching. Moreover, after the storm has burst, every flash of lightning and every clap of thunder may serve as a fresh source for the waves of terror which surge over the shrinking soul. Now in such a case the usual description of the mental experience would connect the fear immediately with the perception of the cloud and with the several perceptions of lightning and thunder. The mere perception itself would be accredited with the instant arousal, without further intermediation, of the emotion of fear. Following the arousal of fear, and serving as expressions of it, would be enumerated the several motor reactions which the individual might manifest, e. g., trembling, paling, palpitation of the heart, etc. Now, it need not be questioned that such perceptions as these suggested are perceptions of terrifying objects recognised forthwith as such. But the authors to whom we have referred have pointed out, with a wealth of illustrative detail, that the motor activities just mentioned occur in an essentially reflex way immediately upon the perception of the emotional stimulus. These muscular reactions necessarily initiate at once afferent neural currents, which set up sensory and affective disturbances that are promptly reported in consciousness. The Lange-James view insists, therefore, that all accurate introspective observation of such experiences reveals the emotion of fear as a con-
(317)-scious state in which these motor reactions are represented as essential and integral parts. We may apprehend an object in a cold-blooded and self-controlled way as terrifying and dangerous. This is a common experience among policemen, firemen, and soldiers of a certain temperament. But we never feel afraid unless we have already made certain of the motor reactions which characterise fear. If the heart remains undisturbed in its pulsations, if the distribution of the blood in the various parts of the body is not markedly changed, if the breathing is not affected, if we do not tremble, it matters not how clearly we may appreciate the danger of the situation, nor how dangerous the situation may be, the total complex feeling, the emotion, of fear is not ours. These movements, then, which common description accredits with the expression of the emotion, are not merely expressions, they are rather indispensable causal factors producing the psychical condition which we all recognise when we experience it as the genuine emotion.
The psychological constitution of the emotion of fear is typical of all the strong emotions which lend themselves readily to introspective observation. In each one the organic reverberation which is produced by the emotional stimulus enters into consciousness to give it its characteristic emotional colouring and to mark it off from other modes of mental activity. In anger we ordinarily find the breathing disturbed, the circulation irregular, and many of the voluntary muscles, e. g., those of the hands and face, tense and rigid. These muscular movements are inevitably reported by distinct modifications in the tone of consciousness. In grief an opposite type of muscular condition is met with, i. e., depression of motor tonicity throughout most of the system, but with an equally inevitable reaction upon the conscious mood.
Emotions are, therefore, extremely complex processes, so far, at least, as regards the organic activities which condition them. In emotions we are not only conscious of the emotional
(318) object, as in ordinary perceptual acts, we are also overwhelmed by a mass of sensational and affective elements brought about by the intra-organic activities of our own musculature. The prominence of the affective factors to which we have referred in our account of feeling is in large part referable to the hyper-normal, or subnormal, activity set up in the muscles of the respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems. It will be remembered that under most conditions we are entirely unconscious of these processes. Only under rather unusual circumstances, involving some vivid form of stimulation, do they intrude themselves. But such circumstances, we have already observed, are precisely those to which affective tone almost inevitably attaches, and we have forthwith an obvious reason for the conspicuously affective character of the emotions.
Reply to a Criticism.-- It may be said that however true our account of the organic activities involved in emotional psychoses, it is, nevertheless, a false description of the facts to say that we are conscious in any explicit way of these functions of our bodily selves. Our consciousness, it is alleged, is absorbed in the object of the emotion; we are hypnotised by the impending calamity, transfixed in contemplation of our gaucherie, swept away by the sally of wit, etc. The bodily movements are things of which we have little or no distinct mental report. The emotion, consequently, however much entangled with motor activities it may prove to be, cannot be spoken of as consisting in a consciousness of these movements. The point at issue in this contention rests upon a misapprehension of the principle defended in this chapter. It is not maintained that the emotion of fear is made up of a consciousness of some terrifying object, say a serpent, plus the consciousness of a palpitating heart, plus the consciousness of shaking limbs. The assertion is, that our consciousness of the serpent is modified by all the sensorymotor activities going on in the body at the moment, just as
(319) is the case in less noticeable degree with every perception. It is further asserted that the motor activities -which do occur at such times are characteristic and relatively fixed, and in consequence lead to relatively fixed psychical surroundings for any perceptual acts revealing terrifying objects. To state it in neural terms, we may say that the cerebral cortex is a kind of resonance board for the whole organism, and that emotional stimuli produce definite and fairly constant motor reactions, which are echoed by the cortex. Our attention may, then, be more or less absorbed in the object of any given emotion, but the total mental state is conditioned quite as truly by the sensory consequences of the hereditary motor disturbances as it is by the special sensory activity reporting the object. These motor disturbances constitute in James' terms a characteristic " fringe " for the emotional stimulus.
Significance of Emotion. -- We must next inquire into the special significance of the emotional life, and discover, if possible, the reasons for its peculiarities. In emotion we are apparently confronted with a ease in which now and again consciousness takes on an unusual intensity. Can we find in our analysis of its intrinsic characteristics, or in our observation of the circumstances under which it becomes manifest, any explanation of this phenomenon? We may at least make the attempt.
Fear.-- If we examine a series of emotional situations, such as we find in grief, anger, fear, embarrassment, and pity, we shall discover that in one particular they all agree. In each and every case conscious activity is thrown backward and inward upon itself instead of going forward in the form of well-adjusted processes of control. This condition may last only a moment, or it may run on indefinitely. In one form or another, however, it is the distinguishing mark of all emotional conditions. For example, I am sitting at my desk writing, oblivious of the storm without. Suddenly a blind. ing flash and a deafening noise, followed by the sound of
(320) falling walls, breaks in upon me. Unquestionably, I am thoroughly frightened. For a moment or two I am all but paralysed mentally. My attitude is one of cowering contemplation. In a vague, terror-stricken way I wonder what is coming next. I may have started to my feet, but that is almost a reflex act, and certainly evinces no special intelligence, for I am perhaps quite as well off, and quite as useful, seated as standing. In a moment the paroxysm has passed off and I start forth to see what damage has been done. So long, however, as the fear was in the ascendency my mental activity was of the most futile, inefficient character. At great conflagrations, where persons become panic-stricken under the continued influence of terror, a similar thing is observed. Either they sit cowering in a half-dazed condition, or they rush madly and aimlessly about. Rational conduct has fled, and consciousness has become almost extinct, or else a mere riot of impulses.
Embarrassment.-- In profound embarrassment everyone who is capable of the emotion will recognise the applicability of our description. We find ourselves speechless, not simply because the mouth is dry and the tongue paralysed, but also because our thoughts have fled. We have been suddenly reduced to the mental condition of a vegetable, growing rooted to the spot where we stand, a vital mass destitute of informing intelligence.
Grief and Anger.-- The prostrating effect of deep grief is nowhere more flagrant and more distressing than in the total inability of the mind to get away from the source of its sorrow and take up the direction of necessary activities. For a person deeply afflicted, freedom of will and action is a sheer delusion. The mind refuses to operate, save in reiterated contemplation of its loss. In anger, on the other hand, it may be at first supposed that mental and motor activity are alike enhanced, rather than otherwise. But this impression proves erroneous upon a closer inspection of the facts. The
(321) immediate and instantaneous effect of anger is precisely like that of the other emotions we have just mentioned, i. e., the temporary checking of directive conscious processes. e checking is often only momentary~ and is then frequently followed by a torrential motor discharge of a more or less efficient kind, which readily serves to obscure the preceding and invariable inhibition. In children one often sees this latent period, during which the storm is getting up its destructive forces. Presently the apoplectic silence is broken by an outburst, which harks back in its violence to periods long antecedent to the dawn of civilisation.
Emotion a Phenomenon of Interrupted Conscious Action. --This break in the adaptive movements under the supervision of consciousness, which we should observe in all emotions if we took time to analyse all of them, is reflected in the organic reactions which we have already described. The stimulations to which consciousness is responding from moment to moment must drain off through motor channels of some kind. So long as they do not possess emotional vividness they call forth either simple reflex responses: or habitual coordinations under conscious control. The moment the stimulus takes on an emotional hue, however, as we have just seen, the guidance of consciousness is more or less abridged; the motor channels of acquired coordinated voluntary movements are consequently somewhat obstructed, and the only alternative is an overflow of the nervous currents into the involuntary pathways and the instinctive hereditary pathways of the voluntary system. On the neural side, therefore, the profuse motor reaction in emotion represents the discharge of dammed-up impulses which cannot find egress through the sluice-ways of ordinary voluntary movements.
Meaning of the Interruption and Overflow.--Taken in their entirety, what do these two great bodies of fact point to, regarding the function of emotion, i. e., (1) the temporary suspension of voluntary control in the forward movement of con-
(322)-sciousness, and (2) the overflow of motor impulses into channels leading partly to the involuntary muscles and partly through hereditary influences to the voluntary system? Stated differently: what makes a situation emotional and why does it lead to these results which we have designated?
Conditions Upon Which the Appearance of Emotion Depends.-- We seem entitled to conclude that any situation is emotional in which an impediment to the ongoing activity is encountered so serious as to break up the progress of the consciously directed coordinations occurring at the moment, and of a character requiring a definitely new adaptive reaction of consciousness in order to surmount it. The case represents in a way the very conditions under which we found consciousness first coming to light. An individual we may suppose is going about his business, doing one thing or another, for which he has already attained accurate coordinated reactions. He is considering, perhaps, the wisdom of a certain purchase while his hand writes out a communication upon the subject. Here we have conscious direction of commercial activities through the motor coordinations of the hand. A telegram is put before him reporting the failure of his bank and the loss of his fortune. Such an event may or may not cause an emotion. It depends on the individual, not on the event. But if it does produce an emotion, there will instantly be a break in his coordinated and consciously directed movements. The writing will cease, be may gasp, and drop back in his chair, his mind may refuse to work for a few moments, and he must accommodate himself to the new situation, represented by the idea of his loss, before he can act intelligently. The news contained in the despatch has simply erected a mental barrier across the path of his letter-writing. Consciousness cannot instantly adapt itself to the new situation, and in the meantime the motor energy overflows in what we call the expressions of emotion.
If it be true that consciousness tends to appear where the
(323) reflex and hereditary responses of the organism are inadequate to cope with the demands of the environment, we may say with equal truth that emotions appear whenever there is conflict among the motor impulses called forth by any special situation. Both cases demand fresh adjustments of consciousness for the securing of efficient action. The significance of emotion as a fact of consciousness would seem, therefore, to be resident in this monitory function, represented by its compelling announcement of needed adjustments, its report of unstable equilibrium. At all events this is evidently the part it plays, be its teleology what it may, and obviously this conflict with an impediment in the course of carrying out coordinated activities is the universal occasion of its appearance.
Such a view as this finds its most immediate and striking confirmation in the depressive emotions like fear, grief, and embarrassment, but it is not less true of the more sinister emotions , such as anger and jealousy, and it seems to be obvious enough in certain moral crises, in which we speak of the "pangs of conscience." The period of abortive voluntary control is often brief, and frequently the resumption of coordinated action antedates very much the cessation of the organic emotional disturbances. One suffering the depths of grief may thus take up again the weary round of a blighted life, despite the gnawing pain at the heart and the constant presence of the face that has gone. When we turn to the more mirthful emotions, it may not appear so certain that the same principle maintains, yet careful observation will assure us that it does.
Take the case of a man making out his accounts who suddenly learns that he has fallen heir to a million dollars, to a grandson, to a beautiful estate, or anything else which he may be supposed eagerly to desire. Is his consciousness momentarily disconcerted by anything fairly to be called a barrier? Undoubtedly this is so. If the experience is really
(324) unexpected, so that he gets a distinct thrill of joy from it, one may be sure of finding that his condition is for a little time one of genial insanity. Ideas may flow in profuse incoherency. But the nearest approach to coordinated movements are those of laughter (one of the channels of undirected motor overflow) and the inane movements of bands and feet. Not for some moments does it occur to him to telegraph his wife, to "treat" the assembled company, or do any other intelligent thing. So far as concerns the suppression of well-ordered movements and rationally conceived conscious processes, joy is no exception to the other emotions we have described. It traverses our common prejudices to designate the objects of joy as in any true sense barriers or impediments to us. But the " barrier " characteristic of emotions only has reference to the processes going forward at the moment, and, with reference to these, objects of the joy-producing kind are as truly obstacles and interruptions as those which occasion grief or fear.
Our appreciation of wit and humour involves a precisely similar form of readjustment. The joke is par excellence the typical stimulus provocative of disorganising tendencies in our coordinations. We listen to the skilful raconteur, our minds following step by step the evolution of the epic, and then, presto! the unexpected occurs, our minds react to the shock with an appreciation of the anomalies of the situation. The motor discharge in laughter announces the relief of the energy pent up momentarily by the unforeseen denouement, and the total experience constitutes our feeling of the funny, the odd, or the amusing.
On the whole, then, there seems no reason to question the essential validity of this general view of the function of emotion and the conditions which call it forth. We may, therefore, revert with advantage to certain points in our analysis of instinct which must be brought into connection with our theory of emotion.