The Differentia of an Emotion
Harvey A. Carr
University of Chicago
Since the time of Lange and James, the somatic conception of the nature of emotion has been the orthodox doctrine. For purposes of exposition, the various activities of an organism may be divided into two classes: (1) The first class, which may be termed the intelligent activities, are those which are primarily concerned with the adaptation of the organism to its objective environment. In an emotional situation, they would embrace the apprehension of the nature and significance of the exciting situation, danger for example, and the overt reaction of the organism to that situation on the basis of this appraisal. (2) The second group embraces the vital, the vegetative, the autonomic, or the somatic activities which are primarily concerned with the maintenance of the structural and functional integrity of the organism. They are concerned with the intake, transformation, distribution, and assimilation of energy and the elimination of the waste products involved in its consumption.
An emotion, according to the orthodox doctrine, represents an instinctive and biologically useful interaction between these two classes of organic activities. The stimulating situation of danger, for example, also excites a distinctive set of changes or alterations on the part of the on-going somatic activities whereby the reserve stores of energy are released, mobilized, and distributed to the reacting mechanisms involved in flight, and the waste products involved in this greater expenditure of energy are more quickly eliminated. In other words, the vital or somatic activities are readjusted so as to promote a more vigorous, sustained, and effective response to the stimulating situation.
Certain essential features of this somatic readjustment are obvious. In danger, for example, the heart beats faster and more vigorously. The flow of blood is accentuated. A greater volume of blood is distributed to the reacting mechanisms—a fact which is evidenced by the reddening and flushing of the skin in certain areas and the anaemic condition of others. Some authorities assert that, as a consequence of the action of a certain ductless gland, the composition of the blood is so altered that it
( 229) contains a higher percentage of a readily available form of energy. Respiration is deepened and quickened, and the waste products are more quickly eliminated. The sweat and sebaceous glands are excited; the skin becomes damp and moist in some regions and dry in others. The circulatory and secretory changes alter the temperature of the skin; the angry individual may feel warm or hot in some areas, and cold and chilly in others. All of the digestive activities may be considerably affected. The whole somatic mechanism is temporarily thrown out of gear. In any profound emotional seizure, this somatic disturbance may reverberate throughout every inch of the organism. For example, our whole being seems to seethe and boil with rage. According to the orthodox conception, it is these various readjustive activities, in so far as they are experienced, that constitute the emotional experience.
An emotion may thus be provisionally defined as a somatic readjustment which is instinctively aroused by a stimulating situation and which in turn promotes a more effective adaptive response to that situation; and it is assumed that this greater efficiency is sufficient to increase materially the chances for the organism's survival in those primitive conditions of life that obtained while this instinctive reaction was evolved.
I am not so much concerned with the truth of this group of definitive characteristics as with their completeness or adequacy. Does any one or all of them differentiate an emotion from other similar experiences?
I wish to call attention to the fact that the two groups of activities—the intelligent and the somatic—are continually interacting in a mutually helpful way. The intelligent activities are frequently adapted to alleviate various somatic conditions such as hunger, thirst, intra-organic pains, digestive disturbances, fatigue and lassitude, etc. Likewise the somatic or vegetative activities are continuously being altered and modified in an appropriate manner in response to all pronounced variations in the organism's reaction to the external world. The heart beats faster and more vigorously, the respiration is altered, the face becomes flushed, the perspiratory activities are stimulated, and digestion is affected when we indulge in any vigorous type of muscular activity, whether it be chopping wood, playing tennis, doing gymnastic stunts, or running after a train as well as running from that which we fear. With the change to other types of activity such as studying, lecturing, writing, arguing with our neighbors, or attempting to be agreeable to our family, we find that these somatic activities are altered accordingly. Interaction is a continuous affair and not an intermittent phenomenon.
An emotion, as we commonly use the term, is an occasional experience. Somatic readjustments to behavior situations are continually occurring, while the emotional type of readjustment occurs relatively infrequently. The emotions are thus special cases of a more general phenomenon. There are non-emotional as well as emotional somatic readjustments to behavior situations, and any definition of an emotion, to be adequate, must differentiatethose experiences from the non-emotional class of somatic disturbances. What is the differentia of an emotion? How does it differ from the non-emotional readjustments that are continually occurring? Do the definitive characteristics that have been enumerated do so?
The emotions do not differ from the non-emotional reactions in their compositional character. If we take any standard description of the somatic readjustments in anger, the account can be approximately duplicated almost word for word in describing the somatic changes that accompany any unusually vigorous and prolonged muscular effort. The two do not differ in intensity. While it is true that extreme fear and rage represent a more intense type of reaction than do most of the non-emotional readjustments, yet they may be approximated at least by the somatic disturbances involved in such strenuous forms of exercise as football and the quarter-mile dash. On the other hand many of the emotional adjustments, such as love, sorrow, pity, awe, and the milder forms of fear and anger, are no more intense than the somatic reactions involved in many of our daily activities.
The alleged instinctive character of an emotional response is not a differentiating characteristic. It is assumed that each emotional readjustment is an instinctive response to the stimulating situation, i.e., the character of the somatic response and its relation to the exciting situation is a function of the inherited structure and disposition of the organism. Yet the same statement may also be made for the non-emotional reactions. The circulatory, .respiratory, and secretory mechanisms function just as spontaneously and automatically in the case of vigorous muscular work as they do in fear, anger, and joy. One can hardly assert that the reaction was learned in one case and not in the other. Both types of readjustment are equally expressions of the innate endowment of the organism.
Neither can the emotional readjustments be differentiated on the basis of their adaptiveness and biological utility. To my mind, not all of the emotions are adaptive and biologically useful, while some of the non-emotional reactions are.
The biological utility of the emotions is a necessary postulate
( 231) of the assumption that the various emotions represent distinctive inherited mechanisms that have been independently evolved in phylogenetic development. The concept of natural selection assumes that each instinctive reaction was selected and perpetuated only in so far as that mode of reacting tended to preserve and perpetuate the life of the reacting individual or of the species to which it belongs. If the emotions are a group of instinctive reactions, each of these must possess such a survival or biological value for the conditions of life that obtained at the time of its origin. For example, fear is said to promote a more effective flight, and thus tends to preserve the life of the individual.
The biological utility of the emotions, to my mind, has been somewhat overemphasized. This a priori postulation has considerable difficulty with the empirical data. I am somewhat skeptical of the various attempts to specify the survival value of grief and sorrow. These reactions may have a considerable social value, i. e., they may be cultivated and utilized in the interest of certain social ideals, but this fact will not account for their origin. A biological value assumes that these reactions aid the individual to survive by promoting a more effective response to the situation which exciter, them. Grief and sorrow are usually awakened by the loss of highly desirable conditions, and I fail to see how grief promotes a type of response to such a situation that materially increases the chances for survival. Joy is awakened by the sudden and unexpected attainment of a highly desirable end. Inasmuch as it is aroused after the attainment of all end, it can hardly promote a more effective way of dealing with that end. Even the survival value of anger and fear is usually overrated. Fear is conducive to a more vigorous flight from danger, and anger promotes a more impetuous and energetic attack, and surely these behavior characteristics will tend to preserve the life of the organism. An enraged animal not only fights impetuously and energetically but also somewhat blindly and rashly—a mode of attack that is hardly suitable to all occasions. A frightened animal may flee precipitately but heedlessly, while a paroxysm of terror may interfere with effective flight, and induce a series of futile and abortive attempts at escape. Fear may paralyze as well as invigorate one's actions. In order to promote survival, perhaps Nature would have been wiser to have endowed organisms with less emotion and more cunning and intelligence. Some writers have classed the paralysis of fear with the death-feigning instinct of animals, which promotes survival because the immobility of the organism renders it less noticeable to its enemies. But the abortive attempts to flee in a paroxysm of fear differ materially
( 232) from the clear-cut and decisive reaction in feigning death; such attempts merely court instant destruction rather than survival.
Not only may we doubt the survival value of some of the emotional reactions, but we may also call attention to the adaptive character of the non-emotional readjustments. The heart beats faster, breathing is accelerated, the face becomes flushed, and perspiration is accentuated in any vigorous muscular activity, and this somatic readjustment functions in turn to invigorate and prolong that act. Obviously such a device must materially increase the organism's chances for survival.
In passing I wish to take exception to the conventional doctrine that the emotions represent a group of instinctive reactions, each of which evolved independently of the others and was biologically selected and perpetuated because it possessed some distinctive utility. Two general objections may be urged against this doctrine. As has been indicated, the biological utility of many of these emotional reactions may be seriously questioned, and the doctrine likewise necessitates the assumption that the various non-emotional readjustments represent a large group of instincts. We are thus confronted with the hypothesis of a multiplicity of separate instinctive mechanisms to account for the phenomenon of continuous interaction. According to this conception, there will be almost as many instincts as there are instances of interaction. The situation, to my mind, can be better conceived in much simpler terms. As we have said, the two groups of activities are continually interacting in a mutually advantageous manner. The biological utility of such an arrangement is obvious, for the organism is a reactive and biological unit and all its separate activities must be intimately organized and related to each other so as to maintain and perpetuate life. From the standpoint of biological selection and development, we are here dealing, in my opinion, with a unitary phenomenon—a single biological device and not with a multiplicity of mechanisms, each with its own phylogenetic history. This conception frees us from the necessity of assuming a utility for each emotional reaction and for the non-emotional readjustments as well; for any biological device, according to the principles of natural selection, needs to be useful only in the large majority of cases. So long as the two groups of activities interact in a mutually adaptive manner in the great majority of cases, the fact that they may influence each other at times in a non-adaptive manner and even in a harmful way on occasions will not seriously prejudice the survival of the organism. The unitary character of this biological device is not inconsistent with a considerable variety in its functional manifestations, for what happens in any
( 233) case will depend upon the nature of the processes that interact. In other words, the manifestations of this interaction will continually vary with the state of the organism and the ever varying behavior situations with which it is confronted.
We may conclude that the conventional definitive characteristics of an emotion are inadequate because they do not differentiate the emotions from the non-emotional adjustments. The two do not differ in nature, intensity, innateness, adaptiveness, or biological utility. The somatic adjustments are essentially alike whether an individual runs from that which he fears or energetically speeds after that which he desires. These vegetative processes function in much the same manner in the fleeing deer and the pursuing pack.In both cases they promote vigorous and sustained action, and they are equally useful from the standpoint of survival.
We do distinguish the emotions from the non-emotional adjustments, however, and it is at once obvious that they must differ in some respect, or else we should not be able to differentiate them as we do. What is the differentia of an emotion? Why do we term the somatic reaction an emotion when we flee from danger, but do not call it an emotion when we run just as energetically to win a race?
The distinction proposed is that of the orderly and coordinated character of the non-emotional adjustments as opposed to the relatively uncoordinated and somewhat chaotic course of events in the emotional reactions.
In our ordinary activities of lecturing, constructive thinking, or chopping wood, we react to the situation in a relatively orderly and methodical way, and the somatic activities nicely adjust themselves to this orderly progression of events. The whole process exhibits. a high degree of adaptive coordination and harmonious functioning.
On the other hand, an individual is unable to respond immediately to an emotional situation in an intelligent manner. How can we react to an overwhelming and irreparable loss except to grieve about it? Joy comes with the sudden and unexpected attainment of a valued end, and naturally there is nothing more that can be don.^ except to revel in our enjoyment. A surprising situation is one to which we are temporarily unable to adapt. Dread is awakened by the sense of impending danger whose nature, time of occurrence, and location may be unknown, and as a consequence the individual is at a loss to know what to do. An effective way of dealing with a suddenly encountered danger is not always readily apparent. Because of the caution with which we are endowed or which we have acquired in the vicis-
( 234) -situdes of experience, or perhaps because of the inhibitive influence of our moral ideals, most of us are not accustomed to rush immediately to the attack when angered or enraged. An emotional situation is one for which there is no appropriate response or one to which we are unable to respond for the time being.
An emotional stimulus is a very effective one and, being denied any motor outlet, it necessarily discharges into the somatic mechanisms—the only available outlet at the time—and tends to awaken a vigorous appropriate adjustment. These somatic activities function in turn as stimuli and release impulses that are normally incorporated into the organism's adaptive response to the exciting situation. Lacking this normal outlet, these impulses are necessarily drafted back into the somatic mechanisms and thus interfere with their orderly functioning. Because of their vigorous stimulation and because of the lack of a motor outlet, the somatic activities become disrupted and react to the situation in a relatively disorganized and chaotic manner. In dread and terror, our heart jumps and beats irregularly, we gasp for breath, and alternately turn hot and cold in rapid succession. In grief we breathe convulsively and sob hysterically, and our whole being quivers and seethes and boils with rage. In any profound emotional seizure, such as a paroxysm of fear or rage, this somatic disturbance may be such as to render the individual temporarily incapable of either flight of attack. The emotions may paralyze as well as invigorate action. The descriptive statements that have just been employed are certainly not applicable to a harmonious and coordinated type of action. The emotional experience is essentially one of inner turmoil and commotion.
Occasionally an individual may react to a sudden emergency in a prompt and a highly efficient and capable manner. In this event they usually experience no fear, and humorously report that they had no time to be afraid. Again these individuals may be overwhelmed with a severe attack of fear after the emergency has been successfully encountered. In other words, an immediate, effective, and well-coordinated response prevents the arousal of an emotional reaction.
An emotion gradually subsides and finally disappears as the organism begins to respond to the situation in an orderly and methodical manner. Our anger soon cools and wanes as we settle down to the fight, and terror no longer holds us in its grip as our precipitate and hasty initial efforts gradually become organized into an orderly and effective flight. The athlete is likely to become excited as he prepares for the race, but this emotional excitement soon subsides as he settles down to a rhythmical pace.
( 235) The somatic reaction does not disappear in these cases. It merely loses its tumultuous and chaotic and emotional character as it becomes adjusted to the demands of orderly action.
To summarize, we may say that the somatic activities are continually being
excited to react in an adjustive manner to the behavior demands of the organism.
The emotional reactions are those that are awakened when the organism,
temporarily at least, is unable to respond in an orderly and efficient fashion
to a highly stimulating situation, and for this reason they partake of the
nature of a somatic disturbance. The non-emotional reactions, on the other hand,
represent a relatively coordinated and orderly type of somatic readjustment, and
hence we may suggest that, contrary to orthodox opinion, it is these
non-emotional adjustments that exhibit the greater degree of adaptive utility.