The History of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt Smith (Transcript)

Tiffany Watt Smith

Here is the full transcript of Cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith’s Talk: The History of Human Emotions at TED conference.

Tiffany Watt Smith – Cultural historian

I would like to begin with a little experiment. In a moment, I’m going to ask if you would close your eyes and see if you can work out what emotions you’re feeling right now.

Now, you’re not going to tell anyone or anything. The idea is to see how easy or perhaps hard you find it to pinpoint exactly what you’re feeling. And I thought I’d give you 10 seconds to do this OK? Right, let’s start OK, that’s it, time’s up.

How did it go? You were probably feeling a little bit under pressure, maybe suspicious of the person next to you. Did they definitely have their eyes closed? Perhaps you felt some strange, distant worry about that email you sent this morning or excitement about something you’ve got planned for this evening.

Maybe you felt that exhilaration that comes when we get together in big groups of people like this; the Welsh called it “hwyl,” from the word for boat sails. Or maybe you felt all of these things. There are some emotions which wash the world in a single color, like the terror felt as a car skids.

But more often, our emotions crowd and jostle together until it is actually quite hard to tell them apart. Some slide past so quickly you’d hardly even notice them, like the nostalgia that will make you reach out to grab a familiar brand in the supermarket.

And then there are others that we hurry away from, fearing that they’ll burst on us, like the jealousy that causes you to search a loved one’s pockets. And of course, there are some emotions which are so peculiar, you might not even know what to call them. Perhaps sitting there, you had a little tingle of a desire for an emotion one eminent French sociologist called “ilinx,” the delirium that comes with minor acts of chaos.

For example, if you stood up right now and emptied the contents of your bag all over the floor. Perhaps you experienced one of those odd, untranslatable emotions for which there’s no obvious English equivalent. You might have felt the feeling the Dutch called “gezelligheid,” being cozy and warm inside with friends when it’s cold and damp outside. Maybe if you were really lucky, you felt this: “basorexia,” a sudden urge to kiss someone. We live in an age when knowledge of emotions is an extremely important commodity, where emotions are used to explain many things, exploited by our politicians, manipulated by algorithms.

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Emotional intelligence, which is the skill of being able to recognize and name your own emotions and those of other people, is considered so important, that this is taught in our schools and businesses and encouraged by our health services. But despite all of this, I sometimes wonder if the way we think about emotions is becoming impoverished. Sometimes, we’re not even that clear what an emotion even is.

You’ve probably heard the theory that our entire emotional lives can be boiled down to a handful of basic emotions. This idea is actually about 2,000 years old, but in our own time, some evolutionary psychologists have suggested that these six emotions — happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, surprise — are expressed by everyone across the globe in exactly the same way, and therefore represent the building blocks of our entire emotional lives.

Well, if you look at an emotion like this, then it looks like a simple reflex: it’s triggered by an external predicament, it’s hardwired, it’s there to protect us from harm. So you see a bear, your heart rate quickens, your pupils dilate, you feel frightened, you run very, very fast. The problem with this picture is, it doesn’t entirely capture what an emotion is.

Of course, the physiology is extremely important, but it’s not the only reason why we feel the way we do at any given moment. What if I was to tell you that in the 12th century, some troubadours didn’t see yawning as caused by tiredness or boredom like we do today, but thought it a symbol of the deepest love? Or that in that same period, brave men — knights — commonly fainted out of dismay?

What if I was to tell you that some early Christians who lived in the desert believed that flying demons who mainly came out at lunchtime could infect them with an emotion they called “accidie,” a kind of lethargy that was sometimes so intense it could even kill them? Or that boredom, as we know and love it today, was first really only felt by the Victorians, in response to new ideas about leisure time and self-improvement?

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What if we were to think again about those odd, untranslatable words for emotions and wonder whether some cultures might feel an emotion more intensely just because they’ve bothered to name and talk about it, like the Russian “toska,” a feeling of maddening dissatisfaction said to blow in from the great plains.

The most recent developments in cognitive science show that emotions are not simple reflexes, but immensely complex, elastic systems that respond both to the biologies that we’ve inherited and to the cultures that we live in now. They are cognitive phenomena. They’re shaped not just by our bodies, but by our thoughts, our concepts, our language.

The neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has become very interested in this dynamic relationship between words and emotions. She argues that when we learn a new word for an emotion, new feelings are sure to follow.

As a historian, I’ve long suspected that as language changes, our emotions do, too. When we look to the past, it’s easy to see that emotions have changed, sometimes very dramatically, in response to new cultural expectations and religious beliefs, new ideas about gender, ethnicity and age, even in response to new political and economic ideologies. There is a historicity to emotions that we are only recently starting to understand.

So I agree absolutely that it does us good to learn new words for emotions, but I think we need to go further. I think to be truly emotionally intelligent, we need to understand where those words have come from, and what ideas about how we ought to live and behave they are smuggling along with them.

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.

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And it’s only 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. And 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. It’s so powerful, that it might have killed him.

Well, in 1688, a young doctor, Johannes Hofer, heard of this case and others like it and christened the illness “nostalgia”. The diagnosis quickly caught on in medical circles around Europe. The English actually thought they were probably immune because of all the travel they did in the empire and so on. But soon there were cases cropping up in Britain, too. 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, sort of downgraded from something you could die from to something you’re mainly worried your kid might be suffering from at a sleepover.

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