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10 Odd Scientific Facts About Emotions

by Mike Floorwalker
fact checked by Jamie Frater

While emotions can seem like the most un-scientific part of the human experience, it’s well established that science has a pretty decent understanding of how emotional responses are produced. Certain areas of the brain light up when subjects are exposed to emotional stimuli, causing the assigned glands to secrete certain compounds that produce specific emotional states—it’s pretty simple brain science (as opposed to rocket surgery, which is much more complicated).

In fact, the more that the scientific community studies the role emotions play in human behavior and development, the more it appears that that role was exceedingly vital in our evolution—and that emotions are even more complex, if not quite as mysterious, as we’ve always believed.

10 Negative Emotions Can Be Beneficial


Our culture insists that positive thinking is crucial (and negative thinking, therefore, detrimental) to achieving our goals and enjoying our lives. As with many ingrained cultural attitudes, however, this turns out to be a bit simplistic.

Recent research has suggested that the ability to successfully process negative emotions and thoughts is not only healthy, but key to mental health. Indeed, negative thoughts play a vital role in helping us to understand and assess our experiences, and attempting to supress or ignore them can end up having the opposite of the desired effect. Moreover, past studies showing that people who think more positively are healthier haven’t proven any causation—that is, it may be that health leads to positive thinking, not the other way around. Some, like psychologist Martin Seligman (author of a book on the subject), have even suggested that excessive optimism may “sometimes keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity.”

Which is not to say that lingering bad moods and a general negative outlook are good for you—it’s the ability to acknowledge and process negative thoughts and feelings that is thought to actually lead to a more positive outlook on life. So while some say that forcing a smile will eventually make you feel happy, this may not always be the case. Just don’t try forcing a frown instead, because . . . 

9 They’re The Hardest To Fake


Most of us probably think it’s pretty easy to spot fake cheer, and all of us have been guilty of feigning excitement over something at some point in our lives (like, say, last Christmas). But have you ever tried feigning anger? How about sadness? Most of us don’t ever really find ourselves in circumstances where it’d be necessary to do so, and it turns out that’s a good thing—those are among the hardest emotions to fake.

The reason for this seems to be the conflicted nature of these emotions. For example, the quivering lip is associated with sadness and happens because two sets of muscles are pulling your face in different directions, with one part of your brain attempting to open the floodgates and another attempting to control them. Other negative emotions, like anger and fear, similarly cause tension between competing sets of muscles—or involuntary reactions of muscle groups that we have less control over (like the forehead and eyebrows).

Body language also plays a part in emotional expression, and positive body language (expressed when we feel confident and in control) is simply easier to duplicate than negative body language. Finally, the physical indications of emotional distress (like goosebumps, sweat, or tears) are practically impossible to produce on demand. Even professional actors have a hard time with it.

8 Sarcasm Makes You Smarter, More Creative

Sarcasm MEter

If your response to the title of this entry was “yeah, right” then congratulations. It turns out that the mental gymnastics required to successfully process sarcasm are of the very type that extremely smart and creative people must employ on a regular basis and that regular exposure to it can increase creativity and problem solving.

A 2011 study shed some light on why this is. Essentially, while a straightforward remark requires only basic comprehension, sarcastic remarks require multiple levels of comprehension—that is the listener must bear in mind the experiences, viewpoints, and biases of whoever is speaking and assimilate the information into the analysis of what’s being said. Also, since these types of remarks “echo .nbsp;.nbsp;.nbsp;established beliefs or social norms,” they stick with us longer and are more relatable.

This is important, because you may have noticed that sarcasm permeates our society. According to a different study, the phrase “yeah, right” was used sarcastically 23 percent of the time it was uttered. Also, it was found that the use of sarcasm soared when the conversation was taking place by computer, which we simply can not believe.

7 Emotions Might Help Predict The Future


A Columbia University study recently pointed to what they called the “Emotional Oracle Effect”—the phenomenon that those who trust their feelings are quite a bit more likely to accurately predict the outcome of future events. And not just any future events: as controls, the study used eight more unique studies involving a wide variety of events, including the 2008 US presidential election, the winner of American Idol, and the weather. Yes, the weather.

The study’s authors speculated that those with a high level of trust in their feelings seem to have access to what they called a “privileged window” into subconscious stores of information. This suggests that the emotional system may be capable of higher-level decision making and information processing than previously thought—that emotional impulses may be related to more than just survival, and are key in how we organize information.

Strangely, the opposite effect was not found. Subjects with low levels of trust in their feelings didn’t do any worse than those who were neutral on the subject. But those who trusted their gut did significantly better, whether they were being asked to predict how the Dow Jones would do next Tuesday or what movie would top the box office this weekend—apparent proof that cold rationality does not always make for the most accurate analysis.

6 Dreaming Helps Ease Painful Memories


While we sleep, our brains are still very active processing data, repairing connections, and (for some reason) producing inexplicable mind-movies about your Aunt Pat and that scary guy from the movie Machete. The refreshing qualities of a good night’s sleep go way beyond your mental faculties, though—it’s been shown that a good amount of quality REM sleep is critical in recovering from traumatic experiences.

During this type of sleep, the production of stress-related hormones decreases severely. Neuroscientist Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley, co-author of a study on the subject, believes that the brain’s processing of painful memories without the presence of these chemicals enables their emotional sting to be lessened—the memories become more factual, less immediate, and therefore less painful.

This is bolstered by the fact that reducing these hormones through medical means has been shown to assist in recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—at one Seattle veterans’ hospital, a blood pressure drug with this unintended side effect caused improvements in patients’ PTSD symptoms. Says Walker, “We’ve heard all our lives that if we are troubled, we should get to bed. We’ll feel better tomorrow.” But there’s never actually been scientific evidence to support that, until now.

5 Animals Have Emotions, Too

Sad Kitty

As children, we freely ascribe emotions to animals, and we’re encouraged to. And not just our pets (although they love us, of course)—kids’ literature and movies are full of talking, laughing, singing animals of all types, from dogs and cats to pigs and cows. And that’s where it gets troubling, because at a certain point we realize that we are eating those pigs and cows, and the notion that they would have human-like emotions becomes horrifying. Unfortunately (unless you’re a vegetarian), it seems more and more likely that animals do indeed have feelings (mostly) like us.

One emotion is particularly easy to spot in the animal kingdom: grief. Grieving behavior is widely varied, with one common thread—it does not seem to provide any evolutionary advantage. Grieving animals tend to deviate from established behavior; some stop eating, some leave the pack for days at a time, some return to the carcass to protect it from scavengers. Since the behavior doesn’t seem to come from an instinct for survival, or indeed serve any purpose at all, it can only be surmised that animals exhibit grief for the same reason we do: lost love.

If you are reading this article while having lunch, we’re sorry for screwing up your BLT.

4 Emotions Dictate Our Sense Of Morality

Right Decision, Wrong Decision Road Sign

It may seem intuitive to think that our sense of morality dictates our emotional response. That is, we know that hurting people is wrong, so when we see somebody hurt, it makes us angry or sad. Science, once again, is now suggesting that we have this completely backward: it’s not morality that dictates emotions, but our emotional response that shaped our morals.

Basically, researchers found that when presented with an image of one person injuring another, two different areas of the brain lit up before the one associated with morality-based decisions. The first (known as the TPJ area—we’ll spare you the long version) immediately evaluates whether the act was intentional; the second, the amygdala, is associated with emotion. Only after the image was run through these filters (within about 250 milliseconds) did the “morality center” of the brain kick in.

This helps to answer an age-old question in philosophy: do we believe that, say, striking somebody in anger is wrong because we are taught that it’s wrong? Or do we intuitively know that it’s wrong, from the emotional reaction that’s produced when we see it? It appears to be the latter, which we must say is a much more comforting view of human nature than the alternative.

3 Sense Of Smell Directly Affects Emotions

Woman holding an orange

Memories almost always occur to us (at least at first) as images, and there’s no denying the emotional impact that images can have. Likewise, we all know the response that a favorite (or not-so-favorite) song can produce. It’s surprising, then, to know that the sense most directly tied to the emotional center of the brain is the one we associate the least with emotion: smell.

One reason for this is that olfaction bypasses all of our brain’s filters. While visual, auditory, and tactile messages must be processed by our various sensors and herded through the thalmus, smells have a direct path to the olfactory cortex within the brain—specifically, within the amygdala (that place again), where emotions originate. Another has to do with the primitive nature of the sense: while we no longer rely on it the way our ancestors did, scent-based memories tend to cement themselves in the brain in ways that memories associated with other senses do not.

This is why certain smells can provoke such strong emotional reactions in certain people, even if they are not aware of the reason why. Scent-based memories can be created and stored very, very early in our lives—early enough to precede significant intellectual development—and retain their power much longer than other types of memories.

2 Controlled Exposure To Fear Can Make You Stronger


At a gigantic recruit training command center in Illinois, the Navy destroyer USS Thayer sits in a 90,000-gallon tank. Its purpose is to be under constant assault. Every year, thousands of recruits are subjected to hundreds upon hundreds of drills. They’re extremely realistic drills with one stated purpose: to scare the hell out of the participants.

“This is supposed to feel real,” says Michael Belanger, a Navy psychologist. “This is supposed to scare the recruits.” The idea is that with controlled exposure, the recruits will become more resilient soldiers who are better able to trust their training in high-stress situations—and it appears to work. By conditioning the fear response to kick in appropriately, make a risk assessment (while not clouding thinking), and subside when the danger passes, researchers may be helping not only to create more efficient soldiers, but also to negate the worst mental and emotional effects of war.

As an added benefit, research of this type may one day help to develop screening processes to identify those who are not mentally or emotionally suited for combat. Says neurobiologist Lilianne Mujica-Parodi: “You wouldn’t accept someone in Special Forces if he had weak legs. Soon we’ll be able to screen people for emotional weaknesses. A person with an incapacitating fear response is a danger to himself, his team, and the mission.”

1 Love Doesn’t Work Like We Think


Finally, here’s psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of UNC Chapel Hill. She’s spent quite a bit of time studying the nature of love, and she thinks she knows what it is: a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.” That does not sound particularly everlasting, nor does it sound like the answer Foreigner was looking for.

But what she’s really saying is that love is something we experience continually, on a daily basis, on a much smaller scale than we’ve been trained to think—that there are “smaller ways to experience love.” And that when we experience these “micro-moments,” our brainwave patterns sync up with the person we’re experiencing it with—even if it’s just the guy in line at the bank. Biochemically, it is this response within our bodies that defines love. The feeling of romantic love for another person, however, is due almost completely to the chemicals vasopressin and oxytocin.

To put it as simply as possible, sex stimulates the release of these chemicals in both humans and animals. The more receptors for these chemicals that are present in the brain centers controlling rewards and behavioral reinforcement, the more likely those animals are to exhibit monogamy.

That’s right, it appears that Robert Palmer had it right all along, and we might as well face it: we’re addicted to love.

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Mike Floorwalker

Mike Floorwalker's actual name is Jason, and he lives in the Parker, Colorado area with his wife Stacey. He enjoys loud rock music, cooking and making lists.