Friday, June 29, 2007

Feelings and Faces

Donald Nathanson, M.D. has written much on the ideas of Sylvan Tomkins -- the latter’s work being a bit abstruse for most of us to digest easily.

Tomkins believed that there were nine - and only nine - universal emotional affects. These affects, i.e., feeling experiences, were innately tied to the nerves in the face. Thus a baby could not help but show it if he were in the midst of experiencing one of these affects.

Here are the nine:

  • Interest —> Excitement
  • Enjoyment—> Joy
  • Surprise —> Startle
  • Fear —> Terror
  • Distress—> Anguish
  • Anger —> Rage
  • Dissmell —> Disgust
  • Shame —> Humiliation

One important thing to notice is that each is on a spectrum. We spot something novel and become interested. As we move toward it and investigate further, we may become excited about our find. You see this phenomenon in small children all the time; the whole world is new and exciting.

In an optimal environment, the expression of interest, followed by excitement at learning something new actually increases the complexity of the neural network in children. In other words, it increases their intelligence. On the other hand, where curiosity is suppressed, boredom and depression often set in and the developing brain is also stifled. The eyes of such children often seem to be flat or empty.

Tomkins proposed that these nine affects were the sum total…we might experience variations on their themes as we matured, and we might learn (we’d better learn!) to mask our expressions in polite society, but we would continue to experience these affects throughout our lives.

Each affect has its own unique facial expression and body language. In shame, for instance, the neck droops and the eyes turn away from whatever caused the feeling state of shame. Intensifying, the state can move on to humiliation and cause the child to withdraw - physically if he can, or emotionally if he cannot. Everyone develops coping skills to deal with shame, though these skills are limited. Nathanson diagrammed them out in a compass of shame.
[Scroll halfway down the page to see the diagram]

Nathanson illustrates his book with pictures of babies in the midst of these feeling states. The “disgust” face is amusing to see — and moving, too. It makes you realize how absolutely similar we human beings are when we start out.

Yarrrggghhh! I’ll tear yer throat out wif me bare teeth, matey!All of this is a preface to explain why this picture fascinates me. Here is a “baby face” that has disintegrated into pure rage. John McCain has an anger problem, hmm? Or at least it appears he has difficulty modulating this affect under duress.

I’d like to get eight more politician’s pictures illustrating the remaining affects. If I can, I’ll try to find images from both sides of the aisle. No need to pick on either group since - despite what some say - we’re all human. Somehow, though, I don’t think anything I find will be as absolutely perfect an example as this one is.

Maybe it's his chubby-cheeked baby face that makes this example so fascinating?


At 12:37 PM, Blogger Wally Ballou said...

I love that McCain picture. Perfect white-hot rage. It is incredible that he would allow himself to show that much loss of control, especially since it was apparently during a presidential debate! My sister Al's theory is that it might have been a "micro-expression" - too brief for anything but a still camera to capture. I don't know. Doesn't seem like you could unscrew that grimace quickly.

I can't think of any picture of any major politician that out of whack - without maybe going back to Mayor Daley in 1968.

Hillary's rubber face usually shows her trying to mug and clown, without being aware of just how bizarre she looks when she does it.

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Wally Ballou said...

I'm not familiar with these 9 emotional axes, but they remind me of Aristotles "Theory of the Mean", in which he states that every virtue (I think he identifies 11 somewhere) lies along an axis bounded by extremes.

For instance, courage lies between cowardliness and foolhardiness.

Similarly, "gentleness" lies between timidity and rage.

The essence of virtue (arete), in Aristotle's view, lies in determining where the proper mean lies, and maintaining one's passions in that state. This takes not just reason, but training.

We can quibble about the particular axes, but the concept is appealing.


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