Not all of our e motions come from the old parts of our brain; we also interpret our experiences to create a more complex array of emotional experiences. For instance, the amygdala may sense fear when it senses that the body is falling, but that fear may be interpreted completely differently (perhaps even as “excitement”) when we are falling on a roller-coaster ride than when we are falling from the sky in an airplane that has lost power. The cognitiveinterpretations that accompanyemotions—known as cognitive appraisal—allow us to experience a much larger and more complex set of secondary emotions, as shown in Figure 10.1. Although they are in large part cognitive, our experiences of the secondary emotions are determined in part by arousal (on the vertical axis of Figure 10.1) and in part by their valence—that is, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant feelings (on the horizontal axis of Figure 10.1)
When you succeed in reaching an important goal, you might spend some time enjoying your secondary emotions, perhaps the experience of joy, satisfaction, and contentment. But when your close friend wins a prize that you thought you had deserved, you might also experience a variety of secondary emotions (in this case, the negative ones)—for instance, feeling angry, sad, resentful, and ashamed. You might mull over the event for weeks or even months, experiencing these negative emotions each time you think about it (Martin & Tesser, 2006). 1
The distinction between the primary and the secondary emotions is paralleled by two brain pathways: a fast pathway and a slow pathway (Damasio, 2000; LeDoux, 2000; Ochsner, Bunge, Gross, & Gabrielli, 2002). 2 The thalamus acts as the major gatekeeper in this process (Figure 10.2). Our response to the basic emotion of fear, for instance, is primarily determined by the fast pathway through the limbic system. When a car pulls out in front of us on the highway, the thalamus activates and sends an immediate message to the amygdala. We quickly move our foot to the brake pedal. Secondary emotions are more determined by the slow pathway through the frontal lobes in the cortex. When we stew in jealousy over the loss of a partner to a rival or recollect on our win in the big tennis match, the process is more complex. Information moves from the thalamus to the frontal lobes for cognitive analysis and integration, and then from there to the amygdala. We experience the arousal of emotion, but it is accompanied by a more complex cognitive appraisal, producing more refined emotions and behavioral responses.
Although emotions might seem to you to be more frivolous or less important in comparison to our more rational cognitive processes, both emotions and cognitions can help us make effective decisions. In some cases we take action after rationally processing the costs and benefits of different choices, but in other cases we rely on our emotions. Emotions become particularly important in guiding decisions when the alternatives between many complex and conflicting alternatives present us with a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity, making a complete cognitive analysis difficult. In these cases we often rely on our emotions to make decisions, and these decisions may in many cases be more accurate than those produced by cognitive processing (Damasio, 1994; Dijksterhuis, Bos, Nordgren, & van Baaren, 2006; Nordgren & Dijksterhuis, 2009; Wilson & Schooler, 1991). 3