Coherent vs Incoherent Emotion


In order to understand something it is helpful to define it, break it down a little and analyse the parts.  We have attempted to define what emotions are, or at least to define some aspects of them in previous presentations.  In this presentation we break them down into four primary or coherent emotions.  In so doing we look for emotions that are going to be most useful for promoting emotional fitness. 

Definition of coherent emotion

A coherent emotion is one that is

  • most easily identifiable physiologically and/or
  • most easily recognisable socially and
  • which contributes the most to successful functional existence

There are a great number of different emotions that we can identify.

Researchers have attempted to define the main emotions and their lists often look quite similar. 

We will boil the list down to four emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, love. In later presentations we will look at these in more detail but in the meantime we can state that these emotions tend to describe something more coherent and useful than other emotions.

Let's explain by describing some of the emotions not in this list:

  • Fear. This comes from the same source as anger; part of our flight or fight response.  While fear is undoubtedly a coherent emotion with a coherent physiological response involving arousal of the sympathetic nervous system there is not much to be gained by focusing on it. Fear often occurs as an alternative to an anger driven response.  While fear helps us to escape from danger and ensure survival, it represents a removal from a situation rather than an interaction with it.  Running away is easy; facing up to things is harder.  In emotional fitness we want to focus on facing up to things and part of that is overcoming fear not succumbing to it.  
  • Guilt, shame.  These emotions probably consist of a bit of fear and a bit of sadness.  Their physiological characteristics are less clearly defined and they are somewhat incoherent.  Unlike other emotions, when you feel these, it is often not clear how to proceed.

Benefits of this definition

A coherent emotion is one which is representative of or promotes greater functionality.  There is no doubt that fear, guilt and shame all have constructive uses; helping us to avoid danger, and to maintain social norms, but if we experience too much of those it can be debilitating, especially if we no longer experience coherent anger and love.   Tyrants control their subjects by using those very emotions.  Coherent experience of the four primary emotions is the foundation of emotional fitness and good functionality.

The main event

We have extracted out four emotions above others as being more coherent and more functional.  Anger and Love are the most coherent in terms of physiological characteristics: anger is accompanied by secretion of adrenaline and love is accompanied by a set hormones including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and oxytocin.  Love and anger responses have been shown in clinical tests to be antithetical, meaning that one of them can only be present while the other is absent.  You can only feel anger while love is absent and vice versa.  This coincides with the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems that we discussed in a previous presentation, in which one system works in the absence of the other; anger involves Sympathetic arousal and love Parasympathetic arousal.

Happiness and sadness do not have distinct physiological characteristics, but their widely accepted recognition as discernible primary emotions leads easily to the conclusion that these two should be on the list.  Both have distinct facial expressions and can be communicated coherently. 

A person who experiences emotions coherently may not necessarily use them in a socially constructive manner.  Just because someone is emotionally fit does not make them a morally good person; it just helps make them more functional.


Personal example

As a young person I felt distanced from my emotions.  I could not experience any emotion coherently.  Often when incited to anger, I would just feel paralysed; the same too when I felt love.  The result was that I was unable to experience these in the interpersonal world and was driven inwards to experience these things internally.  Sometimes the anger or love would manifest itself passive-aggressively in letters sent to the target of the emotion.

Challenge to audience

For the betterment of ourselves we should focus on coherent emotions, happiness, sadness, anger and love.  Each of those emotions contributes positively to our survival and to our experience of this world.  Although both sadness and anger bring negative affect, we should not consider those emotions to represent a negative contribution and attempt to suppress or negate them.  Doing so may lead to unintended consequences and the uncontrolled release of suppressed emotion in places where we least expect and are least able to deal with them.

References and further reading