What are the basic emotions? Why is it important for us to experience these emotions?

As drivers, most of us had experienced a surge of fear when another driver in another lane cut the line and was on the verge of crashing into our cars. Within seconds, our surge of fear activated our automatic reaction of turning our wheels so that we can avoid the crash. This automatic reaction is related to the timely activation of our amygdala to respond to threats even before our conscious appraisal of the situation. This is an important survival mechanism that has an evolutionary origin. As one of the basic emotions, fear is a primary adaptive emotion that is important for our survival.

According to Paul Ekman, an American psychologist who is the pioneer of the study of emotions, there are seven basic or universal emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, shame and surprise. These primary emotions are hard-wired in the brain and programmed us to select responses quickly for our survival. If we do not have these rapid signals, it will take us too long to appraise the situation executing adaptive responses. These basic emotions give us crucial information about our physical or social environment. For example, fear provides us critical information that we are facing some kind of danger and activates our flight-or-fight response.

Each of these seven basic emotions has associated action tendencies. These primary emotions provide signals to us and prepare us to take effective actions. For instance, when we feel angry, we feel that we are threatened and our rights are violated. This makes us to have an action tendency to be assertive in voicing out our rights and to fight against any unfairness. When we feel sad, we are experiencing a loss and this makes us to withdraw to heal ourselves or to cry to reach out for comfort.

Shame gives us signal that we did some inappropriate acts and are at risk of being rejected. This leads us to take the appropriate actions to rectify our behaviour or to hide away so that we can avoid being judged. When we feel surprised, we realise that the reality of something is out of our knowledge. We will be curious to learn more about the discrepancy so that we can be equipped with adequate knowledge.  When we feel disgusted, we know that something is toxic or offensive. This is a signal to tell us to avoid. Last but not least, when we feel happy, we are more energetic and motivated. This makes us more likely to engage in creative and satisfying activities.

There are different areas of the brain associated with our feeling and thinking. When we engaged in thinking, the brain regions associated with thinking activated. When we experienced feelings, brain regions associated with feelings activated. The information are integrated so that our conscious mind can create meaning and make decisions. In fact, research evidence showed that individuals with brain damage in the emotion center of the brain but intact cognitive functioning, are unable to make even simple choices in their life. It is because our feelings or gut feelings are even more important for us to make the final decision among different choices given our rational thinking is intact.

How can we experience our emotions? We can learn to be more self-aware of our bodily sensations. Practicing mindfulness exercise, such as body scan, can enhance our awareness of our bodily sensations associated with different emotions. To increase our emotional self-awareness, regular mindfulness practice is important. Just imagine next time when a car in the opposite lane cut the line and on the verge of crashing our car, we cannot afford not feeling our fear.

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