Basic emotions

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Q.  Why do we have emotions?
A.  To help us interact more effectively with other people around us.

The basic emotions arise from the Limbic brain, and have supported the evolution of the human species for tens of thousands of years.  The evolutionists would argue that their function is to help us mate and rear young more effectively, thereby helping the survival of the species.

There is no universal agreement on what our full range of emotions are.  Paul Ekman’s research was based upon facial expressions.  Some of the motor nerves responsible for control of the facial muscles are under unconscious control, and the expression of the most basic emotions can be observed this way.

Basic emotions


Different authorities recognise anything from 4 or 5 basic emotions to three or four pairs.  This list usually includes:

  • Joy, with its opposite Sadness.  Joy is to move forward and do more; sadness is stopping and clarifying, and doing less.
    Happiness is usually distinguished from joy; happiness being a feeling based more on thinking whereas joy is a purer form direct from the limbic emotion – but the distinction is subtle.
  • Fear, with its opposite Anger.  Fear is protecting; anger is attacking.
  • Surprise, with its opposite Anticipation.  Surprise causes us to stop and look or back away; anticipation causes us to move towards.
  • Trust, with its opposite Disgust.  Trust is connecting with others; disgust is rejecting others.
    I don’t classify trust and disgust as a basic emotion as I believe that it requires a degree of thinking and evaluation using a value system and moral emotions in our conscious brain.  There is, however, “gut feel” type of trust.

I am going to work with just five base emotions that originate in the Limbic brain.


I define surprise as the first and most basic emotion.  Surprise results when a difference is detected in our immediate environment. Simply a change in state affecting our homeostasis.  It may quickly turn to fear (run away) or anger (attack), but the first and most basic event is sensing a change our the surrounding conditions.  If there is no immediate danger or crisis to deal with, this base emotion of surprise can be passed on to the higher brain in the form of curiosity or seeking of knowledge or understanding.  Curiosity is often considered to be one of the fundamental human desires, and is also seen as an instinctive response in some animals.  Observe a young kitten exploring its environment.  It is the same with us – at first everything was new and exciting (check out the Logical Song by Supertramp).  I propose that the pure emotion of “surprise” is a great start to a spiritual journey.

Joy/Sadness and Anger/Fear

There are two pairs of other base emotions.  There are really just two forms of response, with positive and negative forms of each.  There is the Anger/Fear axis, and the Joy/Sadness pair.  The decision is made by the Amygdala, and it communicates directly through the Hypothalamus to release hormones into the body which results in physiological changes taking place relatively fast.  Switching on anger (attack) or fear (run away) results in adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol being released by the endocrine glands.  The joy/sadness axis results in an increase (joy) or decrease (sorrow) of hormones such as serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin.  The amygdala also has the ability in emergency situations to cause evacuation of the bowels, but that doesn’t happen very often.  In our usual interactions in normal situations and with people around us, there is relatively low hormonal response.  Many of the “emotions” we experience are the result of thinking in the conscious brain and may or may not be fueled by the limbic brain.  We will discuss this in more detail below.


Some authorities list Love as a base emotion, but this is not correct.  As Tina Turner says, love is a second-hand emotion.  Love is a combination of Joy + Trust, and Trust requires making judgements and considerations in the higher brain lobes (eg vmPFC).

Gut feelings

It is useful to distinguish fear from intuition.  This is in the context of when you have a feeling about something and you really don’t want to do it, but it can be hard to explain why.  Fear normally has concerns about the past or a future event (this can be based on an unconscious memory); you may feel restricted, and may be very anxious or emotional.  You have asked me to do something and I am reluctant to do it because of something I have heard or previously experienced.

Intuition is quite different; usually you are calm, very much in the present, and there is just a feeling or knowingness without any associated thinking.  Intuition is almost always right, and you should listen to it and follow its advice.  It may actually be coming from the gut (Enteric Nervous System) as many people say “I have a gut feeling“.  The unconscious Limbic brain is linked through the parasympathetic nervous system to the ENS (gut), where the unconscious brain is able to express itself.  It is otherwise quite difficult for the unconscious brain to tell the thinking brain something.

Fear is initiated by the Limbic brain and is amplified by the thinking brain.  With practice you can learn how to overcome the fear.  

Follow your intuition, and overcome your fears.

Contrary to what I said about trust above, you can have a gut feeling or intuitive feeling about trusting a person.  That is different to trusting someone in the context of gaining confidence in them (which comes through contact over a period of time and evaluating their actions).

Plutchik’s wheel

Amongst the many models for human emotions (some listing over 100 different types)  I find Plutchik’s wheel quite useful.  It starts with four pairs of emotions (anticipation, joy, trust and fear with their opposites surprise, sadness, disgust and anger) in the second ring.


There are three shades of intensity for each of these eight basic emotions, thus giving 24 emotions:

  • Admiration – trust – acceptance
  • Terror – fear – apprehension
  • Amazement – surprise – distraction
  • Grief – sadness – pensiveness
  • Loathing – disgust – boredom
  • Rage – Anger – annoyance
  • Vigilance – anticipation – interest
  • Ecstasy – Joy – serenity

These basic emotions then mix to produce a further set of four pairs as shown in the table below (so now we are up to 32 emotions).  As mentioned earlier, Love isn’t a basic emotion; it is the combination of Joy and Trust, and its opposite Remorse is the combination of Sadness and Disgust.

Advanced emotions

This is a good start, but is far from the whole story.  The basic emotions we covered above – surprise, joy, sadness, fear, anger – are the emotions of the limbic system and amygdala centre.  The sensory stimulus gives rise to an emotional response which is fed upwards to the executive brain (pre-frontal cortex) where it may express itself and be amplified, or be moderated or inhibited.  Generally, more mature or advanced human beings are those that are better able to regulate and control their emotions.  Children and teenagers are still acquiring these skills, and are more prone to irrational emotional outbursts!

A more complete picture of human emotions therefore requires consideration of how thinking and imagination combine with the basic emotions.  Moral emotions are usually considered as a separate class of emotions.  The diagram below shows the mechanism behind this process.


External stimuli arrive in the limbic brain at the thalamus, and are fed on up to the sensory cortex in the thinking brain.  The simple emotion of surprise / anticipation / curiosity comes from stimuli following this simple route.  The signals from the thalamus also go into the amygdala, and some situations may result in activation of the amygdala.  Not all situations result in the amygdala firing up – for most people it shouldn’t be a daily event.  But when it does, it sets off hormonal changes in the body and charges up the conscious brain with additional motivation.  This adds intensity to whatever action the thinking brain was already undertaking.

The thinking brain generates its own set of mild emotions or feelings, without any additional stimulus from the Limbic brain.  In the table below I have categorised a wide range of emotions to show how this process gives rise to what we experience.  This may not be a complete list but it will give some idea of the wide spectrum of emotions we experience.


There is a lot in this table, so let’s start at the bottom with our base instincts.  There are four broad columns covering the base types of emotions – those related to our self (ego related), the desire area driven by anger/fear, the happiness area driven by joy/sadness, and the knowledge area driven by surprise.  At the base instinctual level in the depths of our reptilian brains, our fundamental drives are survival, appetite (food, sex), sticking together in groups/families, and exploration.  These drives are seen in animals as well.  In the next Limbic row, we list the anger, fear, joy, sadness and surprise emotions.  As we enter the thinking brain the ego gets involved, with the fundamental drives of “I am”, “I want”, “I love” and “I wonder”.

In the absence of any strong stimuli, our thinking brains result in us experiencing a range of feelings.  These result from the thinking going on in the Default Mode Network with the ego, and reference to our values system in the moral emotions/inhibitory area of the brain (eg vmPFC).  This is a programmable area, but we usually acquire a set of values during early childhood, and this enables us to express a range of feelings from an early age.  These are similar to our stronger base emotions, but are of lesser intensity.  Some of these “feelings” are quite fundamental, such as trust, disgust, belief.  But they do arise from conscious thinking against a set of moral values.  Who we decide to trust, and what we choose to belief, and what disgusts us, does vary from person to person and it can change during life.

These “feelings” are a sample of the wide range we can experience.  For many people, experiencing these feelings is what life is all about.  They intermix to create a wide range of experiences for us.

When the stimulus additionally results in the limbic brain firing up, we experience a similar set of emotions but with much more intensity.  Annoyance becomes outrage.  Uneasiness becomes terror and panic.  These emotions are much more intense, and if we get the imagination (the Default Mode Network) playing with the emotion, they can become even more intense.  The anger can intensify into a raging fury.  Pity and sorrow can dive into depression.  It all becomes more intense and more complicated as imagination gets involved.

Examples of emotional response

Lets consider a few more examples.  Take the base fear of emotion, and what happens when the external stimulus is passed to the thinking mind with the fear response.  At first with the thinking mind the fear may be wariness or a bit timid.  Thoughts combine with the fear emotion to create the states like worry and anxiety, which are more powerful than and can last much longer (sometimes years).  If the mind then starts imagining things associated with this fear it can turn in to paranoia and phobias which are considerably more powerful again.

If we take the base emotion of joy and a situation giving rise to affection or love (the combination of joy with trust), as thinking about the love situation begins this can develop liking and caring which can be longer-lasting emotions (eg marriage forming lifelong relationships).  If the mind starts imagining, stronger emotional states of longing and infatuation can develop, or perhaps euphoria or ecstasy.

Rejection is another example.  It begins with the base emotion of sadness.  As one dwells on this and starts thinking about the situation, they can feel rejected and if the imagination gets involved this can leads on to depression and anxiety (long term emotional problems).

If we could follow the Buddhist practice of watching the simple emotion of sadness arise, allow it to play for a while, and then fall away, we could avoid a great deal of suffering.  But for most of us it is really hard to do that – we don’t have the necessary control over our mental faculties or the workings of the unconscious brain, and once the feelings are running it is really hard to reason with them and think your way out of the situation.  Sometimes radical steps involving drugs or electroconvulsive therapy is needed to get someone out of it.

Belief, Faith and Hope

It is  useful to distinguish between belieffaith and hope.

Belief is a simple acceptance that something is true.  It is predominantly a mental act of thinking (with little or no emotional involvement), and it may or may not be based upon fact.  Faith is much more powerful than belief.

Faith requires thinking but carries some emotional charge with it.  In this case, something is likely to have happened in a persons life to cause “surprise” – they may have seen what they think is a miracle.  Charged with surprise the belief helps form confidence or trust where the observation helps to confirm their belief.  With further thinking and imagination, perhaps coming from stories (which may or may not be factual) on what  other miracles a person has been able to perform, the stronger emotions of  loyalty and devotion can develop.

Hope is a positive state of mind with an expectation that things will get better.  It is an extension of optimism (which is joy plus an element of surprise or anticipation) with imagination added to create a Utopian vision for the future.  Hope is an important tool for leaders to inspire their followers – see diagram below.  A successful leader will employ the use of imagination to its fullest extent in order to inspire hope.  This can be used both positively and negatively (eg Adolf Hitler had great skills in being able to inspire people to action).

Robert Mattox Hope System

So belief was the simplest and least powerful, because it did not contain emotion.  Faith was stronger because it contained some emotion, and hope the most powerful because it was fueled by both emotion and imagination.

Most powerful emotion

What we are observing is that as the basic emotions combine with thoughts they gain power, and when they combine with imagination they become even more powerful.  What are the most powerful emotions?  There isn’t general agreement here, but ones like vengefulness, hatred, passion and jealousy stand out above the rest (“Hey Joe“).  In all cases, an initial base emotion has been amplified by thoughts and imaginings in the conscious brain.  With the possibly exception of passion, which can be used positively in certain circumstances (eg the Passion of Christ), these most powerful emotions are most often destructive and the most mature persons are able to control these emotional states and prevent them from occurring.