While emotions and feelings are quite different, we all use the words interchangeably to more or less explain the same thing – how something or someone makes us feel.

However, it’s better to think of emotions and feelings as closely related, but distinct instances – basically, they’re two sides of the same coin.

Here is how they differ.

What are emotions?

Imagine this: You sprint through the airport, on the run to catch your flight. While you try to make your way through the crowd of people waiting in line at the security check, you spot an old friend you haven’t seen in ages.

Before you can say anything, you tear up overwhelmed with excitement (and forget about the rush) while you give your friend a firm hug.

Emotions are lower level responses occurring in the subcortical regions of the brain (amygdala, which is part of the limbic system) and the neocortex (ventromedial prefrontal cortices, which deal with conscious thoughts, reasoning, and decision making).

Those responses create biochemical and electrical reactions in the body that alter its physical state – technically speaking, emotions are neurological reactions to an emotional stimulus.


Did you know? The amygdala plays a key role in emotional arousal. It regulates the release of neurotransmitters that are important for memory consolidation, which is why emotional memories are usually perceived stronger and long-lasting.

Can emotions be measured?

Emotions are physical and instinctive, instantly prompting bodily reactions to threat, reward, and everything in between. The bodily reactions can be measured objectively by pupil dilation (eye tracking), skin conductance (GSR), brain activity (EEG, fMRI), heart rate (ECG), and facial expressions.

Emotional reactions are hard-coded. Emotional reactions are rooted in our genes. While they do vary slightly individually and depending on circumstances, emotions are universal and are similar across all humans.

What are feelings?

While emotions are associated with bodily reactions that are activated through neurotransmitters and hormones released by the brain, feelings play out in a slightly different way.

Originating in the neocortical regions of the brain, feelings are sparked by emotions and colored by personal experiences, beliefs, memories, and thoughts linked to that particular emotion. Strictly speaking, a feeling is the side product of your brain perceiving an emotion and assigning a certain meaning to it.


Interestingly, this process works both ways: While the actual encounter with a spider (stimulus) might freak you out, just thinking of it can activate the same emotional response.

Can feelings be measured?

The conscious nature of feelings makes it quite easy to measure them using self-reporting tools such as interviews, surveys, and questionnaires including rating scales and self-assessment procedures.

Tip: The Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM) of Bradley & Lang (1994) is a non-verbal pictorial assessment technique that directly measures feelings (pleasure – displeasure) and arousal levels (low – high) of respondents when confronted with various emotional stimuli.

SAM rating

Next step

In commercial and academic human behavior research, collecting emotional responses and feelings is central for obtaining valuable insights into both conscious and unconscious processes associated with observable actions, thoughts, and memories of the respondent group of your interest.

Reach out to our experts at iMotions to learn more about emotions and feelings, and how you can combine self-reports and biometrics sensors to boost your research.

PS: If you’d like to learn even more about human behavior, then download our free guide below!

Human Behavior Pocket Guide Insert