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The role of emotion

By Ken Ideus


What is Emotion?


A simple way to look at emotion is the energy required for motion - thus e-motion.

I’m not referring to gross physical energy, as in the burning of calories required to carry a load of bricks. I'm referring to psychic energy, though neuroscience can now identify quite specifically the metabolic processes in the brain that generate emotions. Simply put, our neurons burn glucose in the generation of emotion. Muscles burn calories and so do neurons as they generate emotion.

Energy, generated in the brain, powers our emotions, which then take part in guiding our activities and actions. We just don’t think of it that way in our normal daily lives. We could refer to this connection as our emotional guidance system.

Lets use an analogy. We’ve all seen the big cranes in our city landscapes. I’ll use cranes as they perform fairly complex processes. They go about lifting and maneuvering heavy payloads of building material around the building site. Sometimes their maneuvers are general and sometimes very sensitive and precise. Whatever they are doing, there is a lot of energy being burned in lifting, turning, lowering and so on. In the control cabin, usually located at the top of the crane, sits an individual with a set of levers, buttons and other controls. These controls, along with the crane operator, consume very little energy compared to the overall crane itself, but guide and control the entire apparatus. We can compare the working parts of the crane with our bodies and the operator’s cabin with our brain. Both require energy but in vastly different amounts and for different purposes.

Our Emotional Guidance System

So what is the role, then, of emotion? How does our emotional guidance system work?

Negative emotions tend to guide us away from things and positive emotions tend to guide us toward things.

While research is evolving our understanding of this question every day, scientists have generally looked at emotional responses as either negative or positive. Negative emotions tend to guide us away from things and positive emotions tend to guide us toward things.

Recent research has focused a great deal on linking positive emotion to the reward centers of the brain while the negative tends to link up with areas associated with fear and disgust.

Both of these emotions root back to survival. Have you ever found yourself saying, “That was disgusting, it left a bad taste in my mouth?” I’m referring to experiences that may have nothing to do with food! When we experience disgust, whatever the cause, the area in the brain that is activated is related to the gustatory response. This plays a key factor in keeping us from eating food that is bad for us. Thus we avoid “disgusting” experiences or ones that cause fear and threaten our survival.

For those of you who speak Spanish, you might recognize the connection to the word “gusta” which means, “to like”. Thus “disgust” would be “not to like”. Thus when we experience positive emotions, i.e., we like, are enthused, feel positive, enjoy or find agreeable things, be they food, activities, ideas, art or people, we tend to move toward them.

We avoid experiences that threaten us.

If on the other hand we feel risk, concern, dislike, disgust, anger, dis-trust, we tend to avoid or move away from those things.

So the role of emotion, at a simple level, help guide us toward things we feel are good for us and away from things that we feel are bad for us.

Within both those two arenas, there are different levels (irritated versus enraged, for example or interested versus passionate) and different flavors (feeling down, for example might include being sad, depressed, crestfallen, hurt, disappointed). The level might help guide the strength of our response to something and the flavor will help guide the specifics or subtleties of that response.

Thinking and Emotion


We are born with some basic emotional responses. As infants, we are likely to be content when we are warm, fed and sense some kind of security (usually this is mom or dad).

We also have some basic sensitivity to danger. You’ve likely heard of the “startle response”? This is triggered when an infant hears a loud, surprising noise or senses they are falling. Generally arms go out, eyes get big, and the body tenses. This response stays with us through adulthood.

Our emotions are influenced by how we think about our experiences.

Most of our emotional responses, however, find their roots in our own mental activity. By mental activity I mean our thinking or cognitive processes. As human beings, our emotional lives are largely influenced by how we think about and interpret our experiences. From early childhood onward, our thinking, emotional responses and behavior are highly interrelated.

How the Connection Between Thinking and Emotion Works

To work through this, I’ll use a set of steps. For those of you who are active in the neuroscience arena, I would ask that you pardon my simplicity!

  1. We have an experience. We hear, read, observe, touch, sense or participate in something. The something might be an encounter, meeting, hearing music, watching a scene, a walk down a lonely street, meeting someone for the first time etc. We absorb this experience through one or more of our senses.

  2. We interpret that experience with our wonderful cerebral cortex. That interpretation shows up as a feeling with some meaning attached.

  3. Our feeling (the interpretation, according to the science of emotion) leads to an emotion that is positive, negative or perhaps even neutral. That emotion has a particular strength and flavor as referred to in the subsection “The Role of Emotion”.

  4. This is an optional step, which for me is at that heart of emotional intelligence. We reconsider our emotional response and potential action, in light of context, circumstance or perhaps in recognizing that our memory of a similar experience might be interfering with an objective appraisal. What happens is we re-engage the cerebral cortex, that wonderful, thinking part of the brain. This consideration will likely regulate and adjust our response. The absence of this reconsideration can be seen in cases of road rage or the other “rages” that are emerging.

  5. Our emotional guidance system now powers our decision on whether and how to act/react

  6. We act, or not. In any case, we decide.

While this breakdown may look a bit onerous, it can all happen in a few heartbeats. However by being aware, we can assure that we actually go through the steps when it matters.

In Summary

Thus, emotion seems to be at the center of our guidance system or at the least, plays a critical role. A few key messages:

  • We know that emotion does use energy. Neurons in various areas of the brain are burning resources, usually glucose, to generate emotional energy.
  • This energy and subsequent brain activity plays a key role in guiding our responses and actions, i.e., in our emotional guidance system
  • As human beings, the process involved from experience to action is a bit complex and involves various parts of the brain.
  • By being aware of this process, we can learn to regulate our responses should we choose to. We can re-engage the cerebral cortex, on demand, the heart of emotional intelligence.

Ken Ideus

This series on authentic leadership is written by Ken Ideus who is well known globally for his work on "The Leaders Voice". Ken has worked for the last 30 years with multi-national corporates in over 30 countries, doing both consulting and senior leadership development in the USA, Europe and Africa. You can read more about his articles and tools, and about The Leaders Voice.

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