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Emotions: Their Origins and Definitions

mcchen's picture

             Emotions are a vital part of our lives.  They increase human interaction and allow us to express our feelings to those around us.  But where do emotions come from? How do we interpret a situation which makes us happy or sad? If the definition of emotion varies, then how does this affect the treatment of patients with emotional disorders such as depression?

            One well-known theory is the James-Lange theory of emotion which addresses the origin and nature of emotions.  It states that the human nervous system, in response to external stimuli, creates physiological events such as perspiration or muscular tensions.  Emotions then are the feelings that result after we interpret the physical changes within our bodies (1).  Therefore, based on this theory, you would start crying first and then realize you are sad.  A similar description of feelings and emotions is given by a noted neurologist, Antonio Damasio, who describes it as, “Feelings occur when the maps are read and it becomes apparent that emotional changes have been recorded—as snapshots of our physical state” (3).  This means the terms “emotion” and “feelings” are used to illustrate completely separate actions, whereas in speech we normally use the two words interchangeably.  Emotions are the physical changes that occur in our bodies; after our nervous system interprets them, it is then that we experience a “feeling”.  Damasio is in favor of this theory but he also believes that not all feelings need to have a physical origin.  One such emotion is sympathy (3).  When we feel sympathetic, we are essentially trying to imagine the pain a certain person is going through.  So instead of an external stimulus affecting our feelings, internal stimuli can affect them as well. 

            What is intriguing about the James-Lange theory is that it does not mention anything about the expression of feelings and how that could affect how we feel.  Certain English psychologists claim that emotions are not only reinforced by their corresponding facial expressions, but may be the driving force for emotions all together (4).  There was a study done in which 25 women were given an anxiety and depression questionnaire.  Half of the women were given botox injections and half were not.  The researchers at University of Cadiff found that the botox recipients felt happier than their non-botox counterparts after the questionnaire.  This led researchers to speculate that if the ability to frown is taken away, then the recipients are on average happier people.  Personally, I feel that the women who received botox injections could have been slightly happier due to the fact that they just received free botox.  Researchers accounted for the psychological boost the injections could bring and said it was not present since none of the women who received botox injections felt more attractive afterwards.  These observations on how the expression of a feeling can control the emotion behind it make me question the validity of the James-Lange theory.  Does this mean that instead of crying and then realizing you are sad, the order should be frown first, then cry, and then realize you are sad?  Would facial expressions be applicable as a certain stimuli for the nervous system? If so, where does the stimulus for a facial expression originate?  It is amazing how many different aspects of our bodies can control the emotions and feelings that we exhibit everyday.  Maybe one day we will be able to find out what really causes an emotional response.

            With these two separate ways (and various others) of interpreting emotion, I feel as though treating emotional disorders would be difficult since the origins of the feelings we exhibit have not been precisely defined.  Based on the James-Lange theory, does this mean that a patient with an emotional disorder, such as depression, exhibits constant physiological stimuli which cause sadness, anger or anxiety?  And if facial expressions determine our feelings, then why can’t depressed patients just smile all the time and make themselves feel happy?  Clearly there are other factors to consider when treating depression.  The most common methods today are medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both.

            Since the James-Lange theory of emotion describes feelings as the result of physiological effects, antidepressants should be the best at relieving the symptoms of depression.  Antidepressants affect the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine.  These neurotransmitters are responsible for regulating moods but after they are released, neurons take them back in until they are needed again.  So the way some antidepressants work is by preventing the reuptake of those neurotransmitters back into the neuron; then hopefully a patient’s mood can be altered for the better (2).  While this method of treatment seems very straight forward and targets the physiological aspects that control mood, I feel that every patient with depression had different reasons for developing depression.  The medication approach of depression treatment seems to lump all depression patients together.  But as with most medications, antidepressants can relieve the symptoms of depression for one person but not affect another. 

            If the expression of an emotion is ultimately the driving force for the emotion, then it would seem that psychotherapies would work better than medication.  In general, psychotherapy is supposed to help patients understand why they developed depression in the first place, and to help them prevent future episodes (2).  Talk therapy is meant to aide patients in understanding themselves better and to hopefully change their outlook on the world (2).  This form of treatment seems more individualized and catered toward each patient differently, giving them the attention they deserve.  I believe that the mind is a powerful thing.  It can hinder our performance or help us excel, we just have to learn to think positive thoughts and not be so critical of ourselves.

            When determining which method of treatment is preferred, both have their importance to certain patients.  I don’t think one treatment is necessarily better than the other, but on some patients both treatments fail to work.  With ongoing research of emotions, I feel that there will be better treatments in the future. I understand that there is currently no “cure” for depression, only certain preventive measures patients can take to avoid episodes later on in life.  Will a cure ever be found? What if a large part of “curing” depression is being able to change the way you think? Then would medications be useful at all?  Hopefully one day, we will finally understand the basis of emotional disorders and be able to treat everyone of them. 



2. Hollon, Steven D., Michael E. Thase, and John C Markowitz. “Treating depression: pills or   talk.” Scientific American 2004: 14 35-39.

3. Lenzen, Manuela. “Feeling Our Emotions.” Scientific American Mind April/May 2005: 16 14-15.

4. Wenner, Melinda. “Smile! It could make you happier.” Scientific American Mind Sept/Oct 2009: 20 14-15.



Nontembiso's picture


hey could you please help with citation, how do you cite this information

Ann Dixon's picture

citation in APA style

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Serendip Visitor's picture

Sadness versus happiness

Sadness appears to be universal.People share more sadness than happiness.As both happiness and sadness are only emotinal feelings and not realities as is evidenced when we see movie motivation and will power can neutralise the effect provided one wants it.In other words happiness and sadness are relative realities felt in the mind the seat of imagination. Going beyond mind dispels the ignorance on emotional feelings exposes the TRUTH or reality of life which is nothing but awareness or consciousness or LIFE. All our problems are because we are consciously unconscious.who can awaken a conscious man or woman?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Sadness and the body

Maybe either frowning or crying or both could constitute bodily expressions which in turn cause sadness?  And maybe, as per Damasio, one can also generate sadness from within the brain, with or without a prior bodily expression?  If there are a lot of different factors operating to different extents in different people and/or different times, that might help to explain why particularly pharmacological agents are sometimes effective and sometimes not, no?