Gamut of emotion from A to almost B

March 23, 2001

Bernard Baars laments opportunities missed in a very human topic.

What is so intensely annoying about this breezy little book? It is well produced and has attractive pictures. It covers some scientific high points, such as the evidence for half-a-dozen universal affects that seem to be recognised across all cultures studied so far. It touches lightly on topics that might appeal to high school and college students in the language of Dr Spock and punk rock. And it even cites some moving verses from the Song of Songs .

What is irksome to me is the book's relentless cuteness about what is after all the basic stuff of our lives. The emotions are literally the forces that move us ( e-movere ). Writing about emotion one can build on two-and-a-half millennia of insights from Aristotle to Darwin and Freud in the West, and Buddhism and the Upanishads in Asia; and that is saying nothing at all about literature and the arts.

In the past two decades, science has finally begun to make real inroads, so that it now appears that the entire mammalian core of our brain is simply shot through with affective neurons. Of the 100 billion nerve cells in our brains, vast forests are specialised to deal with pain and pleasure, the mother-baby bond that means survival for all mammals, love, rage, fear, sexuality, the appetites and all the maddening conflicts between impulse and self-control. Our veins course with special hormones whose only function is to forge those fetters, and to break them when the body so determines.

The emotions are not cute; they are the ancient mammalian gods grinning and cavorting in our skulls, forcing their wills on us at the least convenient moments. Our species' very survival is still a contest between a host of atavistic impulses and a feeble trickle of reason, with the eventual outcome by no means assured. Virtually everyone alive has experienced or inflicted some emotional trauma, intentionally or not. Understanding emotion is not just an academic exercise.

These points are not entirely ignored; they are covered to the level of a modest chapter in a basic psychology text. What then does the book add? I am baffled. Researchers such as Paul Ekman, Jaak Panksepp, Joseph LeDoux, Lester Luborsky and Aaron Beck have written readable accounts far more revealing about our emotional lives and about the depth of evolutionary history we carry in our bodies. Any good novel teaches more about the close affinity between character and emotion. Scientific findings on deep subcortical mechanisms of emotion are simply ignored. Pervasive brain systems specialised to detect pain and pleasure, endogenous opiates, dopamine and marijuana-like chemicals are not mentioned.

Also missing are four decades of studies that show how we consistently attribute the reasons for emotional excitement to the wrong causes. A major scientific literature on attachment and loss in childhood is untouched; remarkable studies on the feeling of shame are absent. Sexuality in all its manifestations is gone, as is the endless soap opera of human love, envy, ambition and loss. War and aggression are gone. The mourning and consolations of ageing are not to be found. A century of study of emotional pathology, self-regulation and defences is omitted, with only one exception. The one original idea, that emotion cannot be defined in neurobiological terms, is contradicted by all the evidence presented here, and by far more that is missing.

When the author goes from facts to ideas, this fundamental superficiality shows. A single page disposes of consciousness, the inner life of feelings; it took Joyce rather longer to tell the tale in Ulysses . A chapter on "emotional" computers fails to remind us that real emotions emerge from 100 million years of evolution, and that computer programs, no matter how clever, are simply not doing anything like that. Even the subtitle's use of "sentiment" reflects a misunderstanding. Sentimentality is after all the counterfeit of emotion, and the failure to distinguish between real and bogus emotion is telling.

In the author's defence it must be said that the book's superficiality reflects much that goes under the banner of emotion research. What are called the cognitive sciences have not done well by the emotions. Cognitive scientists treat human feelings as visitors from distant stars might, pinning each new wriggling affect like a butterfly caught for a museum display. In this arid world, the emotions are faraway objects rendered neat and sterile; they disturb no one. They have no bearing on football hooligans and rock concerts, ethnic cleansing or the death of Princess Di. In the cognitive museum, King Lear never howled in the storm, and Medea's babies are growing pink and healthy in neatly tended gardens courtesy of the welfare state. It is a picture of emotion without passion, in a universe far from today's headlines.

Yet there is much more penetrating research coming from psychology, psychiatry and neurobiology. Emotions do drive people mad sometimes, and one cannot study depression or impulse pathology and remain superficial very long. Tiny parts of the brain dictate uncontrollable appetites and addictions. But these discoveries are here treated spottily, and much of the best is absent. Nietzsche once said of the novelist Ernest Renan that one must work to achieve such superficiality, and it is tempting to speculate along similar lines about the passionless study of emotion. Is it a reflection of the endless gulf between science and the arts that some academics simply ignore the central regions of lived experience? Is it a reluctance to tackle the hard parts of the job, such as the brain and biology? Perhaps it reflects the postmodern compulsion to reinvent the wheel, pretending that nothing worthwhile has been done before? Or do we just live in superficial times? The most interesting thing about this book is the questions it leaves us wondering about.

Bernard J. Baars is senior fellow in theoretical neurobiology, Neurosciences Institute, San Diego, California, United States.

Emotion: The Science of Sentiment

Author - Dylan Evans
ISBN - 0 19 285433 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £9.99
Pages - 204

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