Why Do We Have Emotions?

Why do we feel emotions? Tim Dalgleish offers an explanation

By: Dr Tim Dalgleish (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Tuesday 9th August 2005
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Psychology
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"We have evolved emotions as ways of helping us to rapidly reorganise our mental and bodily resources to help us prepare for anything the world might throw at us.

During our lives, each of us experiences millions of emotional reactions either consciously or unconsciously. In a world of uncertainty, we sometimes need gut feelings to negotiate our way through life’s tricky path, as the process of cold rational calculation alone can’t help us make many decisions.

Take fear for example, when you hear a strange noise in the night feelings kick in and your senses become tuned for danger. Emotional memories recall how you coped with similar situations in the past and kick in to help you deal with this one.

A sad face on a street sign [Image:  Mòni under CC-BY-NC-ND licence] Creative commons image Moni via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
A sad face on a street sign [Image: Mòni under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]

A more subtle example is sadness - when we suffer a loss, feelings of sadness help our minds turn inwards to release our mental resources, establishing new goals and forgetting the old ones we’ve lost.

Some emotions also have a primarily social function. Take guilt - unpleasant feelings such as this can motivate us into doing something a situation and this should help us make amends!

So you should listen to your emotions obvious and subtle, as they are essential in situations where the correct decision requires more than just rational thought."

Find out more

What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories
Paul E. Griffiths, University of Chicago Press

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.Charles Darwin, Oxford University Press

On the Emotions
Richard Wollheim, Yale University Press

Cognition and Emotion: From Order to Disorder
Tim Dalgleish and Michael Power, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc

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