Friday, October 9, 2015

Emotion in the body (and in poetry?): James-Lange then and now

I' originally published this in July 2012, but I'm bumping it to the top of the cue because, well, it's very interesting. It suggests how we can easily be 'tricked' into misreading the emotional significance of our body states. What is some culture consistently leads its members to mis-interpret the messages of their bodies?

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A century or so ago William James and Carl Lange independently arrived at the view that can be epigrammatized as: We are afraid because we run, rather than running because we are afraid. That is, some situation causes us to run and the running causes physiological changes—higher blood pressure and increased respiration most prominently. We sense those changes and interpret them as fear.

The James-Lange theory has inspired quite a bit of experimentation, some of it fiendishly ingenious. Here’s an out-take from Beethoven’s Anvil in which I describe some these experiments performed by Stuart Valins back in the 1960s.

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Following work ingenious experimental work done by S. Schachter, Valins [1] devised a situation where experimental subjects would get false information about their bodily state. Subjects we told that they would be participating in a study about physiological response to emotional stimuli. They were also told that, because so much research was being conducted, the most modern facilities were needed for other experiments. Thus the equipment used to monitor their heart rate was old, but nonetheless adequate. As a consequence, they would be able to hear their heart beating as it was recorded, but they should just ignore it.

This was not true. In fact, their heart rate was not being monitored at all. Rather, they were listening to pre-recorded heart-like sounds. These were in three frequency ranges, 66-48 beats per minute, 66-72 BPM, and 72-90 BPM. Subjects (males) where shown slides of ten female nudes and asked to rate their attractiveness. As a reward they were allowed to chose copies of five of the nudes.

One group of subjects heard an increase in their (pseudo-) heartbeat (72-90 BPM) for five of the ten slides while another group heard a decrease (66-72 BPM) for five slides. In both cases the subjects gave higher ratings to the slides they viewed while hearing heart rate above or below the middle range, which they perceived as their baseline heart rate. Two groups of control subjects, who were told that the heart sounds were prerecorded, showed no consistent preferences among the slides.

What interests me about this study is the simple fact that sounds in the external world that were taken to be indices of activity in the interior milieu (i.e. heart beating) had a demonstrable effect on an emotion-laden behavior. One need not believe the hypothesis that Valins was investigating--that emotion primarily reflects our interpretation of bodily states--to find these results fascinating. These subjects were using the externally oriented division of their nervous system to gather information about their interior milieu and this information had an effect on their behavior. What is important is that there was some emotional effect at all. This supports the general contention that information picked up externally is readily interpreted as being about the state of one’s interior milieu and of thereby affecting one’s emotional state.

Now, think of poetry. And think of the sound as a proxy for the state of one's body and the word meaning as cues for interpreting that proxy message.

[1] Valins, S. (1970). The Perception and Labeling of Bodily Changes as Determinants of Emotional Behavior. Physiological Correlates of Emotion. Ed. Perry Black. New York, Academic Press: 229-245.

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