Previous: When People Get Different Accents
Next: What Do Mirror Neurons Really Do?



View count:105,252
Last sync:2022-11-26 09:30
Emotions are really complicated and interesting, which is why we’ve talked about them a lot here on SciShow Psych. In fact, we’ve talked about them so much that we’ve made a compilation of our favorite emotion-related videos!

Hosted by: Brit Garner
Support SciShow by becoming a patron on Patreon:

SciShow has a spinoff podcast! It's called SciShow Tangents. Check it out at
Huge thanks go to the following Patreon supporters for helping us keep SciShow free for everyone forever:

Adam Brainard, Greg, Alex Hackman, Sam Lutfi, D.A. Noe, الخليفي سلطان, Piya Shedden, KatieMarie Magnone, Scott Satovsky Jr, Charles Southerland, Patrick D. Ashmore, charles george, Kevin Bealer, Chris Peters
Looking for SciShow elsewhere on the internet?

 (00:00) to (02:00)


Whether you love them or hate them, emotions are a big part of our lives. They shape our best days and our worst ones. They help us make decisions and they're an important lens through which we see the world.

There's a reason Disney and Pixar made a whole movie about them. But your emotions don't work like the characters in Inside Out. They're a lot more complicated and more interesting, which is why we've talked about them a lot here on SciShow Psych. In fact, we've talked about them so much that we were able to make a compilation of our favorite emotion related videos.

Of course before we jump in there is one important question we need to answer: what is an emotion anyway? Here's what researchers have found.

[Brit from past]:
Think back to the last time you had a feeling all the feels moment. Maybe it was when you finished reading this really great book about, I don't know, two teenagers with cancer who fall in love and it basically ripped your heart out and what? I'm not sobbing, you're sobbing.

Or maybe it was when you got engaged, or that day when everything went wrong. Whatever it was it gave you some really strong feelings, but how did you know what you were feeling? Feeling that something is hot or cold or a soft fluffy kitty makes intuitive sense.

You're touching a physical thing and it's going to feel a particular way. But emotions are way less straight forward. So where do they come from? Let's just say that psychologists have all the feels about that one.

Even defining emotion is tricky. Like, we all know that cold is a feeling and that it isn't an emotion the way sadness is, but it's hard to explain the difference. So one of the things psychologists have tried to do is identify a few key parts of experiencing emotion.

There's obviously the part where you feel, along with a cognitive piece, which involves being aware of the feeling. There's also something motivational, like when fear makes you want to run away from the giant hairy spider in your basement as fast as your legs will carry you.

Then there's a physiological response, like the racing heart and sweaty palms that accompanies said fear. And there's a motor response, say when you do actually high-tail it out of there. The debate is actually which of these components are part of the emotion itself and which are a cause of it or a consequence of it.

It's kind of a chicken and the egg situation.

 (02:00) to (04:00)

What causes what, and is there an order in which things happen? Over the years, psychologists have come up with a bunch of different theories about this. The James-Lange theory, proposed in the late 19th century, says that a physiological response happens when you perceive something, and the emotion is your reaction to that response.

So it's not that you cry because you're sad, you're sad because you cry. This is actually pretty similar to a more recent theory, known as the facial feedback theory. It argues that the way you're holding your facial muscles when you make facial expressions can actually cause you to feel emotions more strongly.

But... there were a lot of criticisms of the James-Lange theory. The biggest problem was that particular physical responses don't always indicate the same emotions. You can tremble from fear, sure, but also from rage or from cold.

So how do you tell which emotion is supposed to come from the physical response? Maybe you're really just super angry at that spider. The Cannon-Bard theory, which was proposed in the 1920s, was pretty much a rebuttal to James-Lange.

It argues that emotional responses are too fast to be the result of a physical reaction that happens first. Instead, it suggested that the physical response and subjective experience of emotion happen in parallel, at the same time. When you first see the spider crawling out from the corner, sensory information about the encounter arrives at your thalamus, a region of the brain involved in coordinating signals.

Then, the thalamus sends out a signal to your peripheral nervous system that triggers all the physical stuff and also sends the signal that triggers all the feels. That would explain why the physical response happens at the same time as you feel the emotion. And if they're separate signals, it would also explain why trembling when you're cold doesn't necessarily make you afraid.

But neither of those ideas – that emotions follow a physical response, or that they happen in parallel – say anything about how your actual thoughts play into all this. That's where the two-factor theory of emotion comes in – also known as the Schachter-Singer theory, after the researchers who first proposed it in the 1960s. The idea is that we use circumstances to attribute our physical reactions to certain emotions.

 (04:00) to (06:00)

Those are the two factors: your physical response and how you label it. If your heart's pounding and that spider's ominously crawling towards you, you know to interpret that as fear. But if you're heart's pounding because you've just been to the gym and there's no spider, then you're probably good.

No fear necessary. To put their theory to the test, the researchers injected people with adrenaline, then put them in situations that were either supposed to make them laugh or make them feel super frustrated and angry. Subjects who knew that the adrenaline would give them a racing heart and sweaty palms didn't report feeling any emotion, because they blamed their reaction on the drug.

But if they didn't know, they attributed feeling all jumpy to the situation they were put in, hilarious or upsetting, and reported feeling real emotions associated with those scenarios. In the decades since Schachter and Singer first proposed their idea, researchers have come up with other cognitive theories of emotion, too. Some of them aren't as focused on interpreting a physiological response.

Instead, they argue that your emotions depend on what you think the impact of a situation will be. For example, you might get angry when you judge that you've been treated unfairly. So, there are lots of different theories for how our emotions work.

But it's hard to know whether any of them can fully explain how and why we feel the things we do. Emotions are just... messy, and whatever objective measures of emotion you might want to use in experiments, like heart rate, don't always line up with what someone's actually feeling. But the next time you run into that spider in your basement, at least you'll have some idea of how your feelings might be connected to your physical response and cognition. Something to think about while you're running back up the stairs.

[Brit from present]:
Oh humans. We are so messy and complicated and fascinating. No matter how you label our emotions, one thing's for sure, they can be weird. Like, you know how a lot of people see something really cute and then want to squeeze the living daylights out of it, like cute baby cheeks or stuffed animals? Yeah, at first glance that makes absolutely no sense but it's actually something psychologists have studied and they think they know whats going on. Here's Hank with more.

When you look at pictures of cute babies or adorable little puppies,

 (06:00) to (08:00)

it can be hard to resist the urge to just, "Aww!" They're just so darn cute!

All the little noses, and big eyes, and don't you just want to pinch those adorable cheeks and eat them up? That's a pretty common reaction, but it's also really weird, when you think about it.

It's not like you'd want to hurt a baby or a puppy, but for some reason you just want to... squeeze it. Well, turns out, that weird urge probably has to do with the way we handle strong emotions. When you see something with big, wide-set eyes, a little nose and chin, and a round face – in other words, like a baby face – your nurturing instincts get triggered, whether you're looking at a tiny human or another adorable animal.

In the 1940s, Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian animal behavior researcher, called this collection of facial characteristics Kindchenschema, or "baby schema". But it applies to more than just babies – we tend to find anything with these characteristics extra cute. Researchers have found that if you manipulate these traits, like by making the eyes bigger or smaller, that affects how strongly people react and how adorable they find something.

They've also found that baby faces activate a bunch of different brain areas and circuits, including areas that have to do with feeling rewarded. So at a deep level, we're motivated to care for things with baby-like faces. Cute things might even help you focus.

A pair of small experiments from Japan in 2012 found that looking at pictures of cute baby animals, as opposed to adult animals or food, boosted people's performance on tasks like finding specific numbers in a large display. So there's some excuses for watching a bunch of cat videos when you're supposed to be studying. It makes sense that cuteness would be associated with reward and focus, because it's an evolutionary advantage to want to protect and nurture babies.

But the intense reaction to cuteness can also lead to something else: that urge to use what's called "cute aggression" – when you want to pinch chubby cheeks and squeeze adorable things, even though you don't actually want to hurt them. Showing positive and negative emotional expressions

 (08:00) to (10:00)

at the same time isn't that uncommon.

It's pretty normal to cry from happiness or laugh when you're angry. They're called dimorphous expressions, and some people experience them more than others.

Cute aggression is a dimorphous expression that involves mixing nurturing with playful squeezing, pinching, and maybe even biting. And in a paper published in 2015 in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Yale decided to explore what it is about cuteness that leads to that particular mix. They first asked 679 people to describe what their usual emotional reactions were like – say, if it was hard for them to hide their excitement, or if they cried during the happiest parts of movies.

Then, participants rated how positive and negative they currently felt to establish a baseline mood level for each person. Next, they looked at photos of babies that were either unedited, or had been enhanced to look more or less baby-like by changing the size of their eyes, nose, and chin. They rated each photo based on how nurturing they felt while they were looking at it, if they felt emotionally overwhelmed, and whether they experienced any cute aggressive urges, like wanting to pinch the baby's cheeks.

After looking at the pictures, participants rated their mood again to measure how much it changed. Then they did a word search for 5 minutes just to pass some time before rating their mood once more. The researchers found that the more baby-like photos were rated more positively, just like in other studies on baby schema.

But they also found that the cuter babies were more likely to make people feel emotionally overwhelmed and to report cute aggressive urges, like wanting to squeeze the baby. The thing is, it was usually only if people felt overwhelmed that they also felt cute aggression. Cute aggression was also related to how often people reported dimorphous emotional expressions in general.

For example, if someone said that they tended to cry from happiness, they were more likely to report feeling like they wanted to squeeze or pinch the babies, or that they wanted to eat them all up. They also found something surprising: at the end of the study, people who reported feeling cute aggressive urges were closer to their initial mood.

 (10:00) to (12:00)

In other words, the cute aggression seemed to help them cope with the overwhelming positive emotions and get back to normal.

Now, we'll need more studies before we know exactly what's up with cute aggression, but the researchers think that these mixed expressions might be one way people manage strong emotions – in this case, positive emotions. It's harder to be a good caregiver if you're overwhelmed by the cuteness in front of you, so gently pinching a baby's cheeks, or at least feeling the urge to, might actually be helpful.

It gives you somewhere to channel the emotion. So the next time you find yourself uncontrollably smiling at a video of cute kittens and you feel like you want to eat them all up, that's probably just your brain trying to keep you from being totally overwhelmed by the adorableness. So just imagine...(chewing sound)'ll... it'll help you cope, just, not eating it, just put it in your mouth.

[Brit from present]:
Wow, thanks for that visual Hank.

Honestly though it's kind of nice to know that strong emotions can be helpful. Because other times feeling things can be really inconvenient. Sometimes it just makes you want to bottle up all your feelings and then through that bottle off a cliff where you never have to deal with it again.

Expect while that would be convenient and all it probably wouldn't be good for you. Here's the research.

[Brit from past]:
Everyone feels things. And sometimes, those emotions are so strong that you just want to laugh or cry or scream.

But then you think better of it, right? Well, as cheesy and New-Agey as it might sound, it's often healthy to just let those feelings out. There's evidence that expressing your emotions – and connecting with the emotions of others – is good for you, both physically and mentally.

Bottling your feelings up might seem like a good idea at the time, but studies suggest that's not a healthy way to deal with emotions. For example, in a study of 111 people in 2013, researchers found a small, positive correlation between a person's score on an emotional suppression scale and their mortality risk – basically, how likely they were to die for any reason. It's not clear exactly how suppressing emotion might lead to your death, but it could be that it makes it more likely you'll choose "unhealthy" outlets for your feelings, like smoking.

 (12:00) to (14:00)

And other research has linked how you handle angry and hurt feelings to aggressive behavior, which is also generally not great for your overall well-being.

Aggressive and angry people are more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease and are at higher risk of heart attacks, for example. On top of that, aggression is linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression.

And while it might seem obvious that people who aren't great at controlling their anger are more likely to experience aggressive outbursts, it turns out that folks who try to suppress their angry feelings too much can also end up being more aggressive. Researchers think this might be because suppressing your negative feelings makes you feel worse in the long run, which in turn makes it harder for you to make good decisions and pushes away the people who care about you. And other studies have connected emotional expression, or lack thereof, to all sorts of things that can influence your health and relationships – like anxiety and stress or risk-taking.

And it's not just about how often you're laughing or crying – appropriate emotional expression is also about perceiving the emotions of other people. This is sort of summarized by a psychological concept called emotional intelligence. A person's emotional intelligence includes their ability to interpret and control their own emotions, as well as recognizing and understanding the emotions of others.

It isn't just a psychological concept; researchers are actually trying to study the underlying neuroscience as well. So far emotional intelligence has been connected to activity in the brain areas involved in the circuits that process emotions, like the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex. And while emotional intelligence has become kind of buzzwordy in the business world these days, unlike many fad terms, there's actually some good science behind it.

Higher scores on measures of emotional intelligence are linked to better mental and physical health. And your emotional intelligence can dramatically affect your communication with others, whether they be friends, family, or even business partners. That's because emotions provide important data and context that influence your interactions with other people, says psychologist David Caruso.

He told SciShow that emotional intelligence is an ability – basically, it's a skill that can help you communicate better. When you're in touch with your own emotions, you're not only better able to manage them, you're also better able to empathize with the emotional experiences of others. 

 (14:00) to (16:00)

Which can help you develop better relationships in business and at home.

And ultimately, that means a healthier, happier life. But not all of us are great with our feelings.

And if you're one of those people who doesn't deal with emotions well, I have some good news. While psychologists may debate whether or not you can really "get better" at emotional intelligence, research has found that training can improve your ability to identify and manage emotions.

And according to Caruso, there are definitely strategies you can use to make it easier to use emotional information when communicating. An example would be to create a list of questions to ask yourself in any given situation, to help read the emotional setting – like "How do I feel?" "Why do I feel that way?" "What is the other person feeling right now?" – and then use that information to help you make decisions. You can also work on your emotional vocabulary, and think carefully about the words you're using.

Rather than saying that you hate broccoli, which indicates a very strong emotion, try saying you dislike it instead. This prevents overusing strong emotional words, which can take away from their meaning. And as Caruso pointed out to us, sometimes it's a good thing to do a little suppressing.

Not all emotions are appropriate for all situations, and being able to navigate emotions in a social or professional setting is part of this important skill. But emotions are an unavoidable part of life; they're part of what it means to be human. So even though we're often expected to cover up how we're really feeling, research is showing that being open to your emotions and those of others can improve relationships and individual health.

Maybe it's about time we all had a good cry and started opening up about our feelings a little bit more. 

[Brit from present]:
See? Being open about your emotions isn't just something motivational Instagram post made up, it is good for you. Still that doesn't mean it's always easy. Some days it can feel like life would be so much easier if you could just not feel anything. Like forget bottling up your emotions, why can't we just turn them off and be purely logical – like Spock from Star Trek.

Well for one Spock was half human so he also struggled with emotional issues through the entire original series. But, also, psychologists are learning that the distinction between logic and emotion isn't as distinct as you might believe.

 (16:00) to (18:00)

And that's probably a good thing. Here's another one from Hank.

If you're the kind of person who, like, feels all the feels, you've maybe found yourself wishing at some point or another that you could shut them down for a little while. Like, take the emotion chip and dial it from an 8 to a 2.

It's a little tiring being the person who cries during the cell phone commercials or gets all riled up about the injustices in the world or can't get over that broken heart. So you might wish you could rely a little more on your head than your heart. But the more we study our brains, the more that kind of dichotomy between reason and emotion is disappearing.

And though you might wish you could rein in your feelings, and sometimes you can – sometimes, you shouldn't. We have a long history of thinking of reason and emotion as totally different things. Plato described them as two horses pulling us in opposite directions... and the idea hasn't really gone away since then.

We even think about our brains in those terms. Complex thought and reasoning is right there in the term we use for the brain region associated with it – the "cerebral cortex." Structures like the amygdala, on the other hand, play key roles in emotion. And that's not wrong.

There is lots of evidence to support the idea that those separate brain regions are associated with those particular functions. But it's also not as simple as that – reason and emotion are also very intertwined. Lesion and imaging studies have shown that another part of your brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, plays a role in both.

And while different sections of it process cognition and emotion, they do have an effect on each other. Several meta analyses have shown that doing something cognitively demanding – like, say, your math homework – reduces activity in the emotional parts of the anterior cingulate cortex.

It works the other way, too: strong emotion can suppress activity in the cognitive parts. And the studies and reviews arguing that our so-called "emotional" and "logical" brains are almost impossible to disentangle continue to pile up.

The fact that our feelings aren't boxed off in a separate part of our brain explains why they affect our decision making. 

 (18:00) to (20:00)

Fear and anger have been shown in particular to make people worse at negotiating for something, for example.

And a 2014 study that showed upsetting negative feedback on a test made people do worse on subsequent logic problems. But while we think of being quote-unquote "emotional" as something that makes us make bad choices or think irrationally, emotions can actually help us with judgment and decision making.

Take the case of "Elliot", a man who underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor from his frontal lobe. While his brain seemed totally normal afterwards... his life completely changed. He got fired, he made a bunch of terrible financial decisions, and he got divorced and then remarried and then divorced again.

The conclusion that the neuroscientist studying him came to was that his surgery had disrupted interactions between his amygdala and his frontal lobe. His intelligence was still intact, but he wasn't really able to feel emotions. And that made him completely incapable of making decisions.

Since he couldn't tell how his choices would make him feel later on, he couldn't assign value to different options, so he endlessly deliberated every little thing. Studies in gamblers have also found that emotions helped them avoid making bad decisions. Mistakes and failures feel lousy and the gamblers don't want to feel that way again, so they learn to make better bets.

And the idea that emotions can actually help you make better decisions makes a lot of evolutionary sense. Negative emotions teach you what not to do kind of like how physical pain teaches you not to put your hand on a hot stove. And emotions shape other cognitive processes in helpful ways, too.

They optimize which sensory information we pay attention to, guide our social interactions, and help us to remember the things that are most important. But all of this isn't to say that you don't have control over your emotions at all. Emotional regulation is a well-studied process, and there are various points at which you can step in and tell your emotions to sit down.

So yes, you can change how you feel, how intense that feeling is, and how long it lasts. 

 (20:00) to (22:00)

But... not everyone is super great at that.

A 2015 study of 176 people actually found differences between the brains of "emotional" people and more "rational" ones. "Emotional" people that tend to cry a lot at sad movies or freak out during scary ones score higher on emotional empathy measures, which basically mean they tend to actually feel what others feel. And the researchers found that people with higher emotional empathy scores tended to have more gray matter density in the insula – a part of the cerebral cortex.

While it's unclear whether that made them more emotional or whether being more emotional changed their brains... it does really solidify the idea that there are individual differences in how we feel and deal with emotions. And in general, studies have found older people control their feelings better than younger ones – perhaps because practice makes perfect. But the good news is, if you're sometimes more emotional than you'd like to be, there are things you can do both to control your emotions and to use your emotional powers for good.

For one, the timing of when you try to control an emotion is super important. So rather than trying to suppress an emotion once you're already in the midst of it, it's much more effective to reframe the way you're thinking about a situation while an emotion is forming. And this sounds weird, but talking to ourselves in the third person can give us enough distance to think about things differently.

So Hank, you should remember that next time you want to dial things back. And, framing matters too. Corny as it sounds, looking for the silver lining, or at least seeing the situation as a challenge to overcome rather than an emotional blow, can help you bounce back faster.

But ultimately, it's not always a bad thing to feel those feels. While some feelings suck, they're kind of important. Listening to your feelings instead of fighting them can help you identify what's really wrong, so you have a chance to change it.

Because emotions are not the mortal enemy of logical thought. They're just trying to help ... sometimes they just do it a little too much. 

 (22:00) to (24:00)

[Brit from present]:
From cute kittens to desicions, emotions are just trying to be so helpful.

And if you want some practice getting in touch with your feelings, have I got some tips for you. Just pull out your phone plug in some headphones and find the saddest possibe playlist on Spotify, or the most angsty one. Really the possibilties are endless. Music is known for its ability to make us all emotional. But why that's true is less clear.

Here's what we know so far.

[Brit from past]:
We all sort of know that music tugs at our heartstrings. Think of the excitement you feel at a rock concert or the lump you get in your throat when the first dance starts at your friends' wedding.

Think of that holiday music nostalgia [SINGING] The First Noel or how nice it is to dance around your kitchen to your favorite Spotify playlist. And like, there's definitely a reason that the soundtrack for a horror film is nothing like the one for a romcom. But the question of why music gives us the feels is a trickier one, and it's something psychologists have been investigating for a long time.

Turns out, this research might be so difficult because there are a whole bunch of explanations. First, it's worth pointing out that music really is universal. whether you're hearing it through your ears or feeling something like rhythm through vibrations. It's been found to be part of every known human culture, and even as infants, we react to and enjoy it.

Different cultures also seem to use similar types of music for similar things. This kind of suggests that music has an evolutionary purpose, which is something that scientists as far back as Darwin have proposed. They've suggested it could have been a kind of language before we had words, or an auditory way to convey what's usually expressed by movement.

But even if there's a good reason for why humans have embraced music, it's a little more complicated to explain exactly how it influences our emotions. It's so complicated that, for a while, some researchers actually thought that it didn't. They argued that the feels were just the result of tension being released as our expectations were met and violated by what happened in a song.

If you've ever gone "uhhhhh" at a dissonant and arrhythmic piece of modern classical music, you probably know that expectations do matter when it comes to listening to music. 

 (24:00) to (26:00)

But many researchers now argue that, while expectations might be one way songs influence us, you really are feeling emotions when an angry ballad brings you to tears.

There's a lot of evidence that, when you listen to a piece of music, something is going on in your body and brain... and that's kind of hard to ignore. For example, some studies have found differences in participants' heart rates and blood pressures when listening to happy, uptempo, tonal music versus sadder, slower, more dissonant stuff.

Admittedly, it's hard to say whether the music changed how positive people actually felt or just got them more riled up. But another study got around that a bit by looking at how music affected subjects' interpretation of facial expressions. They found that happy music made happy, neutral, and sad faces seem happier, while sad music made them seem sadder.

That seemed to suggest the music was making them feel things and influencing their perception of emotions. And a 2014 research review published in Nature found that many of the brain regions we associate with emotion -- like the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and hippocampus -- are involved when we listen to songs. So there's definitely some emotion-related stuff going on in your brain when you plug in your headphones.

But why and how those things happen is a much harder question to answer. For one, the research hasn't been totally consistent. Different studies have asked slightly different questions when they've investigated music and emotion -- like "What do you feel when you hear this?" versus "What do you hear in the music?" If you aren't paying close attention to what the researchers asked their participants, it can make the results of their studies seem confusing or even contradictory.

And then there are all the potential mechanisms for how music gives us emotions. In 2008, in a paper from Behavioral and Brain Sciences, researchers argued that there may be as many as six, including things like reflexes in the brain stem, but also more cognitive things like musical expectancy. Even though the emotions are real, they could still be caused by expectations, like older researchers thought.

Another possible mechanism is that the feelings you get from music happen via a process called emotional contagion,

 (26:00) to (27:49)

where you mirror the emotion that you hear happening in the piece. But how this happens in the brain is still unknown. And then there's the idea that your memories can have something to do with how songs make you feel.

Research has shown that melodies can evoke strong autobiographical memories, meaning that a song really can take you back to when and where and what was happening when you listened to it. So it's totally possible that by bringing up a memory, a song could invoke the emotions associated with it, rather than one that's built into the song itself. It's why that cute love song you and your ex used to like might make you feel angry or sad instead of all warm and fuzzy inside.

So yeah. There are a lot of possibilities. In that 2008 paper, the researchers argued that that might be part of the reason why we don't have things figured out yet.

Having so many possibilites – and failing to distinguish when different ones are responsible in different situations – could be muddying our overall understanding. And of course, the idea of liking music is a whole separate issue... because you totally can get pleasure out of a really sad song. It's basically Adele's whole business model.

So we don't totally know how we get from music to feels, but we do definitely know that music makes us feel things. There are a lot more questions to answer, but they're questions a lot of people care about and are looking into.

After all, music is a huge part of most of our lives, and might have also played a role in our evolutionary history. So next time you're sobbing along to the credits of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or having a spiritual experience at a Beyonce concert... well, know that you're not alone.

[Brit from present]:
This compilation is brought to you by our community of patreons on patreon. Thanks for evertything you do to keep this show going and thank you to all of our viewers for your time and support. If you want to help us make more videos like this you can go to

[Outro music]