Who's in charge of our emotions?

Robert Labayen

Posted at Nov 01 2019 06:51 AM

I was in sitting at a wake when my mind began to wander and wonder.

“Should people give in to sadness?”

I asked because neuroscientists and biologists have established that emotions are just chemical reactions and electrical signals in our brain. They say that if we change our thoughts, we can change the chemicals that dictate our mood.

For example, we are bitter when we don’t get the attractive job offer. But if somebody tells us the rejection was a blessing in disguise because that company was in secret trouble, our gloom may suddenly change to gladness.

If emotions are changeable anyway, why do we need to have them in the first place?

The beginning of emotions

A long time ago, men and women just wanted to have sex. They didn’t know it but an unconscious drive was telling them to propagate their genes. So, everything they did was toward the fulfillment of such a goal. Man’s mind began to codify the world. Things that would ensure survival felt good while those that worked against it felt bad.

For example, glucose was the main nutrition for the body and the brain. So, man ascribed to it a pleasant taste. On the other hand, rotten food with all its harmful bacteria should taste awful.

For gene propagation to succeed, men and women pair-bonded to jointly feed and guard their offspring. That was the origin of love and of joy in the family. Up to now, we feel the comforting effect of the hormone oxytocin when in the company of the family or someone we love.

For survival, people had to hunt together and share the catch. They also needed to protect their stock from other hunting groups. This was the beginning of cooperation, altruism, fairness, camaraderie, loyalty, pride and even shame, hate, and guilt. Altruism felt pleasurable while guilt left a bad feeling in the gut.

Over the ages, the human mind divided things into what feels good and what feels bad. Even up to now, the “rational” or “intellectual” decisions we make are actually influenced by emotions. The “objective” decisions we make are subliminally chosen by what will make us happy versus what will make us feel bad.

Without emotions, mankind would have not advanced to this level of sophistication.

But Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in "How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain" that a lot of our emotions are only learned at birth and are acquired from our milieu, our culture and our personal experiences. Emotions, therefore, are not universal and the codes are not final. In effect, she is saying that what makes one happy or sad does not necessarily apply to another person because we live by different sets of preferences, beliefs, and values.

For example, one will not be devastated by a loved one’s death if their culture sees death as a necessary transition to a better life. Some cultures make people feel terribly guilty if they don’t wear the right kind of clothing. The classic theory is that men are instinctively attracted to slim female bodies because that’s a sign of good health, ideal for the propagation of genes. But in Mauritania, culture has taught people that exceptionally fat women are most beautiful.

To Dr. Barrett, emotions are not hard and fast programs installed in the human system waiting to be triggered. We are not biologically enslaved to a template of emotions.

If that is so, we can override our feelings if we just mentally step outside our current set of beliefs. Or if we change our perspective.

To feel or not to feel

Back in the funeral chapel, I pondered the idea of a world without sadness because we can always cancel it from our brain, anyway. It’s just chemicals. But a voice in my head asked, “Is it good to live like unfeeling robots then?” The voice slowly replied to its own question:

“Let us feel our emotions, sad or glad. We sometimes need to feel sad so that we will know what’s important to us. We need to feel bad in order to have a sense of outrage over wrong things done to us or wrong things happening in society.”

“We need to be sad for others because a world without empathy has no compassion. We must feel other people’s pain or it will be a selfish world.”

“But we must keep in mind that we know when and how to press the eject button. We will not go down with it.”

I was thinking about the people who are bonded in sorrow. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of "On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through Five Stages of Loss", advised we can feel our pain and anger longer than comfortable for other people but “without letting an unmanaged, ongoing depression leech our quality of life.”

Before dejection gets the better of us, we should face it and let it know who’s the boss.


Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Habits of a Happy Brain by Loretta Graziano Breuning

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett

On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life by Joseph LeDoux

Why We Feel: The Science of Emotions by Victor S. Johnston

Women in a Poor West African Country are Force-Feeding Themselves for Beauty’s Sake in the Business Insider website


Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.