I briefly addressed the nature of feelings (emotions) in my previous article, "Mind." My purpose in that article was to make the distinction between feelings (which are often mistakenly thought of as an aspect of the mind) from the nature of the mind and the relationship between them.
My purpose here is a different one. One of the least well understood aspects of human nature are the emotions, yet the feelings are terribly important. The confusion about what the emotions are, why we have them, and how they are to be understood and dealt with is due in no small measure to the pseudo-science, "psychology," (not to be confused with neurology, which is a real science). There is nothing mystical or magical about the emotions. They are not some mysterious function of the mind or the non-existent "subconscious." They are perfectly natural and the means to human joy and happiness.
What The Emotions Are
The emotions, including the desires, are our conscious perception of states of various aspects of the body. There is, in fact, a whole system, including the limbic system, the vagus nerve, endocrine and autonomic nervous system, that is responsible for both the physiological reactions of the body to what one is conscious of and for the awareness of those physiological reactions as the feelings and emotions. "The Emotional Nervous System," provides a very good overview of that system.
Biological/Physiological Feelings Vs. Emotional Feeling
Biological/physiological—Feelings include nausea, fatigue, excitement, restlessness, feverishness, malaise, euphoria, including the physical, "desires," or what used to be called the, "animal appetites," such as hunger, and the "sex drive." All of these feelings are caused by the biological functions of the human organism, are shared by most of the higher animals, and are independent of consciousness (except that we must conscious of them to have them, of course).
Emotions—Feelings include joy, ecstasy, fear, (and variations such as panic and terror) nostalgia, anxiety, sadness, grief, frustration, apathy, affection, antipathy, content, discontent, anger, hate, rage, confidence, enthusiasm, and pride. All of these feelings are caused by whatever we are conscious of at the time we have those feelings. Some are shared with the higher animals, but those associated with abstract concepts, like the past, (nostalgia) the future (anxiety), and values (humor, shame, pride), for example, are experienced only by human beings.
Emotions Automatic and Involuntary
All conscious perception is automatic and involuntary. We have no choice about what we will see when we look at something. We can choose not to look or to shut our eyes, but so long as our eyes are open and we are looking around, what we will see is determined by whatever is there to be seen and how we will see it is determined by the nature of perception itself and the nature of the things we are seeing. What we hear is determined by whatever sounds are there for us to hear, and how we hear them is determined by the nature of hearing and the sound itself.
The emotions, as percepts, are automatic and involuntary in the same way all other percepts are. The feelings we have are determined by whatever our physiological state is, and how we feel it is determined by the nature of our perception of our internal states. But the emotions are complicated by the fact that the physiological states, themselves, felt as emotions are caused by the content of consciousness. The states themselves which we perceive as emotions are also automatic and involuntary, they are the automatic physiological reactions to the content of consciousness which are, "built in," as part of our biological animal nature. We have no choice about how our bodies will react to what we see, hear, or think.
Animal vs. Human Emotions
While we cannot know directly what an animal experiences consciously, since all conscious experience is subjective in nature, we infer that animal consciousness is essentially the same as human consciousness, only lacking the rational/volitional aspect, the role of which in the animals is fulfilled by instinct.
We infer animal emotions from their behavior. When we see a dog lower its head, the hackle hairs on its back rise, and hear it growl, we attribute that behavior to the dog's feeling of anger or fear; when we see a cat lying in the sun and hear it purr we attribute that behavior to the cat's feeling of contentment. When we see a dog frolicking around its owner, barking, its head bobbing up and down, and its tail wagging, we attribute that behavior to the dog's feeling happy or joyous, or even love, on seeing its master.
All of an animals emotional reactions are to the immediate perceptual awareness, what it is seeing, hearing, and smelling at that moment. More importantly, the behavior of an animal, in response to its emotional experience is automatic. The dog excited at seeing its master cannot choose to suppress its exuberance, and will only do so, if it perceives something else it automatically reacts to, like it's master's strong command to "sit!" or "lay down!" What an animal will fear, desire, feel comfortable or uncomfortable about when perceiving it is determined by instinct. While instinct can be conditioned within the limits of a particular animal's nature (e.g. a dog can "learn" to fear particular people), what and how much an animal's instinctive reactions can be modified by experience is also determined by instinct, and animal, "learning," is always and only modification of instinct. The essential instinctive behavior is predetermined.
Human Emotions Determined By Learning
Human emotions are different from the animal emotions in two important respects. While human emotional reactions are also automatic and involuntary, human consciousness does not make emotions possible automatically. An animal's instinct determines what kinds of things it will fear, what kinds it will be curious about, what kinds of things it will seek. Human consciousness does not automatically tell human beings what to fear, what to avoid, or what to seek. These things must all be learned.
Most small children have no fear of animals. They are interested in anything that moves, and if the thing also happens to be warm, soft and fuzzy, they will like it. A child will not automatically be afraid of a big animal, such as a lion or bear. They must learn about the danger of such animals before they will be afraid of them. Nothing will cause us to have the emotion of fear until we have learned which things we ought to be afraid of, and which we shouldn't. (Most people do not learn this very well and therefore fear things which are harmless and do not fear some things which are really harmful.)
Human emotions are not possible until we have learned to identify the objects of perception and their relationship to us, whether those things are desirable (for food or our comfort, for example) or undesirable (like poisons or vicious animals, for example). We cannot fear what we have not learned is dangerous, we cannot be revolted by that we have not learned is evil or disgusting, and we cannot desire that which we have not learned is enjoyable or good for us.
Even after we have learned a great deal, our emotions do not tell us which things are good or bad, in themselves, because the emotions are only the reactions to whatever we think and believe is good or bad, what we have learned or failed to learn about the objects of perception. If our ideas are wrong, our feelings, reflecting our evaluation of things based on those ideas will also be wrong.
The other difference between human and animal emotion is humans have no automatic behavioral reaction to emotions. Again, human beings must learn what feelings are and what they relate to; they must learn to identify the emotions and their significance and relationship to those things they are feelings about. We cannot just avoid everything that makes us feel afraid, and we cannot just indulge in everything we desire. How we evaluate our emotions and choose which to respond to and how to respond to them must all be learned. This is especially true of those particular emotions we call our desires or passions. These are so important I have dedicated another article to just those emotions, Desires.
The Role of Emotions in Human Experience
—What are Emotions For?
The emotions provide a direct perceptual experience of the content of consciousness. While we are conscious of our thoughts intellectually, the emotions provide a direct "visceral" experience corresponding to conceptual consciousness. Making plans for something good is accompanied by feelings of enthusiasm and anticipation; thinking or contemplating doing, or having done, something we think is wrong will be accompanied by feelings of guilt or regret; thinking about someone we admire, desire, and value very highly is accompanied by feelings of love and affection; considering something evil and ugly is accompanied by feelings of anger or revulsion.
In our actual experience, we do not usually distinguish between our thoughts and their accompanying feelings and experience them as units. The feelings and the thoughts are integrated into objects of consciousness which turn abstract thoughts into concretes which are directly perceived.
Our emotions, as automatic reactions to our immediate consciousness, is the way our human consciousness enables us to directly enjoy or "physically" experience both direct perception and our conceptual identification and evaluation of the things we perceive simultaneously.
The emotions are our nature's way of converting the abstract elements of conceptual consciousness, our concepts, values, and thoughts, into "physical" experiences. The emotions make our minds, as well as our bodies, sensuous.
Since it is the enjoyment of our lives that is their purpose, the purpose of the emotions is to enable us to enjoy our lives, particularly that most human aspect of our lives as humans, our minds. When the emotions are not a source of joy, but of suffering, it is an indication of something wrong. The thing that is wrong can be physiological, but more frequently the thing that is wrong is an individual's view of life, one's values, one's thoughts, and one's choices, and the thing that is wrong with them is they are contrary to reality and dominated by unrealistic views and desires.
Control of Emotions Indirect
The emotions cannot be controlled, trained, or manipulated directly, because they are automatic and involuntary. Since the reactions we experience as emotions are determined by the content of consciousness, and we do have control over our thoughts, we can control our emotions indirectly, by controlling what we think and the content of our consciousness.
The more knowledge we have, the more our values conform to the requirements of our nature and the nature of the world we live in, the more we understand those natures, the more accurately we will evaluate and understand the things of the world, and the more consistently our emotions will be reflections of correct thinking, and the source of joy and inspiration.
Our emotional experience will be dominated by the kinds of things we fill our consciousness with, in all our pursuits whether serious business or simple pleasure. Since all of these are under our control, we can control those emotional experiences that these determine.
Emotions and Content of Consciousness
Since our emotions are determined by the content of our consciousness, our emotional life is determined by what we have in our minds. This seems obvious, but most people do not realize how important it is, and spend most of their lives filling their minds with just anything, as though there were no consequence to what they put in their minds or what they spend their time thinking about. Those same people are bewildered by what seems to them an inexplicable emotional chaos.
I know no one who has explained this better than Ayn Rand:
"Man's consciousness is his least known and most abused vital organ. Most people believe that consciousness as such is some sort of indeterminate faculty which has no nature, no specific identity and, therefore, no requirements, no needs, no rules for being properly or improperly used. The simplest example of this belief is people's willingness to lie or cheat, to fake reality on the premise that "I'm the only one who'll know" or "It's only in my mind"—without any concern for what this does to one's mind, what complex, untraceable, disastrous impairments it produces, what crippling damage may result.
"The loss of control over one's consciousness is the most terrifying of human experiences: a consciousness that doubts its own efficacy is in a monstrously intolerable state. Yet men abuse, subvert and starve their consciousness in a manner they would not dream of applying to their hair, toenails or stomachs. They know that these things have a specific identity and specific requirements, and, if one wishes to preserve them, one must comb one's hair, trim one's toenails and refrain from swallowing rat poison. But one's mind? Aw, it needs nothing and can swallow anything. Or so most people believe. And they go on believing it while they toss in agony on a psychologist's couch, screaming that their mind keeps them in a state of chronic terror for no reason whatever." ["Our Cultural Value-Deprivation," The Objectivist, April 1966.]
The Tragedy Of Emotional Determinism
The emotions, which ought to be the means to our enjoyment of life, are unfortunately for most a source torment and unhappiness. To a very great extent, that torment is the direct result of believing how one uses their mind has no consequence.
What we have in our minds is terribly important, and mostly determined by our own choices. We cannot remember what we never choose to learn or experience. We cannot develop habits of thinking about what we never or seldom choose to think about. Our minds and our thoughts will be filled with whatever we choose to learn and think about, and what we learn and think about is determined by almost every other choice we make.
Since we can only think about what we know, and only evaluate things in terms of our values and experience, those whose consciousness is dominated by seeing, hearing, and experiencing nothing but the squalid, the cheap, the tawdry and the tasteless cannot possibly think and feel in the same way as someone who has learned to appreciate virtue, accomplishment, integrity, and takes the time to pursue the highest possible values in all things, including their entertainment, and their whole emotional experience will reflect how they have used their mind.
The biggest mistake of all is getting the relationship between the mind and the feelings confused. Again, no one has ever expressed this disaster more poignantly than Ayn Rand:
"An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man's value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man's reason and his emotions -- provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows -- or makes it a point to discover -- the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them somehow -- then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he will achieve nothing but destruction -- his own and that of others." ["Playboy's interview with Ayn Rand, 1964"]
Almost every human mistake in both thought and action is the result of allowing the emotions and desires to affect one's thinking. Our feelings are our means of experiencing and enjoying life but only reason enables us to think and make correct choices.