Robert Augustus Masters

Welcome to the personal blog of Robert Augustus Masters.

Emotion Is More Than Feeling

Emotion includes feeling, but is more than feeling.

In the literature on emotion, the terms “emotion” and “feeling” (and the more academic “affect”) are often used interchangeably. And even when they are not, there is not much agreement as to what they mean. Nevertheless, it’s important to distinguish feeling from emotion.

Feeling means the registering of sensation (e.g., the feeling of a stone in our hand or hunger pangs in our stomach), and it also refers to the registering of a specific sort of sensation: an innate noncognitive evaluative sensing that’s at the very core of emotion (e.g., the visceral feeling of fear or shame or joy).

“Noncognitive” means that no thinking processes are needed for the arising of feeling —  even though thinking can certainly trigger feeling.

When it comes to the pure speed of something arising in us, thought lags far behind feeling. Someone cuts us off in traffic — and we already were having a bad day! — and a rush of rage surges through us almost instantaneously, prior to any thought, let alone appraisal, of the situation. Pure feeling in the adrenaline-saturated, raw, fiery coursing through us.

Feelings often burst forth before thoughts have even formed. The good news is that ultra-quick arousal readies us for instant action (like braking to avoid smashing into a car that just cut us off). The bad news is that such instant action gives us no time for any reevaluation of what’s just happened (like considering that maybe the driver who just cut us off is making an emergency dash to the hospital).

And here’s where emotion comes in, giving our feeling of rage at being cut off in traffic not just its intrinsic context of being thwarted or unjustly treated, but also a context that takes into account our entire history and relationship with anger, as well as other influences that may factor into the situation. We now have more options than just cutting loose or burning up with our rage; we have a choice, however conditioned our anger may be by our past.

Emotion includes not only feeling, cognition, social factors, and related action tendencies, but also the interplay between all four, making for a complex flux that eludes any neat mapping.

So to truly explore any emotion is to explore more than just the feeling of it.

For example, we need to be familiar—and not just intellectually familiar—with early-life dynamics that largely determine how we usually express a particular emotion under certain conditions. We also need to feel into and relate to those times with enough presence and care so that they have less say in how we now deal with the emotion in question.

If we’re not aware of the actual perspective with which we tend to infuse or hold a certain emotion, we’re likely to express it in ways established long ago, often by our parents. Not being sufficiently aware of the social factors (both current and past) affecting our emotional expression means we’ll probably let them play a governing role in such expression.

Emotion is the dramatization of feeling.