A Teleology of Emotions

Defining emotions is notoriously difficult. I’ve yet to hear a definition which captures both its physiological and phenomenological qualities. This absence makes precise discussions of emotions almost impossible. I believe such a definition is not strictly necessary in emotional regulation: a teleological explanation suffices in most contexts.

Definition (From Wikipedia)

A teleology is a reason or explanation for something as a function of its end, purpose, or goal.

The functions of emotions provide an effective scaffolding to build strategies to modulate one’s emotional state and experience thereof.

Here are a few functions of emotions, copy and pasted from Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual. These functions underly biopsychosocial theory of borderline personality disorder.

Organize and Motivate actions

  • Emotions prepare our body for physical action.
    • Fear increases heart rate, blood glucose levels, preparing our body for physical exertion/movement.

  • Emotions decrease reaction time.
    • Emotions can be thought of as a rapid response system.

    • “Run for your life” is easier when you’re being chased by a lion.

  • Emotions (de)sensitize one to information that is (in)compatible with the emotion.

Influence and Communicate to others

  • Emotions autonomically influence muscle activation.
    • Facial expressions communicate faster than words.

    • Emotions alter one’s posture and movement patterns.

  • Emotions have effects on others that are not learned.
    • This is how we communicate with babies.

Communicate to ourselves

  • Emotions signal/alarm that something is going on in a situation.
    • “Listen to your gut.”

  • Emotional signals are processed outside our conscious awareness.
    • You must learn through trial-and-error when to trust these responses.

The dual functions of communication and motivation are unique to emotions.