Tiffany Watt Smith: Did People In The Past Experience Emotions Differently? Did past generations experience and express emotions the same way we do? Probably not, says historian Tiffany Watt Smith — perceptions of our emotions depend on the time and place.
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Tiffany Watt Smith: Did People In The Past Experience Emotions Differently?

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Tiffany Watt Smith: Did People In The Past Experience Emotions Differently?

Tiffany Watt Smith: Did People In The Past Experience Emotions Differently?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So you studied the history of emotions?

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Yeah, it sounds paradoxical, doesn't it? I mean, how can emotions possibly have histories?

RAZ: This is Tiffany Watt Smith. She's a research fellow at the Center for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University in London.

SMITH: You know, we talk about history as something which changes and it mutates over time. And yet, we think of the emotions as being these kind of universal fixed points in human experience. But I think emotions are a much more complicated thing than a simple reflex. They are malleable. They're flexible.

RAZ: And this question about where emotions come from, it isn't a new one. People have been coming up with theories for a long time.

SMITH: Thousands of years, actually. You get them, you know, in Aristotle. You get them - there's an ancient Chinese encyclopedia called the leishu (ph). And you get them in Descartes.

RAZ: But for most of modern history, they weren't actually called emotions.

SMITH: That word starts to be used in about 1830. I think before then, you talked about passions and affections of the soul and surprises of the hearts and all sorts of other things.

RAZ: So around the middle of the 20th century, a psychologist named Paul Ekman decided to research whether human emotions are universal. So first, he traveled around...

SMITH: Studying people from all around the globe.

RAZ: ...Asked them to fill out questionnaires...

SMITH: How were they portraying sadness? What sort of things did they say when they were in love?

RAZ: ...Showed them photographs of different facial expressions.

SMITH: People were able to identify and recognize particular emotional states.

RAZ: And after years of research, Paul Ekman concluded there are six core human emotions.

SMITH: Disgust, fear, surprise, happiness, anger and sadness.

RAZ: And he argued that every human experiences these emotions in more or less the same way. And this idea became the foundation for how researchers and academics studied emotions. But there's a problem with this theory.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SMITH: The problem with this picture is it doesn't entirely capture what an emotion is.

RAZ: Tiffany picks up the idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SMITH: As a historian, I've long suspected that as language changes, our emotions do too. Let me tell you a story. It begins in a garret in the late 17th century in the Swiss university town of Basel. Inside, there's a dedicated student living some 60 miles away from home. He stops turning up to his lectures. And his friends come to visit, and they find him dejected and feverish, having heart palpitations, strange sores breaking out on his body. Doctors are called, and they think it's so serious that prayers are said for him in the local church.

And it's only really when they're preparing to return this young man home so that he can die that they realize what's going on. Because once they lift him onto the stretcher, his breathing becomes less labored. By the time he's got to the gates of his hometown, he's almost entirely recovered. And that's when they realize that he's been suffering from a very powerful form of homesickness. Well in 1688, a young doctor, Yohannes Hoffa, heard of this case and others like it and christened the illness nostalgia. The last person to die from nostalgia was an American soldier fighting during the First World War in France.

How is it possible that you could die from nostalgia less than a hundred years ago? But today, not only does the word mean something different, a sickening for a lost time, rather than a lost place. But homesickness itself is seen as less serious. This change seems to have happened in the early 20th century but why? Was it the invention of telephones or the expansion of the railways? Was it perhaps the coming of modernity with its celebration of restlessness and travel and progress that made sickening for the familiar seem rather unambitious? You and I inherit that massive transformation in values, and it's one reason why we might not feel homesickness today as acutely as we used to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So if our notion of what an emotion is changes over time - right? - then presumably, our emotions are connected to context, to language, how we frame them. So can we reframe the way we think about what an emotion means?

SMITH: Yeah. I think this is, you know, to me, this is really the point of this work. You know, you can develop a certain emotional vocabulary in a quite an unthinking sort of way because you absorb all of this stuff that you're taught and from your culture and so on. And, you know, once you become aware of it, it's possible to rethink some of those stories. So, for example, about happiness, you know, which one might feel rather pressurized into nowadays and feel rather inadequate if you don't feel happy enough all the time and whatever.

And it's quite something of a relief, I think, to see other cultures of the past and understand that sadness might have been valuable and important. And, in fact, you can look at self-help manuals in the 16th century and it's almost the opposite. You know, writers are trying to encourage people to get in touch with sadness because it's really important to emotion. So once we understand the political and cultural forces which have shaped the values that we attach to our emotions today, then it gives us the opportunity to rethink them and to question them and allow ourselves to feel a bit differently.

RAZ: Coming up, in just a moment, Tiffany explains how emotions don't just change across time, they also change from place to place. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Decoding Our Emotions. And historian Tiffany Watt Smith says that emotions not only differ across time, but they also vary from country to country as she explained from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SMITH: One of my favorite emotions is a Japanese word - amae. Amae is a very common word in Japan, but it is actually quite hard to translate. It means something like the pleasure that you get when you're able to temporarily hand over responsibility for your life to someone else. Now, anthropologists suggest that one reason why this word might have been named and celebrated in Japan is because of that country's traditionally collectivist culture, whereas the feeling of dependency may be more fraught amongst English speakers, who have learned to value self-sufficiency and individualism. What might our emotional languages tell us not just about what we feel but about what we value most?

RAZ: Tiffany, is the emotional life of an English speaker substantially different from the emotional life of a Japanese speaker, for example?

SMITH: I think this is a curious question that's easy to overstate. On the one hand, it's possible for me to learn a Japanese word like amae, which I talk about in the TED Talk and think, yes, I recognize that emotion. But at the same time, it's remote enough that I might not let that feeling come to the full ground of my mind. And therefore, it doesn't become part of my experience in quite the same ways it would do if I definitely had a word for it.

RAZ: Right. But, I mean, I guess I always assumed that like it doesn't matter where you go in the world. But if someone dies, like if a child dies, a parent grieves and experiences sadness. Or if a child is born healthy, a parent or a caregiver experiences happiness. Or if somebody steals your cow or fires you from your job, you experience anger, right? Like, those feel pretty universal, like that certain experiences trigger a feeling that most of us feel.

SMITH: Yeah. And I don't disagree that there would be a lot of common ground in those emotional experiences. But there is also quite a lot of diversity in them, too. I'm just thinking. There is a tribe in Ghana with the Koma tribe where it's actually common for grandchildren to laugh and joke at the funeral of their grandparents and actually, in some cases, to steal the corpse and perform practical jokes with it.

RAZ: Wow.

SMITH: That's part of the funerary activities. That's what happens. And, in fact, I mean, there are some funerals that I've been to where people have been encouraged to laugh and feel - so actually, it's easy to look for common ground. But I will say perhaps it's important not to do that at the expense of recognizing differences. And probably in time, there will be a different way of thinking about emotions all over again.

RAZ: Tiffany Watt Smith. She's a research fellow at the Center for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. You can see her full talk at ted.com.

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