Are emotions natural or learned

Felt life experience

Emotions are recognizable in the brain

Just a few decades ago, scientists were largely dependent on animal experiments. Using probes, they stimulated certain brain regions in order to observe and interpret stimulus reaction patterns. Today, on the other hand, high-resolution imaging processes allow the human brain to be seen directly thinking - and feeling.

The emotional patterns and sensations are very different from person to person. However, there is such a thing as basic emotional equipment. Feelings such as anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, contempt, shame, guilt, embarrassment and shyness are innate.

Scientists refer to them as basic or primary emotions. A certain area in the center of our brain, the so-called limbic system, is involved in their development. It plays an important role in emotional evaluation by processing external stimuli and impulses and setting the corresponding vegetative reactions in motion.

But there is another area in the brain that is involved in processing emotions: the prefrontal cortex. This region is responsible for the secondary or social emotions. They include feelings such as compassion, gratitude, but also envy or greed.

Today, emotion researchers tend to refer to them as "attitudes", as these feelings arise from social interactions and the experiences we have in the course of our lives.

Emotional basic equipment and emotion recognition

Emotions are complex behavior patterns that have developed in the course of evolution and that help us to act quickly and appropriately for the situation.

The basic emotions that are given to us from the first breath on are a life-sustaining basic equipment for us. For example, the feeling of fear ensures that in fractions of a second innate mechanisms in our body mobilize emergency programs such as increased alertness, muscle tension and heart rate.

At the same time, the basic emotions have an important signal effect, which are decisive for social coexistence. Each of these emotions, whether fear, anger, joy or disgust, is characterized by physical reactions, by typical facial expressions and gestures.

They are messages to our counterpart. Must I be scared? Isn't the food good? These emotional signals are understood across all cultures, although the forms of expression are not the same everywhere.

For example, a Japanese woman expresses her disgust differently than a German - and yet this expression can be recognized as disgust for both of them. There are often only subtleties in which the two differ in facial expressions and gestures. The innate abilities take on a cultural expression that is learned and practiced from earliest childhood.

Our life determines how our emotions develop

If today emotion researchers watch the brain think, they can recognize which areas and nerve cell associations are activated when a person does something, thinks and feels something.

It is exciting for the scientists to investigate the social states of feeling and emotions. What cannot be seen in the images of the tomograph: How do the basic emotions become what we commonly call feelings, such as envy or gratitude, greed or compassion? How do innate emotions become an inner state, an attitude that manifests itself in an activation in the prefrontal cortex?

Social influence and what we experience play a big role in our emotional makeup. Because every experience is evaluated by emotions, i.e. also coupled with certain feelings.

Children are emotion-driven, they act in an affect. For social coexistence, however, it is necessary to regulate these affects. Therefore, children first have to learn how to deal with these spontaneous feelings - ideally in such a way that it is good for them and others as well.

For example, children are primarily afraid of fire, which makes perfect sense. With the help of the adults, however, you can find out that, with the appropriate caution, you can handle fire without putting yourself in danger.

So the primordial fear of the mammals of fire, which is anchored in us, can be overwritten. Fire can even be associated with joy, at the sight of a sparkler or the cozy warmth of a fireplace.

Right from the start, we learn from social interaction how to evaluate situations and things that we experience and that surround us. All these evaluations are based on two basic psychological needs that have to be satisfied just as much as hunger and thirst.

On the one hand, there is the need for closeness, for solidarity and security. On the other hand, it is the need for the free development of one's potential, for growth and autonomy.

For many of us it is a difficult tightrope walk to get everything in the right balance. Depending on whether and how well we manage to satisfy these basic needs, different secondary emotions or attitudes develop in us.

Accordingly, these attitudes are positive and strengthen us - such as gratitude, confidence, enthusiasm or compassion. Or they are more negative and therefore often a hindrance - such as greed, envy or defiance.

But there is one thing that humans have ahead of other sentient beings: they are self-reflective. We have the great advantage that we become aware of our emotions, that we can watch ourselves feeling, so to speak.

We are able to understand the emotional signals, whether positive or negative, and analyze them. What am I really missing? How can I make up for this deficit? Thus we also have the potential to influence feelings and actively change them.