Emotions in Psychology: Definition, Biological Components & Survival

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  • 0:12 Phineas Gage
  • 1:50 Affective States
  • 2:25 The Brain and Emotions
  • 2:58 The Importance of Emotions
  • 3:45 Non-Verbal Communications
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Darryl Van Minnen
When railroad worker Phineas Gage's brain was injured in 1848, his emotions completely changed. Find out what parts of the brain affect your emotional intelligence and what made Phineas go from happy-go-lucky guy to crabby curmudgeon.

Phineas Gage

In 1848, a railroad foreman named Phineas Gage suffered a horrible accident. It happened when he was packing gunpowder into a rock. The gunpowder was accidentally ignited, which caused the iron rod with which he had been packing it to be shot into the air and propelled through his head. It entered around his cheekbone, hit his eye, and exited through the top of his skull.

Remarkably, though, Gage survived the accident. Here he is thereafter, holding the offending iron rod. In fact, Gage lived for more than a decade after the accident. It happened in 1848, whereas he did not die until 1860. Soon after the accident, in fact, Gage seemed to be doing more than surviving. He seemed to be doing unexpectedly well. His memory was intact, and he retained basic ability, such as walking and talking. Strangely, though, the accident had drastically altered his personality. Before, he had been a likable guy. After, he was suddenly disagreeable - quick to anger and irresponsible.

Of course, it's possible that the differences in his personality surrounding the accident have been exaggerated, both during his lifetime and long after.


But Gage had certainly suffered damage to his frontal lobes, or to an area of the brain that helps to regulate the experience of emotion. An emotion can be defined as an affective state often accompanied by specific physiological characteristics, with the power to impact thoughts and behaviors.

Indeed, Gage could still walk and talk, think and remember. But he might have lost some of his emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a term referring to the abilities to recognize and to manage emotions.

As Gage's story indicates, certain parts of the brain are involved with emotion. Gage's accident had damaged at least part of his frontal lobes, which number among the regulating parts.

The Amygdala

Additionally, there's the amygdala. Studies show that people with brain injuries here have diminished fear responses. For example, when they're playing games, they don't necessarily seek to win, as people with healthy amygdala tend to do. In fact, they might even seek to lose.

Emotions and Survival

These case studies indicate that, even though emotions are not wholly rational, they are nonetheless important for our well-being. For example, the emotion of fear can keep us safe from dangerous things that might otherwise harm us, such as snakes and spiders.

Somewhat similarly, love for our own children makes us nurture them, even when they're crying in the dead of the night.

So, human emotions help to assure human survival. Furthermore, emotions can help us to feel as though we have worthwhile, meaningful lives. They allow us to feel content with what we do at work, surprise when we receive unexpected gifts, and amusement when reading the comics.

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