AskWhy: Why do I have emotions? What are emotions anyway?

AskWhy: A series that does just that. It asks curious questions that might have a scientific answer or might not. It doesn’t present much in the way of science, but asks if science might provide an answer. If you know the answer to an Askwhy topic, please post it!

What are emotions?

Oh, I’m sure there are studies and research out there that try to explain the evolution of emotions, but this is AskWhy, so let’s just ponder this question in a vacuum for a change.

I can’t help but think that emotions are an evolutionary response to help us survive and propagate.

But at what point along the slow mutations of history were instinct and reaction replaced by emotion and consideration?

I’ve heard in recent years about various animals that display emotional characteristics: chimps care for the elderly, dolphins play, and whales that have names. It’s all very fascinating, but what are they for?

Okay, let’s cover the obvious first…

1. Survival: You’re outside. It’s dark. You haven’t had a bath all day. Green eyes glow in the bushes. You left your club at home. My big quandary here: is fear a necessary part of this equation? What part of, “Get your ass outta there,” don’t you understand?

2. Propagation: You walk down to the local watering hole, a nice muddy pond near the community caves, and there, bathing before you, is a glistening example of a luscious homo sapien. Now this is an interesting one…do you feel lust? Is lust an emotion or an instinct? I’m splitting hairs, but it’s what separates us from the animals, right? Okay, so you’ve screwed your head back on. You feel…nervous? anxious? happy? excited? hopeful? What a flood! How did these evolve from primate instincts?

3. Defense: Now, say for the sake of argument that you’re a caveman (since that’s what I’d happen to be), and your rival Grok walks up to this fine specimen, flaunts a few shells, flexes his muddy biceps, shows off a saber-tooth (which he actually found lying near a dead mammoth, but she doesn’t know that), and what happens to you? The blood rushes to your head. You can’t think straight. All of a sudden you feel…angry? threatened? dejected?

4. Enjoyment: Well turns out Grok wasn’t her type, too self-centered. So you two get married! There’s a big celebration. Someone brought some fermented vegetable broth, and everyone’s having a good time. Everyone’s…happy? content? joyous? satisfied? hopeful? gracious?

WHOA! Where did all these emotions come from? Are emotions quantized? Can you count the number of emotions that exist? Or do they exist in a spectrum? A continuous range of different emotions? I don’t mean different levels of “happiness” — I realize there are ranges of intensity — but what about actual discreet emotions?

How many different kinds of happy are there? How many different kinds of sad? WHY are there so many? Is it a function of the complexity of the brain — an intrinsic function? Or does each different emotion serve a purpose?

I don’t know.

But all I have to do is forego my morning coffee and we’ll have a controlled experiment to find out.

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