Timeframes of Human Emotional Tones

face of a prisoner

Humans’ emotional tones span a huge timeframe. Within the human body, different biological processes are associated with different time spans. The nervous system responds to a stimulus in milliseconds, a stress response develops in about three minutes, and the immune system responds over hours or days.^ The brain can modify a body map via myelinated axons in hundreds of milliseconds or less. Inducing actual bodily change in the gut takes seconds via signals traveling through unmyelinated axons.^

Persons react emotionally to subconscious stimuli of short duration. Subliminal exposure to happy and angry faces for 30 milliseconds induces corresponding activations of facial muscles in viewers.^ Moreover, such exposure can change persons consumption values and behavior.^ Subliminal emotion is associated with amygdala reactivity, which in turn varies with long-run emotional states such as depression.^

Baseline bodily interacts with short-term emotions and long-term emotions. Longer-term bodily effects of emotions include long-term memory, muscle conditioning, and immune system conditioning. Somatic markers such as long-term depression influence immediate emotions. Feelings formed through imaginative experiences (the “as-if” body loop) don’t create somatic markers that guide subsequent feelings.^ Persons who interpret representations more abstractly respond more favorably to mixed-emotion appeals.^ More concrete, more circumstantially embedded experiences align experience valuation more closely to emotional representation. A horrifying experience is less enjoyable than a horror movie.

Persons experience “mixed emotions.” Studies suggest that mixed emotions occur at a relatively high level of cognitive processes, e.g. events such as graduations, moving out of a home, “emotionally complex movies,” and disgusting jokes. The extent of feeling mixed emotions apparently varies considerably across persons.^ Mixed emotions can be understood as an example of highly labile emotions.

Public works such as news articles, songs, and videos can generate powerful emotions. The timeframe of those emotions depend on the nature of the work and the way it’s presented. Public works in competition for attention tend to create shorter, more labile emotions than does ordinary personal communication.

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