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.

About Brett Maiden

Brett is a doctoral candidate in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion specializing in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. His dissertation, “Cognitive Aspects of Ancient Israelite Religion,” utilizes tools from the cognitive and brain sciences to explore how pan-cultural proclivities shaped local expression of religion, art, and culture in ancient Israel. Brett earned a Bachelor’s in Religious Studies and Classics from the University of Arizona and a Master’s in biblical languages from Yale. At Emory, he is an affiliate of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture and has served as a fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry.
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