I want an orthogonal basis for feelings
November 21, 2009 10:49 PM   Subscribe

What are the most basic feelings, from which all others are composed? By this I mean that some feelings are combinations of other feelings (e.g., melancholy is a combination of sadness, thoughtfulness, listlessness, etc.), whereas others are unrelated (if you feel loving, you don't feel angry, for instance). What a smallest collection of feelings which could be combined to create all possible feelings? Has this been studied? Or is the premise false?
posted by jewzilla to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard the only two basic feelings a human has are fear and love. All others are manifestations of those. I haven't really thought about that myself, but it's something I have heard and quoted. That's all.
posted by sanka at 10:52 PM on November 21, 2009

According to Paul Ekman, cross-cultural research reveals that there are six universal facial expressions, and thus, six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, fear, and anger. Some of these (disgust, fear, anger) appear to be localized in the brain. Ekman later expanded his list to include another six emotions, including shame and pride.

Also see the wiki page on emotion classification, which gives some other systems of categorization.
posted by painquale at 11:05 PM on November 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't think there's any sound scientific basis for this. Chemically, we have some idea about what chemicals trigger certain types of physical feelings, like feeing anxious, or euphoric, or whatever.

But a huge part of emotion is context. The physical emotional sensation caused by having your heart broken or being on a roller coaster might actually be pretty similar, but we interpret these sensations based on context and cultural cues.
posted by delmoi at 11:05 PM on November 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think your premise is false. Human emotion can't be reduced to such simple terms.

May I try an analogy? It's long been known that human vision only has four kinds of light receptors, more or less red, green, blue, and B/W. It's long been known that we only have four (or five or six, depending on who you ask) taste senses: sweet, salt, sour, bitter, umami?, fat?

For a long time people speculated that the sense of smell likewise was based on a relatively small number of different sensors, and that all smells were made up of just a few basic ones. But no one ever came up with a list that made sense. Ultimately genetic analysis showed that the idea is false. It's still not known for sure how many different unique sensors there are in our noses, but it's been estimated to be more than a thousand. (And that's why there's no smell equivalent of color TV.)

Not everything about us can be reduced to a small number of cases.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:09 PM on November 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was also going to mention the Ekman study, but I think it's important to acknowledge that his is only a single example of a classification system among very many (that wiki link painquale references is pretty good) throughout various historical periods. There's so much context that must be included in emotion research/theory, I think.

I was also thinking that a lot of therapists, when introducing emotion work with young children, start with "mad, sad, glad, afraid" as the basic spectrum.
posted by so_gracefully at 11:10 PM on November 21, 2009

Ekman seems to be assuming a 1:1 relationship between emotional states and facial expressions. I see no justification for that conclusion.

Also, I object to that list. He left out laughter, which isn't the same as happiness.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:12 PM on November 21, 2009

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Philosophical views of emotion is one place to look for this. A major philosophical question has been, what is emotion? Another is, what effects do the various emotions have on us - for example do they help or hurt our rational decisionmaking and the ordering of our values? Is there such a thing as an "inappropriate" emotional response to various stimuli? Can we be wrong about what our own emotions are? These not exactly your question, but the same thinkers do think about taxonomy, and the historic work on these related questions may be helpful to you as you think about developing your taxonomy. The page also lists tons of references to further reading, including contemporary neurologists and psychologists who are working on these issues.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:15 PM on November 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

There's no way that this list could really even exist, because we have no way of universally identifying physical/neurological markers for a feeling. Every person experiences a feeling uniquely due to situational factors (and if you wanted to go even more deeply into it, a person whose dopamine receptors malfunction does not experience "happiness" exactly the same way in the brain that a person whose dopamine receptors are fine), so it doesn't work.
posted by so_gracefully at 11:19 PM on November 21, 2009

Not that I necessarily agree, but illustrator Scott McCloud broke this down from an anatomical perspective in his book Making Comics (a fun and interesting read even if you're not an illustrator).

Here are what he calls the six "Emotional Primaries": Joy, Surprise, Fear, Sadness, Disgust, Anger. And here's what happens when you mix the emotions.
(The best is undoubtedly this: Disgust + Surprise = You ATE it?)

One more thing: based on McCloud's idea, the Grimace Project is a Flash-animated tool with sliders that allow you to mix those six emotions in different degrees.
posted by twistofrhyme at 11:49 PM on November 21, 2009 [9 favorites]

That Grimace Project link is great! I like Joy + Disgust the best (= "ha ha, nasty!") Note that those are Ekman's primary emotions; Kim wasn't the originator.

The people in here saying that the task is impossible seem to me to be arguing based on intuition rather than empirical studies. It's not a priori whether there are basic emotions or not.
posted by painquale at 12:10 AM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also reading philosophers directly may be helpful or enjoyable. A few quickie links here -

Aristotle's Rhetoric Book II where he does some taxonomy of the kind you're interested in. (What is anger? What is the opposite of anger?)

Plato - some of the dialogues are devoted to a single topic, for example courage (The Laches) or love (The Symposium); some take on more than one major topic and he has a complex view of human psychology/the soul. (a summary in Plato's ethics, which touches on his theories about the emotions/passions; glossary of some Greek terms at bottom of page)

(Disclaimer: Neither of these suggestions is meant to say "this is all Aristotle/Plato had to say on emotions", just "here's a starting point to see if there's anything that seems useful for your project.")
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:14 AM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Those ancient thinkers might also be interesting to you, to get some sense of how our concepts of certain emotions are -- it seems to me -- quite different from theirs. So, if you're looking for universals, useful to compare your taxonomy to those made by careful thinkers from other cultures.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:15 AM on November 22, 2009

I don't know much about it myself, but you should look into the affect theory of Silvan Tomkins: he believed that there are nine basic, biologically-based "affects," each of which has a particular physical manifestation. The late literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick edited a collection of his work.
posted by neroli at 6:20 AM on November 22, 2009

You might find this article from a cognitive-psychological perspective to be interesting. The authors present an overview of many various schema of fundamental emotions and discuss the problems with approaching emotions from this perspective (for one, if there is a set of basic universal human emotions that form the building blocks for more complex ones, why is there such disagreement about what the list should include?)

It's been 2 decades since I first read this piece, and I'm just skimming it now, but their alternative suggestion is that emotional responses are indeed built out of more basic components, some of which may be emotional themselves (pleasure/displeasure) but others of which involve non-emotional cognitive processes or contexts, and conclude that it may be more useful to think about generalized vs. specialized emotions.

I was dating the lead author's son during the time he was working on these issues, which led to my focusing my senior honor's thesis on a linguistic analysis of emotion in a non-Western language. We had several discussions about the anthropological evidence for and against emotional universals.
posted by drlith at 6:33 AM on November 22, 2009

I love the idea of emotions laid out as if on a color wheel. To answer your question: I had a friend who was doing a chaplaincy residency, and as part of that experience, he had to participate in group therapy with the other residents. They were told that all emotions can be distilled into one of four categories: bad, mad, sad, or happy. I think it's total BS, but it might be food for thought.
posted by runningwithscissors at 6:48 AM on November 22, 2009

This book, Affective neuroscience, is where I first saw a discussion of this from a scientific perspective. It's a fascinating read, and I'd highly recommend it.
posted by wyzewoman at 7:38 AM on November 22, 2009

The way in which you phrase your question leads me to suggest Part III of Spinoza's "Ethics," "On The Origin And Nature Of The Emotions."
posted by rhizome at 10:28 AM on November 22, 2009

I'm not sure any more where I got this (Don Miguel Ruiz?), but it makes sense to me.

Basically, it makes a distinction between feelings and emotions. There are only two feelings. Good/bad, love/fear, whatever you want to call them. Emotions are feelings colored by the various effects of posessing self-importance and an ego.
posted by cmoj at 10:57 AM on November 22, 2009

OK, this might not make sense but I've thought about this before and I disagree with your premise.

Instead of viewing any given emotion as the end result of a recipe - ie, x amount of y, z amount of a, etc - I compare it to the weather. It's "a set of all the phenomena occurring in a given atmosphere at a given time" (according to wikipedia), at the whim of the different layers of the atmosphere, surface temperture, pressure differences, etc.

It's kind of out there and not in the slightest bit scientific, but it's how I look at it. Also,

if you feel loving, you don't feel angry, for instance

I feel loving and angry all the time. For example, last night I was helping my boyfriend cash out of the bar he works at and I kept messing up on the calculator. He finally grabbed it out of my hands and said he would just do it himself. For some reason it set me off, and I stormed away and sat at the other end of the bar. I was pissed. Then, he tried to catch my eye by signing "I love you" in sign language. I was still angry, but how could I not feel loving in that moment?
posted by pintapicasso at 11:17 AM on November 22, 2009

pintapicasso: good point. I think what I should have written is that you can feel loving without feeling angry (whereas if you feel melancholy you must feel sad, thoughtful, listless, etc.)

Thanks for all the responses - I have a lot of reading to do now.
posted by jewzilla at 11:36 AM on November 22, 2009

FWIW, Temple Grandin claims in Animals Make Us Human that the four core animal emotions are fear, rage, panic, and seeking. Obviously humans are a bit more emotionally complex than most animals, but there might be some analogies to be drawn to humans.
posted by agentofselection at 11:48 AM on November 22, 2009

When my daughter was 4 years old and learning to read, she came home and declared that all people feel one of these: mad, bad, sad, glad. We went through a few scenarios and decided she was just about right.

I came in here to post this, then I see other commenters saying that statement has a place in real studies of psychology. Now I can't decide if my daughter was a genius or if it's really just so true that even a 4-year-old can figure it out (or maybe she got it from her teacher??). I do like the addition of "afraid" except it doesn't rhyme
posted by CathyG at 11:50 AM on November 22, 2009

Mad, bad, sad, glad, scar'd?
posted by flabdablet at 2:52 PM on November 22, 2009

Take a look at The Feeling Wheel (available with differences on other sites as well).
posted by feelinggood at 9:47 AM on November 23, 2009

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