Do emotions feel like something?

I’ve just read through a book in which several people write on topics related to the place of emotion in the philosophical analysis of experience. Each of the writers in this book seems to assume that emotions feel like something. By this I mean they are saying emotions either have qualia or something like qualia. Qualia are the what-it’s-like of sense perceptions–the “redness” of red and the floweriness of a flowery scent, and so on. So these people are all saying that just as there is a kind of “redness” quality to a sensation of red, so there is a kind of “angry” quality to an emotion of anger.

I can see that this is reflected in the language–emotions are called “feelings” after all.

Only one thing. I don’t know what an emotion feels like. So, for example, if my wife asks me, “Are you angry?” I can answer (usually) right off the bat, but the basis of my answer is not a judgment as to what sort of inner emotional sensation I am having. Nor is my answer based on some primative, non-qualitative understanding of my emotional state. Rather, my answer is based (as far as I can tell) on a quick inventory of the kinds of thoughts I’m having and the kinds of behaviors I’m exhibiting. “Hmmm… I want to hit things, I am trembling slightly, I find myself naturally tending toward incoherence of thought yet strangely able to avail myself of intensely coherent thinking if I concentrate… yes, this is anger. I am angry.” <----not as explicit as all that, but this seems to me to be the thought process, basically.

So my point is, it does not seem to me that emotions have qualities in the way that sensations do.

And my question is, what is it like for others? Do emotions feel like something to you? Is there a quality to emotion? Are there, so to speak, “emotion sensations” you have when you are feeling strong emotions?

Is this something psychologists have written about? When are children able to report emotions and what do we know about the basis upon which they make their reports? I know my three year old can accurately report when he is sad and when he is “better,” but he only ever reports sadness while he is crying so for all I know he is basing his judgment simply on observation of his own behavior.


A better link about qualia

So THAT’S what my problem is, I’m over qualia-fied! :smiley:

In answer to your question, if I understand the definition according to the links you posted, then yes, my emotions do all feel like something. In some cases, a stronger sense of “something” than a mere “red feels like red” kind of thing.

One of them, that is probably one of the strongest, is when I am confused or needing to figure out what direction my life needs to take. Often, when feeling this emotion, I also get a strong sense of a door or window being opened nearby.

I’m not sure if this is what you mean or not, but from what I gleaned from the articles, it does seem so. I hope that helps.

(it never takes me more than a tiny fraction of a second to know whether I’m angry or not! I never have to do even the shortest mental inventory :D).

I have largely come to view emotions in terms of physical sensation, but I’m not sure that’s the sort of answer you’re looking for. Experiencing an emotion – fear, for example – is all about the tightness in my chest and the trembling in my fingers. The thoughts that follow are just that – thought processes triggered by the physical sensation of fear, and those thoughts then impact and heighten the physical sensation, but the two, in my mind, are independent. Emotions are a physical, transient experience–no more, no less. The ‘‘something’’ of emotion, to me, is a movement, a pressure, a discomfort, a trembling in my body.

To add another note, emotions are pretty much universally understood and recognized, especially among the members of a given culture. The so-called qualia of sadness, anger, fear, etc. are universal, ancient, and instantly recognizable. So yes, I would definitely say emotions feel like something.

If I understand your question, do emotions only have physical components, or is there a cognitive side to it as well? Is this cognitive side also reducible to physical components?

Well that’s a huge question. I don’t know enough about the philosophy of psychology and vice versa to answer that directly, so I’ll just state what I know or think I know. I believe emotions are heavily influenced by cognitive biases. I tend to agree most with the Schachter-Singer model which is called the two-factor theory of emotion. It states that emotions are comprised of arousal modified by cognition. Emotion comes last.

I think in highly emotionally-aware people, this process of identifying emotions can become so astute that it seems as if the emotion comes before any arousal or cognition. It’s just my personal theory though, and I don’t hold much weight in it.

As for the two-factor emotion theory, here is a paper in support by Dutton and Aron. It’s a good read.

No, that’s an interesting question too, but my question is whether there is something it feels like to have an emotion. When you are sad, is there something it feels like to be sad? (A parallel question would be, when you see red, is there something red looks like? We could imagine a creature which responds to red things as red things, but which has no experientially red quality in that experience.)

In my own experience, it seems like there is nothing it feels like to be angry or sad or annoyed or whatever. When I’m angry, I know this not because of any kind of internal (so to speak) “sensation,” but rather, I know it because I recognize, so to speak, the symptoms of anger. I was wondering if this is how it is for people in general. I wondered this because I was reading a book which seems to presuppose that things are otherwise than the way I experience them.


I might be way off the mark, but are you thinking of something like this?

Several times in my life I’ve found myself checking myself for anxiety because I feel anxious, and yet I know I have nothing to be anxious about…and it will turn out that I just have a mild stomach ache, unrelated to anxiety. I get a particular kind of stomach ache when I’m anxious, so my body probably felt the pain in my stomach and turned on all the other anxiety symptoms – rapid heart beat, tense muscles, etc. – because of the association.

It’s a recurrent topic.

Me, I’d say we experience everything we do experience firsthand through a combination of emotions and sensations. Everything else is analysis OF those, including the perpetual construction and critique of a cognitive world-view that we use for that ongoing analysis.

Prior threads of relevance:

EDIT: these links kind of hop to my own posts within them. I’ll leave it that way in case for some strange reason you just want to review my brilliant thoughts on the matter…

Are emotions useful?


Should you trust your instincts? (kinda long)

Should People in the future be genetically designed to be emotionless?

What’s the evolutional reason for most feelings?

I don’t think most people experience things the way you do. At least, most of us don’t seperate the symptoms from the emotions. Like take your example of evaluating anger - those aren’t symptoms of being angry, they’re all part of feeling angry. What you’re doing is like trying to experience purple by dividing out the red and the blue that make it up.

FWIW, I was taught that emotions always include a physical reaction to some sort of input, a feeling in your stomach, increased heart beat, sweating, adrenalin level rising, goose bumps, a sudden urge to go pee… As such, I don’t think you can tell it apart from sensations, but to my mind it is different from a more permanent state of mind. I think that by definition emotions are of the fleeting kind.

Good question Frylock ! You might think I have very strong feelings given some of my posts, but about a year ago I reached a point in my life when suddenly I didn’t feel things like I once did. It was a very rough patch in my life as my wife and my family didn’t understand what I was getting at and even I had a hard time relating it to them. It is really quite simple. I just don’t feel things with the same intensity that I once did.
I still feel love, for my wife, my family and close friends but I also started feeling love for others. People I had just met, people I could see were going through pain, mental more than physical, although the sight of women and children getting hurts gives me a twinge in my stomach. It also causes me to get excited, from adrenaline, and to want to help them. It is almost one of the strongest feelings I still have. I wouldn’t even know what to call it.

Also, I don’t feel fear like I once did. When I knew I was about to fight I would get a little scared. Again a would get pumped up and always attack once I knew the threshold had been crossed between words and action. It’s like you know when it’s going to happen and waiting for the first shot to happen to you can be a mistake sometimes.

Now when I get in an altercation the fear is gone. I know it sounds crazy but I don’t know how else to say it. I don’t look for trouble, but when I see someone castigating others I speak up. It pisses my wife off to no end but I told her I’m not going to walk by when someone is getting harassed. I know from experience once a bully or thief or robber or rapist sees that you are weak and no one will help you, there isn’t anything thing to stop them. I don’t care for their type and I make it known.

I think you can see from my posts that although I can be an asshole I care for people a great deal. Some people here can’t take you at your word though and must call you a liar and attempt to either prove you to be a liar or in some cases harass you because of the fear and hatred that lives in their hearts. Even though I feel I am fair sometimes it’s hard to figure people out.

I hope you remember the advice I gave you about dealing with the people at your work. It wasn’t totally germane to your situation but the basics of what I was saying to you holds true. You can’t go wrong when you look someone in the eye. Its easy to see what’s on someones mind when your face to face. I hope you can sort through the chaff to get to the meaning of my post, friend.

Your description of how you experience emotions sounds far more analytical than what I experience, but I’d say it’s not very far from how I experience them sometimes.

A few very clear emotions are very easily identifiable: anger, terror, joy, amusement, contentment, love. These (and probably a few more if I thought about it) have distinct physical properties, and when I feel them, I know it because of the physical sensation. I don’t have to bother to try and identify it, because the identity is part of the physical sensation and vice versa.

Terror = Butterflies in my stomach, tunnel vision, explosion of adrenaline, urge to yell, urge to grab a heavy object with my hands. Everything looks sinister. I don’t feel my heart pumping until it’s over, when it’s beating violently.
Anger = Face is hot, tunnel vision, blood throbbing through my temples, focus on object of anger, urge to hit something, slow burn of adrenaline, stiffened muscles all over my body
Joy = Lightness, warm feeling in the middle of my torso, deep clear breaths, automatic soft smile, wide open eyes. Everything looks beautiful.
Amusement = Urge to laugh, lots of thoughts bubbling in my head, tightness in my abdomen, slight adrenaline
Love = Joy + focus on a person, feeling of being drawn to them, thoughts of them

These are clear as day and easily identifiable. I don’t have to search for those qualities to know what I’m experiencing or to give them a name. I just feel those sensations coalesce, and poof, I’m afraid or joyful or whatever. I would say that the sensations that make up an emotion have a distinct flavor, the same way that food has a flavor. Both french fries and pretzels are salty, but they’re easily identifiable. I don’t have to think, “Hm, it’s salty, crisp, smooth exterior, sharp when I bite it with a cracker-flavored center that dissolves. It’s a pretzel.” I taste the mystery food, move it around in my mouth, and the word “pretzel” and a picture of one just appears in the forefront of my mind’s eye. Another analogy is reading. I don’t have to look at the letters an sound them out. I just see the word “motorcycle” and think “motorcycle.”

The problem is, when I have butterflies in my stomach, an urge to laugh, and my face is hot, then I’m probably nervous and embarrassed, but it’s hard to decide which is paramount. And how to tell when it goes from just embarrassment to shame? As my emotions get more complex, identification is harder.

Quite often, giving them a name is the hard part for me. Is it anxiety or annoyance? Both? Am I just worried and angry, or am I a little guilty, too? The physical sensations are what are overwhelming, especially with more complex or conflicting feelings. With a combination of outside issues, the situation I’m dealing with, and memories, any emotionally charged situation can get a little confusing–the physcial sensations don’t always mean what I instinctively think they mean.

Anger = :mad:

On Mother’s Day, my son was visiting me, and I made tacos for lunch. I had run out of pinto beans, so I ran up to the corner store 1 block away. While I was in there, somebody started shooting right outside the (open) door of the store. Everyone inside hit the deck, or ran to the freezer room in the back. After it seemed safe, I asked the girl near me if she was okay, & then bought my beans & went home.

It wasn’t until I walked in the front door that I freaked out.

I think my nature in extreme situations of that kind is to suppress the physical responses which would let me know that I am terrified, until it’s over.

For me, there are definitely physical aspects to each strong emotion which are inextricably part of the experience of that emotion. I hardly ever get truly angry, and when I do, invariably I find that I am shaking and pacing and MUST have a cigarette.

When I am overcome with bliss (a lot more often) because it’s a sunny day & the world is beautiful, or because of a sublime dinner or the Queens Of The Stone Age, there’s a physical feeling that is harder to describe but unmistakeable. There’s a Yiddish word I like that describes it pretty well, kvell.

After the physical sensation passes, I may still technically have a given emotion; but I wouldn’t say I’m feeling it.