Language and Emotions

Researchers at the MPI for Psycholinguistics and the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology have set out to answer the question, does our understanding of emotions depend on the language we speak, or is our perception the same regardless of language and culture?

ScienceDaily reports on Understanding Emotions without Language. This new study, which suggests that emotions evolved as a set of basic human mechanisms, compared speakers of German to speakers of Yucatec  Maya, which has only one word for the emotions of disgust and anger.

“Earlier research has found that people who have different words for two emotions do better on this task when the dominant emotion in the two photographs is different, like when one is mainly angry and the other one is mainly disgusted,” explains Disa Sauter. “But is this because they internally label the faces angry and disgusted, or is it because emotions are processed by basic human mechanisms that have categories like anger and disgust regardless of whether we have words for those feelings?”

The studies results were published in Emotion a journal of the APA.¬† “Our results show that understanding emotional signals is not based on the words you have in your language to describe emotions,” Sauter says. “Instead, our findings support the view that emotions have evolved as a set of basic human mechanisms…”

2 responses to “Language and Emotions”

  1. Keith D. says:

    I would agree with the findings mentioned in this blog post. Whether you have words to describe something only hinders your ability to work with the concept and to communicate it easily with others. I’ve had plenty of experiences where I could think about something I had no words to describe. It’s perfectly clear in my head, but I can’t share the concept easily with others, and I have more difficulty integrating it with other disparate ideas (how do you categorize something that doesn’t have a category?) but it’s still there, existing in my mind.

    I’ll say that any study dealing with this would be difficult to design, because how do you quantify whether someone understands or not something which they have no words to describe?

    Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) once said, “The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of the word is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.” So it seems as if science has finally begun to investigate and prove what’s been known (or was thought to have been known) by a few scholars for thousands of years (Zhuangzi lived from 369 B.C. – 286 B.C.).

    In essence, when there are two people, there are two lands. The lands are called understanding and not understanding, and between them lies a chasm. Words form a bridge which crosses the chasm allowing one who doesn’t understand to understand from one who does and therein lies the purpose of language. Once the second person crosses the chasm, the bridge is no longer needed and he can forget it. But the words can still be important because another person may come along who wants to cross the same chasm. Therein lies the purpose of RECORDED language.

    Buddhist monks make an interesting use of language. They use language in the form of koans to communicate ideas which words can’t express. They’re essentially puzzles without a solution. The masters give these koans to monks to meditate on until they understand their meaning. What’s interesting is that the masters then have to determine whether the monks understand the meaning of the koan or not, but how do they do this when the koans have no answer? First, they have to understand the koan’s meaning for themselves. Then, they have to recognize the understanding in the monk that the monk’s words can’t convey. It’s a perplexing and fascinating phenomenon. Maybe one day science will even be able to study that.

  2. Thanks again Keith for your perceptive and note worthy comments. The quote from Zhuangzi is particularly fascinating. The bridge metaphor is also insightful. We appreciate all the feedback and supplementary information that we can count on you providing.

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