What about repressed emotions?

Lately, I’ve been arguing, in my ever so erudite way, that emotions are fundamentally physical sensations. You’re about to take your bar exam — which could have significant impact on your future — and your brain sets off various chemical processes which release hormones and neurotransmitters which make you jittery, shaky and have stomach discomfort. Or, the girl you just proposed to accepts your offer of marriage, and the likelihood of your future flourishing increases, so you feel the physical sensations we often associate with joy e.g. a pleasurable warmth in your neck and cheeks etc.

Today, I ran into a bit of a problem with this theory. What about repressed emotions, emotions you don’t feel in any way?

Some people might argue that repressed emotions don’t even exist. But we’ve all heard of situations like someone running into the Catholic priest who molested them as a child and experiencing an onslaught of negative emotions. This makes me suspect that repressed emotions are real.

So let’s re-examine my definition for emotions and see if we can account for this. Part of my presumption is that our brain is like a computer. It’s constantly analyzing data about our environment and situation and calculating what our current odds for survival and even flourishing are. If your brain observes you walking into a lion’s den, it concludes that your odds are dropping, and sends “danger signals” (fear, anxiety etc.) If your brain observes that you just ate a filling meal, it concludes that your odds are rising and releases “pleasure signals” (that general sensation of being satiated.)

So the core of emotion is really the step before we experience the physical sensations; it’s the process during which our brain processes are odds for survival based on our current actions and environment.

So what’s happening with repressed emotions? I would argue it’s a situation where your brain makes a calculation that things are going pretty bad (I’ve never heard of people repressing feelings of joy) — so bad that the physical sensations corollary to the situation are themselves actually dangerous. For example, you get molested by your grandfather, to which the “appropriate” response is to curl up in the fetal position and sob for 20 hours. But to engage in such an activity would leave you a target for predators etc. (remember, throughout most of man’s evolution he was living as a hunter gatherer type) so your brain somehow allows you to sidestep the physical sensations. But the core of the emotion — the knowledge that your grandfather molested you, thus making you realize the world is a far more dangerous place and you might have assumed — is still there, and can still trigger the release of these physical sensations.

6 Responses to “What about repressed emotions?”


  1. John Saleeby

    Man, I watched “Deathwish 3″ last night and then like a total dumb ass I watched “Deathwish 4″ right after it. And, let me tell you, them Movies are LOUSY!!! “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is better than that crap!

    I gotta go to sleep.

  2. Wil

    Yeah, well you know my thoughts on death wish three. Not sure I ever saw death wish 4, but I think I did see death wish five.

  3. John Saleeby

    I thought you said “Death Wish Live” there. I guess that would be Charles Bronson’s stage show. I wouldn’t go see that. Mostly because Charles Bronson is dead and to see his rotting corpse manipulated by strings like a vigilant marionette would be rather distasteful. What Puppeteer would be hard up enough to take that gig? That would be a good idea for a Tom Green Movie.

  4. John Saleeby

    I just found out that they are finally releasing “Battle Royale” in the US so everybody go see it.

    I’m going to sleep now.

  5. Larwence

    Battle Royale rules!

  6. John Saleeby

    Fuckin’ A!!