Jerome Kagan, professor emeritus of psychology at Harvard University, questions the things others would not dare. His book is deliciously subversive. He masterfully unearths the shaky assumptions of nearly every accepted truth in emotion research so that little remains standing. There is something in this book to offend everybody.
He questions laboratory work with animals in understanding the complexity of human emotions and criticises the dominance of fear in emotion research, an anthropomorphic accident in which "psychologists, apparently relying on their intuition of how they would feel, assumed that the animals expecting an electric shock should be in a state of fear". The fear-flight hypothesis has been a major plank in the argument for a continuum in emotion states between animals and humans.
Other cherished assumptions of evolutionary psychology, such as the idea of biologically determined "basic emotions" and the tautology that every emotion has to have an adaptive function, are critically dismissed.
Kagan provides an excellent description of the brain mechanisms involved in emotion. He argues that the amygdala is involved less in processing fear than in processing unexpected events. He underlines the fallacy that understanding brain mechanisms is the ultimate answer to understanding emotions, a position he has developed in earlier books such as An Argument for Mind (2006).
Kagan's critiques are compelling; his depth of reading, knowledge, research and the ability to set many of his arguments in historical, cultural and scientific contexts provide a rich context for understanding emotion. While his ability to pinpoint error is compelling, his new blueprint for emotion research is not as persuasive.
He selects four components of emotion that are seen as a "cascade" or sequence: the originating brain profile - leading to a consciously detected change in feeling - that is consciously appraised and labelled with words and which may lead to action.
An experienced shift in a feeling state might be an emotional feeling or even somatic sensations such as indigestion. A key feature for Kagan is the appraisal that is applied subsequently to this shift in feeling. It is here that he diverges from the broad consensus on appraisal. What he ignores are the unconscious, rapid, cognitive appraisals that precede and define what emotion is felt. Therapists using Aaron Beck's cognitive therapy routinely help patients become aware of "automatic negative thoughts" that produce depressed feelings. These unconscious appraisals are the expressions of broader emotional schemas developed in childhood that are part of the way the person views the world, the self and others. For Kagan, appraisals are largely conscious verbal sequels to feeling states.
In his earlier work on childhood development, Kagan rejected attachment theory. The concept of helping individuals to come to terms with early childhood traumas has little place in his scheme of thinking. He also downplays trauma in adults by claiming that post-traumatic stress disorder results less from the trauma itself but more from the person's appraisal of the trauma, which contradicts best clinical practice.
All in all, this book is overflowing with original ideas. It is not an easy read but does provide a rich source of material for all those involved in emotion research.
Roger Baker is a consultant clinical psychologist with Dorset HealthCare NHS Foundation Trust and visiting professor at Bournemouth University.
What is Emotion? History, Measures and Meanings
By Jerome Kagan
Yale University Press
Published 20 November 2007