detecting emotions


knowing how to act

Living beings have more than one manner of relating.  As the complexity of beings and the possible relationships among them has grown as whole systemic networks of relationship, it has become relevant for animals to distinguish whether the other being is just going by or coming to hunt, whether the other is aggressive or wants to mate, or play... animals respond appropriately to the relational domains they encounter.  We can see that our pets can tell how we are feeling, they respond appropriately.

learning emotions

As stated in the slide presentation in Unit 5.4 we learn to recognize our emotions in a social context; usually starting with how our parents name the behaviour that they see.  Through this we learn to map an implicit correspondence between how we feel, what we’re doing, and the name of this way of being.  Later, as we mature, we learn the names of nuances and variations, some directly and others from the learned skill of mapping our circumstances and feelings to the names that often accompany the descriptions of what happens to others.  This mapping of feeling to circumstance is what is often referred to as “empathy”

I find the search for the empathy center in the brain, or the empathy neurons both sad and amusing.  It is such a reductionist way of explaining a systemic phenomenon.  It takes a whole nervous system, in a whole being, one who has grown in adequate circumstances to be able to make this association.  Yes, certain parts of the nervous system may be more entailed than others (systems are lumpy), but that does not mean that these neurons are only there to do this one function, or that that function could happen without the rest of the system.

When we come to language and culture, I will further discuss how the cultural context leads us to have different distinctions of between behaviour and emotion. Different cultures can indeed develop characteristic manners of of relational behaviours.

We are experts!

Human relations can be particularly complex and nuanced, so it is no surprise that we have become expert in detecting the emotion of another person.  We may not name it, indeed most of the time we don’t, but we have learned how to act in accord to what we implicitly detect.

What is it that we do detect?

I have a friend who speaks of people having a “shit detector”.  What he is referring to is our ability to discern whether someone is telling us a tall tale, putting us on, or trying to pull the wool over our eyes.  We recognize a pretence, and are not willing to trust that person... often not really knowing why. 

I think this has to do with the same subtleties of the relational dance that I referred to in my dog story.  Somehow, in trying to hold on to their “act”, they do not freely move in the micro-dance with us which is wherein we come to believe their genuineness. 

Actors have to learn how to mimic emotions in a credible way.  There is a school of acting where breathing rates, eye movements, etc. are stressed; but all of that is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to control fully, intentionally.  The dance that matters happens outside of our conscious awareness, in our systemic relational awareness.   A good actor is generally one who lives the role as real, and hence the acting becomes their actual lived experience, at the time.  No wonder that some roles are difficult to live!  The sanity of an actor must depend on an ability to switch “lives” and become different beings in their personal and professional lives.

Empathy is part of our evolution, and not just a recent part, but an innate, age-old capacity.  Relying on automated sensitivities to faces, bodies, and voices, humans empathize from day one.  It’s really not as complex a skill as it has been made out to be, such as when empathy is said to rest on the attribution of mental states to others, or the ability to consciously recall one’s own experiences. No one denies the importance of these higher strata of empathy, which develop with age, but to focus on them is like staring at a splendid cathedral while forgetting it’s made of bricks and mortar.

Frans de Waal, Age of Empathy, p. 205

“angry dog” story