Vincent Van Gogh described emotions as ‘the great captains of our lives’. They are powerful forces that direct attention, shape perception, organise memory and motivate engagement and learning. Emotions play a central role in how we organise our sense of self and how we relate to others and the world.

Emotions help people process complex information and situations rapidly and automatically in order to produce actions required to meet personal needs. Emotions inform us about what is important and knowing what is important tells us what to do and who we are. They coordinate experience and create a sense of wholeness.

Emotion is an assessment of a situation’s impact on a person’s well-being. Feeling good and bad, pleasant or unpleasant qualify as emotions because they are meaningful reactions to situations. Emotions are physiological reactions that stimulate the response to a danger, an opportunity or anything in between. Emotions evolved as programmes that stimulate a behavioural response.

There are three aspects to emotions:

  • We experience them as sensations in the body
  • Words or images in the mind
  • Action tendencies (an impulse to engage in a particular behaviour)

Emotions do not just move us into action but also evoke responses in others. Charles Darwin and John Bowlby claimed that the most important function of emotional expression is communication. Emotion communicates to ourselves and others about what is most important.