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Q: What is emotion, and why do we have it?
The streets were quiet and dark when rehearsal ended at 2:00 a.m. and Dan started walking to his car. The School of Communications and Theatre had been built on the edge of campus, a relatively new incursion into an inner city of mostly abandoned buildings and smoldering resentment. Normally if people left the building after dark, they called security, which would send a few officers to create an illusion of activity and safety. But tonight, Dan was alone.
As he reached the top of the street where he had parked his car, he saw, down at the other end of the block, two figures pass beneath one of the few dim street lights that still worked. A slight glint reflected from a piece of metal in the hand of the second figure. They wore sweatshirts with hoods, and they turned up the street toward Dan. "Oh, hell," he thought, "this isn't good." He had started toward them at just about the same time they turned toward him. Dan glanced at a walkway that went off to his right toward another university building, dark and empty but perhaps with an unlocked door. A moment of decision. He didn't turn, and he and the figures kept walking toward each other into deepening darkness. Dan's heart raced, and he began to sweat a bit.
Just before he reached his car, the two young men stopped him.
"Got a quarter?" the one in front of Dan asked. The other stood behind him, and carried a large crescent wrench in his left hand. "Sure," Dan said and thrust his hands into his jean pockets with the sudden realization that he was a moron, standing there, both hands trapped, while some guy with a wrench stood behind him. He fumbled with the change he felt in one pocket, quickly producing a coin. "Oh, that's just a nickel." Babbling now, he desperately felt around for a quarter, found one, gave it to the guy in front of him, and stepped out from between them toward his car, as they moved to continue up the street, laughing at Dan, mocking him. He felt that a game had ended—a game that he was doomed to lose. In one outcome (top)
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he lived, and in the other he died. Dan sat in his car feeling sick, shaking, simultaneously filled with fear and elation, and wondering what had happened. Why had he walked toward them? How had he survived? All he could come up with then was that he had been lucky, which was part of it but not all of it.
Today, thanks to insights from neuroscience, we can understand that Dan's emotions saved him. In fact, that's the purpose of our emotions: to keep us alive. This idea that emotions are essential to our survival may be startling; most of us tend to think of emotions as simple (though often powerful) feelings, like joy, sadness, anger, and fear. However, from a neurobiological and evolutionary perspective, emotions are behaviors and thoughts that are automatically triggered in certain contexts, either real or simulated. Emotions are physical manifestations of our reactions to what is happening around us—the increased heart rate, sweating, gestures, facial expressions, and vocal noises. And emotions produce thoughts about what we will do, thoughts, in a general sense, of moving toward or moving away from the thing that has triggered our emotion. If the trigger offers pleasure (social connection, hope, reward), we usually approach; if the trigger threatens, we typically move away or try to make the threat move away.