What Is an Emotion?

In 1962, two scientists, Stanley Schachter and Jerry Singer, at Columbia University did an experiment that would be illegal today. It would be illegal because the researchers deceived the participants. In the study, volunteers were told that they were receiving vitamin shots to see if it would affect their eyesight, but the researchers had other plans. Instead of giving the participants vitamins, they really gave them shots of adrenaline.

Some of the subjects were told that the vitamin injections would cause physical side effects, like tremors, palpitations, and flushing, while others were not informed of any adverse effects. Regardless, the shots caused all the participants to experience strong physiological reactions. After being injected, the volunteers were put in contact with stooges. “Stooge”, also known as “confederate”, is a research term for an actor—someone who pretends to be a test subject, but really works for the researchers to elicit a response from the real participants. In this case, some of the stooges pretended to be exceedingly happy or while others overly angry. The subjects who were informed about the side effects of the shot blamed their physical sensations, such as a racing heart, on the so-called vitamins. The subjects who were not informed, however, relied on their environment to make sense of what they were feeling. Those who were with a happy stooge reported being overjoyed, while those with an angry stooge reported feeling enraged. This is a classic example of the human mind’s tendency to fabricate explanations for what is taking place in the moment.  

The experiment led to what is called the two-factor theory of emotion, also known as the Schachter-Singer theory. This theory suggests that an emotion is made up of two things—thought and physical sensation. Stated simply: thought + sensation = emotion.  Or as I like to say: an emotion is a sensation with a story attached to it.

You can’t have an emotion without both factors. Imagine you’re cut off in traffic and that leads you to experience an emotion—anger. In this case, you notice tightness in your chest. Maybe your face feels hot, and your jaw tenses and protrudes out. Along with these sensations, you notice thoughts arising about chasing the guy down and doing something that you might not be proud of the next day.

As sensations in the body combines with thoughts, the emotion is formed. Without a sensation, a thought is nothing more than a thought. Likewise, without a thought, a sensation is just a sensation. It takes both working in concert to experience an emotion, and as the two factors collide, they fuel each other, which perpetuates emotions much longer than is needed.

Thoughts of the guy who cut you off lead to sensation that then causes more thoughts, that cause more sensation, that cause more thought. It’s a loop—sensation, thought, sensation, thought, sensation, thought, and so on—an emotional cycle that some people can’t seem to get off of.

The two-factor way of conceptualizing emotion is a powerful tool for self-understanding because it takes the guesswork out of exploring your emotional experience. As we’ve said, an emotion is a combination of thought and sensation. But if you think about it, aren’t thoughts and sensations all you’ve ever experienced? Life can only be experience through sense perceptions (internal and external sense organs in the body) and mental perceptions.

Emotions are hard to understand because it’s hard to put your finger on them. When you’re afraid, you can feel sensation in your body and notice thoughts in your mind. But where is fear? When you look closer, you see that what you would label as “fear” isn’t something that can actually be found in reality. There is only sensation, thought, and a label “fear” that the mind adds. This is similar to a storm. A storm consists of many things—lightning, wind, rain, thunder—but where is “storm”? You can’t put your finger on it. To understand a storm, you have to understand the tangible factors that make it up. The same goes for emotions. Instead on mindfully observing emotions, attention should be on observing the two parts that constitute them. As you gain a deeper understanding of sensation in your body and thoughts in your mind, you will naturally know everything there is to know about emotions.