The difference between emotion and feeling is something that often causes confusion when it comes to understanding how the human mind works.

The concepts of emotion and feeling can be easily confused and, in fact, even within the world of psychology they are often used as if they were synonymous.

However, some authors defend the idea that there are differences between emotions and feelings and that, therefore, they are words used to label different mental phenomena.

Distinguishing emotion and feeling

When we talk about this topic, it is important to bear in mind that there are different theories about emotion , which provide different explanations about how our emotional and psychic facets work and, from the perspective of neuroscience, about how the part of the brain responsible for producing emotions works: the limbic system.

However, within the authors and researchers who separate the concepts of feelings and emotions (such as Antonio Damasio), there is a certain consensus when it comes to indicating how they differ .

First, let us see how these two words are defined.

What is an emotion?

An emotion is a set of neurochemical and hormonal responses that predispose us to react in a certain way to an external stimulus (like the sight of a spider) or internal stimulus (like a memory about the childhood years).

That means that an emotion is what is generated by the limbic system of the brain when groups of neurons related to certain experiences, so that we are predisposed to act in a certain way.

This happens because, throughout our lives, our brain does not just “memorize data” but also learns certain ways in which to react to those experiences. Somehow, the information of what we experience goes hand in hand with the information about how we react to it; they are not two separate kinds of information.

That is why, if we learn to associate insects with bites, when we see one we will tend to experience the sensation of fear: our body will have learned that, with that visual information, that is the right reaction.

What is a feeling?

A feeling is similar to an emotion and is closely related to the limbic system, but in addition to this spontaneous, uncontrollable and automatic predisposition, it includes the conscious evaluation that we make of this experience, that is to say, that in a feeling there is a conscious evaluation of the emotion and of the subjective experience in general.

For example, if we see a spider, we will be able to self-examine what we feel and what we think in such a situation and reflect on what other experiences that situation reminds us of, what are the different ways we can react to that stimulus, how rational is the disgust or fear we feel, etc.

What’s the difference between the two?

As we have seen, both emotions and feelings have to do with something irrational that has to do with the subjective way we experience a situation. Neither of these phenomena can be translated into words faithfully and without leaving many nuances in the inkwell, and it is the other person who, making an effort of empathy, must build in his mind and from his own experiences how we should feel.

However, the fundamental difference between emotion and feeling is that the former is totally basic, primitive and unidirectional (in the sense that it is something that appears automatically when a stimulus is presented) whereas feeling includes the capacity to think and reflect consciously about what one feels and, therefore, has to do with the capacity to think in abstract and symbolic terms.

Works of art, for example, are the classic characterization of feelings, because they are abstract sublimations of emotions. In a poem there are not only emotions, but necessarily there must also be feeling, something that allows to express in a symbolic way what is felt.

Thus, feelings are bidirectional , since there is something that goes from the most basic and primitive mental processes towards consciousness, but there is also something that goes from consciousness to the way in which this situation is valued and experienced in a holistic and global way.

Both are inseparable

And here comes an apparent paradox: although the concepts of feeling and emotion refer to different things, in practice wherever there is an emotion there is always a feeling (or several). Both are presented at the same time, and the words we use to separate them conceptually only exist in theory to allow us to understand more precisely what part of conscious experience we are describing.

Just as where there are genes there is an environment that influences the way in which they are expressed, emotion and feelings cannot be presented separately (in the conscious and healthy human being) and will therefore overlap. The distinction between the two is more virtual and theoretical than material.

That is why the difference between feeling and emotion is only used because it is useful in certain cases and because each of them could explain different neurological processes that work in parallel, not because we can actually isolate a feeling and separate it from the emotion with which it presents itself . In psychology and neuroscience, for better or worse, things are not so simple.