A Review: Molecules of Emotions

“The popular answer is the evolutionary one–that emotions have helped us survive.”


Why Do We Have Emotions?

The word “emotion” dates back to 1579, when it was adapted from the French word émouvoir, which means “to stir up”. However, the earliest precursors of the word likely date back to the very origins of language. Emotion is the generic term for subjective, conscious experience. Emotion is often associated and considered reciprocally influential with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, and motivation, as well as influenced by hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, noradrenaline serotonin, oxytocin,  and cortisol.. Emotion is often the driving force behind motivation, positive or negative. (Wikipedia).

An evolutionary answer with a bit more detail is that we’re animals: more aggressive and self-conscious than rivers and plants are. Aggression and the desire to survive that comes with selfhood helped scoot animals up the food chain. If you want to create a system that works hard to survive, make it consciousness and emotional. It will want to keep itself around. On top of that, human beings are the most self-conscious animals. This makes us increasingly invested and crafty in our need for survival.

The Molecules of Emotion:

Candace Pert is a brilliant molecular biologist who was a key figure in the discovery of the endorphin molecule, the body’s natural form of morphine. of a new field of science known as psychoneuroimmunology (Smithsonian, June 1989). Her research into brain biochemistry at the National Institute of Mental Health contributed to a radically new understanding of mind and body.

In  1974, Candace Pert and Saul Sayder discover that the brain has its own receptors for opiates. Opiates such as morphine have long been known to effectively reduce pain. Pert’s and Snyder’s discovery enables other researchers to find opiate-like molecules produced by the brain – endorphins. Today, it is widely known that endorphins, such as those produced during exercise, are the body’s own natural mood enhancers and/or painkillers. Moreover, that the peptides released from nerves that bind to them also play a significant part in  we form the biochemical basis of emotion.

The field of psychoneuroimmunology, although based on exacting research, has had a hard birth. Its core idea is that the surfaces of cells are lined with many specific “receptors” to which only specific molecules can attach themselves. These molecules, in turn, are messengers through which the body and mind, as well as our neurons, glands and immune cells, are all constantly sharing information. In the book Molecules of Emotion Candace’s scientific know how comes to life, in a down to earth, easy to read book that is more like story telling.

The book “Molecules of Emotion” takes us on a journey through the science of the body and brain, but also on a journey of the heart. Emotions play an integral role in our decision making process, what nurtures our instinct, and what drives our wants, desires and basically, our survival.

“Dr. Pert and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health map the locations of receptors for neuropeptides (tiny bits of protein made of strings of amino acids) and find that they are not only present in the brain but they are found in other organs throughout the body. Pert and her team suggest that the biochemical basis of emotion involves the presence of these molecules in both body and mind. Pert’s theory echoes what William James suggested in 1884 when he proposed that emotions are located everywhere in the body, and not exclusively in the brain. Pert believes that the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are interlocked in a body-wide system where each part can communicate with every other part. This concept challenges the prevailing idea that the mind has power over the body. Instead, according to Pert, bodily emotions are the key. “Emotions are the nexus between mind and matter, going back and forth between the two and influencing both.” ” (the new medicine, 2005).

In Chapter 7, “The Biochemicals of Emotion” Pert writes;  ” I should say first that some scientists might describe the idea of a biochemical basis for the emotions as outrageous. It is not, in other words, part of the established wisdom even now. Indeed, coming from a tradition where experimental psychology textbooks (which focus on the observable and measurable) do not even contain the word emotions in the index, it was not without a little trepidation that I dared to start talking about their biochemistry. I grew bolder in 1984 when Paul Ekman, a highly respected psychologist who studies human emotions at the University of San California in San Francisco, introduced me to Charles Darwin’s book on the subject.  If the great Charles Darwin had thought it important, than surely I was on firm ground. In “Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” Darwin explained how people everywhere have common emotional facial expressions, some of which are also shared by animals. “

Pert cities Ekman more than once in her book and notably so considering their work both independently has been instrumental in the area of “emotions.” For more than 40 years, Paul Ekman has supported the view that emotions are discrete, measurable, and physiologically distinct. Ekman’s most famous work revolved around the finding that certain emotions appeared to be universally recognized, even in cultures that were preliterate and could not have learned associations for facial expressions through media. His research findings led him to classify six emotions as basic: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise, and later on in the 1990’s Ekman further broke down these 6 emotions into further sub-categories. For example; to add under Happiness, we can also include joy, pride, achievement, optimism, contentment, etc and under Anger, we can include; disgust, guilt, embarrassment, envy. All these sub-emotions, or sub categories are unique because of their unique facial expressions.

This journey towards understanding our emotions has not been an easy one. Part of the difficulty in this area of science, is because our experiences are so complex and involve so many different factors, so distinguishing one emotion from another is a lot like drawing lines of sand in the desert. It can be hard to determine where one emotions ends or another begins. Tony Robbins, a prominent speaker on self improvement, NLP and everything awesome, states that humans have over 500 notable emotions, yet we only use on average 12.

“The physiology of emotions has been preserved and observed again and again over evolutionary eons and across species. “Why do we feel what we feel?  How do our thoughts and emotions affect our health? Are our bodies and minds distinct from each other or do they function together as parts of an interconnected system?” – Pert

These are just some of the questions Pert discusses in her book “Molecules of Emotions.” Therefore, is it not safe to say that emotions are a very real part of what not only makes us human, but connects us to all living things on our earth?

Next week we will look at the idea structure behind the Somatic Theory of Emotions.


About the Author: Sarah Jamieson

Sarah Jamieson has written 155 posts on this site.

Sarah is the owner and head movement coach at Moveolution; a Vancouver based consulting company focused on the integration of movement and recovery science. Bridging the gaps between the clinical and performance fields Sarah’s passion stems from lifelong passion of Yoga, Jujitsu, and Qi Gong; which she integrates into her coaching practice. She is a full time social change maker, a ‘run-a-muker’ of everything outdoors and repeatedly engages in random acts of compassion.

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