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Monday, 28 December 2009


As fine an image as i've seen of one my favourite places, Glenfinnan, from Grant Glendinning at

Sunday, 27 December 2009

a feeling for the future...?

A thought has been buzzing around my head for the last few days, as I lay fat on the sofa full of Christmas fowl.

Every so often the issue of global population and its impact on the world pops up in the media, indeed recently there was a documentary by Sir David Attenborough on the subject. And the terrible consequences of more immediate pressures such as water and food shortages notwithstanding, I wondered if this might also have an effect on our emotions. Could it have the impact of such explosions as language, fire, cooking, agriculture or even industrialisation?

It's a grand question obviously and the problem with grand questions is the answers are rarely as simple as their progenitors. So, first the caveats:
Cultures have different emotional responses to similar stimuli - so why would we all react the same way?
Different groups within cultures have different responses too similar stimuli - so again, why would we all react the same way?
Population growth will not be uniform - so why might the pressures be felt by all anyway?

Is there any way through these huge influences on the question and any potential answer? One thought comes from an American researcher on emotions, David Matsumoto. He is the Founder and Director of SFSU’s Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory. The laboratory focuses on studies involving culture, emotion, social interaction and communication.

Matsumoto has a recent paper (Sequential dynamics and culturally-moderated facial expressions of emotion)
which talks about the emotional responses of judo athletes at the Olympics to see if they could spot the difference between innate and cultural reactions and then see what cultures have more facially expressive responses. One interesting offshoot of this was that more urbanised cultures had more individualised responses. Even taking into account Oriental cultures with their propensity for appearing less emotionally expressive (as opposed to actually being emotional), there was a strong correlation between urbanised societies being affluent and individualised societies which meant they registered the more expressive emotions.

So what does this mean for an ever growing world population? Possibly nothing in the face of other influencing factors, but perhaps it may mean an increasingly urbanised population becoming more individualised and even overwhelming local cultural norms. And our global population is becoming increasingly urbanised.

If affluence and urbanisation clearly lead to a greater sense of individualism then where will that take the world when collective actions and norms are needed to solve global issues like climate change?

I have to be honest I'm not sure if thread of argument has convinced me never mind any dear readers. But it nags away...

Friday, 11 December 2009

How cooking made us feel

The history of emotions is ultimately a journey onto the ocean of inquiry that asks, 'what makes us human?'

Therefore, despite the obvious and enormous difficulties in ascertaining with confidence, one cannot help but suspect a link between those crucial moments in human history such as walking upright, controlling fire and mastering language, and our emotional development. Just exactly what that link is may well be much harder if not impossible to do full justice to, but a link seems clear undeniable.

and so every often a book comes along that suggests some interesting ideas which may well have an enormous resonance for our development as humans and therefore, necessarily, the development of our emotions.

A few months back Richard Wrangham wrote a book called 'Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human'. He makes a case for cooking as one of the key ingredients in human development. he makes a fine case for showing how the improvements that cooking gave to our diet in increased calories, more protein etc, not just meant we ate better but that it changed our physical makeup and consequently our mental make up. the improved diet helped us literally think better. And this thinking better opened up whole new evolutionary possibilities.

As Dwight Garner of the New York Times puts it:
"The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer."

I wrote briefly recently about the links between animal reactions/emotions and human emotions and irrespective of current gap between primate emotions and their human counterparts there must be a growth from theirs to ours following our evolutionary curve.We too have made a journey from simpler primate style emotions such as fearfulness or anger to more sophisticated (with no moral judgement on the virtues of them) emotions like despair or contempt.

The question then must be asked, what role then did cooking have on our emotions. All that spare thinking time, what did it mean for our ability to come to judgements about our situation and what feelings arose from it. Wrangham suggests cooking around the fire made us calmer as it imposed socialisation upon us. That may well be the case.

One other less cheery spin off was that cooking created the first signs of gender domination as a consequence from the need to guard the cooking pot. What emotions may have been created by that unfortunate possibility?

Ultimately it would be quite a job to say with absolute authority that cooking created a specific set of more sophisticated emotions that hitherto had not existed before. One certainly has no direct evidence to say which emotions that set would consist of. But the possibility remains that cooking may have done more than many other moments in humanity's history to define our emotional capabilities. Cooking may have done more than make us feel good and full, it may well have helped us feel...