The Science of Emotions: Understanding How We Feel and Why We Feel That Way

We all know the sensation of feeling an emotion—the happiness of an accomplishment, the fear of an upcoming deadline, the joy of a reunion with a long-lost friend. But what, exactly, are emotions, and why do we experience them? To understand the science of emotions, we must first look at the biological, cognitive and social processes that play a role in our experience of them.

What Are Emotions?

At its most basic level, an emotion is a sensorimotor and psychological process that can lead to changes in behavior, cognition, and feelings. While all of us broadly understand the concept of emotions, it can be surprisingly difficult to define what emotions really are. Emotions are made up of various components, most notably subjective feelings, physiological changes, behaviors, and cognitive appraisals.

Physiological Responses

Our experience of emotions is not just a mental phenomenon; individuals often respond to emotions with unique physiological signals. For example, many people associate feelings of anger or rage with a flushed face, tightening of the fists, and a faster heart rate. Alternatively, feelings of joy or happiness may be associated with smiling, dilation of the pupils, and a slower heart rate.

Cognitive Appraisals

Our cognitive appraisals play a key role in our experience of emotions. This process involves taking in stimuli and processing it in light of our beliefs, values, and past experiences. This information allows us to identify and attach emotions to the situation we face. For instance, if we have a strong belief system in which gambling is wrong, we may experience anger when a friend suggests going to the casino.


The behaviors we display in response to emotions can be incredibly varied. Some people may express their anger through shouting, while others might simply withdraw from the situation. We may respond to fear with flight or alternatively, fight. Regardless of the form of behavior, our behavior is typically used to either deal with the situation or bring us closer to our desired result.

Subjective Feelings

While feelings may initially seem like the most obvious aspect of emotions, they are actually the least clear element to define. This is because feelings vary widely from person to person and the same emotion can create widely varied sensations. For example, two people may both feel fear, but those fears may vary widely in intensity and sensation.

The Role Of Physiological Processes

A key part of understanding our emotions is to look at the physiological processes that occur when we experience them. These physiological processes can vary greatly depending on the type of emotion we’re feeling. Generally speaking, these physiological processes are characterized by changes in the action of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other physiological responses.

How Neurotransmitters Impact Our Emotions

Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring chemicals that are released by the pscyhe when we experience positive or negative emotions. For example, when we experience a positive emotion such as happiness, neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine will be released, resulting in feelings of pleasure and reward. Alternatively, when we experience a negative emotion such as fear, neurotransmitters such as adrenalin and cortisol are released, resulting in feelings of anxiety and alertness.

The Role Of Hormones

Hormones also play a key role in the process of experiencing emotions. As with neurotransmitters, hormones can be triggered by both positive and negative emotions. For example, a hormone known as oxytocin is frequently released when we experience positive emotions, resulting in feelings of empathy, bonding and connection.

In opposition, hormones like cortisol are released when we experience negative emotions. This results in feelings of stress, fear and alertness. In both cases, the hormones serve to help our body prepare to take appropriate actions in response to the emotion we’re feeling.

The Role Of Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system responsible for regulating the body’s involuntary processes, such as respiration, digestion, heart rate, and others. It’s responsible for maintaining the body’s homeostasis. When we experience an emotion, this system is activated, resulting in a cascade of physiological responses, including changes in heart rate, respiration, and digestion.

The Role Of Stress Responses

Stress is an emotion that can be both positive and negative in nature. In terms of physiology, when we experience stress, the body reacts through various mechanisms. These mechanisms are largely controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a part of the brain responsible for the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

The release of these hormones serve to activate the body’s fight or flight response. This response is characterized by physiological changes such as increasing heart rate, shallow breathing, and contracting muscles. These physiological responses serve to prime our body to respond appropriately to the situation we’re experiencing.

The Role Of Emotional Memory

Our experience of emotions is also shaped by our memories. Our memories allow us to store information about previous experiences, which can influence our experience of emotion. For example, if we have a memory of a negative experience, such as a traumatic event, this may lead us to feel fear or anxiety about similar experiences in the future.

The Role Of Social Constructs

Our experience of emotions is also heavily influenced by social constructs. The social script is a term used to describe the unwritten rules and expectations that guide our behavior and interactions with others. These scripts are largely acquired through our upbringing and the environment in which we live.

For example, in some cultures, it is socially acceptable to show anger in public, while in others it is not. This social script can influence the behavior we exhibit in response to our emotions, as well as the expectations we have of ourselves and others.

Understanding the science of emotions is an incredibly complex task, as emotions exist on multiple levels and interact with various biological, cognitive, and social processes. However, by examining the various components involved in the experience of emotions, such as the physiological responses, cognitive appraisals, behaviors, and subjective feelings, we can gain a better understanding of the nature of emotions and why we feel the way we do.