Are emotions universal?

An interesting profile in Boston Magazine of Lisa Barrett, a psychologist who is working to challenge the long-held belief that there are six universal emotional facial expressions.  The work of Paul Ekman, who first pioneered this field, is now being seen as too simplistic:

[E]motion isn’t a simple reflex or a bodily state that’s hard-wired into our DNA, and it’s certainly not universally expressed. It’s a contingent act of perception that makes sense of the information coming in from the world around you, how your body is feeling in the moment, and everything you’ve ever been taught to understand as emotion. Culture to culture, person to person even, it’s never quite the same. What’s felt as sadness in one person might as easily be felt as weariness in another, or frustration in someone else.

The comments on the article are especially good (something that doesn’t happen all that often!), and delve more into the difference between affect – emotional reflexes that occur even in infants – and emotion – our reaction sets that are built from our culture, life experiences, and other contextual clues.  As one commenter succinctly puts it: affect is biology, emotion is biography.

I’m encouraged to see a nuancing of emotional reading in the field of psychology; those of us who do somatic work know that interpreting emotion is not as simple as a smile meaning happiness, or a scowl meaning anger.  As a person’s body contains the life story of that person, so a person’s emotional expression manifests itself differently depending on a multitude of factors.

It will be interesting to see how this research progresses; in the meantime, I keep reminding myself that every individual is unique.


Published by Kamela Dolinova

Expressive arts adventuress: writing, performing, healing, loving.

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