An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2006

Making sense of emotion: evolution, reason & the brain

Arne Ohman
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Arne Öhman is professor of psychology in the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet. He has published close to two hundred journal articles and book chapters and coedited three books, including “Psychopathology: An Interactional Perspective” (with David Magnusson, 1987) and “The Structure of Emotion: Psychophysiological, Cognitive, and Clinical Aspects” (with Niels Birbaumer, 1993).

We often define the basic goals of human striving in terms of emotion: we yearn for happiness and do our utmost to avoid misery.1 But making the distinction between positive and negative emotions is not as simple as saying that we seek the former and shun the latter. Emotions often have a will of their own and may resist attempts to be disciplined. Victims of wartime atrocities and natural disasters, for example, may unwillingly suffer from involuntary flashbacks in which they re-experience the trauma, eliciting intense fright that threatens or undermines adjustment. But some individuals–such as journalists, photographers, and Peace Corps workers–are willfully drawn to those very fear-ridden circumstances, not to mention people who find their (sometimes compulsive) joy in activities most of us fear–parachute jumping, mountain climbing, or extreme skiing. Likewise, our lives may become devastated by the prototypical emotion we all desire, passionate love, and we may ruin our health with the delights of food and drink. Still, for most of us, life without emotion would not be worth living. But at the same time, others have regarded emotion as a dark, alien force to which we helplessly succumb, to our own detriment.

Clearly, emotions resist simple interpretation. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the conflicting nature of emotion in light of modern research in psychology and neuroscience. I start with some philosophical considerations that lead to a conceptualization of emotion that ties emotion to the body via evolutionary biology and neuroscience. I then review how contemporary science has addressed some of the classic questions of emotion research.

The conflict-ridden nature of emotion has been evident throughout recorded intellectual history. Almost 2,500 years ago, at the birth of Greek philosophy, Demokritos said that we need wisdom to cure the mind of emotion the way we need medicine to cure bodily ailments.2 This idea was central to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophical movements, which predicated their notions of the good life on the insight that we are disturbed not by things themselves but by what we make of them. Reason tells us that we need not fear death because we shall not be there to experience it. We should enjoy food, drink, and intellectual exchange in the context of cultivating friendship. But we should not let emotions associated with insatiable desires for ephemeral things–such as wealth, fame, and power–seduce us. In contrast, the early Christians did not trust the power of reason to control emotion, but made a handful of problematic emotions central to the deadly sins (the committing of which did make death something to fear): avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, indifference, pride, and wrath. . . .

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  • 1This essay was completed while the author was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California.
  • 2This part on the history of emotion is very much inspired by Keith Oatley, Emotions: A Brief History (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).