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A guide to how we feel
By Steven Martinovich
The eyes may be the window to the soul but it is our displays of emotions that report what we are more immediately to observers. Given that the human face is capable of making more than 10 000 expressions, we are capable of signaling amazingly subtle nuances of emotion. Emotions are so powerful, researchers have found, that the simple act of making a facial expression can actually bring about the emotion you are imitating.
Paul Ekman has been conducting research in the field of emotion for several decades, research that has taken him across the world to determine the universality of expressions, the fruits of which have resulted in Emotions Revealed. Exploring major emotions in depth, Ekman relates the current thinking of what sparks them, why we display and how to interpret them and what we can do to control them.
The consensus among researchers, he writes, seems to be that displays of emotions have evolved -- though learned behavior certainly plays a role -- over the history of humankind to act as signals to others, whether its anger if our ambitions are threatened to fear from threats in nature. Many triggers for our emotions are cross cultural, a fear of snakes seems to be an almost evolved emotion, though emotions prompted by violations of social norms aren't always universal. Despite that, Ekman's research has shown that emotions and how they are interpreted -- whether by westerners or members of isolated tribes -- seems to be an innate skill of humans.
Ekman devotes the first several chapters of Emotions Revealed to the essence of our emotions and the roles that they play in our lives. He details the tremendous changes our bodies go through nearly instantaneously as we react to a situation that results in an emotion and how we express them both verbally and non-verbally. Ekman discusses strategies of how we can change what we become emotional about and how to respond to emotional triggers in different ways. Throughout he makes it quite clear of how important he believes emotion is to humanity.
"Without excitement, sensory pleasure, pride in our achievements and achievements of our offspring, amusement in the many odd and unexpected things that happen in life, would life be worth living? Emotion is not like an appendix, a vestigial apparatus we don't need and should remove. Emotions are at the core of our life. They make life livable," he writes.
From there Ekman moves into exploring several emotions such as sadness, agony, anger, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt and happiness in greater detail. For each he goes into great detail the early signals that are the preludes to a full-blown emotional display. Ekman argues that by knowing what emotion is being communicated -- knowing what the trigger for that emotion was is considerably more complicated for an observer -- we can be better equipped to communicate with that person and deal with the emotions we manifest in response.
Emotions may be at the core of our lives, as Ekman states, but it seems the researchers studying the field have concentrated on what the layperson would consider to be negative displays. It shows in Emotions Revealed with several chapters devoted to one or two "negative" emotions like anger or disgust but only one lone chapter dedicated to covering what Ekman refers to as "enjoyable emotions" despite his belief that "there are more than a dozen enjoyable emotions." That's, of course, if researchers can come to an agreement on a reasonable list of these emotions. Indeed, he admits there is argument whether so-called sensory pleasures -- such as feelings produced by being touched by someone you love -- are even emotions.
The fact that Ekman is one of the most prominent researchers in the field of emotion is clearly evident in Emotions Revealed. His own groundbreaking research is cited throughout and he offers reasonable advice to the reader in dealing with their emotions and those of the people around them. Ekman is right, emotions do make life livable and Emotions Revealed is an absorbing guide to some of those that we take for granted but say so much about us.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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