Coherent vs Incoherent Emotion

Lead in



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; and is 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 anger.  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, which is a good enough reason it itself not to focus on them.  Coherent experience of the four primary emotions is the foundation of emotional fitness and good functionality so we focus on them only.

The main event

We have extracted out four emotions above others as being more coherent and more functional.  Of these, 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 involves 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. 

It must be noted that 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.

In general, a person able to exhibit more coherent emotions is emotionally fitter than someone less able.  An emotionally fit person feels sadness as coherently as they feel happiness.  Emotionally fit people do not get caught for long periods of time in incoherent emotions like shame and guilt.  An emotionally fit person is able to channel anger into constructive outcomes and knows when and how to express love and channel lust.

An emotionally unfit person may experience depression instead of sadness, and mania instead of happiness.  Their anger might come in uncontrollable outbursts or passive aggressive actions.  Expressions of love and lust might lead to embarrassment or worse, sexual violation.


Emotions are physical events that take place in the natural world, in our bodies and in the interpersonal space that exists between us and the people around us.  Sometimes those emotions take place in the presence of identifiable hormones, such as love and anger, and sometimes they exist mainly as a socially recognisable sensation, such as happiness and sadness.

In the previous presentation on processing and channelling, I introduced the concept of Human Development Technology, which is an umbrella term to describe the technology as applied to this emotional fitness series.  Practical implementation of this technology involves focus on emotions as things in themselves.  When dealing with emotional issues it is all too easy to get carried away with the situations and the people that are involved in emotional experiences, and how "she said this to me" or "he did that to them".  For one, this approach gets complicated very fast, and is not an approach that is easily transferrable and useful to other people.  In order to benefit from this technology, it is important right from the start to focus entirely upon emotions as events that take place in or on your body.  You can be sure, that other people experience these emotional events in a very similar way that you do, and have been doing so for millions of years.  At the same time you need to completely ignore what or who allegedly caused the emotional experience in the first place.  That is not important to your emotional fitness.

This is similar to a surgeon tasked with fixing a broken leg.  It is not necessary for the surgeon to know how the leg was broken.  All that is required is to apply the right fixing technique to the problem as observed in the x-ray and other instruments used.

In the next four presentations in this series I provide suggestions on the processing and channelling of emotions using the technology described in earlier presentations in this series such as relaxation, body grip and facial motility exercises.

If you want to view more instructional videos on emotional fitness, then do go to and sign up.  You may also like to subscribe to the channel here on Youtube.

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 effectively communicate these in the interpersonal world and became withdrawn.  It's only when you don't have something like coherent emotion that you realise that i) it exists, and ii) it is a prerequisite for enjoyment and success in life.  Now that I can experience coherent emotion, I no longer take it for granted.


There are four coherent emotions that are relevant to emotional fitness: Anger, love, happiness and sadness.  Coherent emotions are essential for a happy successful life.

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.  They both exist for a reason and we should learn what that is, and how our knowledge of them can be used.

References and further reading