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Geriatr Psychol Neuropsychiatr Vieil. 2011 Mar;9(1):69-81. doi: 10.1684/pnv.2010.0249.

[What is an emotion? An introduction to the study of emotions].

[Article in French]

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University Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris VI.


Human emotions are hypothetic constructs based on psychological and physiological data. According to the psychoevolutionnist theories, all emotions derive from a set of discrete basic emotions, common to human and animals, genetically determined. Basic emotions are thus considered as physiological processes based on specific neuronal circuits. On the contrary, for appraisal and social theories, emotions are psychological processes resulting from the cognitive appraisal of the stimulus-event for the well-being and objectives of the subject, and are of social origin. They develop during life, especially in childhood, from interactions between the individual and his environement. According to the appraisal or constructivist theories, no sharp distinction is to be made between emotions and other manifestations of the affective life. Emotions require the global functioning of the brain, even if more specialized regions are involved. They play a fundamental role in the development of the child's psychological and social life. They mediate the subject's response to the stimulus-event, allowing more appropriate reactions than fixed instinctive ones. Nevertheless, the adaptative function of every emotion or their every component can be questioned. Emotional disturbances are major consequences of psychiatric or neurological disorders. The link between the results of neuropsychological studies of emotions based on the recognition of emotional facal expression according to the basic emotion theory, and the emotional disturbances experienced in daily life is highly questionable on account of the high complexity of human affective life.

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