Physics and Emotions (No New-Age Stuff, Please!)
July 1, 2013 8:15 PM   Subscribe

I need to research physics and emotions in a way that is actually scientific, but most of what I've found while googling is new age stuff. One specific question I have is this: do emotions have wavelengths in any sense of the word? Or other quantitative properties? I would be interested in any general information on the subject as well, especially as it pertains to grief/loss. Book recs, articles, info from your personal knowledge are all welcome. Thanks!
posted by mermaidcafe to Science & Nature (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Emotions are manifestations of chemicals in your brain. Wavelength generally refers to the movement of particles in the electromagnetic spectrum. I don't know that chemicals per se have wavelengths.
posted by dfriedman at 8:20 PM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your brain has wavelike characteristics, of a sort. And since emotions are in your brain, etc.
posted by wrok at 8:21 PM on July 1, 2013

This link describes how a breakup is chemically similar to going through a cocaine withdrawal.
posted by thank you silence at 8:25 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is a very peculiar question. If you think that specific emotions can be mapped onto specific wavelengths, then the answer is "no, what made you think so." It really wouldn't mean anything to say "elation has a wavelength of about 20 nm."

The brain does have oscillatory activity, producing a variety of bioelectric "brain waves" in a range between 2 and, oh, 40 Hertz. You might have heard of alpha waves, beta waves, and so on. But they don't "mean" anything, at least not in the sense that "alpha waves mean happy" or "beta waves mean you're sad." I guess delta waves do mean that you're asleep.

Can you pose your question in a different way?
posted by Nomyte at 8:35 PM on July 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


Even "brain waves" as observed on the scalp (really the only thing with a wavelength even remotely associated with emotion) are really just ensemble recordings of millions of individual cells spiking at different times, with varying amounts of synchrony, etc. It's an artifact of the actual mechanisms of the brain (most interneuronal communication is chemical -- synapses -- with impulses traveling along dendrites/axons electro-chemically, with voltage-gated ion channels), but one that can be informative.

The closest analogy is a microphone a hundred feet above a football stadium. You're not going to hear anything an individual person is saying, but you'll get a sense for the general mood of the crowd.

I have no idea if that's what you're asking, though. There are biochemical signatures of grief and loss, but not much of an effect on gross electrophysiology.
posted by supercres at 8:49 PM on July 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

If you do want to aim your study towards the hard sciences, the phrase you want is "cognitive neuroscience of emotion". Physics doesn't play into it, and including that keyword is going to get you mired in woo.
posted by supercres at 8:51 PM on July 1, 2013 [13 favorites]

I would be interested in any general information on the subject as well, especially as it pertains to grief/loss. Book recs, articles, info from your personal knowledge are all welcome. Thanks!

I'd suggest getting a basic popular overview of the current state of the art in neurology and the study of consciousness-- How The Mind Works, by Stephen Pinker, or Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. There are lots of books out there that cover basically the same territory. It's kind of hard to give you a scientific explanation of emotions until you understand howt he mind works in general.
posted by empath at 8:59 PM on July 1, 2013

Physics doesn't play into it, and including that keyword is going to get you mired in woo.

Well, it's not that 'physics' doesn't play into it, but that the part where physics does play a part (like the action of a Sodium Potassium Pump) can be abstracted away into cells and other biological structures. Think of it like this -- the mechanics of the way an ant walks doesn't really tell you much about the behavior of an ant colony. They could have 6 legs or a dozen, and it wouldn't make much difference, if all you care about is how an ant-colony finds food.
posted by empath at 9:03 PM on July 1, 2013

Must it be "physics?" Immunological and neuroimaging biomarkers of complicated grief might help you with the "quantitative properties" part of your question.
posted by Wordwoman at 9:17 PM on July 1, 2013

I'd start here: Lindquist, et al. "The brain basis of emotion: a meta-analytic review." Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2012) 35, 121 – 202. See also the associated responses and the Wikipedia article on the conceptual act model of emotion.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:27 PM on July 1, 2013

Incidentally, if you've got to do this for a 'physics for poets' class or something like that, I guess you could get some actual physics into a discussion of emotions by talking about ECT or rTMS--not in a way that's really conclusive about the nature of emotions (see the brain basis of emotion paper, above) but in a way that at least justifies putting some physics formulas next to a discussion of mental/emotional phenomena.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:05 PM on July 1, 2013

One specific question I have is this: do emotions have wavelengths in any sense of the word?

In any sense? Sure. If you and I experience similar emotional responses to similar events and circumstances, we're said to be "on the same wavelength".

However, this metaphor based on the tuning of radio receivers has nothing useful to say about the physical operation of the brain. The only important way in which brains resemble radios is that both are complicated enough to discourage most people from making a disciplined attempt to understand them.

Or other quantitative properties?

Emotions per se are subjective experiences and have no reasonable basis for quantitative measurement; closest you'll come to that is the kind of self-rating intensity scales that are also used for describing other subjective experiences such as pain. The bodily activity associated with emotions (neural activation and blood flow patterns within the brain, muscle tone, hormone releases) can certainly be measured.
posted by flabdablet at 10:09 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is there a way to rigorously and quantitatively characterize the processes that underlie emotional states? Many of us are confident that there must be, but it is not yet known.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:36 PM on July 1, 2013

both are complicated enough to discourage most people from making a disciplined attempt to understand them.

I'm reminded of the phrase 'any brain complex enough to understand itself would be too simple to be able to do so' :/

FWIW, all matter is subject to the wave-particle duality, with increasing mass corresponding to ever tinier waveforms. For example, the photon, with zero mass, has equal wavelike and particle-like properties. You, however, at X kilos, have an almost infinitesimal waveform and tend to be in a pretty specific location. There's a simple equasion that relates the two (that I do not recall :/) but yeah, it wouldn't be super-useful for describing emotion in the same way that you wouldn't describe a song in inches.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:47 PM on July 1, 2013

While electrical oscillations with respect to time do have a frequency, the equation is frequency/speed=wavelength and while there is a speed of light and a speed of sound, there is no widely accepted speed of mirth.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:24 PM on July 1, 2013

There are reaction-diffusion systems in the brain, though, which can be a bit wave-like.
posted by empath at 11:33 PM on July 1, 2013

I saw an article years ago that tried to document this using Kirlian photography. The only thing I specifically remember was a Kirlian photograph of two fingertips of two people and having them kiss passionately resulted in a much stronger "aura" or visible corona of electrical discharge in the photo. That might be an avenue to investigate and see what comes up.

The photos of the experiments of Masaru Emoto are interesting but are widely held to be pseudoscience. Still, it did result in photographic evidence, not just testimony from some seer.

I am not readily finding the link I want, but the heart puts out vastly more electrical pulse than the brain and the heart is also typically viewed as the seat of human emotion, not the brain. I have seen something that touches on that, I just do not know what right now. But if you look for research, I think that is another avenue to investigate.

I am pretty woo and I have no problem with, say, the idea that some people see auras and they have meaningful colors (colors come in wavelengths, which is why I am using that specific reference) and all that. We know for a fact that human perceptual abilities vary, for example some people are color blind and some are not and some people are more sensitive to electrical fields, etc. But, hey, I don't see auras and I don't like how ungrounded most of the "woo" stuff is. I mentally collect tidbits that try to find some "scientific"/real world connection here. I have a few other thoughts but not sure how on topic/acceptable they would be, like plants give off a pulse when injured which has been likened to a "scream." (And I am not sure in part because I am kind of on the woo side, so not sure where you would draw that line.)

That's all that comes to mind really for now.
posted by Michele in California at 6:38 AM on July 2, 2013

Well, emotions have measurable effects on the body, like heart rate, temperature, breathing, and so forth. People often believe that these measures can be used to determine information about someone's emotions- like a polygraph machine, or a mood ring. But "emotions" don't really exist independantly; they're not physical objects.

You can measure various chemical levels that are associated with various emotions; for example, cortisol is a measurable stress hormone, as is adrenaline. Oxytocin, the "bonding" hormone, is more present in pregnant and breastfeeding women. That sort of thing.

There are other relationships between emotion and the physical world, like muscle memory- sometimes the effects of traumatic events can linger in certain muscles, and manipulation those muscles can cause a significant emotional reaction- but we don't really understand how or why that happens, nor do we know how to test for or measure it. Truthfully, there's a lot that we still can't pinpoint about emotion and physicality.
posted by windykites at 8:04 AM on July 2, 2013

Oh, and- for your own research, you might want to study hormones. Any basic physiology text should give you a decent overview of which hormones do what, and from there you can expand out into more in-depth research about experiments and so on. Then you could study some basic neuro to understand how thoughts happen (which is partially electric, so you might find some waves there) and so forth. But emotions are a product of chemicals, so they don't have waves really.
posted by windykites at 8:12 AM on July 2, 2013

Expanding on what windykites said:

Physiological response and "feelings" can also run in the other direction. When it does, it is called somatopsychic (opposite off psychosomatic). I think it is no coincidence that the word "feel" is used for both physical sensation and emotional experience. The two are strongly interconnected.

I used to be severely hypoglycemic. Low blood sugar is well established as a somatopsychic condition. When blood sugar drops, thd body releases adrenaline to access emergency stores of sugar. This gives the feeling of the "fight or flight" response, with increased pulse, etc. When awake, it promotes paranoia because if you routinely feel on edge like that without knowing why, the tendency is to look around and try to figure out what (or who) is setting you off. At night, it promotes nightmares, which is also not great for your mental and emotional health. Simply knowing that low blood sugar was causing these things helped me become more emotionally and mentally stable because I knew it was just a side effect of a health issue, unrelated to how people were treating me or whatever.

That is just one example that I know of. I have experienced lots of other, similar stuff but that is just me, not something necessarily well known or researched scientifically. So I am giving you the most well established example I can think of. However, I will note that testimony of a quadraplegic indicates emotions like anger have a big visceral component which can be substsntially damped down by that kind of impairment. If you do not have the physical capacity anymore to get physically worked up into a froth, it apparently alters how strongly you experience emotions like anger.

Also, as for hormones, (as I understand it) chakras are all centered on hormone producing organs. Each chakra has a particular color associated with it and each of those organs produces a particular hormone or set of hormones. Thus I find it perfectly plausible that there is a "wavelength" associated with each of those hormones and a particular feeling or emotion which corresponds. But I know of no non-woo research that makes such a connection.
posted by Michele in California at 9:28 AM on July 2, 2013

Wordwoman: Must it be "physics?"
Yes, the study of physical properties of things is physics. That's like asking if counting need involve mathematics.

There's a lot of poorly understood handwaving about sciencey terms in this thread, about "brain wavelike characteristics" (which grossly misrepresents brain waves, which are irrelevant to the question), wave-particle duality, reaction-diffusion systems in the brain, and so on. None of these sciencey terms have diddly-squat to do with measuring wavelengths in emotions.

Kirlian photography in particular was debunked many decades ago. It's pure schlock; the average cupcake recipe contains more actual science. And as for the heart being "the seat of human emotion", this hasn't been literally believed by the medical community for hundreds of years. Hallmark cards are a very unreliable source of physiological facts.

I'm an optical engineer, and I've studied both transverse and "acoustic" (non-transverse) waves (those are the only two types of waves possible, BTW; the description "acoustic wave" doesn't actually refer to sound itself).

Emotions are the reactions of a complex brain to stimulus, either biochemical or sensory. They don't have waves.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:39 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

No on the wavelengths. Certain states in the brain are associated with certain (very low) frequencies of activity, but they are not very specific and not directly coupled to emotion. It also makes no sense to convert those frequencies into wavelengths.

Each chakra has a particular color associated with it [...] - Michele in California

Chakras sort as new-age stuff.
posted by springload at 9:42 AM on July 2, 2013

Chakras sort as new-age stuff.

Yes, I am very well aware of that and I explicitly said so. I threw it out there because colors have wavelengths, hormones are known to cause emotional stuff (and gets said all the time about teens, pregnant women, etc). If the OP is interested in finding a connection, that is an avenue to consider. There is a long standing tradition in the woo community that chakras have colors -- aka a wavelength -- associated with them.

Again, I know of no non-woo source that suggests any such thing, but I personally have no problem with the idea that some people see auras and that these people have observed a consistent pattern of colors associated with, essentially, hormone producing organs. So if I personally wanted to research "if emotions have a wavelength," I personally would look at that angle because, hey, thousands of years of non-scientific human observation agrees there is a pattern here and maybe those folks aren't nuts even though I do not personally see auras.

Best of luck to the OP.
posted by Michele in California at 9:53 AM on July 2, 2013

No. From a physical point of view, anything must satisfy the wave equation in order for us to ascribe a wavelength to it. The equation reads (loosely) that the acceleration of an object has to change with time in a particular fashion. In the case of emotions, describing their accelaration is impossible in a rigorous way, so we can't fit them into the wave equation, therefore no wavelength.

Some commentators above have mentioned that one way in which the brain transmits information is via electromagnetic pulses which have wavelengths associated with them, that's true. However, to infer from this that there is a wavelength for an emotion seems a bit... daft? My body is made of loads of particles, each of which can be modeled as a wave, but to talk about a wavelength for me as a person doesn't make sense. Or maybe a better analogy would be that there are millions of photons with given wavelengths streaming into my eyes, but to give the view itself wave-like properties would be a mistake.

In terms of quantitative properties that would make sense for emotions, I'm afraid you're not going to get any as an emotion isn't a physical object, it's metaphysical or phenomenological, so we can't talk about them directly in relation to physics. Flabdalet's suggestions of proxies for emotions are good, but there's a category error if you try to push beyond that.
posted by Ned G at 10:43 AM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, please do not go off on long anecdotal tangents. If you don't know or care about the specific content of the question, that means you should not be commenting in here.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:41 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, I am no expert in neuroscience by any means, but I have had some interest in this subject as it pertains to mood alterations (mainly to help me sleep). Now I want to re-iterate that I absolutely DETEST new-agy, non scientific mumbo jumbo with a passion. I come from a scientific background academically.

That said, there are as others have mentioned different brain waves. These are very rough categorizations and are subjective interpretations of the patterns seen when measuring them wtih an EEG (Electroencephalograph).

There are certain wavelengths that are more in common with different types of central nervous system activity. For instance, each phase of sleep has different looking patterns and a trained expert can tell whether someone is sleeping and what stage of sleep they are in.

There is also a phenomenon called brainwave entrainment I believe. Basically, given certain auditory or visual cues, your brain waves can be guided to change frequency. This is not newage, this has been documented and does work (scientific american). Some people, myself included, feel that listening to certain beats helps to relax the mind and put oneself in a state that is conducive to sleeping.

Again, this subject is difficult since it shares so much with new-age crackpots, and research in this area is seen with an air of skepticism, but you don't need to read all the scientific material. Just type in binaural beats into youtube and put on a pair of headphones and experience it for yourself. Don't expect it to be a magic pancea that instantly changes your perception. It is fairly subtle but from experience, whether as a placebo affect or not, it does help me to go to sleep.
posted by timmytacobean at 8:20 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

timmytacobean: There are certain wavelengths that are more in common with different types of central nervous system activity.
No, there aren't. Period.
timmytacobean: For instance, each phase of sleep has different looking patterns and a trained expert can tell whether someone is sleeping and what stage of sleep they are in.
"Patterns". Not frequencies. Patterns.

The pattern of a person's face smiling is recognizable as an emotion. The pattern of laughter is recognizable as an expression of mirth. No single wavelength is identifiable in any similar way. Pavarotti's laugh is far lower in frequency (longer in wavelength) than Sarah McLaughlin's, yet both are equally recognizable as laughter - due to their patterns.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:04 AM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

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