Humiliation Is Our Strongest Emotion?

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New brain research suggests that humiliation is the strongest emotion a human can feel.

Wired.com reports on this claim and delves into the question of, Is humiliation really more intense than other negative emotions such as anger or shame?

The researchers, Marte Otten and Kai Jonas, conducted two studies in which dozens of male and female participants read short stories involving different emotions, and had to imagine how they’d feel in the described scenarios.

The first study compared humiliation (e.g. your internet date takes one look at you and walks out), anger (e.g. your roommate has a party and wrecks the room while you’re away) and happiness (e.g. you find out a person you fancy likes you). The second study compared humiliation with anger and shame (e.g. you said some harsh words to your mother and she cried).

The researchers used EEG (electroencephalography) to record the surface electrical activity of their participants’ brains. They were interested in two measures in particular – a larger positive spike (known as the “late positive potential” or LPP); and evidence of “event-related desynchronization,” which is a marker of reduced activity in the alpha range. Both these measures are signs of greater cognitive processing and cortical activation.

The study’s finding was that imagining being humiliated led to larger LPPs and more event-related desychronization than the other emotions. According to Otten and Jonas, this means that humiliation, more than the other emotions they studied, leads to a mobilization of more processing power and a greater consumption of mental resources. This supports the idea that humiliation is a particularly intense and cognitively demanding negative emotional experience that has far-reaching consequences for individuals and groups alike, they concluded.

This does not conclusively support the idea that Humiliation is our strongest emotion.  Further research should be conducted, but this does note that the brain seems to be doing more when a person feels humiliated, but we do not seem to know exactly what yet. One possibility, the researchers acknowledge, is that humiliation requires more mental processing, not because it’s so intense, but because it’s a complex social emotion that involves monitoring loss of social status.

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