Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The drive of emotions

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman
Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings
by Paul Ekman Phoenix. Pages 282. £ 4.99

THE idea that a person governed by reason alone, and not by the emotions would be more perfect than we are, is an ancient popular belief. As a result, emotions, known variously as "affects", "passions", have not received due attention by philosophers and psychologists. Now modern psychologists are suggesting that emotion and reason are not two opposite things but are two extreme ends of the same spectrum. Some go so far as to say that a person devoid of emotions could not be called a person at all.

In Emotions Revealed: Understanding Face and Feelings, evolutionary psychologist Paul Ekman comes up with compelling arguments in favour of emotions. He bases his work on the suppositions of Charles Darwin who in his 1872 book titled The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals had upturned many of the traditional cherished beliefs about the subject. Like his groundbreaking The Origin of Species, the assumptions of his new book were also met with scepticism and strong disapproval. And things remained so for about a century until Paul Ekman, now a leading authority on the subject, came on the scene.

Ekman, too, originally believed that Darwin had got it wrong when he said emotional expressions were universal features of humans and even animals, although they do get shaped by culture or environment. In the late 50s, Ekman set out to check Darwin's hypothesis through empirical research. The conclusions of the researches were revealing. Darwin was right after all! Emotional displays are similar in all cultures across the globe, albeit there is often a cultural variation. Ekman calls such universal emotions "basic", and his list includes: fear, anger, sadness, joy, surprise, and disgust. Why basic? Because these emotions are essential for our survival. They are experienced almost without awareness, and they last for a fraction of a second. Although rationality is a distinguishing characteristic of humans, in a life-threatening situation, for example, when we are face-to-face with a hungry tiger, if we began thinking rationally and deliberating about the various options that we have of dealing with the situation, we would end up in the tiger's stomach. In such a situation, our internal mechanism decides for us in a milli-second what the course of our action should be. Then, there are other complex emotions too, like guilt, shame, embarrassment, but they are not basic.

Ekman does not merely confirm the Darwinian hypothesis. Over the past 50 years, he has built his own theory based on rigorous field research. Why bother studying emotions? No man is an island, and one of the major pleasures as well as problems of life is our interaction with other members of society. Emotions, as non-verbal language, help us understand the motives and intentions of other persons and convey our intentions and motives to them, so we could have healthier relationships.

But like any language, the language of emotions is not perfect, for there is some degree of ambiguity in the expression of emotions. Besides, just as we are all not perfect users of our verbal language, most of us are not experts in the language of emotions. We may feel and show the right emotion, Ekman explains, but at the wrong intensity, e.g., to worry was justified, but we overreacted and got terrified. Or we might feel the appropriate emotion but show it the wrong way; e.g., our anger was justified, but resorting to the silent treatment was counterproductive.

There is an interesting section at the end of the book where looking at various photographs the reader could judge how good he or she is at judging other people's facial expressions.

Can we alter or change our inappropriate emotional reactions: wrong intensity and wrong way of expressing them? Ekman says we can, and this is the key to leading a fuller and happier life in harmony with others and ourselves.

It sounds paradoxical, but by regulating our emotional nature, we would behave more rationally and not be mere "slaves of the passions".

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