The Difference Between Emotions and Feelings

Understanding the differences between emotions and feelings is essential to understanding human psychology. Here, we'll tell you in detail.
The Difference Between Emotions and Feelings
Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador

Written and verified by el biólogo Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador.

Last update: 14 November, 2023

We all feel something concrete at some point in our lives because the capacity for self-awareness (knowing that the self exists) is a characteristic that defines humans and very few other animals. Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re a cluster of constant emotions, thoughts, and cognitive processes. In that regard, do you know the differences between emotions and feelings?

Although they seem like interchangeable terms, emotions and feelings are completely different from both a biological and psychological point of view. Keep reading, as below, we’ll dissect the human mind from top to bottom, showing the baseline distinctions between the two complex processes.


Exploring the differences between emotions and feelings without first describing each term in detail is like building a house starting with the roof. We’ll dedicate the first part of this article to defining each of these concepts, and then compare them by sections. Keep reading!

What is an emotion?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) dictionary defines emotions as “a pattern of complex reactions, including experiential, behavioral, and psychological elements, with which a human being attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event.” The quality and intensity of each emotion depend on the specific significance of the event to which it corresponds.

Said a little more practically, emotions are psychological states with a fully biological foundation, as they respond to a series of neuropsychological changes experienced by various taxa of living beings. There is no universal definition for the term, as in human beings, each emotional process depends on personality, disposition, and more.

From a mechanistic perspective (tangible and with real components), emotions can be conceived as a positive or negative experience that’s associated with a specific pattern of physiological activity. Its basal function was (and continues to be for many species) mere survival: Emotions modulate the behaviors of living beings so that they can persist one more day in the environment.

An example: Fear

A young girl that's sitting up scared in her bed because she thinks she sees a monster.
Although we usually attribute the ability to have emotions to human beings, in reality, this is a common characteristic in most animals. Fear is a clear example.

As there’s no specific term that defines exactly what an emotion is, we find it useful to give a tangible and universal example. Fear is an emotion characterized by an intensely unpleasant sensation that occurs due to the perception of danger, whether real or supposed. The definition is emotional,  but the underlying process is explained by chemistry.

As World of Chemicals indicates, the ability to recognize a supposed or real danger involves several areas of the human body: The hippocampus, the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the sensory cortex, among others. A network of complex interactions causes the adrenal glands and other structures to be stimulated, so cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine are released during fear.

Physiological changes

These and other hormones are involved in the fight or flight response, which tells us that we must face danger or run if we believe we’re going to lose. Some of the physiological changes that occur when we’re afraid are the following:

  • Increased heartbeat rate and respiratory rate. The more blood and oxygen that reaches muscle tissue, the better the body will respond to a stimulus.
  • Inhibition of stomach activity. Digesting food is a great energy expenditure that the body can’t afford when it’s in danger.
  • Dilation of the muscular blood vessels, to allow a greater flow.
  • Release of metabolic energy sources. Fat and protein are metabolized for immediate energy to keep muscles and the brain working at their best.

As you can see, fear is an intangible emotion, but the physiological processes that lead to it are clearly describable. Emotions are explained by human biochemistry in all cases and, even so, they also have a highly subjective component (the path that leads us to fear is similar in all, but the experience differs in each individual).

The significance of the event leads to a specific emotion. If we’re in danger, we’re more likely to feel fear (and not joy or shame).

What are feelings?

We go back to reliable sources. The APA characterizes a feeling as follows: “A self-contained phenomenal experience. Feelings are subjective, evaluative, and independent of the sensations, thoughts, or images evoking them. They are inevitably evaluated as pleasant or unpleasant, but they can have more specific intrapsychic qualities.”

Applicable definitions

The definition of the term has changed a lot over the years. Here are some examples collected by the Merriam-Webster website:

  1. One of the basic physical senses of which the skin contains the chief end organs and of which the sensations of touch and temperature are characteristic.
  2. Generalized bodily consciousness or sensation. I feel safe, for example.
  3. An emotional state or reaction. I feel well today.
  4. The undifferentiated background of one’s awareness considered apart from any identifiable sensation, perception, or thought.

This conglomeration of terminology makes it very clear to us that the concept of a “feeling” is complex and doesn’t have a definition that’s applicable in all cases. In any case, and although we’re being reductionist, it can be summarized as the perception of exogenous and endogenous events from within and subjectively from an individual perspective.

An example: Love

As in the previous case, it’s much better to try to understand what feelings are by setting an example. In this case, love is understood as a universal concept that refers to the affinity or harmony between beings (generally human). It’s made up of multiple “minor” feelings, the most notable of which are affinity, affection, and attachment.

From a scientific point of view, love is conceived as the engine of altruism, a trait that has allowed us to stay together throughout the centuries to create in conjunction and face challenges much greater than the individual themself. This feeling implies cooperation, well-being, optimization of resources, and, therefore, social advancement.

Love also has a number of underlying chemical processes, although they’re not worth focusing on. The fight and flight response is applicable to all living things that experience it, but this feeling has such a subjective component that can’t be reduced to a single hormone or chemical chain.

The differences between emotion and feeling

You already know both terms exactly, and we’ve given an example of each of them, so now we’re prepared to know the differences between emotion and feeling. We’ll dissect them in the following lines, so keep reading.

1. Feelings have a highly subjective charge

Although in some cases, the words feelings and emotions are used interchangeably, most sources consulted agree on a key point: Feelings are the subjective and conscious experiences of emotions.

The neurologist Antonio Damasio explains this small (but fundamental) difference in interviews for professional media as follows:

“If you have an emotion, for example, fear, you’ll undergo a series of changes in your face, skin, heart, intestines… These are actions that even occur to bacteria. But the feelings are everyone’s mental experience of those changes that happen bodily. It’s a very important distinction.”

Simply put, emotions refer to the mental images that we perceive (both external and internal) and the physical changes that these provoke. On the other hand, feelings correspond to the self-perception of all these processes. Emotions contain a subjective and third-person component, but feelings are always private and subjective.

2. Emotion leads to feeling

The neurological processes that occur within the brain also help us to remember the differences between emotions and feelings effectively. As the Imotions website  indicates, emotions are “low-level” responses that occur in subcortical brain regions (such as the amygdala and neocortex).

These interactions cause the secretion of neurotransmitters and hormones, which triggers the expected physical changes of emotion (such as the fight or flight response, for example). In technical terms, an emotion is a neurological reaction to a specific stimulus. If we eat a piece of garbage, we’ll experience disgust and associated physiological signs (vomiting, retching, etc.).

On the other hand, feelings represent the conscious experience of emotional processes. Here, the neocortical regions of the brain and greater physiological complexity play an essential role, as the production of feeling requires the integration of beliefs, personal experiences, memories, and thoughts linked to that specific emotion.

Simply put: Feelings arise when the brain interprets the emotion and gives it a concrete or abstract meaning.

3. Feelings seem to last longer

The differences between emotion and feeling is that the latter manifests itself mainly in humans
The development of feelings requires a certain biological complexity, which is why they’re very characteristic of human beings.

The Six Seconds portal gives us another possible distinction between emotions and feelings that’s very significant. According to this bibliographic source, the difference between the two terms is only a matter of time.

It takes the brain 1/4 of a second to perceive a stimulus and about 1/4 of an accessory second to produce the neurotransmitters linked to it. The feedback loop between brain secretion and body change is established and remains for approximately 6 seconds.

Feelings come when we begin to understand what we’ve experienced and what the particular emotion has elicited. They’re more “saturated” from a cognitive point of view, so they take longer to be processed and understood individually. At the same time, the state of mind is more generalized, it’s established much more slowly, and it lasts for hours or days.

4. Basic emotions are universal (up to a point)

Many people attribute the term feelings only to the human realm because for these to occur, there must be an awareness of oneself. Although several animals have shown through scientific tests that they’re aware of their own being (elephants, monkeys, and even some birds), saying that they have complex feelings requires extensive investigation.

On the other hand, it’s more than clear that (almost) all physiologically complex animals (vertebrates) are capable of perceiving a wide emotional spectrum. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to survive in a demanding environment.

Basic or universal emotions

The basic emotions detected beyond the human being are the following:

  1. Fear: This emotion is universal and expands beyond the vertebrate taxon. Almost all animals feel fear in one way or another, especially if we recognize this term as an aversion to a specific stimulus that can be harmful. Slugs flee from fire, however basic it may be from a neurological point of view.
  2. Anger: Many animals get angry when members of the same species enter their territory or attempt to mate with their mate. This leads to aggression and sexual selection between species and is a completely natural biological mechanism.
  3. Joy: Studies have shown that rats and other rodents are capable of showing joyous gestures when they’re offered a particularly sweet food or when they interact with their guardian in a tactile way (caresses).
  4. Sadness: Although this emotion is a little more complex, it’s more than proven that apes, elephants, bovids, dogs, and many other mammals (and birds) feel sad at the loss of a partner or family member.
  5. Disgust: This physiological mechanism is vital and applicable to all living things. When an animal ingests something that’s bad or harmful, it experiences disgust and spits it out. By learning, they’ll stop ingesting it and may even teach their offspring the dangerousness of certain elements after the negative experience.
  6. Surprise: Animals are surprised when they perceive a sudden stimulus. For example, a canid or feline will lift its ears and adopt an upright position when hearing a very loud noise.

Basic emotions are universal and have been known since the time of Darwin. Living beings express them as part of a natural selection mechanism and, at the end of the day, the fittest will be the ones who end up leaving offspring in subsequent generations.

On the other hand, feelings are much more complex, and it’s difficult to prove that they exist in most living taxa (except perhaps apes). This doesn’t mean that animals aren’t capable of feeling, but rather that more knowledge is required to affirm it.

Basic emotions are universal, while feelings are related to unique concepts.

Differences between emotions and feelings: Two non-interchangeable concepts

We’ve presented you with 4 differences between emotions and feelings, but the central distinction can be summarized in a single line: Emotions are neurological and hormonal responses to a stimulus, while feelings represent the understanding and subjectivization of said emotion. Therefore, feelings are much more complex.

All living beings perceive at least one emotion, even if it’s disgust upon feeling in inadequate conditions. On the other hand, the process that entails the interpretation of the emotional realm toward the sentimental one is reserved for a few cognitively complex animals. Without a doubt, and although they’re sometimes used interchangeably, these terms aren’t the same.

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