Understanding Emotion

06/07/2015 16:57 BST | Updated 06/07/2016 10:59 BST

There is a well established myth, it starts with the notion that decision making is best when you are "not being emotional". We pride ourselves in saying " I don't let emotions get in the way when I make decisions". According to our research emotion is an essential component in how we make decisions, it is a gauge that measures our relationship between ourselves and internal or external stimuli. It is at the heart of how we make decisions, not outside of them. There is no separation between the cognitive systems and emotion.

One of the extreme examples of the non-emotional decision myth are recent societal hyperbole and fascination with the corporate prowess of the psychopath, supposedly due to their ability to feel "no emotion", specifically in relation to empathy. However we now understand that sociopaths and psychopaths do feel emotion, including empathy, but in a different way than the norm. To be human is to be a chemical being, to feel emotion is part of how we process the world around us. We are always experiencing different variations and spectrums of intensity with our emotions. So there are two qualities of emotion we need to look at to really get to the heart of how it affects our decision making, duration and intensity. How long it lasts and how strong it feels.

The variations and intensity are specific to each person, how you experience pain will be different to everyone else, your biological makeup is different to everybody else.

Let's take an example, depression. Some studies have shown that people with certain types of depression, especially those associated with anxiety, experience pain quite differently. In many cases suffering from chronic pain, which means pain that is sustained and acute. What this shows is that an emotion as conceptual as pain is closely tied to cognitive functions. In short if you are depressed you will experience pain differently.

The truth is that there are still many questions and confusion on the definition of emotion, both from the science and business communities. There is a lot more research that needs to be done to understand their full role and function, however, there is already a lot of compelling research that allows us to form a general picture on what an emotion is.

Let's return to the idea that emotion is a gauge that measures our relationship between ourselves and internal or external stimuli. We use this gauge as a tool for decision making. For example, you are sitting in a room that is at a comfortable temperature. Then your central nervous system alerts you of a temperature change. You start to feel your skin temperature change, you get goose bumps, you may cough or sneeze, your heart rate changes etc. These changes to our body, caused by our environment need a cognitive interpretation for us to make decisions about them, otherwise we would sit there, unsure how to respond, perhaps not responding to the sensations at all. So we 'feel' emotions about them, and the things we feel become tied to the things that happen to us.

In this example the change in temperature ( the stimuli) can cause you to feel uncomfortable and you decided to put on a jumper. That sense of uncomfortability would have a set of emotions ranging from annoyance, disapproval to perhaps pain. These emotions would instigate us to make an array of cognitive decisions based on their intensity, some people really hate the cold, others don't mind it, our decision is based on this emotion, and that emotion is a response to our biology.

As we already learned emotions vary in their intensity and duration. Continuing with the cold room example, if you felt was a small annoyance you might choose to put on a jumper and would continue with the action at hand. However, if the change in temperature caused pain, in your limbs or your joints, you might decide to leave, turn on the heat or take medication.

The final aspect of the emotional mechanism is its link to memory which is what links to our cognitive systems. We remember how certain things, actions, events, and people make us feel in order to make future decisions. In other words we link an emotion to a memory creating a decision framework for when we face that experience again. Back to our jumper example, next time you went back to that place, you would remember it gets cold at times. So you might decide to bring a jumper or you would decide to go somewhere else.

The point is, that emotions are part of our cognitive system, a mechanism if you like, rather than a concept. We argue that it's not getting rid of emotions that will make us stronger, it's learning how to understand them.

This post was originally posted for our members at THECUBE London and WECREATE NYC and it was edited in collaboration with Julius Colwyn, who is an artist and science collaborator.

Araceli Camargo