Where do emotions come from?

Theories of the mind can be regulatory and incorporate normative models that are used to evaluate and control.  So while theories of mind are not necessarily directly a topic of feminist inquiry, they certainly are indirectly.

The following, I have to say, is a pretty unexpected theory of emotion, at least from my point of view.  The idea is that emotions have to do with the control of sensory input.  Fear makes one much more capable of picking up cues in the environment, while disgust dampens down sensory input.

Add to this the fact that emotions are very easily shared – the sight of a frightened person can arouse fear in the viewer – and one has the interesting hypothesis that groups sharing an emotional reaction are also sharing changes in sensory experience.

Abstract from:  Nature Neuroscience
Published online: 15 June 2008 | 

Expressing fear enhances sensory acquisition

Joshua M Susskind, Daniel H Lee, Andrée Cusi, Roman Feiman, Wojtek Grabski & Adam K Anderson


It has been proposed that facial expression production originates in sensory regulation. Here we demonstrate that facial expressions of fear are configured to enhance sensory acquisition … when subjects posed expressions of fear, they had a subjectively larger visual field, faster eye movements during target localization and an increase in nasal volume and air velocity during inspiration. The opposite pattern was found for disgust. Fear may therefore work to enhance perception, whereas disgust dampens it. These convergent results provide support for the Darwinian hypothesis that facial expressions are not arbitrary configurations for social communication, but rather, expressions may have originated in altering the sensory interface with the physical world.

The authors are in the dept of psychology at the University of Toronto. The publication that has accepted the paper is about as good as one can get.

5 thoughts on “Where do emotions come from?

  1. I should add: the authors’ proposal is that emotions have to do with sensory regulation rather than being conventional items in social communication.

    They aren’t going to deny, one hopes, that emotions are awfully good at getting one to take appropriate actions. On their hypothesis, there should be some connection between actions and the sensory experience.

  2. So do emotions heighten the senses, or are emotions intensified by sensory experiences?

    Megan E. Boris

  3. I think the general lesson is that emotions result in changed sensory experience. With some you get more input and with others less. And, of course, what you experience may also change your emotions.

  4. Note, this is just about emotional *expressions* affecting sensory input, not the emotions themselves directly affecting the senses.

  5. Anonymous: interesting comment. I think the distinction is compatible with the research. Not all theories of emotion, however, draw a sharp distinction between emotions and their expression.

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