Is 'my feelings made me do it' an excuse?
If there were some sort of life register that you pass when you check out of your life, I imagine a receipt for what you have bodily and mentally spent, shed, sauntered, spewed, or expressed in your life. Some of the items in it would probably look something like this:
100 trillion cells,
100 trillion microbes,
80 billion neurons,
600 million breaths,
105 pounds of skin,
64 liters of tears...
But what about emotions – the sways, swipes, skips and lilts of your soul that seem to give the most bang for the buck of being human? We cannot leave out emotions in this kind of “life receipt”. So how many emotions does a human being express or suppress in a lifetime? Could we even count them?
Most of you would probably say “no.” So would I. My kind of “happy” when I see an old friend after so many years is different form the “happy” I feel when I have found a way to help a stranger or when I stumble upon a challenging idea. The satisfaction I get in coming home is very different from the kind I feel after having a meal or from finding a gift that matches my intention. Being annoyed while driving is different from the annoyance I feel when technical support is not listening to what I am saying or from the annoyance I have with a mosquito that would not leave my leg alone.
But even if I have had those many distinct emotions, I seem to have been living a double life or a “double mind” in the way I think about emotions. This is because I had thought, as many have, that amidst all the “emo-diversity” life offers, there are still basic emotions that are built-in and that everyone has them and that we can all recognize them in each other.
Two very thoughtful women turned that notion on its head for me. One was Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, who has studied the science of emotions for most of her professional life. She found that any of the 6 emotions that many psychologists speak of – happy, sad, angry, disgusted, surprised and afraid - do not have their distinct signatures in the brain. There is no “happy” brain signature, just as there is no brain signature for surprised, sad, disgust, afraid or angry. She found, in her many years of research, that an emotion is not confined to a special “emotional” section in your brain. In other words, emotions are whole-brain affairs.
Many tests asking you how you feel or how you think others feel based on their facial expressions, give you these 6 options. Even that wonderful Disney film, Inside Out, showed how one’s personality and memories are forged by 5 of these emotions. But think about it - for all the biological, physiological and experiential capital that human beings lavish their lifetimes, are we really beings who carry an emotional currency with only 6 basic emotions?
Emotions are in flux. They emerge in between the grains of shifting sands of time, culture, and personal expectations. Dr. Barrett indeed found that emotions are contextual – they depend on the place, time, the characters who elicit them and even in the strength or weaknesses of the triggers. Most of all, they depend on what you already have stored inside your head. You feel based on what you have built-up inside you. And, as Dr. Barrett said, if they are built (and not “built-in”) – you have more control over them than you have been made to think!
The other woman who really made me rethink what an emotion was, was Tiffany Watts Smith. She is a historian and does research on the language we used across history and cultures that express the infinite palette of human emotions. The words she cited which really grabbed me were "ilinx (“the delirium that comes with minor acts of chaos”), "gezelligheid” ("being cozy and warm inside with friends when it's cold and damp outside” and "basorexia," (“a sudden urge to kiss someone”).
So what could it mean that emotions are not universal and that they could not be collapsed into only 6?
First, maybe theater people should consider changing their happy and sad icons because their profession’s binary mask shortchanges the spectral range of human emotions. Theirs, of all professions should know this, as they delve into the finest gradients in the human condition, sometimes several times a day.
Second, it means that the “face”, seductive though it is to behold, is not always a faithful reflection of an emotion because the body and the context of the emotion contributes to the complete picture.
Third, the emotions we feel may not necessarily be found in others, especially those who belong to other cultures, with different life experiences. As Dr. Barrett mentioned in her TED Talk, a stoic face could mean “remorseless to one culture but “surrender” and/or “defeat" in another. That in some cases could spell the difference between a death and life sentence.
Fourth, it explains why even if all campaigners and advertisers know that their ads need to wield emotional hooks, there is still no fool-proof formula as to what emotion will make people buy your product or your story.
Fifth, emotions are not merely what happens to you as a result of being sandwiched by what happens outside you and the reflexes triggered inside you. Barring mental conditions that need medical interventions, you can make the filling of your own sandwich with the experiences that you will choose to help you shape your own emotions. You can have better control of how you feel and express them.
I remember being taught repeatedly in school that we cannot help how we feel. This means we are captured and held hostage by our own feelings. Well, science showed that feelings can do that to us, but only if we let them. – Rappler.com
Top photo: A still from the 2015 animated movie Inside Out. Image courtesy Pixar/Disney