Emotion and its components

Scientists’ interest in the nature of emotions has been increasing in recent decades and it is today one of the most productive research topics. This is due to the very important role they play in all aspects of human existence: adaptation, survival, learning, communication, consciousness, identity, social interaction.

In this article, we review the concept and analyse what its components are and how an emotional event takes place. This will allow us to better understand the role that emotions play in language and learning.

Ana Blanco Canales
Key words
Emotion, feeling, dimensions, components
Recommended readings
Damasio, A. (2005). En busca de Spinoza. Neurobiología de la emoción y los sentimientos. Barcelona: Crítica.

Scherer, K. R. (2005).  What are emotions? And how can they be measured? Social Science Information 44, (4), 695–729.

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Emotion: a set of physiological, cognitive and motor changes that arise from the conscious or unconscious assessment of a stimulus, in a given context and in relation to the objectives of an individual at a specific moment in their life.

Concept of emotion

Emotions play a fundamental role in survival, conservation of the species, social relations and communication. They also have a motivational function that predisposes us to repeat behaviours linked to positive emotions over and over again.

This definition is in line with the vision advocated by Scherer in numerous works of emotion as componential process: an episode of interrelated, synchronized changes in the states of all or most of the five organismic subsystems in response to the evaluation of an external or internal stimulus event as relevant to major concerns of the organism (2005: 697).

Emotion is produced as an organised response to an external event or internal occurrence (a thought, an image, a behaviour, etc.). The perceptual process of the event takes place first, followed by an assessment. The result is a neuropsychological, behavioural or cognitive reaction. If it leads to a behaviour, it causes a propensity for action (Bisquerra 2003).

Emotion denotes movement and interaction with the world. This is a behaviour that includes all the changes that occur in the body triggered by a wide range of stimuli that come from all that surrounds the individual (or that can also occur from the reminiscence of such stimuli) and that indicate reward (pleasure) or punishment (pain). (Mora 2017: 65)

F. Mora points out that our emotions are our identity and that nothing that happens in the cerebral cortex is produced aseptically, without the emotional filter. Emotions are intimately linked to our cognitive and learning processes.

Everything that is perceived by the senses is first analysed in the specific areas of the cerebral cortex. From there, it passes to the filter of the emotional system, where these sensory perceptions are labelled as good or bad, attractive or unattractive, interesting or neutral. The information, now tinged with emotional meaning, then passes to the association areas of the cerebral cortex, where mental, reasoning and thought processes are built up and complex executive functions are elaborated. It then reaches the hippocampus, where the trace of what has been perceived and learned is recorded (Mora 2017: 42).

Emotion and feeling

Emotion is closely linked to feelings, but they are different brain realities. According to Damasio (2005), emotions precede feelings. Emotion is the organism’s response to an emotionally competent stimulus, i.e. an object or event with biological significance. Feelings, on the other hand, are the subjective, stable and more or less lasting experience of emotion, devoid of somatic symptoms.

When the results of emotions are mapped in the brain, feelings occur. They are the images or representations of emotions and their results in the organism.

Feelings are also linked to a bodily sensation generated by nerve activation, but their mental component focuses on the reprocessing of the images, experiences, facts and thoughts that feed and sustain an emotion, rather than on the assessment of the stimulus.

Thus, it can be stated that a feeling is a mentalisation – conscious and reasoned – of the emotion. As a result, emotions are relatively short-lived, but feelings can persist for a long time.

Dimensions and categories

All emotional states can be described along two fundamental continuous dimensions: 1. the value (either positive or negative) of the emotion (valence), which is distributed along the pleasant-unpleasant axis; and 2. the strength of the emotion (intensity of arousal). Complementary dimensions can be added to these, such as the degree of control, compatibility with social norms of reference, and the novelty or familiarity of the eliciting events. Anger, for example, would be an emotional state characterised by a negative valence and a moderate level of activation; rage, on the other hand, would also have a negative valence but a higher degree of activation. Any emotion could be ordered along these two axes. Cognitive attribution (or, in other words, the association with what we know from our experiences or predictions) makes it possible to integrate the different dimensions with the associated physiological experience.

As for the types of emotions, we can differentiate between primary or basic emotions and secondary (mixed or complex) emotions, which are the result of a combination of several primary emotions.

Primary emotions are described as “complex and largely automatic programmes of action, established by evolution; […] they are a universe of actions performed in the body, ranging from facial expressions and different postures to modifications affecting the viscera and the internal environment” (Damasio 2005). Paul Ekman’s experiments on facial expressions associated with emotions led to the conclusion that the six basic emotions (anger, joy, fear, surprise, disgust and sadness) are universally recognised regardless of age, gender and cultural background.

On the other hand, secondary emotions are behavioural or social. They arise from the combination of primary emotions and develop with the growth of the individual and with social interaction. Envy, shame, yearning, resignation, jealousy, hope, nostalgia, remorse and disappointment are some of the secondary emotions.

Emotion components

Each emotion is associated with the presence of some physiological, cognitive and/or motor modification in the subject experiencing it. Therefore, three organ systems are involved in the emotional experience in a synergic and integrated manner.

Stimuli that are likely to provoke these reactions have what is known as ’emotional competence’ (Damasio 2005). When the brain detects emotionally competent stimuli, it sends specific commands to the endocrine system – which is responsible for the release and regulation of hormones in the bloodstream -, to the autonomic nervous system – which acts on the body’s physiological control systems, homeostasis in general, but also on the cardiovascular system and visceral organs – and to the musculoskeletal system – which is responsible for some typically emotional responses, such as freezing in fear, running away, or emotion-related facial expressions.

Scherer (2001) identifies five components based on the systems involved, as well as on the development of processes and functions:

  • Cognitive component: It is linked to information processing and its organic substrate is the central nervous system. Its fundamental function is the evaluation of events, objects or situations presented to the organism.
  • Neurophysiolgical component: It plays a role in the regulation of organ systems, depending on the central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system and the neuroendocrine system.
  • Motivational component: It is linked to the central nervous system. It prepares and conducts actions.
  • Motor expression component: From the action of the somatic nervous system, it fulfils a communicative function by informing about behavioural reaction and intentions.
  • Subjective feeling component: From the central nervous system, it monitors the internal state of the organism and the interaction it has had with the environment. They produce feelings.

Nowadays, a significant amount of emotion research is being carried out thanks to technological advances that make it possible to examine the brain and its functioning. However, it is also possible to conduct experimental research on the basis of detailed analysis of the dimensions of emotion and the components involved in the processes. Their analysis and measurement provides insight into how emotions affect mental processing and provides very relevant information in various fields of cognitive psychology and linguistics.

Language and emotion

All the elements of language are intimately linked to the cognitive and emotional development of the individual, as well as to their experiences in the environment. When we learn words, in addition to the networks responsible for the phonological and articulatory structure, we activate other areas responsible for sensory and motor information from our experiences with the referenced object. This almost simultaneous coactivation would lead to the creation of lexical networks or neural networks, which incorporate these sensory-motor components as part of the meaning (González Barros et al. 2006).

Language is embodied, and, based on this fact, we can affirm that it is doubly emotional: on the one hand, because in its acquisition process each word enters the neural networks sifted by emotion and, on the other, because during its use (words are stimuli) there are areas activated that resonate those emotional features constituting its meaning.

Language is a corporeal and emotional construction.


Bisquerra, R. (2003). Educación emocional y competencias básicas para la vida. Revista de Investigación Educativa 21(1), 7-43

Damasio, A. (2005). En busca de Spinoza. Neurobiología de la emoción y los sentimientos. Barcelona: Crítica.

González J.; Barros-Loscertales A.; Pulvermüller F.; Meseguer V.; Sanjuán A.; Belloch V. y Ávila C. Reading cinnamon activates olfactory brain regions. Neuroimage 32, 906-912.

Mora, F. (2017). Neuroeducación. Solo se puede aprender aquello que se ama. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.

Scherer, K. R. (2001). Appraisal Considered as a Process of Multi-Level Sequential Checking. En K.R. Scherer, A. Schorr y T. Johnstone (eds.), Appraisal Processes in Emotion: Theory, Methods, Research. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 92–120.

Scherer, K. R. (2005). Scherer, Klaus R. (2005): What are emotions? And how can they be measured? Social Science Information 44, (4), 695–729.

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