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A New Theory of Emotions Enters the Scene – Psychology Today

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Self-forgiveness is one of the most essential, and most difficult, steps toward better mental health. Here's how we can overcome bitterness and finally let ourselves off the hook.
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Posted December 14, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
You’re having a pleasant evening at home after a particularly stressful day. Part of what’s gotten you through the day was knowing that a package was going to be delivered that evening with a present you bought yourself as a treat. When it arrives, you eagerly open it up only to find that it’s really not what you were expecting at all. Your emotion flips in an instant from the delight you experienced when you picked the package up from your doorstep to the crestfallen reaction of seeing what was in that package.
Complete shifts in emotion are a common feature of everyday life, and even if you can’t relate to this situation there are many more in which you’ve gone from high to low or low to high within a fraction of a second. Psychology attempts to explain the connection between situations in life and the corresponding emotions people feel with a variety of theories ranging from those based on physiology to those based on social interactions.
More than just an academic exercise, considering the strengths and weaknesses of these theories can become important when people try to apply them to their own lives. Do you have a presentation or performance coming up soon that fills you with anxiety? Wouldn’t it be great if you could convert that anxiety into feelings of pleasant anticipation at the idea of being able to strut your stuff? How about that disappointing package? Rather than feeling all of those negative emotions and having them ruin your evening, wouldn’t it be better if you could dismiss this as bad luck and plan the steps you’ll need to return it?
In a newly published theoretical paper, University of Waterloo’s Paul Thagard and colleagues (2021) provide a framework for understanding current emotion theories and then move on to outline a new approach, based on the idea of “semantic pointers.” Before explaining the Thagard et al. theory, it’s worth looking quickly at its predecessors, using the review in their article as a guide.
All emotion theories attempt to contend with three basic processes. First, there are the physiological changes associated with emotions, such as increased heart rate and changes in skin conductivity that reflect the actions of the so-called “autonomic” (involuntary) nervous system. Second, emotions are associated with some type of cognitive awareness that lead to the labeling of the emotion. Third, and this is a key component of the Canadian research team’s theory, emotions change. As the example of the disappointing package suggests, you can be feeling great one minute and terrible the next. In the words of the authors, “An acceptable theory of emotion needs to be able to explain emotional change as well as many other phenomena such as the contribution of emotion to action.”
The first theory in modern psychology was proposed by William James, who maintained that physiological change is the emotion. You are afraid because your heart races not because you become aware of some type of threat. The theory that Thagart et al. call “constructed emotion” takes the opposite approach, suggesting that emotions “begin and change because of new constructions,” or thoughts. The idea that emotions are “automatic” appraisals reflecting “evolution and personal history” is associated with Ekman, who is also known for having identified what he considered to be the six basic emotions or “affect programs.” The final theory focuses on appraisals as the determinant of emotions with no particular role assigned to the nervous system’s function as the cause of emotions.
With their introduction of the term “semantic pointer,” the research team focuses on how neural patterns in the brain connect with the thoughts or appraisals that you have about a given situation. Specifically, the theory “hypothesizes that emotions combine appraisal and physiology by convolutions of patterns of neural firing.” There are four components to an emotion semantic pointer: the actual situation, physiological changes (such as heart rate), appraisal of the situation, and relevance to the self.
Consider as an example the emotion of anger you felt when you opened that unfortunate package. The situation is the package itself. Physiologically, you may have felt some autonomic arousal such as your heart starting to beat a little faster after discovering the package’s contents. Your appraisal of the object in the package as unsatisfactory would then factor into the equation. Finally, seeing that you now will have to go out of your way to return the package becomes the relevance to the self as you face the bothersome notion of having to go through the effort of sending it back.
This was a simple example consisting of only one felt emotion. Many times, as Tragart et al. point out, your emotions are ambivalent. Consider the example that the authors propose of moving to a new city. You’ll feel happy especially if the move is consistent with your goals of changing things up in your life. However, you’ll also feel sad because this means you’ll be saying goodbye to your friends. Even though you can continue to interact virtually or on social media, this won’t be the same as having them at hand.
These ambivalent emotions reflect what the Canadian researchers refer to as competition between two semantic pointers. Which emotion will win out depends on which semantic pointer will become inhibited. A computational model developed previously by the study’s lead author, known as POEM (POinters-EMotion) can churn out a set of simulations to address such issues as whether cognitions, bodily states, physiological factors, or inherent properties influence which given emotion will be the one to dominate.
The semantic pointer theory is more than an abstract notion or one that only works if you have a computer in your head. Indeed, the authors begin their paper with the observation that “people go to psychotherapists in search of emotional change because they are afflicted with negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, fear, and shame.” Laurette Larocque, a psychotherapist, uses two of her cases from her own private practice to illustrate emotional change through treatment. For one case, therapy proved helpful in reducing his feelings of shame and increasing his frequency of positive emotions such as happiness and hope. The other case was a woman who sought help for her feelings of anxiety, depression, and guilt about what she believed to be inadequacies in fulfilling her work and family roles. As the authors note, “theories of emotion should be able to explain such shifts.”
The semantic pointer theory provides useful suggestions for change particularly in its application to the experience of chronic emotions. Thus, in Larocque’s psychotherapy cases, the change that occurred wasn’t just in momentary feelings but was a longer-term alteration in her patients’ approach to life. To understand how to implement your own desire for changes in your emotional outlook, it’s necessary to see how chronic semantic pointers can become magnets for fleeting ones. In the words of the authors, an “occurrent” emotion is one that characterizes you at a specific point in time, such as feeling anxious about that upcoming presentation. This differs from the “disposition” of tending to be an anxious or neurotic person who characteristically worries about a wide variety of situations.
What happens with a dispositional emotion is that it colors your perception of situations in such a way as to “bind” an occurrent emotion. If you tend to be anxious, you’ll go into a performance situation in a way that leads to physiological changes, negative appraisals, and beliefs about the relevance of the performance to your sense of self. The type of change you would seek in, for example, psychotherapy would not mean that you are always calm and relaxed but that you tend to have those positive emotions rather than their negative counterparts. To accomplish this, argue the authors, you almost have to “enable the brain to generate corresponding semantic pointers.” This kind of brain retraining isn’t that different from engaging in mental exercise to improve your memory.
Psychotherapists, putting these ideas into practice, in the words of the authors, “cannot operate on semantic pointers directly but can work with the client to change representations of situations, appraisals, and physiology.” They can also help clients alter their goals. In the case of the woman who feels she’s not meeting her role obligations in work and family spheres, perhaps she can be helped to alter what may be unrealistic goals. They can indirectly change their neural patterns that predispose them to experience chronic negative emotions by using appraisal to alter their perceptions. Physiologically, therapists can also prompt semantic pointer changes by teaching their clients to use meditation, relaxation, and deep breathing.
Emotion change, according to the semantic pointer model, can also occur outside of psychotherapy. The authors point out that people can change both their dispositional and occurrent emotions through such avenues as self-help, engagement in religious or political organizations, and other activities that “dramatically alter their beliefs, goals, and physiological states.” You can seek new hobbies, friends, living situations, and romantic relationships that have this three-pronged effect.
To sum up, this newest emotional theory provides suggestions for understanding the complex interactions among physiology, thoughts, self-perceptions, and actual situations as influences on both your long-term and short-term ups and downs. Furthermore, the theory makes it possible to understand ambivalent emotions as reflecting differing weights of positive and negative semantic pointers. Putting emotions into these concrete terms can give you a new way of looking at how to define and alter the ones that are interfering with your own life fulfillment.
Thagard, P., Larocque, L., & Kajić, I. (2021, November 29). Emotional Change: Neural Mechanisms Based on Semantic Pointers. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000981
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.
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Self-forgiveness is one of the most essential, and most difficult, steps toward better mental health. Here's how we can overcome bitterness and finally let ourselves off the hook.


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