Sunday, June 21, 2009

Book Review: Emotions Revealed

I recently finished reading a really interesting book. I was inspired by watching Lie to Me on Hulu and becoming something of a fan. The show is based on the work of the author of Emotions Revealed, among other books.

The author, Paul Ekman, has been involved for decades in overturning over a hundred years of theory about where emotions come from. Charles Darwin theorized that emotions would be universal and would have universal signals regardless of culture. Since Darwin, almost everyone has assumed he was wrong - but no one proved it. Then Ekman comes along and demonstrates that there are indeed universal emotional signals, visible particularly in the face, which are the same regardless of culture. What differs are rules about displaying emotion.

If you think about it, it makes some sense that we'd all have the same emotional signals. Some emotions are helpful to get across. Anger, for example, says don't get in my way, and there might have been an evolutionary advantage to advertising that feeling to others around you. Fear says oh crap! and if there's a universal signal, it might help others nearby to react more quickly. Sadness and anguish say someone help me, and an open display of this feeling might function to bring someone to comfort and support me.

The book is partly about reading the signs of emotion in others, but a lot of space is devoted to reading our own emotions and understanding them better. The book is helpful in both regards, I think, particularly for fools like me who are in pastoral ministry. Its really useful to be able to more accurately tell what someone is feeling, and any help I can get dealing with my own emotions is welcome.

So, anyway, the book is out in trade paperback, and for about $16 its a good investment in your emotional understand and, for those of you in helping professions, your ministry.

For more information on Ekman and his work, you can go here.


Aric Clark said...

While I definitely buy the idea that from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense that there would be some universal expressions of emotion, I still find particular emotional expression to be very nuanced and individual. I am still learning to read Stacia after 10 years together.

Doug Hagler said...

One thing I really liked about the book was the frequent admonition: learning to read people means you have information that they didn't offer you, so you have to be very careful about how you use it. It is, in most cultures, an invasion of privacy, because people put a lot of effort into hiding their feelings most of the time.

I've put a lot of effort into training Pam not to expect me to read her mind. So now, most of the time, I just ask what she's feeling and she usually tells me. This is a lot safer than guessing, and she seems to ultimately prefer it to my clumsy attempts at telepathy.

I've also found that I put the little bit of emotional reading skill I've learned to use. As a chaplain (and colleague, etc.) it is sometimes helpful to get a sense of what someone is feeling, since sometimes a person isn't consciously aware of it. Then I can say something like "if that happened to me, I think I'd feel really angry" if I guess what I'm seeing is anger. Sometimes I hit the jackpot :)