Body Physick

Just when I thought I had it all figured out, just when I thought I could read my body like an Email, Science comes along and attempts a refutation on the flimsiest of evidence. I hate that.

I used to subscribe to the inductive method of bodily interpretation –you know, headache, nausea and general lassitude occurring in some temporally relevant proximity to the consumption of a bottle of wine, was enough to suggest hangover. That is to say, I felt I was able to formulate a general rule, contingent on the appearance of a bevy of pre-existing symptoms… Well, okay, I suppose I occasionally resort to deduction when trying to explain my failure to succeed in some task –finding out I put two sixes in the same Sudoku row just when I figure I’ve won, for example. Critical retrospection inevitably exonerates the mistake when I realize that I had failed to take into account skipping breakfast that morning. All bodily explicable; all bodily blameable.

In fact, I felt I had almost enough evidence to justify submitting a resume outlining my findings for publication as a manual for successful bodily management. Almost. Then, hoping to find some corroborative evidence to support my findings, I happened on a BBC Future article that scattered ashes in its wake –my wake.

Now that’s fine, I guess. Science is like that, isn’t it? Proposal, refutation, amended proposal, increasingly vindictive refutation. Then a strikingly worded but clearly affronted response, followed by a viciously wounding and insulting take-down… I accept all that as part of the give-and-take of scientific discourse, and yet I could have wished for a less evidential refutation.

It seems that, unbeknownst to me, Darwin had proposed just such a theory as my own in his book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal in which he suggested that ‘that we display emotion “fingerprints”. This theory suggested that each emotion creates a specific combination of facial expression, body language, and other physiological cues such as heart rate or sweaty palms.’

But, before I could even decide whether or not to download it, I discovered that ‘A psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Barrett has spent her career examining the ways we construct emotions, culminating in a recent book –How Emotions are Made. […]Although we may believe strongly that we know how we feel, she shows that the sensations of anger, anxiety, hunger, or illness are not nearly as distinct as we assume – and we may sometimes misinterpret those signals with profound consequences.’ Damn! I should read more.

‘Barrett’s detailed analyses of the findings now suggest that there is no such thing as an emotion fingerprint. Each emotion may be represented by a whole range of reactions in the brain and the body, and there is a huge amount of overlap between each one. Instead, she points out that the way we interpret our body’s signals – and whether we actually feel excited or anxious as a result – depends entirely on context and circumstance, and it can be easily shaped by our expectations.’

Fine. That’s her body; I, however, am made of sterner stuff. Predictable stuff. But, equally predictably, perhaps, she tries to make a better case for her contention that both Darwin and I are wrong: ‘Barrett’s theory has many implications. For one thing, she argues that we learn those interpretations from others. “Particular concepts like ‘anger’ or ‘disgust’ are not genetically pre-determined,” she writes. “Your familiar emotion concepts are built-in only because you grew up in a particular social context where those emotion concepts are meaningful and useful. Other cultures can and do make other kinds of meaning from the same sensory input.”’

Unfortunately, I read further and, like a fly, began to be drawn further into her tangled web. ‘She points out that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not seem to smile spontaneously with big broad grins, for instance – suggesting that their expressions of pleasure and positive feelings could have been quite different from ours. (Apparently, the word smile does not even exist in Latin.) Instead, it appears that the smiles we recognise today – broad, toothy, and with crinkling at the eyes – only became more common in the 18th Century, as dentistry became more accessible.’ And as she no doubt watched from the hub of her web, even attracted corroboratory attention: ‘As As Mary Beard, a classicist at the University of Cambridge puts it: “That is not to say that Romans never curled up the edges of their mouths in a formation that would look to us much like a smile; of course they did. But such curling did not mean very much in the range of significant social and cultural gestures in Rome.’

You know, Science can be a real impediment to behaviour sloth. ‘The fact that states like hunger, fatigue, or illness, all produce the same signals as emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness, or anxiety, emphasises the importance of looking after your body as a way to stabilise your mood. […]Mindfulness meditation, meanwhile, should encourage you to observe and deconstruct those bodily signals: understanding the physical origins of the emotions can help you to regulate the feelings. “Many things that seem unrelated to emotion actually have a profound impact on how you feel, because of the porous boundary between the social and the physical,” she says.’

I could almost hear my hypothesis shredding. Like, who would have thought of an ‘emotional vocabulary’? ‘Barrett also emphasises the benefits of a good emotion vocabulary. […]our emotion concepts are not hard-wired, but learnt – and some people have many more nuanced ways of reading their bodily signals and describing how they are making them feel in a particular context. Rather than simply describing yourself as happy, for instance, you may distinguish whether you are “blissful” or “inspired”; rather than just feeling “sad”, you might say you are “dejected” or “disappointed” The result is a deeper understanding of the situation you are in, perhaps helping you to savour your pleasure with new relish, or, conversely, to reframe your unhappiness so that it no longer feels so all-encompassing. It may even cause you to reconsider the source of your discomfort, and remind you of ways that you have righted your mood in the past.’

She calls it ‘emotional granularity’ –catchy phrase, that… In fact, after chewing on it for a while, I remembered that I’d even written about it (and her) in a previous essay: Words Like the Wind … but, to tell the truth, I never thought she’d slide into the Dark Side. I never thought she wouldn’t understand just how well some of us know our bodies. Or we could, at any rate, if not presented with reasons why we couldn’t. It’s all very confusing.

But then again, if I mistake a rapid heartbeat for happiness, or an occasional MSG blush for chaste embarrassment, is that a big deal? And if I cut down on my red wine because I interpret my subsequent headache as one resulting from needless deglutitional profligacy, isn’t that helpful in the long run? ‘Know Thyself’ was written on the front of the temple of Delphi –it’s as ancient as Time. There may, perhaps, be some minor definitional hurdles to overcome, but I welcome any polite rebuttal.


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