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Emma Finigan, 2022 1st Place First-Year Writing

Any student enrolled in English 101P, 101, 102, or 112 during Spring 2021 through Spring 2022 may submit an essay of any kind on any topic. There are no length limits for this category. Emma Finnegan wrote the 1st place submission in the First-Year Writing category for the 2022 President’s Writing Awards.

About Emma

Hello! My name is Emma Finigan and I just finished my second year at Boise State. I grew up in southern California but have quickly learned to love Boise as my second home. My major is Political Science and I am also getting minors in Chemistry and Spanish. I know this combination is a little unconventional, but I think it is the perfect match for me! I hope to one day work in a position that allows me to combine my passion for science, language skills, and desire to make positive change in the systems around me. Outside of academics, I am involved in the Honors College Leadership Council, the Women’s Club basketball team, and a handful of other clubs on campus. In my free time I love to hike, go swimming, play sports, and just about anything that lets me spend time outdoors. Thank you for taking the time to read my work, I hope you enjoy it!

Emma standing on the shore of a lake, smiling with her hands on her hips

Winning Submission – Thoughts on Feelings

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

― Helen Keller

It is interesting to me that so many of our experiences are controlled by invisible factors inside of  our bodies and minds. We are all sort of at the mercy of our emotions. I want to know what and how and  why we feel.

  1. Picture this: I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my best friend’s car, windows down so the warm  outside breeze mingles with the inside air, the sun is high in the sky and a chorus of giggles and singing  along to the music fills my ears. No worries, no obligations, it’s perfect. I’m happy. But what about the  sun and the songs and the situation are responsible for this feeling? Maybe the smile on my best friend’s  face sent just the perfect message to my hypothalamus to tap my pituitary gland on the shoulder and  signal a cascade of neuron firing and electrochemical signals to spread dopamine across my central  nervous system. Maybe I was lucky to have inherited efficient receptors so the sunshine radiating onto my  skin cues the release of vitamin D hormones which activate enzymes to convert tryptophan into serotonin  in my brain. Maybe the singing and laughing increases my oxygen rich blood and stimulates my heart and  endocrine system to release endorphins into my bloodstream. Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe the  smile spreading across my face when my admiration of gleaming christmas lights is paired with a whiff of  noble fir is due to the olfactory bulb’s closeness to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, and  recollections of holiday familial bonding are cues enough to signal for a release of happy hormones across  my body. Or could it just be Christmas spirit? Does watching a new puppy bound and bounce across the  sidewalk bring me joy just because that afternoon I happened to eat a snack that fueled the bacteria in my  colon with fatty acids butyrate and acetate to help produce serotonin? Can all my happiness be  scientifically explained away? Or is there something deeper, ineffable, and communally shared that brings  the true feeling of joy? I’d like to think so.
  2. I sometimes cry at Adele songs. I get bummed out when I go too long without talking to my mom. It  makes me sad when I feel excluded. When it is cloudy for many days in a row I feel down. It hurts my  heart to think about “what could have been”s. I miss my old dog. Each of us has our own special recipe of  words or situations or treatment that makes us sad. But whatever the differences in cause may be, we all  feel it. Each and every one of us falls victim to the cortisol induced tensing of the muscles by our lacrimal  glands that leave us with lumps in our throats and tears down our cheeks. We all have just a bit of the  monoamine oxidase enzyme that breaks down key neurotransmitters and leaves us with low amounts of  serotonin and norepinephrine at times. And we all have loss. We share in our brain anatomy and  fundamental need for chemical balances to maintain a homeostasis of body and mind. We share in  sadness. How has this undeniable and disadvantageous aspect of human perception persevered throughout  our almost 200,000 years of homosapien evolution? Sadness is a common ground among all living  people. Does it connect us to other species too? Do snakes need hugs? Is it necessary in order to recognize  our positive emotions? Is there a way we can eliminate this part of the fundamental human experience? If  so, should we? Maybe. Maybe not.
  3. It is interesting to me that love can come in so many shapes. The same four letters encompass  everything from the warmth in my heart from my little cousin falling asleep on my chest while watching  “Finding Nemo” , to the surge of connection and trust from confiding in a friend during a time of need, to  the flutter of butterflies in my stomach when someone special holds my hand and infinitely many more  meaningful moments. “Love” has been a skillful wielder of power ever since its linguistic debut in 85  A.D.. Can something so complicated ever be rightly described by language? I’m not sure. Modern day  scientists have used fMRI brain monitoring to find out that talking about a loved one makes the  amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex “light up” and work together to release oxytocin,  dopamine, norepinephrine, and vasopressin across our neural networks and into the bloodstream. Is this simple rush of blood and systematic distribution of chemicals to blame for the world-moving, poetry inspiring, priority-shifting feeling of love? Do our cells have instructions for these processes simply because thousands of years ago our ancestors depended on others for protection from whatever beasts or  famines or threats they faced? Did love naturally select into our genetic code? Or was it always a part of  who and what we are?
  4. I think tiredness is a gift. Our circadian rhythms of rise and fall are like gentle reminders from the  forces of nature to pause, breathe, and take a step back from the hustle and bustle and stress of our days.  The retinas in our eyes take in the darkness of the night time world and hush our busy bodies by  whispering to the optic nerve until the brain hears its signal. The pineal gland helps attach a phosphate  group onto the SNAT enzyme to help produce and release melatonin. At the same time, the inhibitory  neurotransmitter adenosine floods our bloodstream and chats with cell receptors to calm our neural  activity. Then eventually it is too late. We cannot fight the feeling of exhaustion and are forced to take a  break from whatever responsibilities or tasks or emotional turmoil we are facing. Instead we just rest.  When we wake up everything looks a little bit more accomplishable than it did from the tired eyes of the  night before.
  5. I recently bought a can of pepper spray because I felt afraid walking from my car to my house alone at  night. I always had that eerie feeling and drop in my stomach during the race across the dimly lit street to  my front porch. My self defense supplies help a little, but whatever physical safety they provide offers no  protection against the scary feelings inside my own body. Nothing can protect me from the hot jolt of epinephrine and cortisol from my adrenal glands when I get lost in thought while driving and almost  swerve into another car. There is no way to prevent my elevated breathing and heart rate as my body tries  to pump extra oxygen to my brain when I hear the creaking of my settling house (which sounds  suspiciously like someone tapping on my window) alone at night. I cannot stop the surge of glucose into  my bloodstream that happens when I almost choke on my dinner. The complex system of firing signals  through electrical gradients across bunches of neurons to prepare my body to fight danger refined itself  through necessity. These responses have helped save the lives of early homosapiens, who act as some  distant ancestor to me, and were plagued by real threats on a daily basis. My body cannot tell time,  though. It doesn’t know the difference between the real danger it is programmed to fight and the fake  danger that I voluntarily induce for entertainment. I get the same panic from the processes of my  sympathetic nervous system when I am walking through a haunted house with a group of friends as I do  when I get pushed by a wave in the ocean and forget to hold my breath. Would my brain be mad if it  knew that I sometimes get scared for fun? Does it like horror movies too?
  6. Stress is like an illness that plagues arguably every human alive. It is debilitating, spreads quickly, and  is difficult to eradicate completely. The unpleasant sensation washes over me, conquering my mind and  body, and distracts me from any productive action. It forces an exchange of mental clarity and focus for  an uncomfortable vibration of angst in my brain. Whether its merciless rule is caused by an ever growing  homework list, contemplation of major life career choices, disturbed sleep patterns from a too-high dose  of blue light from my computer screen, or snoozing of my alarm and rushing out the door to make it to  class on time, its effects are the same. I feel unhappy, irritable, and frazzled. Stress isn’t just dangerous  because of its power over my mental condition and capacity to do productive work, but also because of  its implications on my physical health. The activation of the sympathetic nervous system through the  hypothalamic-pituitary- adrenal pathway lights fireworks of adrenaline and cortisol across the body.  Although in short bursts, these processes serve to protect us, when the responses continue day after day it  can have negative effects on our health. The symptoms of the chronic stress plague include, but are not  limited to: 1- High blood pressure( which often leads to stroke or heart attack) because your vessels  contract more quickly to bring oxygen rich blood to muscles in response to the stress hormones. 2-An  increased risk in developing type 2 diabetes because of the surge of glucose produced by your liver to  give you an extra energy boost in times of danger. 3- Higher vulnerability to infections because the stress  hormone corticosteroid lowers the amount of lymphocytes (cells in the immune system that fight off  antigens and produce antibodies) and weaken the immune system. Is all of this stressing you out?
  7. Since the industrial revolution, the surface ocean acidity level has increased 30%, changing the living  conditions of many aquatic biomes. Marine life of all types are drastically harmed as a result of  atmospheric CO2 absorbing into our oceans, most of which is from human burning of fossil fuels and  other means of carbon emissions. I worry that it will eventually be too late to undo the damage to natural  ecosystems done by our technological advancements and modern lifestyles. The U.S. department of  agriculture says that 30-40% of all food produced in America is wasted. I worry that we are exhausting  our resources to cultivate food which ultimately ends up in landfills, leaving our supplies depleted and  many hungry impoverished people. The Idaho State Legislature is hearing a bill that would ban the  discussion of any “racist or sexist concepts” in public classrooms across the state. I worry that eliminating  these types of thought provoking, historically educational conversations from classrooms will make any  civil rights or social progress extremely difficult. I worry about the future of the planet, I worry about the  future of our country, I worry about the future of equality. But I also worry about who will win the next  season of “Big Brother”. I feel nervous when I am ordering pizza on the phone and am waiting for the  restaurant to answer. It makes me uneasy when I have to find a parking spot somewhere I have never been  before. I feel apprehensive in the moments right before I give a presentation in class. Why can this feeling  be so motivating in creating positive change in our world, but also create such hiccups in my day to day  activities? Why do inconsequential happenings in my weekly routine send me over the same mental  hurdles of apprehension that issues of life, freedom, and safety do?
  8. Physiologically speaking, anger looks alot like fear does in our bodies. The amygdala, an almond  shaped part of the brain that plays a big role in our emotions, receives some sort of external cue and  signals the hypothalamus to activate the processes of the sympathetic nervous system. Neurotransmitters  pass from the neurons in the brain, down the spinal cord, and eventually to the peripheral nervous system.  Here, the adrenal glands receive the order to send out catecholamines, including adrenaline, into the  bloodstream. The result is the elevated heart rate, sweating, and tense muscles that we’ve all been controlled by at one time or another, although we may not like to admit it. Biologically anger and fear  may be the result of the same recipe, but I think that the end products of each have a very different flavor.  The feeling that fills me when I bicker with my siblings over whose turn it is to fill the car with gas or  when I can’t get my wifi to connect is far from the sensation that comes over me when I am on a run and  a car slows down beside me. Feeling wronged is much different than feeling endangered, yet the  electrochemical pathways within our bodies are almost the same. How do we differentiate the two? Is  anger just externalized fear? Fear of being neglected, mocked, or used? Are we afraid of our own anger?  Do we feel angry that we are afraid?
  9. I believe in deep breaths. I subscribe to the intentional inhale-exhale routine that shows its grounding  ability by forcing a momentary pause in my humming head. The intake of air not only carves out a  mindful moment, but also tips the first block on the domino line of relaxation in my body. It stimulates  the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which sort of one by one undoes the actions of  stress and fear responses, effectively covering me in a blanket of calm. Many of the nerves involved in  this process live in the spinal cord, so they can quickly send and receive signals to the organs and other  parts of the body without even a conscious thought. Nitric oxide acts on the ends of neurons to prevent  the production and release of norepinephrine. This contributes to the decreased heart rate and relaxation  of blood vessels that accompany the pitter patter of rain on my roof at night or laying in the sand on a  warm beach day. Even though the feeling of relaxation is the result of internal physiological processes,  the environment around us can play an important role in conjuring up peaceful sensations. In one  Japanese study, scientists monitored the heart rates and blood pressure of people walking in urban and  forest settings of equal lengths and difficulty. The data showed lower heart rates for the people walking in  a natural environment compared to those in the urban setting. The participants also self reported higher  levels of relaxation and positive emotions. This is quantifiable evidence of the power of nature to make us  feel at ease. Is this instinctual connection due to our evolution from a long line of nature dwellers? Are  these biological responses to natural stimuli the genetic ‘message in a bottle’ from our early relatives,  reminding us of where we came from? A preservation technique encoded in our bodies by the universe to  always bring us back to the natural world? Or maybe it’s just a meaningless system of chemicals and  organs. Who knows?
  10. No matter how blinding our moments of rage, how overwhelming our times of stress, or how  devastating our waves of sadness, nothing that we feel is as compelling as hope. There is no other  sensation, in my opinion, that has the ability to poke holes in the armor of our distress the way that  optimism and promise can. It’s kind of like magic. Hope knows the secret password to get us past, in  some manner, whatever difficult emotions or set of circumstances we face. But there is some method  behind the powerful brightening effects that hope has on our heads and our hearts. A research study  involving 231 high school students in China used a combination of fMRI monitoring and surveying to  find out that the hope effect is concentrated in an area at the front of the brain called the orbitofrontal  cortex. This small region orchestrates the release of endorphins and enkephalins that mimic morphine in our bodies. We get high off of hope, in some way. Everytime I finally get a question right after struggling with a difficult chemistry concept, or see two strangers say “good morning” on the street, or learn about a  new green city initiative, or get a smile back from someone I like, my brain is giving me my own dose of  the most powerful drug. I think that the world runs on hope. We depend on its light to lead the way when  everything feels dark. I wonder if there is a limited supply on Earth? I hope not. I still do not know exactly why or how we feel, but I am now convinced that nobody truly can. I  think that surely the sensations we experience are in part due to the chemical and biological processes  carved into our DNA, but I refuse to believe that systematic mechanisms of hormones and signaling are  the only contributors to the emotions and feelings that rule our lives. There is something deeper,  indescribable by modern science, and unequivocally intertwined with what it means to be a human. It  takes our sensations a step beyond just perception and response to external stimuli and sparks the fires in  our heads and our hearts. Whatever this may be, I am grateful for it, regardless of whether or not I  understand it.

Works Consulted

  1. Anjum, Ibrar, et al. “The Role of Vitamin D in Brain Health: A Mini Literature Review.” Cureus, Cureus,  10 July 2018,  :text=conducted%20a%20study%20showing%20the,changes%20%5B30%2D31%5D. Accessed   April 19 2021 Used in paragraph 1 of my essay. 
  2. Haller, Max, and Markus Hadler. “How Social Relations and Structures Can Produce Happiness and   Unhappiness: An International Comparative Analysis.” Social Indicators Research, vol. 75, no.   2, Jan. 2006, pp. 169–216. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s11205-004-6297-y. Accessed April 12   2021 Used in paragraph 1 of my essay.  
  3. Jill Suttie. “How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier, and More Creative.” Greater Good, The Greater Good  Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley,   Accessed April 12 2021 Used in paragraph 9 of my essay 
  4. “Ocean Acidification”, PMEL Carbon Program,   Accessed April 21 2021Used in paragraph 7 of my essay 
  5. Pace-Schott, Edward F., et al. “Physiological Feelings.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, vol.   103, Aug. 2019, pp. 267–304. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.05.002. Accessed  April 12 2021 Used in paragraphs 2, ,5, and 8 of my essay. 
  6. Amérigo, Maria, et al. “The Effects of Emotions on the Generation of Environmental Arguments.”  PsyEcology, vol. 9, no. 2, May 2018, pp. 204–236. EBSCOhost,
  7. doi:10.1080/21711976.2018.1432527. Accessed April 13 2021 Used in paragraphs 3, 5, and 9   of my essay. 
  8. Smith, Dana G. “This Is Your Brain on Hope.” Medium, Elemental, 10 Nov. 2020, Accessed April 20 2021 Used in  paragraph 10 of my essay.  
  9. Team, Atlas Biomed. “Serotonin And The Other Happy Hormones In Your Body.” Atlas Biomed Blog.   Take Control of Your Health with No-Nonsense News on Lifestyle, Gut Microbes and Genetics,  Atlas Biomed Blog | Take Control of Your Health with No-Nonsense News on Lifestyle, Gut   Microbes and Genetics, 28 Aug. 2020,   molecules-made-by-gut-bacteria/. Accessed April 12 2021Used in paragraphs 1 and 3 of my   essay. 
  10. “The Science of Sleep.” American Chemical Society,
  11.   2014-2015/the-science-of-sleep.html#:~:text=Adenosine%20also%20plays%20an%2   0important,can%20start%20all%20over%20again. Accessed April 20 2021 Used in paragraph  4 of my essay.
  12. “What Is Stress?” The American Institute of Stress, 18 Dec. 2019, Accessed  April 12 2021 Used in paragraph 6 and 2 of my essay.