Would an emotion by another name look the same?

Kristen Lindquist

In the blink of an eye, people see emotions unfold on others’ faces, and this allows them to successfully navigate the social world. For instance, when we see a scowl begin to unfold on a colleague’s face, we instantly understand the depth of his rage. A brief turn up of a friend’s lips transforms her face into the picture of happiness. Detecting a stranger’s widened eyes and a gaping mouth alerts us that something in the environment is not quite right. Indeed, most of us can see these emotions in the others around us with the greatest of ease, as if we are reading words on a page. The clear utility and ease of perceiving facial expressions of emotions has led many prominent researchers to conclude that information on the face is itself sufficient to automatically trigger a perception of “anger,” “happiness,” or “fear.” Yet growing research calls into question the idea that emotion perception proceeds in this simplistic and automatic manner.

My colleagues Lisa Feldman Barrett, Maria Gendron and I have been wondering for some time if emotion perception is perhaps not quite as simple as it seems. We’ve hypothesized that people actually learn to read emotions in other people over time, and that this process in part requires knowledge about different emotion concepts. The idea is, without knowing the word “anger,” you could never see a scowling person as angry. In a paper recently published in the journal Emotion, my co-authors and I tested this hypothesis in a rare group of patients who have a neurodegenerative disease called semantic dementia. Semantic dementia is caused when cells in areas of the brain that are critical to language die. As brain cells die, patients progressively become unable to understand the meaning of words and unable use words to categorize the world around them. We wondered if patients with this disorder would still be able to perceive specific emotions on faces, or whether their failure to use and understand the meaning of words would prevent them from understanding the specific meaning of emotional facial expressions.

To test this hypothesis, we gave three patients with semantic dementia a number of pictures of facial expressions and asked them to sort those facial expressions into as m490830281_a6da6da3fc_oany piles as they thought necessary. Notably, the task itself didn’t require words—patients weren’t required to match faces to words or to state words out loud or write down words to label the faces. Instead, patients could just freely sort the images into piles based on similarities in their appearances. Pictures included posed facial expressions of individuals who were scowling (angry), frowning (sad), wrinkling their noses up (disgusted), individuals with wide eyes (fearful), smiling (happy), and individuals who had relaxed, neutral facial muscles. We know that when healthy young adults perform a task like this, they produce roughly six piles for the six facial expressions in the set. Yet because semantic dementia typically impacts individuals who are 50+ years old, we first asked how a group of healthy older individuals performed on the facial expression picture sort task. Much like the younger adults, older adults created six or more piles to represent the six categories of facial expressions in the set of pictures. By contrast, when the patients with semantic dementia performed the sort task, they didn’t see the faces as instances of specific emotions. Instead, they sorted faces into piles of positive, negative and neutral expressions. As a testament to this fact, one patient attempted to label his piles (early on in the disorder, patients can still use some words, but increasingly lose the ability to do so over the course of their disease). This patient referred to his piles as people who felt “happy,” “rough” and “nothing.” These were the very few emotion words that the patient could still use, and he correspondingly sorted faces into piles that reflected these words. These findings suggest that without access to emotion words such as “anger,” “disgust,” “fear,” etc., individuals can only perceive the most basic of meaning in an emotional face—that is, whether the person is expressing something good, bad, or neutral.

These findings are consistent with some of our older research showing that temporarily impairing healthy young individuals’ access to the meaning of an emotion word impairs their ability to perceive emotion on faces. More broadly, our recent findings have implications for how scientists understand the nature of emotion perception. Rather than seeing emotion perception as a simplistic and automatic process that all individuals have the capacity to do, our findings underscore the importance of language in emotion perception. Our findings suggest that people with impaired language abilities, such as autistic individuals, might not only have problems with verbal communication, but also non-verbal communication. These findings suggest that counter-intuitively, an emotion by any other name might not look the same.

photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/erikbenson/


Does darkness breed creativity?

Kristen Lindquist

I was inspired this week by the passing of Robin Williams, a comedian whose adroit repartee, clever improvisation, and physical humor touched many lives throughout his career. Williams seems the classic case of the brilliant artist plagued by darkness: he suffered from depression, alcoholism and drug addiction for many years before taking his own life.

We certainly have the idea in our society that brilliance—be it comedic, artistic, or scientific—comes at the cost of happiness. At least anecdotally, many famous individuals suffered bouts of depression or anxiety at one time in their lives and it’s thought that rates of mental illness are 8-10 times higher in writers and artists than in the general population. But does the science of emotion actually bear out the idea that negativity breeds creativity? It turns out, the findings are mixed.14714309947_7e2ae68d07_o

On the one hand, there is evidence that positive, not negative, emotions make you more creative by allowing you to think outside the box. Classic psychology studies reveal that participants who feel positive after watching a funny movie or receiving a gift are more creative on tasks that require broad thinking. One such test is the Remote Associations Test, and it works like this: Participants are given a list of three words and have to think up a fourth that links them all. For instance, they might read, “stool,” “powder,” “ball,” and have to think up a fourth word that is related to them (the answer is “foot”). Positive emotions help you become more creative because they broaden your thoughts, allowing you to see more of the forest and fewer of the individual trees. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that negativity can breed creativity too, particularly for people prone to depression. A study by Modupe Akinola and Wendy Mendes found that negative emotions caused individuals to produce more creative art; this was particularly the case for individuals with a biological vulnerability to depression. The authors first measured participants’ pre-existing levels of a steroid that has been linked to depression called dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate. (To be clear, merely possessing a biological trait that is linked to depression doesn’t mean you’ll definitely experience depression in your lifetime. Typically you need to have a biological predisposition plus experience a stressful environment to develop clinical depression. See more here.) The authors then caused participants to experience negative, positive, or neutral feelings by giving them unkind, supportive, or no feedback on a mock job interview. Finally, participants were asked to make an artistic collage and real artists later judged the collages for their level of creativity. The authors found that not only did participants in the negative emotion condition produce more creative collages, but that people who had a vulnerability to depression produced the most brilliant work of all when they were feeling negative.

These findings suggest that sadly, darkness can breed creativity. Our hope for the future is that by discovering the links between emotion, creative brilliance, and mental illness, the science of emotion might be better able to help the next generation of Robin Williamses.*

*Sixteen million Americans report symptoms of clinical depression a year and depression is a condition that can be treated. If you are in the United States, and know someone who is severely depressed and might be contemplating suicide, please get in touch with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org 1-800-273-TALK. Many places in the world have similar national hotlines and resources.


Do talk to strangers

Kristen Lindquist

If you’re  a New Englander, a city-dweller, an introvert, or just put a lot of stock in your mother’s admonitions to avoid talking to strangers, then you’re going to think what I’m about to say is crazy. You should talk to strangers more, and there’s scientific evidence to support it. Now I know what you’re thinking. Small talk is tedious! If you talk to that person on the street, you’ll be stuck there forever. Plus, he’s most likely crazy, going to mug you, or both. Be that as it may, scientific research suggests that it will make you happier to make a connection with other members of humankind.

commute (1)In a newly published paper, Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder at the University of Chicago asked participants in a Chicago-area train station to do one of three things on their commute: one group was asked to strike up a conversation with the person next to them, one group was asked to do their normal commute routine (which let’s be honest, probably involves ruminating about the coming toils of the day, or what you’re going to make for dinner that night) and one group was asked to sit in solitude. At the end of the train ride, the authors measured how happy the commuters felt. They found that small talk is apparently not so tiresome after all. Participants who chatted with a train-mate reported feeling more positive compared to participants who sat in solitude and participants who did their normal commute thing. Now perhaps what’s most interesting about these findings is precisely what I suggested at the beginning of this post—the idea of chatting with someone sounds, well, at best a little tedious and at worst just downright terrible. As a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I can assure you that this is my expectation when the person next to me in the supermarket checkout line starts expounding on the recent weather or extolling the virtues of my choice in yogurt. Epley and Schroeder’s participants also predicted that they’d feel pretty unimpressed at sharing trivial tidbits with another human being on the train. Funnily enough, they also predicted that solitude would be rather blissful. Not so.

These findings are interesting not just because they offer a new tactic for improving your commute, but because they strike at the heart of what social scientists and emotion researchers have known for some time. People need other people. Indeed, social connection is probably one of the most important keys to health and well-being. A famous study by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman found that having intimate relations (with another person) and being with friends makes people happier than almost all other things, including relaxing, eating, exercising, napping, even taking care of their kids (you’ll note that spending time with kids doesn’t quite count as the type of “spending time with people” we’re referring to here—this effect is probably moderated by the dirty diapers, constant feedings, rides to soccer practice and fights amongst siblings that makes interactions with these small people less than blissful). John Cacioppo, also from the University of Chicago, has found that perceived loneliness is related to depression, poor health and even mortality. And what’s lonelier than being surrounded by a sea of people and not making connection with a single one? So find a good joke, start caring about the vagaries of the weather, and reach out and chat with someone.



Is Facebook getting you down?

Kristen Lindquist

What better for a first blog post about emotions than a discussion of how the internet (may be) shaping our emotions? By now, you’ve probably heard about the Facebook study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that purportedly shifted people’s emotions by altering the content of their news feeds. If you haven’t seen it yet, this paper produced a lot of uproar (mostly on Facebook). People have variably decried it as unethical, not novel, or not evidence that people’s emotions were actually shifted. If you haven’t read it, here’s a précis: The authors selected a group of Facebook users and selectively reduced the amount of positive posts that were displayed in their newsfeed (e.g., removed posts like “I’m so happy I got the new job!” “We’re so glad to welcome our new baby!”) or selectively reduced the amount of negative posts that were displayed in their newsfeed (e.g., removed posts like “I really hate when some as*hole takes your parking spot at work!” “People disgust me!”). The authors then measured how much Facebook users in each condition posted positive or negative information themselves using an automated dictionary that codes words as positive or negative. What they found was that people who saw less positive stuff posted less positive stuff and more negative stuff, and people who saw less negative stuff posted less negative stuff and more positive stuff. Now if the authors really shifted people’s emotions then this is cool, but maybe not so surprising. It’s like saying that the people around you affect your mood. Think of that whiny co-worker who you want to avoid because life just seems a little more terrible when he’s around. It’s the same effect. Of course it’s made more interesting by the fact that it occurred on a massive scale and through—gasp—the internet!

But other questions remain about the study and its findings. I’ve been asked, so did they really change people’s emotions? Unfortunately, this question is quite the quagmire in the science of emotion. It turns out that there is no single measure in science that can tell you exactly what someone is feeling. You could hook them up to a heart rate monitor, measure the sweat on their skin, measure their respiration, put them in a brain scanner and you still couldn’t know exactly what they were feeling, beyond the fact that they were feeling something and maybe whether they were feeling generally activated v. sleepy or pleasant v. unpleasant. Thus, despite all our technology, the best way to know what someone is feeling is to ask them. Obviously hooking up Facebook users around the world to physiological recording devices was not an option for the authors, and they didn’t ask their unknowing participants how they felt either. So all we know from the experiment is that seeing fewer positive or negative posts changed the way that people used emotion words themselves. This could be the result of a change in participants’ perceptions of norms (i.e., “it’s not cool to humble brag on my Facebook page if my friends don’t do it”). Or it could be “emotional contagion” as the authors suggest—in the absence of positive information on Facebook feeds around the world, people’s days were just a bit grayer.

So in sum, why did this study get so much attention if it showed that—guess what—the people around us affect our emotions (or at least the nature of the emotion words we use in our Facebook posts)? It’s because people felt played. They felt taken advantage of. That Big Brother was toying with their emotions. Yet what people fail to realize is that their emotions are always being played. Every advertiser, politician, journalist, author, and salesperson in the world is constantly trying to play our emotions, for good or bad. Emotions are involved in every single moment of your waking life and are shifted by myriad unseen influences, not least of which is the Facebook newsfeed we (choose to) be glued to. At least Facebook technically told you it reserves the right to manipulate you (although see Eliza’s post for the broader ethical considerations at stake here when this happens in an experimental context). Not so much can be said for the used car salesman who relies on emotion-based tactics to get you to walk off the lot with a lemon. So if Facebook is getting you down, wait a minute and someone else will shift your mood.

Welcome to Emotion News!

Dear Readers,

Welcome to Emotion News, a new blog about the science of emotion. We are psychologists and neuroscientists who study the nature of emotions—what they are, how they are created by the brain and body, and how they shape every aspect of our lives. For more on our backgrounds, check out the About the Founders page. Most of the time, we conduct studies with humans or animals and write up our results for scientific audiences. But it seemed increasingly clear to us that there should be a venue for sharing this work more directly with the public, so we started this blog.

We saw a need for Emotion News for several reasons. First and foremost, people are intrinsically interested in emotions, and for good reason. Google the term “emotions,” and it returns 94,600 news articles referencing emotions in less than a second. Yet a lot of the information out there about what emotions are and what they do is just not accurate. People ask us all the time whether it’s true that the right side of the brain is the “emotional side” and the left side of the brain is the “rational side” (nope). Or whether a brain scan can really read their innermost feelings (not really). Or whether men are really biologically tuned to be less emotional than women (most signs point to no). Or whether animals have human-like emotions (the jury is definitely out on that one). In science, things are more gray than black or white, although that’s not how science tends to end up represented in the main-stream media. So we thought it was time for another forum in which emotion scientists write about the science.

We also thought that this blog was necessary because emotions are incredibly important to well, everything, and the public deserves to be educated about them. There is the pervasive impression in our culture that emotions are at worst, dangerous, and at best, frivolous and trivial aspects of human nature. Emotions make us “animal-like” the story goes, and then our evolved human reason has to step in to control our behavior. Of course, we’re biased—we’ve dedicated our careers to studying the nature of emotion—but it is a fact that emotions are absolutely essential to many aspects of what it is to be a human and they deserve our attention. Many years of research shows that emotions contribute to both psychological maladies and psychological flourishing. Stress-related emotions can reach under your skin to actually change how fast you’re aging. By contrast, people who look on the bright side of life have better cardiovascular health. Children who understand their own emotions and the emotions of others do better in school and are better leaders. Emotions shape our romantic relationships, predicting who gets together and stays together v. whose relationship falls apart. Emotions also shape every single decision we make on a day-to-day basis: altering whether we decide to eat v. forego another cupcake, whether we splurge on a new car v. invest in our 401 K, or whether we deem someone trustworthy v. dishonest. The belief that we can reliably “read emotions” in others causes TSA agents to give some people the extra pat down in the security lines at airports (even though US programs that trained TSA agents to diagnose potential terrorists based on emotional facial expressions and body language have largely failed to identify terrorists at airport). Finally, it seems clear that emotions are at the heart of many of the world’s most intractable conflicts. If knowing is half the battle, then we hope that making accurate information accessible will help both individuals, and by extension, society.

In short, our Mission is to bring you cutting-edge research from scientific labs around the globe, cutting out the scientific jargon, but still accurately presenting the story behind the findings. Because emotion crosscuts so many domains of research, we will represent research about emotions from diverse areas of research including social psychology, neuroscience, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, comparative psychology, and genetics. We will also invite colleagues from around the globe to share their own research and diverse outlooks. (Stay tuned, colleagues for invitations or get in touch with us if you have story ideas!) Our goal is to have novel content posted weekly as we gear up, and then hopefully multiple times a week (in a few months). Our aim is for Emotion News to be an open venue for discussion and commentary. Please see our commenting and editorial policies for more information. We hope you will join in!

Kristen & Eliza