What Are Emotions?

27 June, 2020
I define emotions as biologically relevant abstract perceptions, and I attempt to relate this definition to my previous efforts to determine the "meaning" of music.

Emotions and Music

This blog is a blog about music, and my attempts to scientifically answer the question: "What is Music?"

One of the major effects of music is the effect it has on emotions.

But the concept of "emotion" is itself not fully understood.

Before we can answer the question of how music affects emotions, we need to know what we are talking about when we talk about emotions.

Starting with the encyclopedia definition ...

This is the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page on Emotion:

Emotions are biological states associated with the nervous system brought on by neurophysiological changes variously associated with thoughts, feelings, behavioural responses, and a degree of pleasure or displeasure. There is currently no scientific consensus on a definition. Emotion is often intertwined with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, creativity and motivation.

Also there is a summary sentence further down the article:

Emotions involve different components, such as subjective experience, cognitive processes, expressive behavior, psychophysiological changes, and instrumental behavior.

Biological function

My primary approach to understanding music is based on biological functions.

Music is an aspect of human behaviour and psychology.

Human beings are living organisms, which are the result of evolution by natural selection.

All aspects of human physiology and behaviour are ultimately subject to the processes of natural selection.

Some aspects of human behaviour are genetically determined, other aspects are determined by processes of learning and development where those processes of learning and development are genetically determined. In either case natural selection acts on those genes based on how those behaviours and processes contribute to the long-term reproductive success of the individual.

Any coherent theory of emotions has to understand emotions as part of the biological function of the human brain.

A Functional Definition of Emotion

I propose the following definition of "emotion":

Although I have listed biological relevance and pre-programmed responses as separate criteria, in practice they will either both apply or neither will apply, because:

An Example

Here's an example of something that would cause a lot of emotion, as told by a woman:

There could be more than one emotion at play here, mostly sadness at the loss of her son, but also anger at the driver.

To keep things simple, I will focus on the emotion of sadness in this case.

The original statement of the situation included specific details about what happened. We can make the statement more abstract by leaving out one or more of those details.

We can make different abstractions by leaving out different details.

Here are some examples:

The last statement is very abstract, and corresponds closely to the general concept of sadness, ie it represents the meaning of the emotion of sadness as an abstract perception.

All the versions in that list are still biologically relevant – they are obviously relevant to the situation of the person, ie the woman who has lost her son.

There are other ways we could abstract the original statement by leaving out details which would result in versions of that statement that were not so biologically relevant.

For example:

  1. Someone was killed last night by a hit-and-run driver while they were crossing the road.
  2. Someone died last night.
  3. Something happened to my son last night.
  4. Sometime in the past, my son died.

These versions of the statement have been abstracted in a manner such that the biological relevance of the original statement has been lost, ie:

  1. Someone, somewhere was killed crossing the road, but we don't know who it was, so we have no idea if it was someone that the speaker cared about.
  2. Even less detail than item 1.
  3. Something happened to her son, but we have left out information about how serious it was.
  4. Her son is now dead, but we don't know when he died. If it happened years ago, then this fact is less relevant to the mother's current situation. (The fact that her son is gone is part of her current life situation, but there is no longer any immediate action she can take to deal with it.)

The pre-programmed response to sadness

In the case of sadness, the pre-programmed response is mostly negative, ie a tendency to do less, and to be more pessimistic about the outcome of any goal-oriented actions that one might take.

As is the case with most emotions, the pre-programmed response also includes a tendency to express the emotion so that other people around you know how you are feeling. (There is a presumption here that you spend most of your time in the company of people who are supportive of your goals, ie family and friends.)

Levels of Abstraction in the Brain

Which of the abstracted versions of the statement will be represented in the brain?

Sometimes more specific is good, because it has all the information. Sometimes more abstract is good, because more general information processing rules can be immediately applied.

This suggests that:

The "Basic" Emotions

Estimates of the number of basic emotions vary from seven (Paul Ekman) to 27 (Cowen & Keltner).

Ekman's list of seven emotions is:

On Ekman's website, some of these basic emotions are divided into groups of similar emotions, for example:

This makes 47 in total (including the 2 not otherwise split into more specific emotions).

The list of 27, from Cowen & Keltner is: admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise

There is obviously some overlap between the categories and sub-categories identified by Ekman and this list.

In both cases we can note that the emotions mostly have one-word descriptions (two words in a few cases).

Music: Emotions, and Other Abstractions

Looking at either of the two systems of classification, we can observe that not all emotions are equally represented in music.

For any given emotion, we might identify some song that has lyrics which supposedly represent that emotion, however that is not necessarily proof that the music itself represents the emotion.

Sadness and happiness are two emotions that seem to be consistently represented musically.

Fear is an odd example, because fear is often represented in movie sound tracks by the occurrence of "non-music", such as screeching violins played out of tune.

But I would go further than just saying that some emotions are often represented in music and some other emotions are not usually represented in music.

I would say that music also expresses certain abstract aspects of perception which cannot be specifically identified as individual emotions.

In some of my previous articles, I have attempted to identify, from my own subjective experience, what I think the "meaning" of music is: What is the Meaning of Music?, The Fundamental Meaning Of Music and Music Creates A Feeling Of Salience.

In these articles I have tentatively identified various aspects of the emotional quality of music, and these aspects are aspects which are not included in the definitions of conventional "one word" emotions from the lists given above. These aspects include:

These aspects of the emotional quality of music are abstract, but they consist of abstractions different from the specific type of abstraction that defines what we normally consider to be identifiable emotions.

This may go some way towards explaining why it is we strongly feel that music expresses emotions, but at the same time we can struggle to specify exactly which emotions are being expressed by any particular item of music.