National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from
(800) 950-NAMI;

Exploring the World of Human Emotions

By Dina Al Qassar, NAMI Intern


Joy, Guilt, Anger, Love: What Neuroscience Can—and Can’t—Tell Us About How We Feel

By Giovanni Frazzetto

Penguin (2014)


Emotions play a big role in our lives and significantly influences the way we act. With recent developments in brain scan technology and neurobiology there has been a great movement in popular psychology trying to attribute emotions and certain feelings to specific regions of the brain. This simplification of such a complex concept creates a problem though when it comes to understanding and regulating emotions.

In his book, Joy, Guilt, Anger, Love: What Neuroscience Can—and Can’t—Tell Us About How We Feel, Giovanni Frazzetto attempts to explain emotions correctly and bust the myths surrounding them. He approaches emotions from several perspectives and lays out the limits of neuroscience as well. Frazzetto takes up six emotions in his book: fear, anger, guilt, empathy, joy and love. With the combination of scientific facts and research along with examples from everyday life, the reader is able to begin to understand each emotion more thoroughly.

Frazzetto addresses each emotion by introducing a scene or an anecdote that would set the tone of the emotion for the reader and produce that emotion. For instance, when talking about anger, he uses an example of a time he was stuck in a traffic jam with a friend, and for empathy he uses an example of attending the theater for a performance.

Frazzetto then explains the facial expression of that specific emotion; how certain muscles in the face move in order to create micro-expressions that portray that emotion. For example, with joy Frazzetto talks about the difference between a real and fake smile just by pointing out the differences in micro-expressions around the person’s eyes.

Frazzetto also explores the emotions from an evolutionary and developmental standpoint. He talks about how certain emotions changed throughout the years and others are more newly developed. He explains how certain emotions like fear are instinctive and have helped our ancestors survive, and then how other emotions have developed into more complex emotions such as grief and it allows people to heal. By pointing out the importance of each emotion, Frazzetto attempts to help his readers appreciate and embrace their emotions through this understanding rather than shun them out of fear and discomfort. Also, by understanding one’s emotions, especially negative ones, Frazetto argues that it helps appreciate joyful and positive emotions.

Beyond the psychology of emotions, Frazzetto also explores the biological and neuroscience aspect of them. He points out all the neurotransmitters and hormones that are firing, in addition to the regions of the brain that are active when one is feeling that particular emotion. However, Frazzetto points out that neuroscience can’t explain emotions completely. His point is mainly a reaction to the recent hype of brain scans that reduce and designate certain areas of the brain and neurotransmitters as direct causes of certain behaviors. Although brain scans and tests can help increase our understanding of emotions, there is no direct causational relationship between specific areas of the brain and emotions.

Frazzetto does make sure to note that it is important not to “brand” regular emotions as illnesses. While he encourages people to seek help and receive treatment if necessary, the expression of human emotions is something that occurs every day. However, it is important to seek medical attention if one’s emotions get out of hand. When emotions, such as grief and fear, interfere with an individual’s life and everyday tasks that  they become dysfunctional, it is important  to consult a with a mental health professional. Understanding emotions is still an important part of managing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. In CBT for instance, correcting certain notions about feelings is a main part of therapy.

Through the combination of science and humor, neurology and art, Frazzetto takes his readers on a trip through their psyches. He is able to entertain both the mind and the heart through his narratives and studies. His book is an entertaining and informative one that promotes self-acceptance and love through the understanding and appreciation of our human emotions.