The common belief is that emotions are fixed and that most human beings experience specific emotions in more or less in the same way. Paul Ekman, a leading psychologist, and pioneer to the study of emotions identified ‘core emotions’ through his research as disgust, fear, surprise, happiness, anger, and sadness. Concluding that all human beings more or less experience these pillar emotions in more or less the same way. Ekman’s conclusion is an important pivot in the study of emotions as his work was then widely accepted as the basis to how we understand emotions and therefore how the majority of researchers after him studied emotions. But, can emotions and therefore human experience be generalized this way?
In a podcast I was listening to, titled “Decoding Our Emotions” (TED Radio Hour by NPR Radio), one of the most significant revelations was learning that some cultures are absent of certain emotions. That some languages in the world do not share the same ability to identify the emotions Ekman had identified as ‘core emotions’ applicable to all peoples, in all instances, and in all situations. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and a Harvard researcher, uses the example of Tahitians, who do not have a word for sadness or Russians, who have multiple kinds of sadnesses. Being bilingual I can relate to this experience, as there are feelings in Bahasa (the language spoken in Indonesia), that aren’t translatable into English. There are feelings in which I can express in Bahasa with one word, that I must dive into an elaborate explanation for when I am trying to explain the feeling to a non-Bahasa speaker. This highlights the subjective, contextual, and cultural boundaries in which emotions are felt, expressed, and identified. This also identifies the inherent boundaries language can create, as Barrett made the point that if an emotion is not available linguistically in the mind, then such emotion will be harder to surface due to the limitation on naming that particular emotion. Barrett concludes that emotions are not universal for all peoples, in all instances, and in all situations, rather emotions are subjective and contextual.
Barrett asks an important question: “does a human brain come pre-wired with the capacity to make anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and so on...the answer is no.” What is clear is that “there’s no single objective fingerprint, single objective measure for any emotion that holds across all instances, across people, across cultures” and that emotions are experienced by how the “brain is basically making predictions, guesses, that it’s constructing in the moment with billions of neurons working together.” In other words, humans have “the kind of brain, that allows us to transmit culture by wiring the brain of the next generation to make perception and experiences in the same way that we do, and so,... emotions are real, they're absolutely real, [but] they're real in a very situated way, because we've learned and agreed on how to make sense of particular sensation in particular situations.”
What’s significant about the learnings from Barrett’s research is the emphasis she places on experiencing emotions based on context, an individual’s brain, and the agreement and acceptance “on how to make sense of particular sensation in particular situations.” What then, if a person chooses to disagree? Even if there’s a collective agreement based on culture, emotions, at the end of the day, are an individual’s autonomous cognitive appropriation of their reactions to context and situations outside the mind. What comes to light is the opportunity and autonomous potential each individual has when it comes to taking control of their own emotions and how they perceive emotions in others.
In conjunction, the rise of technology and the globalization of ideas exposes people today to higher variables of contexts (i.e. culture and language). Whether it’s due to moving around, mixed-race couples, or even through a hunger for knowledge (made widely available through the internet and technology), culture and context are much more fluid today than in previous generations. The connection I see between this research is how individuals today have more opportunities to take responsibility into their own hands by having more choice about what to agree on and what gets transmitted into the wiring of their brain.The liberating truth to realize is because emotions are fluid, not fixed, and not predetermined, emotions become an opportunity for change. Further, within the climate of today’s globalized world, the potential for each individual to set the context and culture in how emotions influence their life becomes greater.
If emotions are situated and contextual, then the decisions prompted by our emotions are also situated and contextual. The life we choose to live (i.e. whether it’s in the promotion of a healthier self or lack thereof) is dependent therefore on what we’ve learned and what we chose to agree on. The emotions which arise are fluid enough for us to take control of. If exercise causes rise to negative emotions, it is in one’s autonomous capacity (and I would argue responsibility) to change perceptions within their own minds in order to improve the emotional dialogue one has to something that’s meant to better one’s life. It is clear that the responsibility sits with the individual. What’s more important to grasp is how each individual’s unique context and culture (and therefore the emotions associated with healthier choices), are in reality non-universal and autonomous. Finding an individualized approach to achieving a healthier lifestyle becomes dramatically more important. There’s no denying the role emotions play on a lifestyle change and understanding that it is in my power to shape how I experience and express my emotions is a major key to helping me further my journey towards my healthiest self because it is in my capacity to reject any negative or resistant emotion which may arise to the positive changes I wish to embark on.
The podcast featured more than one TED speaker, but I chose to focus on Lisa Feldman Barrett’s research in order to arrive and elaborate on my own conclusions about the relevance of how we understand emotions in relation to making a lifestyle change.
Listen to the full podcast episode here.