Theoretical Conceptualization of Emotions
Present understanding of emotions is characterized by two contrasting approaches: Whether emotions have a “natural” base or whether they are entirely socially constructed.
According to the Natural Base Approach emotions serve a biological function and are evolutionarily inherited. Basic emotional responses like fear, anger, happiness, disgust and sadness have been developed by evolutionary forces to survive. This position holds that there are universal response patterns emotion linked to an action tendency that is evoked by a specific event.
Social–Constructivist Theory in turn is more focused on the way in which emotions are shaped in a social context, positing that they are acquired during childhood, negotiated in daily life, and used to regulate relations and interactions. Proponents emphasize the subjectivity of feelings.
A third point of view seems to be articulated in the Appraisal Theories, which integrates both evolutionary and social learning aspects of emotions. It assumes that emotional responding consists of a sequence of stimulus or event coding and appraisal, followed by a a spontaneous action tendency and a syndrome of responses (physiological changes, motor expression, and feeling states), and finally, an actual behavior or regulation.
Physiology and Emotions
Accordingly, an emotional reaction can be viewed as a bundle of changes of endocrinologic and physiological functions, skeletomotoric behavior and subjective-affective experience. These changes are driven by cognitive-affective appraisal-processes in the brain.
Specific changes of specific physiological parameters provide a window view into the brain responses: Changes in physiological parameters are an unequivocally part in basic emotional syndromic responses to events or stimuli.
Studies on emotion recognition report about 80% of accuracy in the recognition of emotioans based only on peripheral physiological parameters like electrodermal, respiratory and cardio-vascular activity.
Whereas single parameters reflect the level of neural arousal, it has been shown that using multiple parameters of physiological changes allows for differentiated recognition of basic emotional response qualities like fear, anger, attention, disgust, sadness and happiness.
On the other hand, if one looks only for global emotional responses like stress versus non-stress one parameter seems to be sufficient. An example would be skin conductance changes.
Neuro- and Biological Psychology
From the background of neuro and biological psychology cognitive appraisal can be understood as the neural processing of information. Several brain parts, like the hippocampus and amygdala as well as prefrontal cortex are involved in specific interactive loops, which finally - via hypothalamus and other deep brain parts - mobilize the autonomic nervous system and its branches of sympathicus and parasympathicus. Hence, cognitive processing results in nervous impulses, which finally reach body organs and change (at least temporarily) functions.
Besides endocrinological feedback loops, it is the electrodermal, the cardio-vascular and the respiratory functions, whose changes do reflect specific mobilization or de-mobilization in sympathetic and parasympathetic neural activity, and thereby the resulting responses of brain processing or responding to events or stimuli.
Neuro-physiological processing can be considered as predominantly spontaneous and automatic, largely unconscious. Feeling states in turn partly depend on stimulus interpretation and appraisal preferences, as well as on voluntatirily regulation of expression and behavior.