Sunday, November 15, 2015

The six basic emotions of Ekman

Charles Darwin was one of the first to realize that there are several emotions that are clearly expressed in the face and the body, not only of humans but also of many mammals. The fact that emotions are not unique to humans was consistent with his theory of evolution. Almost a century later, in 1972, Paul Ekman did a cross-cultural study in which he concluded that there are six basic emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and surprise.

Fear is the most well-studied all these six emotions because is connected to important psychological problems like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We know that involves the activation of the amygdala region of the brain. In the body, fears triggers the production of adrenaline and the activation of the sympathetic system, which prepares the body for action: the fight-or-flight response. Paradoxically, it can also produce the opposite behavior: freezing, which consists in complete immobility of the animal, perhaps to escape detection.

Disgust makes us reject substances or environments that are potentially unhealthy because they present a danger of infection or poisoning. We can imagine that this is a very primitive emotion because even simple animals have chemical senses that stops them from eating and makes them move away from toxic substances. It is associated with the body reactions of nausea and vomiting.

Anger is associated with behaviors of aggression. Like fear, it involves adrenaline secretion and the activation of the sympathetic system, but while fear leads to either freezing or escape, anger draws us towards whatever has irritated us.

Surprise, like fear and anger, involves a general activation of the nervous system. Its role is to direct our attention towards an unexpected stimulus. It is not a negative emotion, because at the onset it draws us towards the stimulus. If the stimulus turns out to be threatening, it is quickly followed by fear.

Sadness produces the opposite reaction than fear, anger and surprise: it deactivates the nervous system, leading to a state of internal withdrawal.

Joy is the most positive emotion. It activates the nervous system to make us go out exploring or to repeat a pleasurable behavior. I think it is important not to confuse joy with happiness, which is not an emotion but a generalized state of well-being, harmony and agreement with our life. Although when we are happy we tend to experience more joy, we can be happy in the mist of other emotions. For example, the fear inspired by scary movies or dangerous sports is happy-making. Even sadness can be accompanied by happiness, like in some pleasant melancholy states.

I feel increasingly fascinated by emotions. For a long time I have wanted to write about these six basic emotions and now, to my surprise, there is a Disney movie about them! The animation film Inside Out zooms inside the mind of the characters to show us how these basic emotions interact among them to direct our behavior.

Of course, being a Disney movie, we can expect a certain lack of depth and factual errors. The first one is… Surprise! They totally left surprise out. Why? What’s wrong with surprise? Is a perfectly legit basic emotion… Who doesn’t like a surprise party? Well, actually, I do… I’m a bit of a control freak and don’t like surprises, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate this emotion when it comes barging into my mind.

The other problem is a bit more subtle: the implication that these puny five emotions are the only ones we feel, when there are so many others. What happened to love, compassion, regret, jealousy, envy, pride, shame, guilt, indignation, self-righteousness, curiosity, boredom, awe, ridicule and loyalty? And that list is far from exhaustive. Unlike the six basic emotions of Ekman, many of these other emotions appear to be exclusively human. For example, we used to think that dogs feel shame and guilt, but recent research shows that we may be anthropomorphizing what is just a display of fear. Or maybe dogs are just very good a mimicking these emotions. Regardless, many of these emotions (like love, shame, guilt, pride and loyalty) are related to regulating social behavior. Others, like curiosity, interest, boredom and awe, seems related to our cognitive interaction with the world. I hope to write an article about these uniquely human emotions very soon.

And an interesting way of classifying emotions...

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