False thoughts and feelings: What we think and feel is not always real

Feelings sometimes defy logic

We can distinguish feelings from thoughts in a number of ways.  

Emotions (or feelings) have at least three composite parts:

  • Self-reported feelings (requiring self-analysis);
  • Observable behaviours
  • Bodily responses
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Using fear as an example, it is easy to see that emotions can be useful for survival. The innate fear that many people have of spiders, comes from the need to quickly avoid deadly spiders without delaying and thinking about it. Emotions such as jealousy are useful to encourage us to build our skill-bank; while shame helps us to develop respectable social skills. Yet it is easy to see how all of these examples can hold people back as easily as they can help us move forward.

Cognitive psychologists have conducted various studies spanning a number of years to determine whether we need to think about a situation, before we experience emotion. This is sometimes known as the primacy debate.

Zajonc claimed that emotions can occur without thought, while Lazarus argued that it is our appraisal of the situation which produces emotion. It now appears that both Zajonc and Lazarus were partially correct.

LeDoux, has discovered that processing fear-inducing situations or processing new fears uses higher brain processes and requires thought. Once fear responses are established, though, Le Doux observes that the lower thalamo-amygdala area of the brain can respond in a manner he describes as ‘quick and dirty’, meaning that the fear can over-ride the thinking process, so that the emotion can be felt without the need for thought. This faster, “quick and dirty” feeling enables us to freeze, run or fight fast. This also explains how panic attacks can set in without any explanation at all. The person may be unconsciously responding to a smell, a temperature or a situation which was present at the time the original fear was felt. Thus Zajonc’s idea of an immediate onslaught of emotion without the slower process of thought – known as the primacy of emotion over thought, although discounted by scientists such as Lazarus, has now been proven somewhat true. LeDoux observes that the higher cortical cognition (thought before emotion) is necessary in certain situations to override the immediate emotional reaction; for example where the fear reaction has been started but in fact there is no real danger.

In the "Somatic Marker Hypothesis" Damasio (2000) reveals how patients with damage only to the emotional area of the brain were found to make less effective decisions. These patients’ logical brain regions were completely in-tact and yet their decision-making was substantially impaired.

It is now clearer than ever, how beneficial emotion is to humanity, and while too much emotion can lead to over-sensitivity and avoidance, too little can lead to excessive risk-taking and put the person in danger.

Human beings process emotionally important information faster than information which does not “bother” them, so that a happy person will pick up on positive points, while someone who is anxious or depressed will notice negative circumstances and descriptions first. Psychologists now have a good understanding of how these biases can increase anxiety. Therefore we are better armed than ever before to help people overcome emotional disorders.

Further reading

Calder, A.J., Lawrence, A.D. and Young, A.W. (2001) ‘Neuropsychology of fear and loathing’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol.2, no.5, pp.352–63. LeDoux, J.E. (1996) The Emotional Brain, New York, Simon and Schuster.

Damasio, A (1996)Handbook of Cognition and Emotion, Chichester, Wiley.‘The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, vol.351, pp.1413–20.

Damasio A, (2000) The Feeling of What Happens", Vintage Press

Darwin, C. (1998, first published 1872) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (3rd edn), London, Harper Collins.

Lazarus, R.S. (1982) ‘Thoughts on the relations between emotion and cognition’, American Psychologist, vol.37, pp.1019–24.