Emotions have signals

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EKMAN: Thank you very much for asking me to define emotions. (Laughs.) As you might expect, I have written about this, proposing that there are a number of characteristics that distinguish emotions from other mental states.

One is that most emotions have a signal. That is, they let others know what’s happening inside us, unlike thoughts, for which there is not a distinctive signal for the various thoughts people have.

You do not know whether I just thought about my mother, who has been dead for more than fifty years, or what I am thinking now.

When people find out that I study facial expression, they often get very uncomfortable, saying, “You are reading my mind.” I say,

“No, I can only read your emotions.” I cannot tell from the signal what caused the emotion.

If I see a fear expression, I know that you perceive a threat.

But the fear of being disbelieved looks just like the fear of being caught.

Recognizing that is important in police work. If a suspect looks afraid, that does not tell you that he or she committed the crime. Maybe, but maybe not. That was Othello’s error.

He thought his wife Desdemona’s look of fear was the fear of a woman caught in infidelity. But it was a wife’s fear of her jealous husband, who had just killed someone he thought was her lover:

She should have been afraid.

Emotions have a signal—this is one characteristic—unlike thoughts, unlike ideas. But there are exceptions.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. I really wish there was a book of emotions, a kind of ‘emotions for dummies’ idiot-proof guide. Then it would be great to use emotions are a traffic light signal or something; they’d have a practical use then, rather than being some sort of special torture of confusion and discomfort!

  2. Well we have mindfulness which allows us to focus and disconnect from emotions momentarily so we can choose to participate or not

    Next strong emotion take a step back and explore the body sensations connected to the emotion

    Good rule of thumb discount negative emotions and keep positive ones in perspective

  3. Ah yes, I do keep forgetting the whole body scan thing!

  4. The body scan when a trigger explodes starts to make friends with our nervous system

    Following our breath slowing the exhales activates our parasympathetic nervous system, the brakes, calming us

    If we can stay present, observing from a distance Ptsd loses power

  5. Making friends with our nervous system sounds pretty good

  6. It is very simple

    You sit quietly and slow your breath, let the noise pass through

    Start with ten breaths, listen for the soft inhale sound and the exhale

    Observe your breath inhale then pause followed by an exhale and completed with a pause

    It is like a sheet of music it has a cadence a flow like a song

  7. Thank you Marty, I really appreciate this 😊

  8. My pleasure

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