Laughter: An Example of Human Complexity

From Left: Eric Smadja and Robert Paul


Eric Smadja opened his talk on laughter with a joke. As the discussion participants laughed together, Dr. Smadja gestured towards one of them and asked: “You are laughing— but why, and how?” Laugher is an aspect of human behavior that Dr. Smadja has studied in his career as a psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and psychiatrist. During a CMBC lunch discussion on April 6, 2017, Dr. Smadja discussed this complex and fascinating question with lunch participants from a variety of academic perspectives.

According to Dr. Smadja, all human behavior, including laughter, must be analyzed from a variety of perspectives, including anthropology, medicine, psychology, history, and sociology. This is because laughter includes both psychological and social factors.

Humans are genetically primed for laughter, which can express complex and variable emotions including joy, surprise, disgust, sadness, anger, and surprise. On the physical level, laughter has motor functions expressed by smiling and vocalization, and provides benefits such as muscle relaxation and the release of endorphins (“feel-good” chemicals) in the brain.

Laughter is an interaction between individuals and depends on collective interpersonal agreement on acceptable topics of humor. This cultural and social dimension is important because it reassures group members that they can identify with the humor expressed, removing guilt, shame, and other inhibitory mechanisms. Laughter also serves to maintain homeostasis within society and is prescribed in institutional settings such as cinema, theatre, and public ceremonies. Although there is some cultural variability, there are also rules and prohibitions on laughter in situations relating to trauma, illness, and death.

Laughter creates mental representations in the human brain, which may evoke repressed subjects. This is especially evident with dark humor, which portrays obscenity and deviance. An established political authority can become the subject of transformation through laughter using techniques such as hyperbole, metaphor, metonymy, satire, and parody. Dr. Smadja and lunch participants discussed whether laughter can be truly subversive in light of its function to integrate social norms. Laughter encourages ritualized role reversal in settings such as Carnival in which a clown portrays the role of a king. It is paradoxical because it is simultaneously transgressive and supportive of the social order. Dr. Robert Paul suggested laughter is a form of socially permitted transgression.

In today’s world, how much freedom do individuals have to transgress social norms through laughter? Dr. Shlomit Finkelstein posited that there are fewer risks to subversive humor than in past societies and less need for social sanctions. Dr. Smadja agreed, but suggested that although our current society offers us greater freedom, it is also more fragile.  He cited French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s work on the increase of suicide in modernity as a primary example.

I think it is also important to consider the current role of democratic institutions in providing free and open avenues of expression, which certain countries enjoy more than others. Speaking about laughter and its various forms opens the door to speaking about a host of related cultural performances, such as burlesque, theatre, parades, and other kinds of socially prescribed rituals. Cultural anthropologists such as Victor Turner describe these unique performances as events that collapse conventional binaries such as human/animal, man/woman, and adult/child, breaking with everyday life and routine and providing an opportunity to disrupt the normative social order. The ability of laughter and comedy to open doors to new kinds of social formations is a continual process of exchange between individuals and the societies they inhabit.

–Ellie Pourbohloul


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Consciousness from an Empirical Stance

February 20, 2017

Joseph Neisser


What is consciousness, and what is a good measure of it? Grinnell College philosopher Joseph Neisser sought to approach this issue from a scientific lens in a CMBC lunch discussion. Dr. Neisser traced the history of thinking about consciousness, introduced Integrated Information Theory as a new attempt to address the problem of measuring consciousness, and discussed limitations and future directions of this line of research.

Consciousness has been studied from a variety of perspectives and disciplines. Philosophical and psychoanalytic perspectives that attempt to account for a first-person perspective of consciousness lack quantitative measures of consciousness, because introspection is an unreliable and difficult-to-measure variable. Dr. Neisser outlined an empirical stance towards consciousness, which aims to coordinate a theory of consciousness with current data models of neural activity without making experiential, a-priori, and/or moral claims about consciousness.

What Dr. Neisser describes as the general theory of consciousness called Phi (ɸ) attempts to account for this problem by defining consciousness as a system of dynamic complexity and neural integration. This perspective, developed by mathematicians, allows scholars to measure the degree of consciousness of a system quantitatively from an objective third-person stance. Proponents of the theory of phi have used it to assess degree of consciousness in coma and related states, such as deep sleep, patients under anesthesia, and individuals in permanent vegetative states (PVS).

This research is important to clinicians and patients because individuals diagnosed with PVS vary in their levels of consciousness. Phi can quantitatively assess degrees of consciousness in these patients. Neural responses to transcranial magnetic stimulation in these patients can assist doctors in making a determination on whether to keep these patients alive, as some patients may have more functional integration of various brain systems than others, completely independent of their behavior or responsiveness to stimuli.

A community of scholars in psychology, neuroscience, and the humanities enjoyed a fruitful discussion on the many questions this position on consciousness raised. Does phi measure level of arousal of a subject, rather than consciousness itself, and is this distinction important? Some attendees argued that this theory is necessary but not sufficient to understanding consciousness, as responsive neural networks may not be equivalent to the phenomenological experience of having sensory experiences in the world.

Given that this approach is such a departure from our historical and lay perspectives on what consciousness is, what about the content of consciousness? Do first-person perspectives, subjectivity, narrative, and knowledge play a role? Some philosophers, such as John Searle, argue that these are essential attributes of human consciousness. Proponents of phi and empirical studies of consciousness think that our intuitions about consciousness erroneously define what its attributes are. They believe that the content of what people experience from a first person experience is less relevant than how coordinated or integrated the brain is in processing the experience.

I am especially interested in thinking about the moral ramifications of this work on PVS patients. Bioethics is an emerging field that engages discussion on contemporary medical issues such as genome editing, disease containment, and right to life. On one hand, it can be argued that there is a moral imperative to help apparently vegetative patients that are discovered to be minimally conscious. However, clinicians also must consider other challenges such as cost of care and perspectives of family members when making these determinations— no easy feat. It is important for scholars making empirical claims in their research not to lose sight of the human impact of their work.

-Ellie Pourbohloul

See the discussion handout created by Dr. Neisser here: Consciousness from an Empirical Stance


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Sociocultural and Psychological Perspectives on Bilingualism


From Left: Don Tuten, Alena Esposito, and Laura Namy

January 24, 2017

Donald Tuten & Alena Esposito


What does “bilingualism” mean as a cognitive process and a sociocultural phenomenon? Last year, Dr. Donald Tuten and Dr. Alena Esposito introduced students to this interdisciplinary topic through a course at Emory sponsored by the CMBC. The course covered different perspectives on bilingualism, including the social contexts that shape (and are shaped by) how speakers use language as well as the relation of bilingualism to neural networks in the brain. It also explored how educational systems may enhance the process of bilingual and cognitive development. A CMBC lunch discussion on January 24, 2017 touched on several of these issues, and highlighted that bilingualism continues to be the subject of popular and scholarly debate.

Their discussion of bilingualism began with the question of ideological framing, or how cultures “think about” language and languages. Dr. Tuten commented on the impact of standard language ideology, which claims that only one language variety is superior and “correct” within a given speech community. In conjunction with nationalism, this leads to the ideology of monolingualism, which holds that use of one language is both superior and “unmarked” or “normal” within a given community or nation-state– an idea that may be summarized in the formula “one state = one nation = one language”. The ideology of monolingualism is reinforced through schooling, media, and other modes of cultural transmission, and affects both popular and scholarly views of language.

The ideologies of the standard and monolingualism favor a view of bilingualism as subversive. Dr. Tuten discussed the usage of Spanish in the United States as an example of collective suspicion towards a non-dominant language, and a common belief that Hispanics refuse to learn English. In reality, and like other bilingual immigrants, Hispanics and Latinos show a generational decline in Spanish-speaking ability as English becomes increasing dominant amongst the second and third generations.

Language ideologies have a demonstrable impact on schooling. Dr. Esposito, for instance, first became interested in studying language as an educator. She observed that training in a child’s non-dominant language had no detrimental effect on test scores in the dominant language. In contrast to myths about second language learning that claimed it would slow cognitive growth in children, recent research demonstrates that there may be cognitive benefit for adults and children alike. In a conversation with the audience about elevating the usage of minority languages in school, Dr. Esposito also mentioned that children in dual language programs have increased appreciation of minority cultures, and children speaking minority languages are empowered by the fact that a teacher is speaking their language.

As a student of anthropology, I am part of a community that studies culture, language, and human evolution. Standard language ideologies are rooted in cultural practices in which some cultures position themselves as oppositional and dominant to others, enabling control of ideas and resources. This has consequences for everyone in a language community, especially minority language speakers: they are always using language according to power imbalances and changing social contexts. Our discussion of how cultural exchange between English speakers and Spanish speaking minorities in America has facilitated a decline in the usage of the formal “you” in Spanish is a prime example. As anthropologists have demonstrated, the ideas that we have about language matter. These ideas are also complex in that they change over time.

Recent debates about bilingual education including whether and how to teach children second languages alongside English are affected by language ideologies. From an anthropological perspective, dual language education not only provides children with economic benefit and cognitive advantage, but also ensures that non-dominant languages and cultures are represented, understood, and preserved.

-Ellie Pourbohloul


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Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Scientists, Humanists, and Collective Memory

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Angelika Bammer and Hazel Gold


What exactly do we mean when say “collective memory” and how might individuals’ personal memories of an event converge into a cohesive memory maintained by a group? This was the central inquiry of the second CMBC Faculty Lunch Discussion of the spring 2015 semester, titled “Now you see it, now you don’t: scientists, humanists, and collective memory” and led by Dr. Angelika Bammer (Institute for Liberal Arts, Emory University) and Dr. Hazel Gold (Spanish and Portuguese, Emory University). In the fall of 2014, Drs. Bammer and Gold co-taught a CMBC sponsored seminar called “Mapping Memory: History, Culture, and the Brain ”, the purpose of which was to examine how our memories of the past shape the present from a cross-disciplinary perspective. The class struggled with how to approach collective memory from an interdisciplinary perspective, failing to reach a satisfying resolution by the semester’s end. Drs. Bammer and Gold reviewed this struggle in the lunch discussion, and raised questions about how to best define and conceptualize collective memory.

The “Mapping Memory” class was organized around two aims. The first aim was to foster an open inquiry into relationships between memory, the past, and the present from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. The second aim was to use the assumptions and approaches of one discipline as a check on the accepted premises and methods from another discipline. These aims worked well for the class at the outset of the semester, as the class examined the processes of memory and forgetting within individual minds. The class studied memory and forgetting from a neurobiological perspective, reading case studies and scientific research to understand how memories are encoded and retrieved at a neuronal level. Approaching these questions through a humanities lens, the class also looked at how individual acts of memory are represented in literary texts, film, and art. For example, the class read the Jorge Luis Borges story, “Funes the Memorious”, about a boy who acquires the ability to remember every detail of his life, down to the shape of every cloud he sees in the sky. The protagonist’s experience is similar to that of people living with Highly Superior Autobiographical memory, a rare condition whose existence invites questions about the limits of memory capacity in the human brain.
When the class began investigating the question of collective memory, it ran into difficulty reconciling perspectives from the humanities and the sciences. The term ‘collective memory’ was first coined by the sociologist and philosopher Maurice Halbwachs in the 1950s and refers to the larger social framework in which individual memories are believed to be constructed and embedded. Halbwachs argues that memory is largely a social act, given that many of our memories are laid down and recalled in social settings and for social purposes. Halbwachs asserts that memory is often invoked in response to questions posed by others, and that we assume others’ perspective in formulating a response. Hence, group membership informs the encoding and retrieval of memories, such that memories are formulated within a larger social framework, rather than in individual minds. According to Halbwachs (Halbwachs,1992):

There is no point in seeking where they [memories] are preserved in my brain or in some nook of my mind to which I alone have access: for they are recalled to me externally, and the groups of which I am a part at any time give me the means to reconstruct them, upon condition, to be sure, that I turn toward them and adopt, at least for the moment, their way of thinking… It is in this sense that there exists a collective memory and social frameworks for memory; it is to the degree that our individual thought places itself in these frameworks and participates in this memory that it is capable of the act of recollection.

To understand how collective memory would be approached by cognitive scientists, Drs. Gold and Bammer invited Dr. Daniel Schacter (Psychology, Harvard University) to visit Emory and speak with their class. Dr. Schacter has researched and written extensively on the topic of memory, and often appeals to the humanities in his own writing. Drs. Gold and Bammer believed the visit could prove fruitful for synthesizing a richer understanding of collective memory by forging a bridge between the humanities and the sciences. While Dr. Schacter was familiar with the term ‘collective memory’, he does not recognize it as a useful or meaningful construct in the field of cognitive science. He understands the term to be used metaphorically, and does not believe it can be operationalized and measured in an experimental setting. Dr. Schacter’s objection to ‘collective memory’ as a meaningful construct in the sciences compelled Dr. Gold and Bammer’s class to reflect on collective memory and try to make more sense of it—reflections which were actively discussed in the CMBC lunch talk.

A central challenge in defining and understanding collective memory is how to delineate the ambiguous boundary between individual and collective memories. This inquiry leads to questions about ownership of memories–when is a memory an entity we can claim individual ownership over, and when and how does it become collective? Dr. Robyn Fivush (Psychology, Emory University) attended the talk and argued that we are born into cultures that prescribe the way we should live our lives and form our memories. As a result, our memories are heavily shaped and constrained by cultural stories and definitions from the very beginning of our lives, such that it may be difficult to speak of veritable ‘individual’ memories that exist outside of a sociocultural framework.

The boundary between individual and collective memories is also murky when we stop to consider how a cohesive collective memory emerges from the individuals’ disparate experiences of an event. In the CMBC faculty lunch discussion, attendees all shared their personal experiences of 9/11, an exercise which revealed that many people’s recollections activated associated memories of tangential events and people. When and how do all these personal memories of an event like 9/11, each with their own complex web of associations and memories, hang together and become the collective memory we speak of when we say “never forget” 9/11? In discussing this issue, Dr. Bammer also raised questions about what gets lost as this collective memory emerges, and what happens to all the individual memories along the way?

Defining ownership over individual and collective memories in turn raises questions about the transmission of memories across time and space. Can individuals claim to have access to a collective memory of an event for which they were not present? For example, children born after 9/11 will have had no first-hand experience of the event, but will hear others’ accounts and be exposed to media coverage of the event many times throughout their lives. Do we acknowledge these children as having shared ownership of the collective memory of 9/11? Many attendees participating in the discussion endorsed the belief that intergenerational memories constitute collective memory, for the experiences of an event are effectively shared and constitute memories that are central to people’s identities. If collective memories can be claimed to extend to individuals who do not have first-hand experience of the event, they would stand in sharp contrast with Dr. Schacter’s definition of memory. In Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, Schacter explains “In order to be experienced as a memory, the retrieved information must be recollected in the context of a particular time and place and with some reference to oneself as a participant in the episode” (Schacter, 2008, p.17).

Defining collective memory also raises thorny questions about the reliability of memories and whether the term ‘story’ may be more appropriate than ‘memory’ in some contexts. When events are transmitted across generations, details may be added, altered, or dropped, calling into question the verisimilitude of the memory. Hence, it may be argued that memories that have been altered in various ways may be more accurately described as ‘stories’. This does not necessarily discriminate collective memories from individual ones. Dr. Gold pointed out that individual memories are altered when they are reconstructed by the mind, and that individual memory is also fallible in all kinds of ways—a point that Dr. Schacter raised himself in his talk on the seven sins of memory when he was visiting Emory. Thus, fallibility should not necessarily be a reason to deem collective memory any less valid than individual memory from a scientific perspective.

Although Dr. Schacter was not amenable to the idea of ‘collective memory’ from the perspective of a scholar in the cognitive sciences, his visit ultimately proved to be generative for the class. Dr. Bammer explained that the students were frustrated with Dr. Schacter’s response, and that it motivated them to tackle “richer, more nuanced, more risky, more experimental projects” probing questions concerned with collective memory. For example, one student examined how collective memories of the Irish famine are represented in Irish literature and how these memories may be affecting the way people experience the current economic crisis. Many unresolved questions remain concerning how to define and understand collective memory, but Drs. Gold and Bammer’s class and the CMBC faculty lunch discussion made progress in hashing out these questions and opening a dialogue about how to address them from a cross-disciplinary perspective.

— Melanie Pincus


Halbwachs, M. (1992). On Collective Memory. University of Chicago Press.

Schacter, D. L. (2008). Searching for Memory: The Brain, Th. Basic Books.

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How to Build Bridges between Computational Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Dieter Jaeger and Phillip Wolff


In the first CMBC Faculty Lunch Discussion of the Spring 2015 semester, titled ‘How to Build Bridges between Computational Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology?’ Dr. Phillip Wolff (Department of Psychology, Emory University) and Dr. Dieter Jaeger (Department of Biology, Emory University) conversed about the ways in which cognitive psychology and neuroscience can develop more meaningful cross-disciplinary collaborations. The two fields address overlapping research questions and use some of the same modeling tools, but, historically, have been relatively isolated from one another. Drs. Wolf and Jaeger emphasized the benefits that can come from greater collaboration between the two disciplines, and acknowledged the challenges that make collaboration inherently difficult. The lunch discussion itself provided a starting-point for bringing faculty and researchers from both disciplines together, encouraging dialogue about the advantages of building a stronger alliance between the two disciplines.

Collaboration between cognitive psychology and computational neuroscience has the potential to be mutually beneficial, as research findings from one discipline help constrain and guide research in the other. Cognitive psychology research delineates how human minds represent information and perform computations in different contexts. Through subtle manipulations of task design, cognitive psychologists can identify whether information can be represented in different ways and which representation is most likely, given the particular context, learning-related changes, and individual cognitive biases. For example, cognitive psychology research has found that the spatial relationship between objects can be represented in multiple ways by the human mind, and that different cultures have biases toward particular representations. A ball sitting on the ground in proximity to a chair could be described as being to the north of the chair, in front of the chair, or to the right of the chair. The first description captures allocentric properties of the scene, the second reflects the position of the objects relative to each other, and the third corresponds to an egocentric perspective. By asking participants to describe the scenes, cognitive psychologists can discern which type of spatial representation participants are using. These varied representations likely map on to different neural processes, so it would be important for a neuroscientist to identify which representation is being used in a particular task, in order to test a more constrained hypothesis about neural pathways of activity. In this way, research findings from cognitive psychology provide top-down guidance to neuroscientists, allowing them to make more precise predictions about the location and type of neural activity they expect to see.

Neuroscientists examine neural processes at varying spatial levels, from subcellular processes taking place in individual neurons, at one end of the continuum, to interactions between functional brain networks at the other end of the continuum. Just as cognitive psychology findings can be used to provide top-down guidance in constraining the hypotheses of neuroscientists, the corpus of neuroscience research can provide bottom-up information about the flow of activity in neural pathways and help psychologists make more refined predictions about cognition, perception, and behavior. For example, lesion and neuroimaging research has provided evidence that there are distinct learning and memory systems in the brain—a hippocampal-based system and a striatal-based one–and that these systems competitively and cooperatively interact, depending on the context. Neuroscience research can help cognitive psychologists refine predictions and build more accurate models to capture how people learn new skills and remember information.

Despite the advantages to be had from greater communication between the disciplines, there are a number of challenges that make collaboration difficult. Some attendees raised the point that between the cellular processes that computational neuroscientists study, and the higher-level cognitive phenomena that cognitive psychologists research, exist multiple layers of neurobiological complexity that are challenging to traverse. A single neuron itself is very complex, receiving inputs from thousands of other neurons and responding to diffuse neuromodulators in a variety of different ways.  Thousands of neurons organize into well-structured networks, which themselves give rise to larger-scale maps, such as the somatotopic map in the somatosensory cortex. At a larger spatial scale, brain regions with well-studied functions come into view, and these regions interact with one another in coordinated ways, defining systems (e.g., the limbic system). Because there are many intermediary steps between the level of neurons and the level of functional systems, and each level is itself defined by profoundly complex interactions, it is inherently challenging to model how activity in individual neurons, or even neuronal networks, map on to higher-level phenomena like language and perception. Despite these challenges, neuroimaging is a promising tool for bridging the gap between nervous system activity at different spatial levels and human cognition. Neuroimaging detects functional activity at the systems level in the brain as humans perform cognitive and perceptual tasks. Thanks to research being carried out by investigators like Shella Keilholz in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology, we are gaining insight into how systems-level activity detected by neuroimaging corresponds to the coordinated neural activity occurring on a much finer spatial scale. Hence, neuroimaging provides an important link between how activity at smaller spatial scales in the brain generates higher-level cognitive processes.


Another challenge that has proven to be problematic historically for the two disciplines is the dearth of models and theories that make clear and testable predictions. In the early 1990s, the two disciplines temporarily came together to experiment with a new generation of connectionist network models. However, neuroscientists quickly soured on these models because they failed to make clear predictions about neural activity, and psychologists found that they modeled cognition and behavior in ways that were very different from how human minds appear to work. As a result, the two disciplines drifted apart and made less effort to coordinate conferences and meetings together. Recently, new and exciting machine learning algorithms have emerged that may encourage the disciplines to work together more closely again, by providing the means to design and test more promising models. In addition, efforts made by centers like CMBC and other cross-disciplinary institutes and national meetings can facilitate greater communication between the researchers in these fields. As a case in point, the CMBC Faculty Lunch Discussion was successful in bringing together Emory researchers from computational neuroscience and cognitive psychology, some of whom had never met before, and creating a space for the two fields to consider how they can benefit from greater collaboration.

— Melanie Pincus

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Thinking Musical Thoughts

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Don Saliers and Richard Patterson


Dr. Don Saliers (William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Worship, Candler School of Theology) and Dr. Richard Patterson (Philosophy) held the second CMBC Faculty Lunch Discussion of the 2014 Fall Semester, titled “Thinking Musical Thoughts.” In addressing this theme, Saliers and Patterson focused on the question of how musicians embody expressive elements of musical pieces when they perform. As they move through a piece, musicians modulate fine and gross motor movements, attending to layers of technical details as they do so. Aside from the technical component, musicians are concerned with conveying the meaning or mood of a musical composition, and this expressive quality must imbue the playing itself. How, then, do musicians transmute the expressive mood of a piece of music into the technical execution of the notes? Moreover, how do listeners decode the emotions musicians are transmitting through their playing? Saliers’ and Patterson’s discussion of the types of strategies musicians use to communicate certain moods, along with recent research findings on the universal structure underlying music, motion, and emotion, offer some insight into these questions.

As musicians themselves, Saliers and Patterson provided examples of the cognitive strategies they and other musicians use to instill their performances with an intended expressive quality. One technique musicians use is to describe verbally what they want to convey in the musical piece, whether it is an emotion, mood, attitude, idea, or ideal. For example, musicians may articulate emotional states they want to evoke like “excitement” or “mournful sadness.” Musicians keep these verbal descriptions in mind while they monitor their playing, making subtle adjustments to stay faithful to the piece’s intended mood.

A complementary strategy is to use visual imagery that captures the mood of a musical piece. Musicians will conjure visual imagery like the opening of a flower or a foggy night in a graveyard to infuse their playing with a particular emotion. Similarly, musicians use bodily metaphors to help them transmute the mood of the music into their playing. Musicians evoke bodily metaphors like heaviness/lightness, as well as varieties of dancing—elegant, courtly, comical and drunken, etc.—to play in a style consonant with these metaphors.

How exactly do these cognitive strategies allow musicians to imbue music with specific feelings? How does the visual imagery of a flower opening, for example, transmute into the tactility with which a pianist or cellist manipulates her fingers when playing a piece of music? It may have something to do with synesthesia—a neurological phenomenon in which features of distinct bodily sensations or meaningful percepts are experienced in a fashion that seems to blend the sensory modalities. For people who experience one of the most common forms of synesthesia—grapheme-color synesthesia—letters and numbers are perceived as being tinged with a particular color. It has been argued that we all experience at least a mild version of synesthesia, in that we perceive non-arbitrary mappings between different sensory percepts, in some instances. For example, many people experience non-arbitrary mappings between certain speech sounds and visual shapes. Research has found that a majority of people select an irregular star-shaped object as matching the sound “Kiki”, and a rounded blob shape as matching the sound “Bouba” (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). It has been suggested that this phenomenon is an example of sound-vision synesthesia, and that people choose the “bouba” sound for the rounded object because the enunciation of the word requires the mouth to make a more rounded shape, whereas the enunciation of “kiki” requires the mouth to make more angular shapes.

Recent research suggests that there may also be non-arbitrary mappings between dimensions of music, movement, and emotions. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, participants were asked to create either a melody or a bouncing-ball animation that expressed a specific emotion (Sievers, Polansky, Casey, & Wheatley, 2013). The participants could adjust five sliding bars to modulate the beats per minute (of the ball or the music), the predictability of the beats, smoothness (i.e. the ball could be manipulated to be smooth or spiky, and the music could be made more or less dissonant), the step size (height of the bounce/distance between notes), and the pitch of the note/angle at which the ball leans. For each emotion the participants were asked to express (angry, happy, peaceful, sad or scared), the groups chose very similar positions for the dimensions adjusted by the sliding bars, no matter if they were assigned to the melody group or the animation group. This result replicated in a group of participants from a Kreung community in Cambodia, suggesting that music and movement may be experienced as structurally similar and reflect specific emotional states across cultures. It is unclear how these non-arbitrary mappings arose, but it may be the case that humans learned to decode emotion from the movement of other people or animals; in turn, music may exploit neural systems dedicated to perceiving subtle changes in rhythm and speed to elicit emotions.

The overlapping representations of emotion, movement, and music may help explain how musicians encode expressive qualities in their works. When musicians evoke visual or bodily metaphors, these semantic representations may directly map onto specific representations in the motor cortex, allowing musicians to modify their muscle movements in alignment with the percepts activated by the metaphors. Alternatively, the pathway may be less direct, with a mental representation of a visual image or bodily metaphor evoking a distinct emotional state, which in turn maps onto a particular pattern of activation in the motor cortex. Future research promises to provide a more fine-grained account of how expressive qualities are both successfully encoded by musicians and decoded by listeners.

Throughout their discussion, Saliers and Patterson also touched on questions concerning the degree to which conscious versus unconscious processes influence musical performance. Conjuring a visual metaphor is definitively conscious in nature, but this semantic representation may influence breathing or motor movements controlled by unconscious processes, and it is unclear how these conscious and unconscious processes interact with one another. A process that contributes to musical performance may also switch from being conscious to unconscious, depending on various factors, including the length of time a musician has practiced a piece. While a musician is still learning a piece, she is consciously attending to certain muscle movements, but this conscious attention may significantly subside as she becomes more familiar with the piece such that previously conscious processes become unconscious. However, this is a fluid and dynamic process, as musicians anecdotally report bringing more automatic processes under conscious control again—for example, when they make a mistake in a performance and must correct on the fly.

Musical ‘flow states’ are a particularly rich source for questions about the relative contribution of conscious and unconscious processes, as phenomenological descriptions and research findings suggest that consciousness is altered during this state. Dr. Saliers gave a personal account akin to a flow state in which, as he commented, “the music began to play me.” Dr. Salier’s personal experience leads him to believe the state is associated with “a cessation of conscious attention” and intensification of perception. In the psychology literature on this topic, flow states are marked by effortless and complete absorption in an activity, merging of action and awareness, and a loss of reflective self-consciousness. Research on flow states among pianists found that entrance into a flow state was accompanied by a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure and a relaxation of facial muscles, perhaps explaining the effortless quality described by those experiencing a flow state (de Manzano, Theorell, Harmat, & Ullén, 2010). Researchers propose that flow states may be associated with a transient reduction of activity in the prefrontal cortex (Dietrich, 2004). Because this region is strongly involved in self-awareness and higher-level cognitive processes, reduced activity in this region during flow states accords with the phenomenological experience of diminished self-awareness and conscious attention. Because flow states are experienced as pleasant and conducive to heightened creativity, it will be interesting to see whether future research highlights strategies for more easily entering a flow state.

— Melanie Pincus


de Manzano, Ö., Theorell, T., Harmat, L., & Ullén, F. (2010). The psychophysiology of flow during piano playing. Emotion, 10(3), 301.

Dietrich, A. (2004). Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow. Consciousness and Cognition, 13(4), 746-761.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synesthesia–a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of consciousness studies, 8(12), 3-34.

Sievers, B., Polansky, L., Casey, M., & Wheatley, T. (2013). Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(1), 70-75.

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From Rambo to Rushdie via Linklater and Lavant: Our Peanut Butter Cup Runneth Over

Friday, October 17, 2014

Marshall Duke and Daniel Reynolds


In the first CMBC lunch talk of the 2014 academic school year, Dr. Marshall Duke (Psychology, Emory University) and Dr. Daniel Reynolds (Film and Media Studies, Emory University) discussed their recent collaboration, the joint teaching of last spring’s interdisciplinary class, “Film and the Mind.”

Bringing together psychology and film studies in an interdisciplinary approach can lead us to a richer understanding of what films—and our responses to them—disclose about the human mind. Dr. Duke began the discussion with an impassioned endorsement of consilience—a term popularized by E.O. Wilson’s 1998 book of the same name. Consilience refers to “a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation” (Wilson, p. 7). For example, researchers from a range of scientific disciplines—genetics, paleontology, biology—have arrived at similar conclusions about evolution using independent lines of research, providing converging support for evolutionary theory.

Drs. Duke and Reynolds created the interdisciplinary course, “Film and the Mind,” in the tradition of consilience, creating a space for inquiry at the nexus of film studies and psychology. As a metaphor for the goal of consilience, the two professors brought in a jar of peanut butter, chocolate bars, and Reese’s p-b cups, encouraging the students to begin thinking from a “Reese’s p-b cup place”—in other words, from the juncture where these two disciplines overlap. There is a historical precedent for this: two early prominent film theorists—Hugo Munsterberg and Rudolf Arnheim—studied human behavior from an interdisciplinary perspective by drawing from both psychology and film studies. Both Munsterberg and Arnheim were psychologists by trade who became interested in the novel ways film contributes to the study of human behavior. As Dr. Duke explained, Munsterberg is a well-known figure in the film studies discipline, but has been all but forgotten within the field of psychology. This underscores how far apart these two disciplines have drifted—and Drs. Duke and Reynolds believe that it is time to bring them back together.

An interdisciplinary approach that draws from psychology and films studies can be used in the viewing and analysis of films to reach a deeper understanding of strengths and weaknesses in psychological theories and concepts. For example, psychoanalysis plays a large role in the narrative of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and analyzing the film enables a greater understanding of the ways psychoanalysis has proven itself simultaneously to be both useful and limited in comprehending the inner workings of the human mind.  The protagonist of “Vertigo” is crippled by a fear of heights and attempts to overcome this fear in order to save a woman from the top of a tower. He misinterprets the actions and events around him and is unable to understand whom the woman in the tower really is, mirroring the types of misinterpretation and identity confusion that frequently arise in psychoanalysis. With this film, Hitchcock succeeds in making these core psychoanalytic constructs accessible to the viewer and illustrating their utility for understanding how the human mind works. “Vertigo” has a very tight narrative with the characters’ behavior all neatly accounted for by conscious or unconscious intentions, reflecting the psychoanalytic position that all behavior has an identifiable cause. It is Dr. Duke’s belief that this constitutes a simplistic account of human behavior.

In contrast to “Vertigo,” in which psychoanalytic theory was used to directly construct the film’s narrative, other films loosely embody speculations about psychological processes and may allow greater traction on questions about the human mind by virtue of being less rigidly constructed. “The Tree of Life” exemplifies this type of film and was viewed in the class because of its portrayal of features of human consciousness. The film follows the story of a family living in Texas in the 1950s and is framed by meditations on the experience of being alive, family relationships, and humanity’s place in space and time within the expansiveness of our cosmos. The film has a daring style, performing experiments in perception and incorporating stylistic elements that are novel and unique. For example, the film features an unexpected interlude chronicling the creation of the universe and development of biological life. Films like “The Tree of Life” make it clear that we are not simply learning about the mind by passively digesting the view of human experience that the film projects. Rather, the viewer has a range of reactions to a film, and it is in the interplay between what a film is communicating and how the viewer responds to a film where we gain insights about our own mind and the minds of others.

Because of the complexity associated with unraveling these interactions, studying film and the mind from an interdisciplinary perspective is a particularly useful approach to thinking about such topics as how absorbing watching films is. When the lights are dimmed and a film is projected on a large screen, most viewers have the experience of becoming absorbed in the film to the point that they forget there are other people around them. The literary critic Zunshine argues that in this state we allow ourselves to fully experience the moment because we are minimally self-conscious and maximally absorbed in the film. This quality allows us to strongly empathize with a film’s characters, crying when they are in despair and applauding when they are joyous or victorious. There are factors about the film-watching experience and the film itself that can modulate the degree to which we become absorbed in a film, or empathize with its characters. For example, if the lights aren’t dimmed or the film is being viewed on a small portable device, the degree to which the viewer becomes absorbed is likely diminished. Furthermore, factors like the tone of the film or how sympathetic the characters are can enhance or reduce the degree to which the viewer empathizes with the films’ characters.

Although we are capable of deeply empathizing with others, we are also embodied physical beings and retain some level of distance from others, enabling us to judge them. Dr. Reynolds contends that we likely exist at the confluence of these two states, shifting dynamically between them as circumstances change. “The Act of Killing”—another film viewed in Drs. Reynolds’ and Duke’s class—reveals the dynamic shift between states of greater and lesser empathy and judgment as we relate to the characters on screen. “The Act of Killing” is a documentary that portrays re-enactments of genocide and includes one particularly profound moment in which one of the perpetrators of the genocide realizes the horror of his acts and begins crying. The perpetrator is a very unsympathetic character that most viewers would judge as a monster, but in this singular moment of the film, the viewer is forced to reconcile this judgment with a feeling of sudden empathy for the man. By provoking this pronounced shift from a judging stance to one of empathy, the film compels the viewer to experience a moment of intense self-awareness of the dynamic nature in which we relate to others.

Cognitive psychology and neuroscience research provides insight into how the experience of empathy and judgment may be instantiated at a neural level. Mirror neurons are so-named because they fire both when an individual initiates an action and when an individual observes another initiating the same action. In effect, activity in mirror neurons does not meaningfully discriminate between the action of self and the action of others, leading researchers to hypothesize that these neurons play a role in empathy. The mirror neuron system may function in parallel with neural systems that support our sense of self. For example, research suggests that the medial prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, and temporoparietal junction may promote self-reflection and a sense of physical embodiment. The brain may be capable of toggling between these neural systems, allowing fluid transitions between judgmental and empathetic states.

An interdisciplinary approach is, however, not without its challenges. At the culmination of the talk, Dr. Reynolds discussed one of the challenges of attempting an interdisciplinary inquiry—namely, the differences in what defines ‘rigor’ between different disciplines. Different disciplines have different standards and interdisciplinary inquiries inevitably require the examination of those differences. But Dr. Reynolds maintains that as you start thinking from a place of consilience between disciplines, you can converge on a ‘hybrid rigor’ by bringing rigor from both disciplines to bear on new inquiries. He champions a consilience approach because it can be a transformative experience. Drs. Duke and Reynolds ultimately felt the “Film and the Mind” class was a success and the students were able to transcend their traditional disciplinary boundaries, developing a more informed and broader perspective in the process. Dr. Duke’s concluding thoughts returned to E.O. Wilson’s book on consilience, arguing Wilson’s point that as we continue to explore interdisciplinary approaches, we will ultimately find that there is a unified body of knowledge in the world.

— Melanie Pincus


Wilson, E. O. (1999). Consilience: The unity of knowledge (Vol. 31). Random House LLC.

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Gender Matters in the Academy?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Carla Freeman and Kim Wallen


The first CMBC lunch talk of the spring semester brought together Dr. Carla Freeman (Anthropology; Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Emory University) and Dr. Kim Wallen (Psychology, Emory University) to discuss the issue of gender and the academy. The (intentionally) ambiguously titled talk gave rise to a fruitful conversation on a variety of topics.

To highlight the differential representation between men and women in the academy, Dr. Freeman shared data from a recent two-volume diversity report conducted by Emory from 1998-2008. The report shows that while the number of women on the faculty at Emory has increased, a greater concentration of women is found in lower rank positions, such as non-tenure track, lecturer, part-time, etc. By contrast, there are fewer women in tenure-track, tenured, and full professorship positions. Additionally, the study found that women’s representation clusters around certain fields, such as dance and women’s studies, while men appear in greater numbers in physics, and computer and political science. The latter fields are, of course, much better remunerated and hold a different status.

Meanwhile, the general trend at Emory, as at other universities—both nationally and internationally—indicates that education is becoming feminized. For example, 57 percent of incoming undergraduate freshman at Emory are female. In light of this development, Freeman chose to focus her remarks on the interesting implications surrounding the feminization of education and the academy. For Freeman, the issue concerns not just the statistical breakdown among men and women and the fields into which they fall, but more importantly how certain cultural attributes of femininity get mapped onto higher education itself. That is, how do genres of academic work and knowledge production become imbued with gender and what are the implications of this process? Moreover, how does value get ascribed to certain kinds of gendered attributes?

Freeman noted that the feminization of certain fields within academia parallels a similar development in the global economy, where many industries have moved from manual production to knowledge production. As an example of this shift, Freeman cited the progression of clerical work and teaching, which began in the 19th century as largely masculine vocations. Over time, however, these professions became more populated by women and, as a result, became lower paid and lower status. Freeman therefore encouraged us to think about the academy as a workplace in which the labor we perform is increasingly feminized. This involves not only parsing out the difficulties facing women vis-à-vis men, but also questioning what it means to understand the work itself as “feminine.” According to Freeman, “feminized labor” includes a growing emphasis on  “emotional labor,” work that hinges upon qualities thought to be naturally associated withfemininity, such as nurture, care, and consideration. If emotional labor, as opposed to material labor, is traditionally associated with “feminine” skills, how does this affect our perception of teaching and scholarship as areas that include elements of emotional labor? Freeman noted that at just the moment in which service industries are recognizing the critical importance and value of emotional labor, some analysts are arguing that this form of work is becoming de-gendered. Specifically, they seek to reconceptualize emotional labor as being gender-neutral. For her part, Freeman found this move ironic and potentially troubling. She suggested the alternative possibility of simultaneously acknowledging the importance of emotional labor within academic work, especially that of a residential academic campus, and retaining an understanding of the feminine underpinnings of these skills. This position has been adopted, to some extent, by businesses, which increasingly value emotional skills for the rewards they garner in the marketplace. In thinking about gender in the academy, Freeman returned to the question: what are the implications of disavowing the importance of gender as we move to an increasingly immaterial enactment of labor, especially in the academy?

Dr. Wallen opened his remarks with the provocative question: why does the academic pipeline leak women? As a psychologist and educator, he has witnessed a huge rise in female graduate students over the course of his career. Despite the progress made on this front, the increase has not translated into a commensurate number of academic careers, especially in tenure-track positions. For example, of the 11 female Ph.D. recipients Wallen has supervised, most were hired as post-docs, but only 33 percent ended up in academic positions. Why does this happen?

In addressing the question, Wallen suggested that women experience a greater gender load than do men. Gender load, comprised of four factors, affects the likelihood of women leaving academia. First is the issue of gender discrimination, which, while not absent from today’s academic climate, Wallen considered the least substantial factor. The second factor is gender awareness. That is, the cost of being aware of the degree to which one’s gender has consequences. Wallen suggested that whereas men proceed through life without thinking about their gender—or why it may be responsible for this or that outcome—this is a more significant factor for women. Third, the cost of reproduction disproportionately affects women more than men, and academia in general is inflexible when it comes to taking time off to raise children. The fourth factor concerns the range of occupations that each gender regards as viable. Wallen suggested that women often choose not to continue pursuing academic careers, whereas men feel more socially constrained in terms of options and expectations. He viewed this as the most important factor, arguing that the broader range of occupational choices contributes significantly to women leaving the academy. Therefore, the pipeline may be “leaking women” simply because academia is not all that appealing, and while men put up with it, women find it easier to imagine alternative life paths. If so, perhaps the task for the academy is to change how attractive it is to everybody, but especially to women.

A number of issues were raised in the discussion following the talks. Some participants were quick to highlight the progress made by women entering traditionally male-dominated fields, notably in medicine. Conversely, historically feminized professions, such as nursing, are witnessing an increase in men. Yet, even as women’s representation has improved in the field of medicine, there is a further bifurcation along gendered lines, namely between prestigious specialty fields that are overwhelmingly male, and family doctors that are mostly female. Other participants pushed back against the claim that the university is largely free of gender discrimination. They pointed to the gendered politics involved in serving on committees, and even teaching M/W/F classes, as opposed to Tu/Th classes. Still others problematized the very notion of choice when it comes to women “choosing” alternate career tracks.

The conversation shifted to discussing the structure of the academy itself, returning to the issue of how the academic pipeline is designed. There was general agreement that the academy is largely hostile towards work-life balance, and that this circumstance affects both genders. Women (or men) who opt to take time off in order to start a family are not as competitive when they return to apply for jobs. This points to a general flaw in the design of the academic system. While it seems clear that changes are needed to facilitate the successful transition back into the academy after a short leave, it is not obvious what the path forward requires in terms of generating new policies.

Overall, a professorship entails three main spheres of responsibility: teaching, research, and service. Freeman and others pointed out that work related to the service category is valued significantly less than the others, and argued that this situation encumbers women to a greater degree than men. By contrast, research is highly valued and rewarded in the university setting and beyond. Wallen stated that selfishness is a quality that is rewarded in the academic marketplace; to the extent that an individual is service-oriented, he or she will pay a price, regardless of gender. Despite the uncertainty concerning how to effectively address these structural problems, it seems clear that the academy needs to confront the issue of how to better remunerate unseen works of service, such as advising and serving on committees. These remain issues and questions that academia has yet to systematically address in concrete ways.

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Narratives, Self-Transformation, and Healing

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Robyn Fivush and Chikako Ozawa-de Silva


In the third CMBC lunch in three weeks, Robyn Fivush (Psychology, Emory University) and Chikako Ozawa-de Silva (Anthropology, Emory University) offered differing, albeit complementary, perspectives on the role that telling one’s story can play in healing psychological wounds.

Naikan and Narrative

Ozawa-de Silva spoke about the transformation that patients undergo in Naikan, a Japanese therapeutic practice, which employs a method of eliciting narrative reconstruction of past events.  Naikan stands out from other forms of narrative-based therapy in that it does not involve any active social interaction.  It proceeds entirely between patient and practitioner.  “Naikan” means inner looking or introspection.  A therapeutic session takes place over the course of a week, during which time the patient undertakes an examination of past acts and deeds from the third-person perspective.


The shift in perspective from the first- to the third-person is the crucial component of Naikan therapy.  The shift is initiated by a series of structured questions designed to help patients gain a better understanding of themselves, their relationships, and the fundamental nature of human existence.  The client is asked to choose a significant person in their life to focus on (typically starting with the mother) and then to record answers to the following three questions: (1) what did you receive from this person? (2) what did you give in return? and (3) what trouble did you cause this person?  Note that there is not a fourth question about how this person caused trouble for the client.  That is because focusing on how we have been troubled comes easily to most of us, and runs counter to the shift away from the first-person perspective that Naikan intends to facilitate.


In order to foster deep introspection, during the treatment period the client is not allowed to talk to anyone, read, or watch television.  One signal of transformation over the course of the week is the client’s increasing use of the passive voice. Instead of saying “I love…,” for example, the client will begin to say “I am loved.” This shift indicates that the client has become more reflective and begun to think from the other person’s perspective.  Although the shift in perspective does nothing to alter external circumstances, it does alter how the client views those circumstances, and can make them less painful.  Ozawa-de Silva noted that for this reason Naikan is described as a “cure without curing.”


Ozawa-de Silva identified three positive changes typically undergone by the time Naikan therapy terminates.  (1) Increased sense of connectedness with others. Through their reflections on the roles that other people have played in their lives, clients come to see that they are not as “self-made” as previously thought.  (2) Increased sense of self-acceptance.  Many clients start Naikan therapy suffering from low self-esteem.  Naikan helps them to gain a more balanced perspective on themselves.  People start to accept their imperfections more, because they feel relief that they have friends and relatives who accept them for who they are.  (3) Greater sense of gratitude.  This point is connected to the first two.  Naikan reflections highlight the ways in which other people have played important parts in the client’s life, leading to a sense of appreciation of others’ roles.  According to Ozawa-de Silva, these upshots of Naikan bear a close relation to the three main categories of positive mental health: emotional well-being; psychological well-being; and social well-being.  The positive effects of Naikan are measurable even months after the end of the therapeutic session.


Is Storytelling Always Therapeutic?


Narrative clearly plays a central role in the therapeutic successes of Naikan.  In American culture, too, it is widely held that talking through negative experiences can have therapeutic import.  Fivush’s presentation sought to interrogate this widely held view and to highlight some potential limitations of storytelling for therapy.  She agreed that narratives are instrumental in the formation of identity, but insisted that it should not be taken for granted that storytelling is always therapeutic, especially when the subject’s experiences were especially traumatic or stressful.


Fivush began by looking at some of the evidence in favor of the therapeutic benefits of storytelling.  In the 1970s, David Spiegel (UCSF medical school) designed a study to investigate the potential benefits of support groups for terminally ill women.  At the time it was believed that talking about their symptoms and pain would merely create stress for patients and their families.  On the other hand, there was a growing interest in how best to care for the “whole patient,” including emotional and psycho-social well-being.  In order to test his hypothesis that it would be helpful for terminally ill patients to talk to and provide support to one another, Spiegel assigned 50 or so women to support groups of 10-12 women each, with 30 or so left out to serve as a control.  Initially, no differences in diagnosis or symptoms were detected.  After a year, however, the women in support groups reported doing better in quality of life measures (such as stress and anxiety levels), even though there was no difference in their physical health compared with the control group.  More strikingly, after 10 years, it was possible to conclude that on average women in support groups survived a year and a half longer than those in the control.  This suggested that the support groups worked to increase longevity.


Unfortunately, these results were a fluke.  Hundreds of similar studies have since been carried out, and none has generated Spiegel’s results.  This is a case, Fivush explained, where a sensational finding that has failed to replicate has become entrenched in the public mind anyway.  Even though there is no good evidence for the claim, it is widely believed that support groups enhance survival rates.  Even if they have no effect on survival, however, it is true that support groups improve quality of life.


What is it about being in a support group that improves quality of life?  According to Spiegel, there is something critical about sharing your story.  Social psychologist, James Pennebaker, knew about Spiegel’s study and undertook to investigate further the therapeutic power of storytelling.  In particular, Pennebaker was interested in the effects that “expressive writing” might have on well-being.  He randomly assigned a group of college freshmen to an expressive writing assignment where they were asked to write their deepest thoughts and feelings for twenty minutes a day for three days in a row.  Another randomly assigned group of students was given a non-emotional writing assignment, and another group wrote nothing.  At the end of the semester, Pennebaker took base-line measures of psychological and physical health.  Freshmen involved in expressive writing were found not only to report higher levels of psychological well-being (less stress, anxiety, etc.), but also had higher GPAs.  Since Pennebaker’s study, the effects of expressive writing have been widely studied, and the general findings are robust.  Even improvements in physical health, such as t-cell functioning, have been correlated with expressive writing.  Such studies provide strong evidence that talking about our experiences is good for us.


Fivush cautioned, however, that while storytelling is therapeutic on average, there are some individuals who actually get worse when they share their story. For many people, storytelling contributes to cognitive processing of negative experiences.  It is not that such individuals learn to see their negative experience as a good thing, but rather, as in Naikan, it enables them to take a different perspective on their life, and provides for a sense of growth.  But Fivush stressed that narrative does not facilitate cognitive processing in everyone.  She gave the example of 9/11 first responders, who were required to talk about their experiences as a way of dealing with the trauma they experienced in order to keep their jobs. For many of these individuals, sharing their stories did not help them at all; on the contrary, it served merely to re-open their wounds.  Certain individuals do not show signs of cognitive processing when reconstructing the story of a traumatic event.  Rather they exhibit what is called “rumination.”  Instead of processing what happened to them in a productive way, narration leads some people to dwell on the negative experience in a counter-productive way.  They wonder, for instance, why it had to happen, or even come to the conviction that life is awful and can never be the same again.


Although there is solid evidence that storytelling helps most people in most scenarios deal with negative experiences, Fivush’s main point was that this should not be taken for granted in all cases.  For some people, sharing their stories may even have a detrimental effect on their well-being.  It is not clear why some tend to engage in rumination rather than cognitive processing.  It may be that those with worse childhoods tend to be more ruminative.  Whatever the reason, such counter-examples to the benefits of narration need to be taken into consideration.  They indicate that there is more to learn about exactly who benefits from narrative therapy and why.


On this question of who benefits and why, an interesting discussion ensued in the Q&A on gender differences and the benefits of narrative.  Fivush pointed out that expressive writing has been shown to be more effective in improving the well-being of males.  The reason for this is interesting: females tend to be much more naturally emotionally expressive than males, so the exercise in expressive writing does not have as sharp an effect for them as it does for males, who tend to lack outlets for emotional expression.  In our culture, more value is placed on talking about past experiences if you are female.  By adolescence, girls begin to co-ruminate with girlfriends.  This can actually lead to negative consequences for health, however, since rumination, as indicated above, is a risk factor for depression.




Ozawa-de Silva and Fivush addressed the question of the role of narrative in therapy from very different perspectives, and emphasized contrasting points.  On one hand, Ozawa-de Silva talked about the successes of a very specific form of narrative therapy – Naikan.  On the other, Fivush raised questions about the benefits of narrative in therapy from a general standpoint.  Nevertheless, there was no disagreement about the fact that by and large storytelling is a powerful therapeutic technique.  It is just that, for some people, reconstructing the story of a traumatic event can lead to unhealthy rumination rather than to healthy cognitive processing.  Ozawa-de Silva suggested that the specific focus in Naikan on fostering cognitive processing may therefore be an important factor in its success. The need to be sensitive to this distinction between situations where narrative leads to unhealthy rumination, and situations where narrative leads to healthy cognitive processing was perhaps, then, the chief take away from the lunch.

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Unsavory Emotions and their Developmental Roots

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Laura Otis and Philippe Rochat


In the first CMBC lunch of the 2013 fall semester, Laura Otis (English, Emory University) and Philippe Rochat (Psychology, Emory University) discussed some of our “unsavory” emotions from literary, physiological, developmental, and evolutionary perspectives. Dr. Rochat focused on the early origins and expression of certain emotions in childhood development, while Dr. Otis examined the descriptions and metaphors used to reflect these emotions in literature.

Babies, Shame, and Reputation

As a developmental psychologist, Rochat is interested in studying the origins of “self-conscious emotions” in children. One difficulty with such an undertaking, however, is the preponderance of competing definitions of “emotion” (hundreds according to some counts). Taking his cue from the Latin verb emovere (“to move out”), Rochat suggested an understanding of emotions as the early public display of mental states. According to this notion, which emphasizes the external, or public, aspect of emotions, it is significant that such affective states are present very early in gestation. For example, ultrasound images show fetuses in pre-natal development wearing either smiles or frowns on their faces.

The public display of emotions becomes especially salient when one considers the emotion of shame. Consider three fundamental ideas about human development. First, humans are hyper-dependent upon others (notably upon adults for care and feeding during infancy). Second, humans are part of a self-conscious species. That is, we are capable of contemplating ourselves as an object of reflection and evaluation. Third, and most importantly, we care about reputation. Indeed, we are fearful of the gaze of others, a fact about our social psychology that fuels the emotion of shame. This latter feature of human psychology was captured perhaps most succinctly by Darwin in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, where he wrote that, “To be human is to care about reputation.”

One question then arises: how does one determine when children develop a sense of reputation? Rochat suggested that the minimal pre-requisite for evaluative self-consciousness and a sense of reputation begins with an awareness of the self/world distinction. Although this observation may seem obvious enough, earlier psychologists such as William James and Jean Piaget believed that babies were born into a state of fusion with the environment (what James famously called a “blooming, buzzing confusion”); they were not thought to have a clear distinction between the self and the world. However, more recent research suggests that infants do in fact have an implicit sense of a unified and differentiated self at birth, distinct from the world around them. In particular, Rochat’s research indicates that babies are born feeling differentiated from and situated within the world; they are active agents who are bounded (they feel a body envelope), substantial (they occupy space), and dialogical (they have an interpersonal sense of self).

Rochat presented evidence for the progression of the explicit sense of self at different stages of development. For example, at three and four months of age, children begin to test the limits of their own bodies. They grasp for objects within reach (but not those out of reach) and systematically explore the actions of their own legs, hands, and even voices. This reflects an implicit sense of self whereby children situate their own body in relation to differentiated objects in their environment. By eleven months of age, children begin to identify their own sense of self in others. For example, babies prefer to orient their attention towards an experimenter who is imitating their actions, rather than towards a second experimenter who is not. By 21 months, children pass the familiar mirror-self recognition task by noticing and attempting to remove a mark placed on their faces after viewing themselves in the mirror. The relevance of this finding is not simply that children notice an abnormality on their body, but that they display a sense of embarrassment—they feel stigmatized by this realization. However, in settings where all experimenters don similar stickers (thereby creating a social norm), the tendency to reach for the mark drops significantly. The final stage of development that Rochat explored dealt with the masking of emotions. An interesting shift occurs between three and five years of age, when children learn not only to express their unsavory emotions, such as guilt or shame, but also to mask or conceal them.

“Banned Emotions” in Fiction

Otis first shared a few words about an undergraduate course that she offered in the fall of 2012, titled “Cognitive Science and Fiction.” Sponsored by the CMBC, this course juxtaposed innovative literature and cutting-edge scientific studies. The goal was twofold: to analyze the ways that scientific observations about the brain can enhance our understanding of how good literature works, and to use literary insights about the mind to think of new scientific experiments to try. Across the semester, a number of distinguished guest speakers—both fiction writers and scientists—visited the class to discuss their work.

While Rochat examined the projection of emotions outward, Otis focused on how the experience of different unsavory emotions is expressed from the inside. One way to address this question is by turning to the world’s rich literary tradition. Otis’ presentation sketched the blueprint for a new project on what she calls “banned emotions.” These include self-pity, prolonged crying, repressed and enduring rage, envy, personal hatred, grudge bearing, refusal to forgive, and refusal to “let go.” Sianne Ngai analyzed some of these emotions in her recent book, Ugly Feelings. What unites these banned emotions is the fact that peopleindulge in them, much to the disapprobation of a given society. Like Lakoff and Johnson, Otis is interested in how these emotions are represented in language and how language can shed light on human experience. For instance, how does an author’s choice of words reflect both the physical experience and cultural assumptions about certain emotions? How do the two interact to create an emotional experience? A satisfactory account should consider the complex mixture of cultural and physiological factors. In doing so, Otis shared some research questions that will guide her inquiry. For example, are these banned emotions simply negative, or is there potential for them to be viewed as empowering under certain circumstances? Similarly, whose interests does it serve to discourage these emotions? On this last point, there may be significant gender disparities worthy of consideration. Thus, one must be sensitive to the politics of emotions and the strong social pressure that compels individuals to feel certain emotions and not others. Who do social expectations harm and whom do they help?

The research strategy Otis plans to conduct for this project is straightforward: read lots of literature! Included among the preliminary list are writings by Dante, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Kipling, Kafka, and Virginia Woolf. But the list will also include newspaper and scientific articles as well. Moreover, Otis intends to use the tools of the digital humanities to mine a wide array of texts, with an eye toward discovering what words are most commonly paired with so-called banned emotions. The goal of this extensive analysis is to pay attention to the specific word choice and larger metaphors used to describe unsavory emotions.

A long (western) religious tradition of banning disagreeable emotions is epitomized by the proverbial Seven Deadly Sins. These emotions often are associated with a sense of disempowerment. For example, Dante’s Inferno depicts the plight of the wrathful in Hell, who are doomed to writhe in the muddy River Styx for eternity. If we turn to literary characters, interesting candidates for emotional analysis include Dickens’ nasty old Miss Havisham and Kipling’s haunting Mrs. Wessington. In addition to great literature, film offers a repository of emotional narratives. Otis mentioned the lead female character in the movie G.I. Jane, who succeeds precisely because she refuses to feel self-pity. More recently, the central message of the comedy Bridesmaids is “stop feeling sorry for yourself!”

Otis closed her talk by highlighting a handful of recurring metaphors that are employed in connection with banned emotions. One is the notion of immobility or impeded action—being “bogged down” or “chained up” (think of Dante’s poor souls in Hell). This metaphor is frequently accompanied by slime, mud, and filth, all of which hinder one’s motion. Another related example is the common trope of “holding on” or “not letting go.” The social stigma associated with this metaphor is pervasive in self-help magazines today. Other literary descriptions include a sense of confinement, isolation, lack of air, and darkness. According to Otis, there are certain assumptions that underlie this pattern of metaphors. Specifically, the implied psycho-social model of emotions that emerges is one which stresses an ethic of individual responsibility—“if you’re suffering, it’s your fault.” Accordingly, an individual is expected to exercise proper control over his or her emotions. Should one fail to do so, the resulting implication is that you’re disappointing others by failing to act as a responsible member of society. Otis intends to explore further the question of whose interests are served (at the expense of others) by perpetuating this model of emotions.

Many thanks go to Philippe Rochat and Laura Otis for their presentations, which were both stimulating and (if I’m allowed a pun) quite savory.

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