Are There Universal Emotions? Brain Science Findings Challenge Our Storytelling Assumptions
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Are There Universal Emotions? Brain Science Findings Challenge Our Storytelling Assumptions

There is a YouTube musical artist who goes by the name Puddles Pity Party who often sings pop song covers. Dressed in a white clown suit, donning a white-painted face with a pink-tipped nose, two painted teardrops below his eyes, and lips painted downward into a frown, for a clown, Puddles Pity Party, isn’t much of a party.

The sentiments he invokes are often very contradictory, especially when juxtaposed with his song selections, where anthems are sung as sad ballads.

For a long time, those in western cultures equated clowns with smiles, jokes, and antics, but nowadays, clowns have come to symbolize how emotions once thought to be universal, based on the facial expressions painted on their faces, are incredibly complex and hard to read.

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book ‘How Emotions are Made offers a compelling look at how the human brain simulates emotions in an interplay of mind, body and culture. Her findings help us explore the neuroscience behind emotions in ways that could help us communicate complexity better.

In this seven-part blog series, I take highlights from Barrett’s findings and explore the implications of these processes for writing and storytelling.

Charles Darwin and the classical view of emotions.

Charles Darwin and the classical view of emotions

If we were to go by Puddles Pity Party’s facial expressions in a vacuum, we would be amiss, thinking of him as a one-dimensional character: a shy, mute, sad clown.

Scientists since Charles Darwin, under the classic view of emotions, have been trying to pin down the universal imprint, some fingerprints that prove all humans exhibit or recognize facial expressions of emotions without any training. They contend that written into our brains through genetics or hard-wired into specific regions of the brain, emotions like anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness and happiness all have clear biological fingerprints. As scientists, they were charged to pin those theories down with “evidence.”

For decades, scientists with a classical view of emotions created a myriad of experiments to prove their theories: from having people pick a word from a list of emotions to describe facial expressions in photos to wiring muscles up to electromyography machines that measure a face’s micro-expressions.

But sifting through all this research, Barrett found those holding the classical view of emotions were priming their subjects, suggesting answers rather than letting the test subjects speak what they saw. And that if you measured the body, more than just the face, you’d find that within the same individual, different patterns of heart rate, breathing, and other movements offered lots of variation.

A tightening of the chest might mean outrage for one person, but could be a manifestation of fear in another. To boot, no map of the brain could be correlated to particular emotions. Instead, Barrett found that the body’s core systems work together to predict and simulate an emotion in wide variances and instances.

Has the classical view of emotions perpetuated our use of stereotypes and tropes in storytelling?

If Barrett’s findings are that there are no universal emotions, this could mean writers have been using stereotypes and tropes to tell stories in ways that might be perpetuating biases disproven by brain science.

Barrett writes about the real-life implications of upholding the classical view of emotions with an example of a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) program called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT).

In this $900 million-dollar tax-paid program, TSA officers were taught to “detect” deception and assess risk based on facial and bodily movements, suggesting that one can see another’s innermost thoughts just by looking at a person’s face and observing their movements. Basically, they were using methods with an “incorrect view of emotion,” she writes. And it didn’t work.

For writers, we also use tools that can be based on an “incorrect view of emotions.” We call these writing devices:

  •  Stereotypes: widely held, fixed and oversimplified ideas of a particular type of person
  •  Tropes: conventions used that already exist in an audiences’ minds and expectations
  •  Archetypes: a typical example of a certain person that fits fundamental human motifs
  •  Cliches: Overused phrases, characters or storylines that render the message meaningless

When our understanding of our subjects and characters’ emotions lack granularity and specificity, we are often reaching for one of the above devices.

What brain science can teach writers about universal emotions.

What brain science can teach writers about universal emotions

  •  Variation is the norm. No two people come to the concepts of “happiness,” “sadness” or “disgust” in the same way. This makes the possibilities boundless, and these nuances are what makes humans so difficult to replace with AI-powered writing.
  • Each person’s interpretation of the world around them needs what writers call context and subtext. In order for readers to understand the emotions of a piece of writing or a marketing campaign, they must be given some context so they can interpret for themselves what is going on. Subtext, the underlying message that isn’t said, adds depth.
  •  tereotypes have no scientific backing. Like the classical view of emotions, there is no fingerprint of a “gangster,” “saint” or “drug-dealer.” When coupled with concepts of race, they can be derogatory and harmful.
  •  If emotions are culturally influenced, as Barrett suggests, then stereotypes, tropes, archetypes and cliches are bound by culture as well. We have to examine what dominant cultures perpetuate about certain segments of people. How have tropes been played up to harm certain people and praise others?

In the liner notes for one of his cover songs, Puddles Pity Party, writes: “Sometimes I feel like I’m more than just one person. Is that a thing? It’s like we’re both cruising along and I’m at the controls and then all of a sudden, I just let go and the other me takes over. It’s not scary or anything. Just hard to explain. Do you ever feel that way?”

Puddles hits on some depth, yet again. The multiple selves in all of us interpret and exhibit concepts of emotions in very personalized ways. Writers who give us narratives that meet us where we are in the diversity and variance of emotions will be the ones who resonate with us the most.

If there are no universal emotions, it could mean writers have been using stereotypes and tropes to tell stories in ways that might be perpetuating biases disproven by brain science. Learn more. #storytelling #writing Click To Tweet

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Elizabeth Chey

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Chey consults international, community-based, and small nonprofits on communications, advocacy, strategic planning and capacity building. Her passion for arts, peace building and development compels her to tell complex, intimate stories about people working for social justice. She earned her MFA from New York University and a Journalism degree from Northwestern.

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