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Biology 202
2003 Second Web Paper
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Speaking of Happiness: The Interplay between Emotion and Reason

Kat McCormick

"And this is of course the difficult job, is it not: to move the spirit from it's nowhere pedestal to a somewhere place, while preserving its dignity and importance."

I cry. There is pressure behind my eyes, my skin turns blotchy and my lips tremble, and mucus clogs my airways, making it difficult to breath. I hate crying in front of others: not because I want to hide how upset I am, but because the second that most people perceive my emotional state as fragile, they assume my reasoning and mental functions are also not sound. The outward expression of an inward instability is something we save for those who we know and trust best. They do not view our emotionality as a weakness, they already know us to be strong. Crying is represented in our culture as a lack of control. When upset, the "ideal" is to keep a cool head (and a poker face), not allowing emotions to enter into the decision making process. However, I submit that without our emotional base, rationality would have no reason or foundation upon which to operate.

A multitude of opinions are found on the subject: are emotions more a function of the heart or of the head? According to Antonio Damasio (1), emotions and feelings are an integral part of all thought; yet we as humans spend much of our time attempting to disregard and hide them. In the view of source (2), experience is the result of integration of cognition and feelings. In either view, it remains indisputable that emotions are not what we typically make them out to be: the unwanted step-sister of our cultural sweetheart reason. Reason in our culture denotes intelligence, cognition, and control. Emotions seems such a "scary" concept to our collective mind because they can be so overwhelming, and can cause us to lose the control we are so reticent to relinquish. Consequently, the perceived division between emotion and reason has resulted in more polar divisions that we experience on a daily basis: the great schism between the humanities and the sciences, for example. However, as is pointed out by a recent NIMH study on Emotion and Cognition (3), this historical division between emotion and cognition is losing its utility as research progresses. The integration of the concepts is reflected in the interdisciplinary interest: from neurobiology to psychology, the implications are far reaching.

An early interpretation of the relationship between emotion, cognition and physiology was that of William James, who thought of emotions as results of physiological processes of the autonomic nervous system (6). According to his school of thought, first comes cognition, then a physiological response, and then an emotion. In response to an event such as the death of a friend, first the cognition steps in about what this means, then the body begins to cry, and because we are crying, we begin to feel sad. Another later theory was proposed by Walter Canon and Philip Bard. This theory (4)proposes that in response to a stimulus, a signal is sent to the thalamus, where the signal splits and goes toward the experience of an emotion and the other half towards producing a physiological response. Most modern neurobiologists do no agree with this theory, however. The question remains: what physiological structure can we pinpoint as the source of our emotions.

A recent study by NIMH study attempted to trace emotional and cognitive memory to a physical structure in the brain, and found that the amygdala has a large role in the storage and integration of both. There is much evidence that emotions and cognitive processes are in some way interdependent. One example of this is the research of Monica Luciana (3). According to her findings, spatial working memory is influenced by goals and emotional states, as she tested through the use of dopamine and serotonin agonists and antagonists. When dopamine agonists are used (emulating an emotion of happiness), subjects performance on spatial abilities test was improved. The use of serotonin agonists (emulating negative emotions) slightly impaired performance as did dopamine antagonists. In the same study, depressed patients were found to have increased blood flow to the amygdala, and therefore increased amygdala activity. In reflecting on this, I observed that many of my own depressed periods occurred at times when friends and family described me as "thinking too much." Could this be related to the over activity of the amygdala, a structure which serves as an integration center and "memory 'enabler'."? Shakespeare describes a similar experience in "As You Like It" (5), saying: "it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness."

I love. I, the self, love something in the environment around me. But this is not just some ethereal feeling, which cannot be placed or defined or seen, whih can only be felt and described by musicians and poets. Love, traditionally, is placed on an invisible pedestal, floating mysteriously above us, our rationality, our flesh. But I love. I feel weak in the knees, butterflies in the stomach, head over heels in love. Somehow, we still connect this otherworldly experience with physical sensations. And yet, we are reticent to bring love from it's abstract home into our own bodies, our own minds; afraid that if we recognize our emotion as something totally contained with our brains, something totally human, we will wake to find some of the wonder, tenderness, and luster gone. Is this also reflective of some human insecurity? Not until we can bridge the illusioned gap between our emotions and our cognition can we understand fully the relationship between our brain and our behavior.


1) A.R. Damasio, Descartes' Error, 1994

2) Thinking, Emotions, and the Brain

3) From Neurobiology to Psychopathology: Integrating Cognition and Emotion, on the NIMH website

4) Laughing out Loud to Good Health.

5) William Shakespeare (15641616). The Oxford Shakespeare. 1914. , on the bartleby website.
6 Theories of Emotion--Understanding our own Emotional Experience.

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