Emotions have physical manifestations. We know that. If they do have physical manifestations, are there any physical laws that we can use to help us understand them?
Definition of Physical laws that emotions obey
We can apply the following to emotions: Every action has an opposite reaction.
In a previous presentation on breathing we discussed the human nervous system and the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic parts that underlie it. The Sympathetic system is triggered when we are angry or fearful, and the Parasympathetic when we are hungry or sexually stimulated. An experiment was done involving subjects skydiving from an airplane, during which their Sympathetic response was measured, which usually registered a high state of excitation and agitation while airborne. Once safely on the ground, however, monitoring showed that the nervous system of the subjects bounced automatically into a parasympathetic response of relaxation and euphoria. This is the first part of Richard L. Solomon’s opponent process theory of emotions which contends that the primary or initial reaction to an emotional event will be followed by an opposite secondary emotional state. In other words, a stimulus that initially inspires displeasure will likely be followed by a pleasurable after-feeling and vice versa.
So this same phenomena applies to pleasurable activities such as taking drugs to get a high, which often is followed by an equally intense downer, or withdrawal experience. In both these cases, an intense stimulation of the nervous system is followed afterwards by an often equally intense stimulation of the opposite. This is explained as the body homeostatic system seeking to restore balance, so that when there is a dramatic emotional response in one direction a rebound will soon occur once the response has died.
It should be noted that the second part of the opponent process theory states that the more the stimulus is repeated, the more that the initial response is weakened and the more the rebound response is strengthened. This helps explain why skydivers keep pursuing their potentially dangerous sport: because the highs get higher and the lows get lower. The same applies with drug addicts: the same amount of drugs slowly gives less of a high and the downer that follows increases. This part of the theorem helps illustrate that action reactions in the human emotional system are complex and that action reaction will not always be equal and opposite.
Benefits of this definition
If emotions have in-built action reaction or opponent process, then this means that any emotion we experience at any point will not stay put but will continue in motion and tend to reciprocate between opposites. It is interesting that the word 'emotion' includes the word 'motion' as if to say that emotions consist mostly of something which is constantly in motion. This helps us to understand that whatever emotion we feel today, we will not always feel, and that the emotion will move on without us having to do anything. If we feel absolutely devastated today, we should know that normal biological processes will see that emotion move, however gradually, in the opposite direction towards something brighter. Similarly, if we feel completely euphoric today, we can be sure that sometime in the near future we will gravitate towards a less positive emotion.
Another feature of the opponent process is that we all tend to experience similar levels of happiness and sadness in our lives because we all adjust to our circumstances and respond relative to our experience. A wealthy person with huge expectations about everything will have different things that cause happiness and sadness compared to a poor person with quite different expectations. In general both would experience similar levels of joy and sorrow.
The main event
Emotions are complex but at a fundamental level, they obey physical laws and any action has an opposite reaction. The human body has a basic homeostasis which ensures that emotional responses tend to oscillate between opposites: between excitation and relaxation and between up and down.
What goes up must come down. What goes down must come up. We should always know that whenever we experience any emotion, whether it is a high or a low, that experience will always fade and the body will restore balance by initiating an emotion in the opposite direction. Understanding of how emotions work at a physical level is fundamental to improving emotional fitness.
Emotions are natural phenomena therefore they obey physical laws such as the three laws of motion:
- An object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by an external force.
- The rate of change of momentum of a body over time is directly proportional to the force applied, and occurs in the same direction.
- For every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.
We have seen that within your own individual emotional experience, there is clear evidence of action reaction taking place: The third law of motion closely resembles the opponent process theorem just described. Let's now consider these laws as applied to interpersonal forces.
1. An emotional or forceful person entering a room of otherwise quiet and reflective people may stir people in that room up emotionally (#1 above).
2. Similarly, a forceful person living among quiet and reflective people may over time impose his or her thoughts and feelings on the people (#2 above).
3. If someone acts towards us then there will occur within us a response of opposite and similar size (#3 above).
The purpose of this is not to try and quantify these measurements but to establish that emotions are part of the natural environment and however complex, the laws of emotion do apply. The last of those natural laws is probably the one of greatest utility for emotional fitness. For every action there is an equal and (potentially) opposite reaction. If someone acts upon you in an angry and abusive way, then, provided you are attentive, you will respond in a more or less equal and opposite way. Human emotion is a complex phenomenon and will not behave in as exacting a manner as the apples and other motional objects that these laws normally apply to, so equal and opposite in human emotion is only going to be approximate. How you respond to the anger and abuse depends on your circumstances. You may well respond with an equally weighty tirade in return and eventually reach emotional equilibrium via mutual treaty. However, you may also not respond externally at all, and the force of the abuse might be directed internally, causing it to be stored there. We shall cover stored emotion in a later presentation. In the meantime, it should be understood that for every emotional action there is an equal and opposite reaction, more or less.
Visualising emotions as action reaction forces in interpersonal space should help us with the following. We could call these the two laws of emotion:
1. All emotional experiences we have during our lives will have a real physical affect on us, and the amount of that effect will be more or less equal to the original emotional force.
2. Any emotional experience we have that we do not respond to by directing it externally may get stored internally and remain there indefinitely.
Humans are social creatures and we are all constantly applying emotional forces upon each other, resulting in pecking orders in social groups such as families and workplaces. How someone approaches you emotionally depends a lot on how they have been approached emotionally by other people in their lives and more immediately, during their day. Out in society there is a whole bunch of emotional energy washing around being transferred from one person to another and back. Visualising this helps to focus on the physical phenomena of emotions rather than the people or the actions they take and this is an essential feature of emotional fitness technology. The focus is on emotions as physical events in themselves and there is no focus on the people or the events associated with those events.
As a young adult I was acutely aware that I was emotionally repressed and was not responding adequately or at all to emotional affronts that came my way. It helped me greatly to see these emotional injuries as caused by physical forces acting in interpersonal space.
Emotions are physical phenomena and the laws of motion can be applied to them in very general terms to help us to better understand how they work and to therefore better manage our lives and strive for emotional fitness.
Challenge to audience
I challenge you to imagine people as emotional forces interacting and acting within interpersonal space, a bit like particles in a container, or planets in outer space. In your work or home environment, imagine how different personalities that interact with you might be behaving in terms of the two laws of emotion. Are you aware of the effect that past emotional experiences have had on you? Do you regularly respond externally to emotional forces applied to you, or do you hold it in?
References and further reading
R L Solomon "The Opponent Process Theory of Acquired Motivation: The Costs of Pleasure and the Benefits or Pain" American Psychologist 35 (1980): 691-712.
* Sympathetic nervous system: A part of the nervous system that serves to accelerate the heart rate, constrict blood vessels, and raise blood pressure.