I hope this is the right (or rightest) place to ask this question, I wasn't sure whether this question is more appropriate for cogsci or biology. After all, it does concern the biology of emotions.

To my knowledge, it is established research that the brain 'knows' what emotions you are having by examining their manifestations in the body. This absurd rube-goldbergian wiring can for instance be used to force oneself to become happier (at least temporarily) by smiling for a few minutes.

This brings up the question, whether emotions have any identity separate from a cluster of bodily sensations (or even more specifically, muscle contractions) at all.

It is certainly true (by introspection for e.g.) that 'negative' emotions are accompanied by muscle contradictions. On the other hand, there are several different 'negative' emotions that can be easily distinguished by the person having the emotion (e.g. shame and fear). Unfortunately I am not able to simply recall the sensations I had when I was ashamed or fearful from memory and compare them, but I would assume you could even tell from the outside, simply by looking at the person afflicted, which of the two emotions they are going through.

So, what does the research say? Are emotions uniquely recognizable by facial expression/muscle contractions? Or do emotions have some kind of 'hidden variables' in the brain?

  • $\begingroup$ smiling is also achieved by muscle contractions $\endgroup$
    – Fizz
    Oct 15, 2017 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ Do you have references re "established research"? Otherwise, I would recommend asking a question that makes fewer assumptions, such as "what causes emotions?", in which case I will mark this as a duplicate of cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/13621/what-causes-emotions. Other questions to look at: cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/10961/…, cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/16854/… $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Oct 16, 2017 at 4:24
  • $\begingroup$ I read about this in the book "The Mindful Way out of Depression". There some specific references were mentioned, but I don't have the book at hand. Note that at the time of phrasing this question, I was not aware of the distinction between emotion and affect, and my use of the term "emotion" was completely informal. $\endgroup$ Oct 16, 2017 at 13:21

1 Answer 1


Your brain mentally represents afferent bodily input as affect, or feelings of pleasantness/unpleasantness and arousal (Craig, 2002). In certain theories (e.g., Barrett, 2017), your emotions are cognitive interpretations (conceptualizations) of your affect in a context.

In general, there is very weak evidence that discrete emotions correspond to specific and reliable bodily responses (for the most up-to-date meta-analysis, see Siegel et al., in press).

There is also indeterminate evidence for specific and reliable correspondences with facial movements. This has not been studied well enough to be known, although there is compelling evidence to suggest that there are no specific/reliable links on average (see Hillel Aviezer's work).

In general, emotion research is converging on the view that emotional events are highly variable, both within and across emotion categories, as well as within and across individuals and cultures. We see this variability in neural activity, physiology, behavior, hormones, vocalizations, facial movements, and so on. From this perspective, there are no unique emotion signatures.

  • $\begingroup$ So in this use of the word, "emotions" aren't feelings but rather (and only) the mental concepts extracted from them (e.g. not a specific feeling of heaviness, but rather the idea "i am sad" that pops in your head)? Or how is the term "emotion" defined? What other inputs are used to create emotions, other than the affects? (There must be other inputs, for otherwise emotions would be functions of affect, and therefore functions of bodily input). $\endgroup$ Oct 15, 2017 at 12:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @BlendBender That's more or less correct. Emotion is a kind of "situated conceptualization," which would be traditionally labeled as a cognitive process. Emotions differ on affect and conceptual content. For example, anger and fear are affectively similar--negative valence and high arousal--but differ in conceptual content. Anger and fear are just concepts. $\endgroup$
    – mrt
    Oct 15, 2017 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ That brings up the question how you know what emotion you are having, in particular if (externally observable) affect is not enough to differentiate between different emotions. It seems not very likely that an angry person mistakes his emotions for fear, or a fearful person mistakes his emotions for anger, even if they would experience internal verbal thought claiming so. $\endgroup$ Oct 16, 2017 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ @BlenderBender Well, emotions aren't natural kinds. They're socioculturally constructed concepts. They're not universal. They're not evolutionarily conserved. They're invented for organizational, communicative, and action purposes. You can never "know" what emotion you're experiencing because there's no objective way to determine that you're experiencing a certain emotion. It's all made up, albeit socially shared given cultural constraints. $\endgroup$
    – mrt
    Oct 16, 2017 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ That may all be true, but whatever emotions are and how they are constructed, the fact remains that they are a very stable phenomenon: you don't simply mistake one emotion for another, even if the two are associated with the same affects, and you couldn't even if you wanted to. $\endgroup$ Oct 16, 2017 at 13:16

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