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Monday, 15 June 2009

some thoughts on thinkers thinking about emotion pt2

A few weeks ago I ran a series of interviews with three academics, (Prof Barbara Rosenwein, Prof Keith Oatley, and Dr Thomas Dixon) talking in broad terms about the history of emotions, with a brief commentary here.

Picking up on that commentary, I wanted to consider their other answers and thoughts.

It's both cheering and intimidating that all of them consider that virtually anything can be a useful historical resource when it comes to understanding how emotions were felt and affected the lives of people throughout history. The optimism comes from a potential wealth of sources, the fear from wondering how each will be recognised and sorted appropriately to give useful information. As Dr Dixon suggests, we may suffer from an excess of sources for today...

For example, what can the architecture of the past tell us about the emotional lives of the societies that built it? It may not be directly obvious, but there may be clues there for the skilled mind to uncover. The same goes for any potential source that does not directly reference something we might recognise in the present as an emotion.

It comes as no surprise that Prof Oatley specifically references fictional literature as being particularly useful - this is his field of expertise after all - and it will almost certainly be one of the richest and clearest seams that we can mine for useful information on the emotional lives of our ancestors. However, as Prof Rosenwein points out about the ecstatic writings of mystics, if one relies over heavily on such writings one might have a very skewed picture of life at the time of writing.

There is no suggestion though that Prof Oatley is over relying on the value of fictional literature here though.

All I think would agree though that any documentation from the relevant period may provide useful information, as would any art and music from the period. One could certainly do a good study of the emotional life of various cultures and subcultures through popular music in the last forty years, so the same should stand for earlier periods.

Prof Rosenwein referenced Dr Sarah Tarlow's essay 'Emotion in Archaeology'. As the subject expands, I think that one of the big challenges will be to see how we can cope with non written sources and archaeology will be key. What will a bejewelled corpse, perhaps preserved in a bog, contorted and with a variety of wounds, say about the emotional live of the society that the corpse came from?

I was heartened by Dr Dixon's suggestion of analysing the emotional lives of the cave painters of Lascaux - I look forward to his analysis!

There is one question which i will write further on in another post - that is the thought about a grand narrative, or a big story to our emotional development in history. It's something I've written about here. It's one of the most challenging questions for anyone interested in the History of Emotions and one which drew an interesting range of answers which deserve a post of their own.

A treeless forest

This is the view from Sgurr nan Ceannaichean to Glenuaig Lodge and Gleann Fhiodhaig, entitled Glenuaig Forest from Steven Russell. The Victorian hunting lodge there is spectacularly remote...

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The calm of happiness in Taiwan

The importance of understanding our emotions in their social and historical context is brought home by an interesting little feature in Stanford magazine on Taiwanese-American psychologist Jeanne Tsai.

In her Culture and Emotion Lab at Stanford University, she has been working on how different cultures perceive emotions and how their definitions may be different. In essence, what I perceive as happiness may not be the same as what someone from a different culture perceives as happiness. In my highly individuated culture happiness commonly contains large doses of excitement and ecstasy. A more collectivised culture such as the Taiwanese see happiness as a more calm sensation.

How can this be ascertained in a corroborated way? Tsai did studies showing two different smiley faces, one with a small calm grin and one with an excited open mouthed grin. She showed them to Taiwanese children, American Children and also Taiwanese- American children. The question posed was which of these two faces is happier?

The results of this deceptively simple test are curious but the implications are enormous.

The Taiwanese children consistently cite the calm grin as being the happier of the two, the American children cite the open mouthed grin and the Taiwanese-American children lay somewhere in the middle.

Where do these children learn about happiness that makes it so different for them?

They learn about happiness from everywhere from storybooks to magazines, to self help books and religious texts. And yet all work with a surprising cultural unity within each culture.

What is the impact of happiness being associated with calm in some cultures and with being excited in others?
One obvious riposte to this is mentioned in the article on Tsai - that of the mental health profession. If drugs like lithium and or anti-depressants flatten out the moods of bipolar and manic depressive patients - is this the most appropriate way to treat those mood swings in certain societies? Do health professionals and their pharmaceutical colleagues have to tailor their treatments and medicines to appropriate cultures?

Or will investors and marketers call it wrong if their understanding of a culture's emotions mean they pitch a product or service without taking such things into account?

Will a politician or international organisation get it wrong if they try to achieve something that is out of step with a society's emotional values? That may sound odd, but focus groups all the way back to US President Franklin D Roosevelt's use of advertising guru Edward Bernays in gauging public emotions shows how politician rely upon public emotion as much as policy arguments. Call it right and power can be yours.

Such is the importance of understanding how a culture describes its emotions and how different cultures do it all so differently. the same goes for understanding how events in history shape a nation or a culture's emotions. Fortune, fame and power can await those who do. Or maybe even just wisdom!

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

some thoughts on thinkers thinking on emotion

Over the last few weeks I've had three experts talking about some of the basic questions that face anyone curious about the History of Emotions. It's been interesting to see the differences and similarities in the answers, and get some learned perspectives in a simplified form.

First some clarity - what is an emotion? As I've spoken about before, I think it's noteable that all three writers agree that whatever an emotion is (as a concept it is extremely vague and laden with cultural association) it does require an element of judgement. It is not some kind of pure instinct that the person emoting has no control over.

I think we in the West fail to recognise this at our peril and allow ourselves to dodge responsibility for our actions by 'blaming' our emotions overwhelming us.

So which ones are more dominant in the West? This again is obviously a question with a massive value judgement -what is the West? At the risk of avoiding an enormous debate on that subject I was meaning largely the English speaking world with an element of Western European thrown in.

The answers are fascinating -
For Dr Dixon, desire and terror.
For Prof. Keith Oatley, contempt and romantic love.
For Prof. Rosenwein, anger and grief.

Prof. Rosenwein also points out something which I may write more about in future - that happiness is a relatively modern concept and does not figure so largely in what we can understand about the emotional lives of our ancestors.

I think this is something we as a society have to consider in very great detail on a range of levels. The American Constitution famously describes the 'pursuit of happiness' as a fundamental right and yet are we in danger of making ourselves unhappy by selling ourselves the illusion of happiness as a right? Our expectation of it as a right and not a fleeting gift to be cherished in its presenceand respected in its departure and absence may make us more unhappy than it will ever make us happy. Not least when that right for happiness is packaged into consumer desire and sold on an industrial level to the ruin of ourselves and our planet.

The other obvious thought from our experts views on the dominant emotions of the West is how negative the choices are. I mean no disrespect to the experts in those choices, indeed I think this is a fair reflection of a society that has triumphed globally through channeling these emotions into conquest within those societies and over others. Prof. Oatley's suggestion of contempt for the 'other' groups is particularly resonant here.

Personally I was a little surprised that Dr Dixon and Prof Rosenwein did not join Prof. Oatley in suggesting Romantic Love. Perhaps this is a reflection of Prof Oatley's professional immersion in literature, perhaps the other two may change their mind and include it another time. I think I would put it up there as a dominant emotion, but then my opinion is much less learned!

I could go on for a lot more though I think this is enough for one post. Some more thoughts on the Q&A's soon...