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The 3 Functions of Emotion

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

Imagine if you standing on the edge of a cliff, heart pounding and palms sweaty, as you decide whether to take that exhilarating leap into the water below. In that moment, your emotions are doing more than just making you feel a certain way; they're guiding your actions, sending signals to your inner self, and communicating something to those around you. Emotions are far more than mere feelings, they are the bridge between our physical bodies and our minds, helping that immaterial part of ourselves understand the physical realities, or at least perceived realities, in the world around us.



Emotions and Biology

Before delving into the functional aspects of emotions, it's important to ground our understanding in biology. Emotions are primarily rooted in the brain's limbic system, a complex network that includes structures like the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus. These regions don't operate in isolation; they communicate with the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher cognitive functions. This interaction leads to the emotional experiences we are familiar with, such as joy, sadness, or anger.


Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, along with hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, are critical in modulating our emotional states. These biochemical agents trigger physiological responses—like quickened heart rate or shallow breathing—that we recognize as the bodily experience of emotion. Thus, emotion is not merely a state of mind but an experience that engages the entire body.


The 3 Functions of Emotion

Emotions have developed to fulfill three purposes, and these purposes help us act, communicate, and signal. They are the link between the immaterial world of the mind, to the physical reality of the body.


They Motivate us to Act

One of the primary functions of emotions is to motivate us to act. Consider the emotion of fear. From a survival perspective, fear compels us to flee from dangerous situations. This "fight or flight" response is a biological imperative, driving us to action that may save our lives. Similarly, the emotion of happiness or joy often motivates us to engage in behaviors that have led to positive outcomes in the past, reinforcing them for the future. Even negative emotions like sadness serve a purpose; they may motivate us to withdraw and reflect, or seek help and social support.


They Help Us Communicate with Ourselves

Emotions also serve as a sophisticated form of communication with ourselves. They act as indicators or signposts, reflecting our psychological state and pointing us toward areas of our lives that require attention. For example, chronic stress or anxiety might be a signal to reconsider lifestyle choices or to engage in stress-reducing activities. Feeling elated after completing a challenging project communicates a sense of accomplishment and validates the effort invested. Emotions serve as a mirror reflecting our needs, values, and priorities, helping us navigate the complexities of life.

They Help us Communicate with Others

Lastly, emotions serve as powerful tools for communicating with others. Most of this communication is non-verbal, conveyed through facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. These emotional signals are universally recognized and serve as a social glue, fostering connections and mutual understanding. For instance, a smile can serve as a welcoming gesture, promoting social interaction and cooperation, while a scowl or frown may serve as a warning sign, indicating displeasure or disagreement. The capacity to accurately perceive and interpret these emotional signals is known as emotional intelligence, a critical skill in managing interpersonal relationships effectively.

Emotions are complex, multifunctional experiences that are crucial to human existence. They motivate us to act, serving both survival and psychological needs. They communicate vital information to us about our internal states, helping us make adjustments as needed. Furthermore, they serve as powerful tools for social communication, fostering relationships and enabling complex social interaction.


Ignoring emotions only makes the messages they carry grow louder over time, simply because it is their job to communicate. When we ignore that communication, for good or ill, they make a point to communicate their message, even if it comes at great cost.

It is for this reason that we need to seek understanding of our emotions and hear out their messages. We may not always agree with those messages — In fact, if we are to be healthy we must not always agree with our emotions, they can be wrong, but we must at least be honest and listen. To understand our emotions is to understand ourselves.

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