English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TED@Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany

Tiffany Watt Smith: The history of human emotions

Filmed:
1,593,631 views

The words we use to describe our emotions affect how we feel, says historian Tiffany Watt Smith, and they've often changed (sometimes very dramatically) in response to new cultural expectations and ideas. Take nostalgia, for instance: first defined in 1688 as an illness and considered deadly, today it's seen as a much less serious affliction. In this fascinating talk about the history of emotions, learn more about how the language we use to describe how we feel continues to evolve -- and pick up some new words used in different cultures to capture those fleeting feelings in words.

- Cultural historian
Tiffany Watt Smith investigates the hidden cultural forces which shape our emotions. Full bio

I would like to begin
with a little experiment.
00:12
In a moment, I'm going to ask
if you would close your eyes
00:15
and see if you can work out
00:18
what emotions you're feeling right now.
00:20
Now, you're not going
to tell anyone or anything.
00:23
The idea is to see how easy
or perhaps hard you find it
00:25
to pinpoint exactly what you're feeling.
00:29
And I thought I'd give you
10 seconds to do this.
00:32
OK?
00:35
Right, let's start.
00:37
OK, that's it, time's up.
00:48
How did it go?
00:49
You were probably feeling
a little bit under pressure,
00:51
maybe suspicious
of the person next to you.
00:53
Did they definitely
have their eyes closed?
00:55
Perhaps you felt some
strange, distant worry
00:58
about that email you sent this morning
01:01
or excitement about something
you've got planned for this evening.
01:04
Maybe you felt that exhilaration
that comes when we get together
01:07
in big groups of people like this;
01:10
the Welsh called it "hwyl,"
01:12
from the word for boat sails.
01:14
Or maybe you felt all of these things.
01:17
There are some emotions
which wash the world in a single color,
01:20
like the terror felt as a car skids.
01:23
But more often, our emotions
crowd and jostle together
01:27
until it is actually quite hard
to tell them apart.
01:29
Some slide past so quickly
you'd hardly even notice them,
01:33
like the nostalgia
that will make you reach out
01:37
to grab a familiar brand
in the supermarket.
01:39
And then there are others
that we hurry away from,
01:42
fearing that they'll burst on us,
01:45
like the jealousy that causes you
to search a loved one's pockets.
01:47
And of course, there are some emotions
which are so peculiar,
01:52
you might not even know what to call them.
01:55
Perhaps sitting there, you had
a little tingle of a desire
01:57
for an emotion one eminent
French sociologist called "ilinx,"
02:00
the delirium that comes
with minor acts of chaos.
02:05
For example, if you stood up right now
and emptied the contents of your bag
02:08
all over the floor.
02:12
Perhaps you experienced one of those odd,
untranslatable emotions
02:13
for which there's no obvious
English equivalent.
02:17
You might have felt the feeling
the Dutch called "gezelligheid,"
02:20
being cozy and warm inside with friends
when it's cold and damp outside.
02:23
Maybe if you were really lucky,
02:28
you felt this:
02:30
"basorexia,"
02:32
a sudden urge to kiss someone.
02:33
(Laughter)
02:35
We live in an age
02:38
when knowledge of emotions
is an extremely important commodity,
02:40
where emotions are used
to explain many things,
02:45
exploited by our politicians,
02:49
manipulated by algorithms.
02:51
Emotional intelligence, which is the skill
of being able to recognize and name
02:53
your own emotions
and those of other people,
02:58
is considered so important, that this
is taught in our schools and businesses
03:00
and encouraged by our health services.
03:04
But despite all of this,
03:07
I sometimes wonder
03:09
if the way we think about emotions
is becoming impoverished.
03:11
Sometimes, we're not even that clear
what an emotion even is.
03:15
You've probably heard the theory
03:21
that our entire emotional lives
can be boiled down
03:23
to a handful of basic emotions.
03:26
This idea is actually
about 2,000 years old,
03:29
but in our own time,
03:31
some evolutionary psychologists
have suggested that these six emotions --
03:33
happiness, sadness, fear,
disgust, anger, surprise --
03:37
are expressed by everyone across the globe
in exactly the same way,
03:42
and therefore represent
the building blocks
03:45
of our entire emotional lives.
03:48
Well, if you look at an emotion like this,
03:51
then it looks like a simple reflex:
03:53
it's triggered by an external predicament,
03:55
it's hardwired,
03:57
it's there to protect us from harm.
03:59
So you see a bear,
your heart rate quickens,
04:02
your pupils dilate, you feel frightened,
you run very, very fast.
04:04
The problem with this picture is,
04:09
it doesn't entirely capture
what an emotion is.
04:11
Of course, the physiology
is extremely important,
04:16
but it's not the only reason
why we feel the way we do
04:19
at any given moment.
04:22
What if I was to tell you
that in the 12th century,
04:26
some troubadours didn't see yawning
04:29
as caused by tiredness
or boredom like we do today,
04:32
but thought it a symbol
of the deepest love?
04:36
Or that in that same period,
brave men -- knights --
04:40
commonly fainted out of dismay?
04:45
What if I was to tell you
04:49
that some early Christians
who lived in the desert
04:50
believed that flying demons
who mainly came out at lunchtime
04:53
could infect them with an emotion
they called "accidie,"
04:57
a kind of lethargy
that was sometimes so intense
05:02
it could even kill them?
05:04
Or that boredom,
as we know and love it today,
05:07
was first really only felt
by the Victorians,
05:11
in response to new ideas
about leisure time and self-improvement?
05:14
What if we were to think again
05:20
about those odd,
untranslatable words for emotions
05:22
and wonder whether some cultures
might feel an emotion more intensely
05:24
just because they've bothered
to name and talk about it,
05:29
like the Russian "toska,"
05:33
a feeling of maddening dissatisfaction
05:35
said to blow in from the great plains.
05:38
The most recent developments
in cognitive science show
05:43
that emotions are not simple reflexes,
05:47
but immensely complex, elastic systems
05:50
that respond both to the biologies
that we've inherited
05:53
and to the cultures that we live in now.
05:56
They are cognitive phenomena.
05:59
They're shaped not just by our bodies,
but by our thoughts,
06:01
our concepts, our language.
06:04
The neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett
has become very interested
06:07
in this dynamic relationship
between words and emotions.
06:12
She argues that when we learn
a new word for an emotion,
06:16
new feelings are sure to follow.
06:20
As a historian, I've long suspected
that as language changes,
06:24
our emotions do, too.
06:28
When we look to the past, it's easy
to see that emotions have changed,
06:30
sometimes very dramatically,
06:34
in response to new cultural expectations
and religious beliefs,
06:36
new ideas about gender, ethnicity and age,
06:39
even in response to new political
and economic ideologies.
06:43
There is a historicity to emotions
06:48
that we are only recently
starting to understand.
06:51
So I agree absolutely that it does us good
to learn new words for emotions,
06:56
but I think we need to go further.
07:00
I think to be truly
emotionally intelligent,
07:02
we need to understand
where those words have come from,
07:05
and what ideas about how
we ought to live and behave
07:09
they are smuggling along with them.
07:14
Let me tell you a story.
07:17
It begins in a garret
in the late 17th century,
07:19
in the Swiss university town of Basel.
07:23
Inside, there's a dedicated student
living some 60 miles away from home.
07:26
He stops turning up to his lectures,
07:31
and his friends come to visit
and they find him dejected and feverish,
07:33
having heart palpitations,
07:38
strange sores breaking out on his body.
07:40
Doctors are called,
07:43
and they think it's so serious
that prayers are said for him
07:44
in the local church.
07:47
And it's only when they're preparing
to return this young man home
07:48
so that he can die,
07:51
that they realize what's going on,
07:53
because once they lift him
onto the stretcher,
07:54
his breathing becomes less labored.
07:57
And by the time he's got
to the gates of his hometown,
07:58
he's almost entirely recovered.
08:01
And that's when they realize
08:04
that he's been suffering
from a very powerful form of homesickness.
08:05
It's so powerful,
that it might have killed him.
08:09
Well, in 1688, a young doctor,
Johannes Hofer,
08:13
heard of this case and others like it
08:16
and christened the illness "nostalgia."
08:18
The diagnosis quickly caught on
in medical circles around Europe.
08:22
The English actually thought
they were probably immune
08:26
because of all the travel they did
in the empire and so on.
08:28
But soon there were cases
cropping up in Britain, too.
08:31
The last person to die from nostalgia
08:34
was an American soldier fighting
during the First World War in France.
08:37
How is it possible
that you could die from nostalgia
08:43
less than a hundred years ago?
08:46
But today, not only does the word
mean something different --
08:48
a sickening for a lost time
rather than a lost place --
08:51
but homesickness itself
is seen as less serious,
08:55
sort of downgraded from something
you could die from
08:58
to something you're mainly worried
your kid might be suffering from
09:01
at a sleepover.
09:04
This change seems to have happened
in the early 20th century.
09:05
But why?
09:09
Was it the invention of telephones
or the expansion of the railways?
09:11
Was it perhaps the coming of modernity,
09:15
with its celebration of restlessness
and travel and progress
09:18
that made sickening for the familiar
09:22
seem rather unambitious?
09:24
You and I inherit that massive
transformation in values,
09:27
and it's one reason why we might not
feel homesickness today
09:32
as acutely as we used to.
09:35
It's important to understand
09:39
that these large historical changes
influence our emotions
09:41
partly because they affect
how we feel about how we feel.
09:44
Today, we celebrate happiness.
09:48
Happiness is supposed
to make us better workers
09:51
and parents and partners;
09:55
it's supposed to make us live longer.
09:57
In the 16th century,
09:59
sadness was thought to do
most of those things.
10:01
It's even possible to read
self-help books from that period
10:04
which try to encourage sadness in readers
10:08
by giving them lists of reasons
to be disappointed.
10:10
(Laughter)
10:13
These self-help authors thought
you could cultivate sadness as a skill,
10:14
since being expert in it
would make you more resilient
10:19
when something bad did happen to you,
as invariably it would.
10:22
I think we could learn from this today.
10:26
Feel sad today, and you might feel
impatient, even a little ashamed.
10:28
Feel sad in the 16th century,
and you might feel a little bit smug.
10:33
Of course, our emotions
don't just change across time,
10:39
they also change from place to place.
10:42
The Baining people of Papua New Guinea
speak of "awumbuk,"
10:45
a feeling of lethargy that descends
when a houseguest finally leaves.
10:50
(Laughter)
10:54
Now, you or I might feel relief,
10:55
but in Baining culture,
10:58
departing guests are thought
to shed a sort of heaviness
11:00
so they can travel more easily,
11:03
and this heaviness infects the air
and causes this awumbuk.
11:05
And so what they do is leave
a bowl of water out overnight
11:08
to absorb this air,
11:11
and then very early the next morning,
they wake up and have a ceremony
11:12
and throw the water away.
11:15
Now, here's a good example
11:16
of spiritual practices
and geographical realities combining
11:18
to bring a distinct emotion into life
11:22
and make it disappear again.
11:24
One of my favorite emotions
is a Japanese word, "amae."
11:27
Amae is a very common word in Japan,
11:33
but it is actually quite
hard to translate.
11:35
It means something like
the pleasure that you get
11:37
when you're able to temporarily
hand over responsibility for your life
11:40
to someone else.
11:44
(Laughter)
11:45
Now, anthropologists suggest
11:46
that one reason why this word
might have been named and celebrated
11:48
in Japan
11:52
is because of that country's
traditionally collectivist culture,
11:53
whereas the feeling of dependency
11:57
may be more fraught
amongst English speakers,
12:00
who have learned to value
self-sufficiency and individualism.
12:03
This might be a little simplistic,
12:09
but it is tantalizing.
12:11
What might our emotional languages
tell us not just about what we feel,
12:13
but about what we value most?
12:19
Most people who tell us
to pay attention to our well-being
12:24
talk of the importance
of naming our emotions.
12:29
But these names aren't neutral labels.
12:32
They are freighted with our culture's
values and expectations,
12:35
and they transmit ideas
about who we think we are.
12:39
Learning new and unusual words
for emotions will help attune us
12:43
to the more finely grained
aspects of our inner lives.
12:47
But more than this, I think these
words are worth caring about,
12:51
because they remind us
how powerful the connection is
12:55
between what we think
12:58
and how we end up feeling.
13:00
True emotional intelligence
requires that we understand
13:03
the social, the political,
the cultural forces
13:07
that have shaped what we've come
to believe about our emotions
13:12
and understand how happiness
or hatred or love or anger
13:15
might still be changing now.
13:21
Because if we want to measure our emotions
13:24
and teach them in our schools
13:27
and listen as our politicians
tell us how important they are,
13:29
then it is a good idea that we understand
13:33
where the assumptions we have about them
13:35
have come from,
13:37
and whether they still
truly speak to us now.
13:38
I want to end with an emotion I often feel
13:43
when I'm working as a historian.
13:45
It's a French word, "dépaysement."
13:47
It evokes the giddy disorientation
that you feel in an unfamiliar place.
13:50
One of my favorite parts
of being a historian
13:55
is when something
I've completely taken for granted,
13:57
some very familiar part of my life,
13:59
is suddenly made strange again.
14:02
Dépaysement is unsettling,
14:05
but it's exciting, too.
14:08
And I hope you might be having
just a little glimpse of it right now.
14:09
Thank you.
14:13
(Applause)
14:14

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Tiffany Watt Smith - Cultural historian
Tiffany Watt Smith investigates the hidden cultural forces which shape our emotions.

Why you should listen

Tiffany Watt Smith is the author of The Book of Human Emotions, which tells the stories of 154 feelings from around the world. It has been published in 9 countries so far. She is currently a Wellcome Trust research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, and she was educated at the Universities of Cambridge and London. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, the BBC News Magazine and The New Scientist. In 2014, she was named a BBC New Generation Thinker. In her previous career, she was a theatre director.

More profile about the speaker
Tiffany Watt Smith | Speaker | TED.com