Edited by Ralph D. Ellis and Natika Newton
[Advances in Consciousness Research 16] 2000
► pp. 119–131
How to Understand the Competing Approaches to Human Emotion
Quick pharmaceutical fixes are increasingly the treatment of choice for emotional problems. Depressed? Take Prozac. Anxious? Take Xanax. Fearful? Take Paxil. It’s an anti-depressant, but it also cures some phobias. Sexually inhibited? Try Wellbutrin. That sometimes works.
A friend of mine had a dog that was depressed. The doctors diagnosed the pet with a mood disorder and prescribed medication as a solution. This is how much biomedical views about emotions and how they should be controlled have infected our culture. My point here is not to knock modern pharmaceuticals, nor is it to claim that, in our hurry to find quick fixes, we over-prescribe mood altering drugs. But the fact is that popular culture now sees our emotions as simple brain twitches; to change our feelings, we just change the twitch. Depression and anxiety are analogous to headaches or heartburn; they are all simple bodily responses to various stressors.
It would belabor the obvious to point out that our emotions are much more complicated than acid indigestion. At the same time, wondering how it is we should understand human emotions is a legitimate theoretical question. Popular culture and the popular press don’t have it quite right, that is certain, but how far off are they?
This essay will try to address that question. I propose a view of emotions that pays homage to their complexity as well as to their basic neurobiological roots. In brief, my main points are these: There are currently two dominant traditions in the study of emotion, although not all approaches fit neatly into either category: the constructivists and the reductionists. The constructivists hold that human emotions are constructed out of our social interactions with others. In contrast, the reductionists believe that our complex emotions reflect common affective responses found across the animal kingdom. Here, I try to show — perhaps paradoxically — that both camps are largely right.