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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Eternal Mystery of the Human Roller Coaster

“The heart is a strange beast and not ruled by logic.”
-- Maria V. Snyder

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted and cited passages

 Science has made great strides in the past few decades in understanding human physiology and psychology. Diseases that once ravaged continents have been rendered harmless and even eradicated. Mental disorders that once would have condemned a person to a life sentence in an asylum are now treatable, and in some cases curable. But despite all that has been learned, the human being is still an indefatigable mystery.

The realm of emotion is one that continues to challenge understanding. Unlike other manifestations of the human condition, the study of emotion is not limited to a single discipline. Emotions and their attendant affects are being explored in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, endocrinology, medicine, history, sociology, and even art.

This particular musing crept up on me as I pondered our 38th wedding anniversary (thank you.). I like to humorously say to people, “It’s been 38 years and she hasn’t shot me yet, so it must be true love.” But I was thinking back to that moment in which I first laid eyes upon her. It was in a bowling alley. We were both members of a church league, although we hadn’t yet met. I stood up on the approach, taking that necessary look left and right before addressing the lane. As I looked to my right, about 20 lanes away, my eye was caught by a head of long, black, lustrous hair gleaming under the lights. Now this wasn’t the first girl I had ever seen, nor was it my first head of long hair. But in that moment, something in that sight flipped a switch in my heart. A week later, I asked her out and she said accepted, a rare thing for me on the first try. On our date, I hadn’t been with her more than 15 minutes before I knew without a doubt that she was The One.

This is not something unusual. I have heard many people tell of the same kind of moment, the realization when they “knew.”  Perhaps the best, and most humorous (and the most cynical) definition of love came from the movie "Sleepless in Seattle." 

"When you're attracted to someone, it just means that your subconscious
is attracted to their subconscious -- subconsciously. 
So, what we think of as fate is just two neuroses knowing they are a perfect match."

I’ve thought often about the nature of that kind of experience. What was it about her that made her assume a kind of neon glow in my consciousness, brilliantly outshining all others? What happened inside me at that moment that alerted me to the future I had with her? I knew nothing about her, save that long, lustrous hair. Nor can I explain why or how fifteen minutes into our first date, I also knew that she was the only one for me. Nor can I explain why that in the nearly 40 years since that first meeting, I’ve never wavered from that position.

Love is, of course, only one of the whole panoply of emotional states. I went on my proverbial knee to Lord Google, who provided me with an impressive, if partial list.


Alert, excited, joyful, elated, happy, loving, friendly, kind, sympathetic, caring, contented, serene, relaxed, calm


Tense, nervous, fearful, stressed, upset, embarrassed, humiliated, indignant, angry, jealous, envious, sad, shamed, despaired, depressed, bored, fatigued

Sonoma University’s course Philosophy 101 defines emotion as “An affective state of consciousness, often accompanied by physiological changes to be distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness.” While this fancy collection of $50 words might satisfy the academic, I am still left with a question; the question of why.

When we meet someone, whether a social, business, or personal situation, an opinion is formed, called a “first impression.” This impression is based on a number of things, physical appearance, presentation, that initial verbal exchange, and a host of other more less tangible elements. In those initial few moments, we decide whether we like and respect that person. Sales people are drilled endlessly on these moments, for they can make or break an opportunity. We rely on these initial feelings and only occasionally are we forced to change that impression as we get to know them better. There is still a very large mystery as to what happens inside us when we decide to like or dislike someone in that first meeting. When we’re asked to articulate the source of that animosity, many times the only thing we can come up with is “just because.”

Dr. Richard Lazarus, the author of a highly influential theory, describes emotion as a disturbance. There are three stages…

Cognitive appraisal, where the mind assesses a situation and then selects the appropriate emotion.

Physiological changes, started by the mind's selection include such things as increased heart rate and a spike in adrenaline levels.

Action occurs when the person “feels” the emotion and chooses how to react. This could be anything from a spontaneous kiss to throwing a lamp.

It’s easier to understand the mechanical functions of the human body. The heart is a pump. Electrical impulses trigger the convulsion by which blood is pumped throughout the body. Similar impulses cause the muscles to contract enabling us to do things from walking to lifting a spoonful of soup to the mouth. Our lungs are instructed to breathe in and out. These things are all fairly easy to understand. But the mechanism, if it can be called that, of how we feel love, hate, or indifference remains a mystery. The intriguing thing is that when we feel emotion, if affects our entire being. When we’re in love, that elation takes over everything. Even the way we perceive the rest of the world is changed. Conversely, when we are afflicted by anger, it can literally consume us, motivating us to even perform acts of violence. And the presence of deep sadness can bring about the self-initiated termination of life.

The human heart is often spoken of as the seat of emotion, primarily because that seems to be the place where the reaction is most profound. Sadness, for example, brought on by the end of a relationship, or even the death of a loved one can manifest itself in the feeling of pain. Robert Emery and Jim Coan, professors of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in Scientific American (March 1, 2010, “Ask the Brains”) that “activity in a brain region that regulates emotional reactions called the anterior cingulated cortex can trigger a biological cascade” beginning with an overstimulation of the vagus nerve which connects the brainstem, neck, chest, and abdomen resulting in pain and nausea. The precise nature of these biological pathways are unfortunately not well understood. But the identification of that deep pain is familiar to almost every human. 

In Star Wars episode III, there is a scene where Padme Amidala sobs to Anakin Skywalker, “You’re breaking my heart!” which is, I suppose, a much more powerful and evocative statement than “You’re over-stimulating my vagus nerve!”

It is well known that emotions, good and bad, originate in the brain. Beyond that, well, it’s a mystery. We know how emotions make us feel, and what they drive us to do, but clueless as how to exactly quantify or qualify them. Still, emotion is a part of life; it is one of the things which helps to define us as humans. Whatever stage of that roller coaster we are on, at least we know that we are alive.

“The best and most beautiful things cannot be seen or even touched.
 They must be felt with the heart.”
-- Hellen Keller.
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