What emotions do everybody share? [All Ages]
Are there any emotions that everyone experiences, no matter where they are from?
Present the audience with each of the following pictures in turn and ask them to shout out what each of the emotions is displayed on the person’s face.
There are thought to be six basic types of emotion – anger, fear, surprise, happiness, sadness and disgust. Point out to the audience that they had no difficulty recognising them even though the people are all from different places in the world. These emotions are triggered without your conscious control (although as you get older you can get better at hiding them). Most basic emotions are related to our primitive survival instincts.
Q: What are emotions and why do we have them?
A: Emotions are signals to our bodies that act like the fuel to motivate us to take some form of action. They can affect our breathing, our pulse rate, even how we digest our food. They are states of the body that prepare us to do something. This explains why emotions are often associated with all the really important things we have to do to survive as a species. If you think about it, we need to find food, drink and shelter. We need to avoid danger. We need to breed and we need to look after our children. Each one of these activities involves emotions and feelings.
Q1. What is the difference between an emotion and a mood?
A1. An emotion is usually an uncontrollable reaction to something whereas a mood is a longer term state that arises from that initial emotion. For instance, you might feel frighted (an emotion) and then afterwards feel nervous (a mood) for a long time.
Q2: Where in the brain do emotions come from?
A2: Emotions are generated in the limbic system which operates mostly unconsciously.
As far as we are aware, humans are the only animals that cry with sadness. Nobody is entirely sure why we cry but we do know that crying can wash away some of the natural chemicals that make you unhappy. This might be why people often feel a lot better after crying even though the situation hasn’t changed. Crying might also be an honest plea for help because it is very difficult to pretend to cry believably.
What emotions do we learn from our parents? [All Ages]
Are emotions learned or evolved?
Play the following video and ask the audience what they felt when Bruce drank out of the toilet. Ask them to mimic the sort of face they pulled.
Most people experience a sense of disgust when they see Bruce drinking out of the toilet even though he explains that it is a completely new toilet that has never been used. This is because we have learned to associate toilets with going to the toilet so that emotion overwhelms the logic of us knowing that there is no danger.
Disgust is an interesting emotion because, unlike anger, fear, surprise, happiness and sadness, disgust is the only one of the 6 basic emotions that doesn’t seem to be experienced by babies. Its not until around their second year that children begin to find things disgusting.
Q: If we don’t develop disgust until 2 years of age, does that mean that we are learning what to be disgusted about?
A: Yes, one reason that disgust may have evolved is that it is a useful way of signaling to others what is safe to eat. This is because humans are omnivores and can eat many different things. One theory is that it is important to learn which foods are safe and which may be potentially harmful. Children use adults as their foodtasters! For instance, in the West we don’t normally eat insects and find the idea disgusting but in other countries insects are highly prized because they are rich in vitamins and protein.
How do emotions spread from one person to another? [All Ages]
Can you catch other people’s emotion?
Play the following video to the audience and point out that when we watch videos of painful things happening to other people we often feel a twinge of concern or pain on behalf of the person in the video even though we don’t know them and are not experiencing what they are.
Emotions such as laughter, crying and pain can become contagious as we empathize and share mental states with others. We literally experience some of the unpleasantness of other people’s suffering by putting ourselves in their shoes. This is why moments of extreme negative emotion, such as when someone is in pain, can be almost unbearable to watch.
Q: What is happening in the brain when we empathise with someone else’s emotion?
A: One reason that emotions and behaviours seem to copy is that we have a circuitry of neurons only discovered fairly recently called the “mirror neuron” system. Within our brains are areas that control movements called the ‘motor areas’. There are around 1 in 10 neurons in these regions that seem to respond to watching other people’s movements as if we are mirroring their behaviours. What is remarkable is that it is not the actual movements that we mirror but the intended goal. For example, if I watch you activate a switch, the same mirror neurons would fire whether you used your left or right hand. It is the goal and not the actual movement that is registered in the brain.