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What is emotion?

M.P. González, E. Barrull, C. Pons and P. Marteles, 1998 

(This is an English translation of the original Spanish text)

Until Wukmir's work of 1967, "Emoción y Sufrimiento", nobody has been able to give a coherent explanation of emotion. All that it has been said, and it is still said, are ambiguities and hazy descriptions of its general effects. In this article, we want to summarize the contribution of Wukmir to the definitive clarification of the emotional phenomenon. We hope that a detained and reflexive reading of this article will clarify definitively the reader's ideas about something so fundamental as it is the nature of emotion. 

Approach to the emotion 

We are always experiencing some type of emotion or feeling. Our emotional state varies along the day in function of what happens to us and of the stimuli that we perceive. However, we may not always be conscious of it, that is to say, we may not know or express with clarity which emotion we are experiencing in a given moment. 

Emotions are very complex experiences and, to express them, we use a great variety of terms, besides gestures and attitudes. In fact, as good poets show us, we could use all the words of a dictionary to express different emotions. Therefore, due to the infinite extension of emotional phenomena, it is impossible to make a full description of all the emotions that we can experience. However, the usual vocabulary to describe emotions is quite reduced and so, it allows people with the same cultural background, to share them. In the following chart are shown several emotions, positive and negative. 

positive emotions

negative emotions

I feel myself... 

I feel...  I feel myself...  I feel... 
Well  Well-being  Unconfortable Discomfort 
Happy  Happiness  Unfortunate Unfortune 
Healthy  Health Sick Sicknees
Gay  Gaietty  Sad  Sadness
Strong  Strength Weak Weakness 
Accompanied Company  Lonely Loneliness 
etc. etc. etc. etc.

The complexity with which we can express our emotions makes us think that emotion is a multifactorial or multidimensional process. We always have the impression that we lack words to describe our emotions accurately. 

But under this complexity, it underlies a common factor to all emotions: each emotion expresses a quantity or magnitude in a positive/negative scale. This way, we experience positive and negative emotions in different degrees and with diverse intensity. We can experience abrupt or gradual changes of emotional intensity, either towards the positive or negative side. That is to say, all emotion represents a magnitude or measurement along a continuum that can take positive or negative values. 

In everyday language, we express our emotions with a positive-negative scale and in variable magnitudes, such as "I feel quite well", "I feel well", "I feel very well" (degrees in the positive axis) or "I feel quite bad", "I feel bad", "I feel very bad" (degrees in the negative axis). 

According to the situation in which emotion is aroused, we choose words suchs as 'love', 'friendship', 'fear', 'uncertainty', 'respect', etc., that, at the same time, show the emotional sign (positive or negative). And according to the intensity of the emotion we choose words like 'nothing', 'quite', 'some', 'enough', 'very', etc., and, in this way, we compose the description of an emotion. We say, for example, "I feel very well understood" (positive) or "I feel a little deceived" (negative). 

As a result of it, we can recognize in all emotions two well differentiated components. On one hand, a qualitative component that is expressed by means of the word that we use to describe the emotion (love, friendship, fear, insecurity, etc.) determining the positiveness or negativeness of the emotional sign. On the other hand, all emotions possess a quantitative component that is expressed by means of words of magnitude (little, quite, enough, a lot, great, some, much, etc.). The following table tries to reflect these two components of all emotions. 


Emotion as evaluation or measure of the probability of survival 

What is the meaning of the qualitative and quantitative components that all emotions have? What do our emotions measure? What does it mean 'positive' and 'negative' in our emotions? What is an emotion? 

All living organisms have perceptive mechanisms that allow them to recognize those stimuli that are significant for their survival. Stimuli that help them to obtain food, to be protected from attacks, etc. But perception only solves a part of the survival problem, because perception just recognizes the stimuli and identifies them. 

But that is not enough for living beings survival. They also need to know if the perceived (recogniced) stimuli are useful and favorable for their survival. To do so, they need some kind of mechanism to know if what they have perceived is favorable for their survival. What kind of mechanism can it be? 

V.J. Wukmir (1967) proposed that emotions are this mechanism. Emotion is an immediate answer of the organism that informs about the degree of favorability of the perceived situation. If it seems to favor its survival, the living being experiences a positive emotion (happiness, satisfaction, desire, peace, etc.), and it experiences a negative emotion (sadness, disillusion, sorrow, anguish, etc.) when the situation seems to be unfavorable for its survival. All living beings have this mechanism of emotion which guides them all the time, acting as a compass, to find favorable situations to survive (those which produce positive emotions) and to move away from those unfavorable for survival (which produce negative emotions). 

For example, when we join in a group meeting, the first thing that we make is to recognize (to perceive) the people who are in the room and almost simultaneously, we begin to experience new emotions related with the new situation. If what we feel is positive and pleasant it means that our emotional mechanism evaluates that what is happening there (business, affection, knowledge, etc.) is favorable for our survival . On the contrary, if we feel bad, restless, forced, etc., it means that our emotional mechanism believes that the situation may be harmful for us. 

This emotional appraisal is carried out by means of many diverse physico-chemical mechanisms depending on the complexity of the organism. Even unicellular organisms have simple emotional mechanisms to evaluate if a situation or stimulus is favorable or unfavorable to survive. Mammals have much more complex emotional mechanisms and their brain plays the fundamental role (lymbic system among others). 

With the development of the brain cortex, in the evolution of the neurological system, the cognitive processes play a very important role in the elaboration of emotions. In particular, the importance of theneocortex in the human species is such that, the cognitive processes determine in great measure our emotions. But the fact that the córtex and neocórtex participate in the elaboration of the emotions doesn't mean that they do it in a rational way. The elaboration of the emotions is an involuntary process, of which you can only be partially conscious. 

Often we speak about the emotional control or about controlling the emotions as a necessary ability for successful social relationships. In this case, to control the emotions means that one is able of concealing the emotions that is experiencing. That is to say, we don't have control about the emotion itself and we just can control its external manifestation. 

In summary, we want to say that by means of the emotion, an organism knows, conscious or unconsciously, if a situation is more or less favorable for its survival. The emotion is the fundamental mechanism that all the living beings possess to be guided in their struggle for survival. 

Nevertheless, any organism can make a mistake in its emotional evaluation. Any measurement process can be defective in variable degrees. The emotional mechanism, like the perceptive one, are limited and they are subject to multiple interferences, internal and external, that diminish their effectiveness. As a result of that, the experienced emotion may not evaluate properly the situation and, this way, produce serious damages to the organism. That is to say, a situation can be evaluated positively (experiencing a positive emotion), although, in fact, it may be very harmful for the organism. 

A typical extreme example of this fact are drugs. The drug is a stimulus able to deceive the emotional system producing positive emotions. That is to say, drugs make the organism evaluate the stimulus as positive for survival, when, in fact it is the opposite. In all living beings the emotional mistakes are quite frequent. Our personal experience teaches us that many lived emotions are incorrect and it is only by means of a great introspection effort that we can identify the emotion that truly reflects our reality. To know that our emotions are not misleading us is very difficult to achieve. This fact would not have bigger consequences if it were not because emotions determine all our behavior directly and mistakes place us in a position of risk. 

In summary, as all living beings are designed to survive, Wukmir defends that emotion is the result of a subjective measurement (or evaluation) of the probability of survival of the organism in a given situation or in front of any perceived stimulus. The emotion informs the organism about the favorability of each situation. We could say, then, that the emotion behaves like an intensive state variable (the total value is equal to the average of the parts). There is a correspondence between the states of our organism and the emotions. Emotions are positive when the organism aproaches a healthy state, oriented towards life (orexis) and they tend to be negative when the organism comes closer to illness and death (anorexis). But, as all measurement processes, emotions are subject to many mistakes that produce harm to the organism. 


Wukmir, V.J., (1967): Emoción y Sufrimiento. Barcelona: Labor. 


In Definition of emotion you will find a brief summary of the general bewilderment that exists about emotional phenomena.


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