Emotions obey physical laws


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.

This has been studied formally and is encompassed in the concept of the Opponent Process Theorem.  One researcher, Robert Solomon, had subjects skydiving out of an airplane and their sympathetic nervous system* 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 bounces automatically into a parasympathetic response of relaxation and euphoria.  The nervous system has its own inbuilt reciprocal action reaction.  In Opponent Process Theory 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.  The same applies to pleasurable activities such as taking drugs to get a high, which often is followed by an equally intense downer, or withdrawal experience.

Benefits of this definition

If emotions have in-built action reaction this means that any emotion we experience at any point will not stay put but will tend to reciprocate between opposites.  One day we are happy, but we know we won't always be happy, because our body will automatically seek balance.  We all tend to experience similar levels of happiness and sadness in our lives because we all adjust to our circumstances and we 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 much lower 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 within 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.  In the presentation on Relaxation we discussed how the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems operate in opposition to one another.  When one is activated, the other is dormant, and when activation of one dies off, then the other has a tendency to activate.


As natural phenomena, emotions obey physical laws such as Newton's laws of motion:

  1. An object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by an external force.
  2. The rate of change of momentum of a body over time is directly proportional to the force applied, and occurs in the same direction.
  3. For every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Consider the above for a moment and how they might apply to emotions.  If we perceive emotions as interpersonal forces, then we can see these laws working in our daily lives.  An emotional or forceful person entering a room of otherwise quiet and reflective people is likely to stir people in that room up emotionally (#1 above).  The more powerful a person's emotional expression is towards us, the greater we will be affected (#2 above).  If someone acts towards us then there will occur within us a response of opposite and equal size (#3 above).  The last of those natural laws is the one of greatest importance to emotional fitness.  For every action there is an equal and 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 Newton was studying, 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.

Personal example

Challenge to audience

We should learn to treat emotions as physical events and find ways to understand them better using the laws of the universe that have been developed during hundreds of years of scientific endeavour.  Then we should apply that knowledge to our daily lives.

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.