Why Aren’t Emotions and Feelings Constant?

Why Does My Brain Do That Preview

In this series, bestselling neuroscience author Dr Dean Burnett answers Shambles Patreon subscribers questions about their brains. A sort of neuroscientific agony aunt if you will.

Jonathan asks: Why aren’t emotions and feelings constant? For example, I have anxiety around crowded places like being on the tube, at concerts, that sort of thing. But it is intermittent. Sometimes I can get on a busy train and feel more annoyed than anxious. Yet other times I go into fight or flight and need to get off because I am hyperventilating. The situations are seemingly the exact same and yet sometimes it affects me and sometimes it doesn’t. Why can’t my brain just go, ‘It didn’t bother you on Thursday, so why is Friday different?’ Can you save me thousands in therapy in a blog post here?

Hi Jonathan.

You’ve hit upon something here that has come up a lot recently in my various outputs and efforts; the fact that our emotions and emotional reactions are not nearly as fixed or ‘rigid’ as many seem to assume.

To a certain extent, yes our emotions are reliable and consistent. You see something scary or dangerous, you experience fear. You see something gross, you experience disgust. Something really good happens to you, you experience happiness. And so on.

Roughly, this is correct. But even here, there’s a tremendous amount of variability.

For one, what’s deemed ‘scary’ or ‘disgusting’ has a heavily subjective aspect. Some people are terrified of spiders, others don’t have any worries about them at all. Some people gag at the smell of petrol, others actively enjoy it. Sure, those people are wrong, but it’s not something they can help.

Ultimately, rather than being firmly ‘hard wired’ as many seem to think, instead our emotions are, like our memories and beliefs and behaviours, constantly being updated and adapted, in lieu of the things we experience and the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Appraisal theory is a big part of emotional research. It basically means that the emotion we end up experiencing is dependent on our appraisal of the situation, and the conclusions based on that appraisal. We may also appraise the consequence of our emotional reactions, and adjust them accordingly.

For example, we perceive something as an injustice being committed against us. So, we react with anger, and behave accordingly. But it turns out that this perceived injustice was the result of you mishearing something your boss said, and furiously flipping his desk over in response has now led to many negative consequences for you. In such a situation, your brain would (hopefully) say “OK, so anger to that extent was not a helpful reaction to such a situation, I will try to avoid that next time”. And so, our emotional reactions are altered, changed.

Your question is more specific than that, though. You want to know why you have such different reactions to the same stimulus, on different days. Well, this is also within the realms of how emotions work.

You mention that you have anxiety around crowded places? Even if this is just an observation of yours and not an official anxiety diagnosis, it still suggests that your amygdala and associated fear responses have more of a hair trigger than the norm. So, it could be the case that in some instances there’s enough ‘stimulation’ in the situation to set off the anxiety attack, and others there isn’t. It can be a very fine line.

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But the thing about the whole appraisal process is that it takes a lot into account, including your current state, cognitively and physically. This is a common occurrence; we’ve all been in a bad mood and not enjoyed something that we usually would have, or even reacted negatively to it. This is a clear case of our emotional responses being shaped and influenced by our existing emotions.

But many models of emotional appraisal also acknowledge that physiological cues play an important role. In short, what’s happening in our bodies also determines how we respond emotionally. So, if you’re already in a more stressed state, or you’ve got an ache or twinge, or you’re hungry or thirsty, or whatever else, this can impact on how you respond to things emotionally. The influence of the gut over the brain can’t be overstated.

So, despite the external circumstances being supposedly ‘the same’, your internal circumstances may not be, so your emotional reactions will differ accordingly.

Of course, this isn’t even considering the constructivist approach to emotion, and increasingly-supported school of thought which argues that, rather than several hard-wired fundamental emotions, the emotions we experience are constructed anew in each scenario, based on the information our brain has access to.

It may seem unlikely or counterintuitive, but consider that everything we ‘see’ is technically our brain creating the whole visual experience from crude neural impulses emanating from our retinas. Our perception is ultimately being constructed moment by moment by our brains, so why not our emotions too?

This would mean that you aren’t experiencing the same emotion in similar scenarios, because technically you never experience the same emotion twice. Each one is created in the moment. And if those creations differ from instance to instance, that’s hardly surprising.

Hope this helps.

Dean explores the science of emotions in much more detail in his new book, out now

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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