What is an emotion?
No, I don’t mean ‘can you name off some emotions,’ I mean ‘can you describe or explain what an emotion is, can you say what this ‘emotion’ stuff is, can you describe how they work?’
It’s not easy, to be fair.
Let’s step back a bit. What causes an emotion to happen? We can answer that using a range of different kinds of language, talking about triggers or precursors, inputs, activators or whatever, but to put it simply… a cause (a thought, sensory input, memory, whatever) has an effect, and that effect is big enough that it takes a form we recognise as emotion. So general it’s bordering on meaningless, perhaps.
What kind of things prompt these ‘emotion’ responses? Pretty much anything can, in the right circumstances. When we think about how we react to most experiences, when we describe the reaction we very often use emotional terms, or terms that imply an underlying emotion. Note – when we react. It is not just any experience, just the ones we feel warrant a response. What drives the decision to respond is this flip-switch thing called emotion.
We’re not generally taught to think about ourselves this way. It is instilled in us very much that we are rational beings and that our responses really ought to be ‘mature’ or ‘considered’ and that an emotional response is in some way irrational or immature.
Let’s take an example. It is a warm day and you’ve been busy and are a bit overheated and dehydrated, so you go grab a cool drink. Focus on that drink. What is your response as you chug it down? How would you describe your state afterwards? I had to rewrite that because initially I went with ‘how do you feel…’ in both questions and recognised I was already pushing ‘emotion’ terms. That in itself tells us something. But get back to that cool drink…
The words that people typically offer at this point are things like Uncomfortable, Irritated, Want, Anticipation, and later Relief, Satisfaction, Relaxed, Pleased and so on. It is not that hard to see that we’re dealing with specifically emotional terms. Humans do not generally approach a scenario like this with thoughts about osmotic pressure, respiration, capillary dilation, sodium levels, core body temperature and so on.
However it may be, though, whether you enjoy using sciency ideas or just are gagging for something cold, behind that are the same experiences, and the reason you even notice those experiences are what matters here. So, why do you notice? What form does that noticing take? We are right there in the space where sensory input transitions to conscious awareness, and the crucial question is, How does that sensory input trigger that conscious awareness? Why now? Why not 15 minutes ago?
What’s happened is that something has ‘tripped a switch,’ something has crossed a threshold, like rising waters spilling over a bank or levee. That’s what creates the things we call emotions. I did a picture. It’s not pretty but it is functional.
The middle line we can look on as a sort of ideal calm state. The blue and red lines are threshold values. The jerky yellow line is our emotional state over the course of, say, a day. As time passes, certain experiences may be nicer or less nice, but we roll on because life’s all about rolling on through minor bumps and glides. Then something happens that is particularly nice or particularly unpleasant – your partner messages to suggest eating out at a restaurant you really like, or you get to your car to find someone has dinged your car door and left a scratch. Okay, now we have an experience that kicks you over a threshold and an otherwise average day becomes loads better, or turns sour for a bit. Your response is emotional. Surprise.
Okay, that’s not exactly a revelation. It is also reflected precisely in the way that synapses in neurons fire, and as those very signals are the basis for poking us into feeling emotions, the idea of crossing a threshold and triggering a signal is a fair reflection of what’s actually happening on a cellular level. Cool.
More than that, we can say that when a person is in a chronic state of elevated emotion (usually in a negative way like anxiety or frustration or fear), it is now no surprise to find that it takes a smaller ‘input signal’ to push that wavy yellow line over the threshold. On a scale where going down to a 2 or up to a 10 will cross a threshold for you, if you are typically around the 4.5-5.5 range, a couple of ‘two unit’ events are not going to bring you to the threshold. If you are typically in the 8-8.5 range, just one would be enough. And that applies both for positive and negative emotions.
However, we don’t experience ‘an emotion’ as if there’s just this homogenous soup of emotion stuff. Agreed. They have what you could call personalities (we give them helpful names like ‘anger’, ‘amusement’, ‘distress’, ‘hope’ etc.), and they can be categorised as positive or negative (anticipation versus distress for example), and through time – we have emotions that refer only to past events (like regret) or the future (hope). They have also been grouped into clusters with one being a more intense variant on the previous, placed in opposition to each other, classed as related in varying degrees, being simple emotions or compounds of two or three others… There is no one clear-cut system that is generally accepted to classify emotions, and pretty much every one that has been attempted struggles when cultural differences come into play such as gender or social roles, tradition and ethnicity, age, perceptions of things like race, criminality, age, and more. It is really, really messy.
But… for our purposes, none of this matters. Phew! What does matter is that emotion is kicked off at a threshold point, and that things like past experiences, current state of mind, sensory stressors, and your sense that you have some degree of control over where things go next, are crucial in determining whether you feel a given emotion, how intensely you feel that emotion and your sense that you can control how it intensifies or dissipates.
There’s a hint in there about a key concept that lies at the heart of the whole experience of emotions – control. Emotion is, in essence, about the degree to which we feel we have control over what has happened, what is happening or what happens next.
This is why emotions are really important when we think about how Autistic people experience life and the how and why behind the way Autistics respond to those experiences.
Emotions play an important role in shaping how Autistic people experience and respond to their environment including their internal environment (such as bodily functions or thoughts) and their ‘human environment’ (the people they encounter and the nature of those encounters). At the heart of all that is a person’s sense of control over the course of events, and nowhere is this more evident than in the business of interpersonal relations. In this sphere, Autistics are – paradoxically – typified as unemotional, cold or unfeeling… but also prone to acting out, over-reaction, meltdowns, ‘tantrums’ and so on. Hmm.
The thing is, those observations are not wholly off the mark, but they are also not actually a paradox. Explaining how this is the case reveals the central role that a sense of control over one’s destiny – or autonomy – plays, and not just for Autistics but for all humans. This is because Autistic people are so utterly, totally, typically human, and what affects any person’s sense of autonomy and thus their emotional state is exactly the same as affects Autistics. What differs is not the person as such, but the experience they have.
And there goes a whole pile of pathologised ideas about how ‘disordered’ Autistics are! Whoosh!
So, let’s take an example, because this all sounds fine in theory but if it doesn’t translate to real scenarios it might as well be a fairy tale.
Going to lunch in a busy café with friends might be a really positive emotional experience, lots of buzz and bustle and joking and catching up, nice food, nice smells, all that stuff.
Now try doing that when you’ve been for tests for a potentially life-changing medical condition, you’ve not told anyone, and you really don’t know what the tests will show. It is not the same experience. You are distracted, maybe irritable. It is hard to focus on conversation, laugh at jokes, or enjoy your food. You feel obliged to force yourself to interact, to chuckle at jokes, to remember to ask questions but it’s a façade because most of your brain is busy elsewhere. The noise is jarring rather than a happy clatter, conversation is a struggle rather than an easy flow.
What’s going on? The emotional experience is utterly different, and at the heart of it is just one (albeit significant) environmental difference, a difference that exists not in the café but in your head. Even so, it is as ‘real’ a part of your personal environment as that cup of coffee or the smell of warm muffin or your friend’s voice. Instead of a mix of emotions constantly popping their heads over the ‘positive’ emotional threshold, they’re digging tunnels under the ‘negative’ threshold, and because they relate to something you cannot currently control (your test results) and the possible implications of that (something life-changing), they’re not going to go away easily. Constantly pushing them back under cover is hard work and for every one you push back, another pops up. Worse, this is distracting, and more negative feelings arise because it is a struggle to keep track of what’s happening in the café, and to respond in a friendly, interested way. Are you even succeeding in pretending? They can probably tell ‘something’s up’ despite your efforts, and that’s something you don’t want to talk about right now.
This is all about a sense of control, and the emotions you feel are linked in both scenarios to how much you feel in control of your piece of this world.
Same scenario, but this time you are Autistic and you go to the café at a quiet time, with one or two friends. You snack and have some tea. You chat quietly and because the lights are dimmed, the blind is partly down, and there’s almost nobody else there, you can enjoy the food and the smells, engage comfortably in conversation. You can feel at ease saying ‘okay I need to split soon’ without feeling obliged to hang around longer than feels comfortable. Anything in your environment that could be unpleasant is at low levels and manageable. You can keep track of the chat. You feel this situation is under control.
Now, do it again, at lunchtime. You are stressed out by the environment itself – the constant coming and going of customers, the sudden hiss of the coffee machine or clatter of plates, the barrage of noisy voices that blurs into a cloud of booming sound. You want to chat but just following what’s being said is a struggle. You can’t remember what your food even tasted like (did I have that cheese toastie in the end? No, soup. Glance at the empty bowl realising that you don’t remember eating…) and when someone asks casually ‘so how was the soup?’ you smile mechanically and say ‘oh, fine.’ And now you’ve lost track of that interesting conversation about the roadworks on the bypass. Ugh. It’s stressful, frustrating, confusing, distressing even.
You could go into lockdown and shut off the emotions, carry out an A-B-C of nods, laughs and responses and hold off until you get home to let it out. A self-imposed form of control, over yourself at least, because everything else is outside any kind of control. Alternatively, you can respond to the sense of lost control and get agitated, edgy, irritable, possibly make a snarky comment or get all sullen, leave suddenly. It is all about how you respond emotionally, when you respond, and how you exercise control… if you can.
On a general level, both these scenarios are the same. It is just about a person in a café who feels they do or do not have control over their experience and responses, how that is played out in emotions, and how those emotions are intertwined with their sense of control.
Great. So what?
Here’s what – that busy café experience is in one or another form played out constantly as a normal daily experience for many Autistic people, on a bus or train, in a classroom or office, in a shop or pub, or just walking the dog.
Imagine that experience of waiting for test results, and imagine going through that twice or four times or ten times in a day, every day, right through your life. It’ll break you. It’ll break you pretty damn quick.
You could just shut down emotionally, barricade yourself in and endure until you get space to release it all privately, or you may not manage that and end up flipping out in an outburst of emotion – intolerance, anger, tears, tantrumming, snarling, glowering sullenness. You could be ‘unemotional’ or you could be ‘over-emotional,’ and the cause? One and the same. Too much unpredictable, uncontrollable stuff, too many demands on your attention and thoughts.
Of course, if you were to blurt out suddenly about your worries and fears around that medical test and the wait for results, what it could mean for you… cue all the empathy and compassion, kind words and support. It might be way outside the experience of the others with you, but they have an idea about all this kind of thing and how you’re supposed to respond. You maybe are not so lacking control after all.
This is not an option typically open for Autistic people dealing with sunlight slanting into their eyes, noxious smells, disorienting background movements and noise, and much more. These are things everyone else is also experiencing right now and they know how it feels. It doesn’t feel bad. What are you on about? Ugh.
You’re not even in control of your own story now. You are over-reacting, creating a fuss, spoiling things. Your own friends are now unintentionally gaslighting you just when what you needed was support and consideration. And there you go with a whole new set of emotional triggers.
So, how important are emotions? Huge. Essential. They are right there at the core of the decisions around how we respond to our experiences. They say “this is important! respond!”
The words emotion, motivation and motion derive from the one root meaning, and appreciating just how emotions are the motivators that drive our ‘motions’ (or actions, or responses, if you like) makes a big difference to understanding what goes on between ‘cause’ and ‘effect,’ or what gets called ‘stimulus’ and ‘behaviour.’
It is also a great way to assess just how much control we have over that bit of the world we lay claim to, our personal space in its many forms. If you include the word ‘desire’ it perhaps gets easier to spot – when you experience something and desire to act on it, that desire is in the form of an emotion (we want to vent our anger, weep our sorrow, pace out our frustration, or clap our delight). If you want to sustain the emotion, or want to cause it to dissipate, checking to see if your response was successful in achieving that is a quick, easy way to establish to what extent you do indeed have things under control.
Super-simple example: The TV is too loud. The emotional effect is unpleasant. You desire to exercise control over this. You grab the TV controls and lower the volume. Quick emotional check: the unpleasant effect ceases. Cool. You are in control. All is good. It is as simple as that:
Experience -> Emotion -> Desire -> Decision -> Action -> Outcome -> Check -> Success / Fail
We do this over and over hundreds of times a day. How close we are to a given threshold depends on our circumstances, on our past experiences, on our expectations, and it determines how often daily events have an emotional effect, and how much effort goes into addressing or expressing that. Understanding this and applying it to basically everything that Autistic people experience, to every observation of Autistic ‘behaviour,’ reveals that Autistic people are not really any different to anyone else, we are just constantly pushed way too close to those emotional thresholds way too often, and that ‘black box’ that behaviourists refuse to discuss in between input and ‘behaviour’ turns out to not be incomprehensible, and to actually be really very important.
Start from there, and the pillars of what allegedly characterises Autistic people start to fall, one after another, boom, boom, boom… just examples of humans being human after all, and what’s left is a vulnerable, sensitive, patient, determined, passionate, resourceful human being who just needs the world to cut them a bit of slack.
This show was brought to you with the emotional support of:
Siouxie and the Banshees – The Scream, 1978
Sweet Smoke – Just a Poke, 1970
Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Concerto nr.3 in C minor, Op.37
Grateful Dead – ‘Dark Star’ from Live/Dead, 1969