The history of human emotions | Tiffany Watt Smith

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

Comments 58

  • Hey you can call Sanjay manjul a great Indian archeological it's has great sense in harrapan civilization and a great point of understanding and is a great painter as well

  • i love TED from maroco <3

  • Next: The history of Donald Trump and how he Stole the Election from Hilary Clinton! 😏

  • yawning is caused by deepest love ; god I love maths

  • How can we contact her?

  • Often people don't know how to feel, let alone speaking it. But they regret afterwards. Guys be careful.

  • Emotions are key of heart

  • When are they going to get real speakers. It’s like nothing but constant meaningless speakers speaking about nothing.

  • The word "banzo" comes from the Kimbundu dialect spoken in Angola. It is a deep nostalgia and homesickness felt by slaves who were taken to Brazil until 1888. Many of them died from "banzo". In Portuguese, on the other hand, "saudade" is nostalgia mixed with affection, even love — I don't know if anybody has ever died from "saudade".

  • Very interesting

  • If there is one important thing left from this lecture is Arabic words, the range & meanings would surprise you.

  • 👏🏽

  • emotions ? i buried those 27 years ago

  • I'm surprised she didn't mention "saudades"

  • Brain to brain communication will eventually make the restrictions of language irrelevant.

  • I mean I didn't feel anything during the beginning of her speech

  • Very interesting

  • That was pleasant .

  • Emotionen was ist das?

  • Great hollistic perspective on emotions. I knew language had a role in the shaping of our reality, but emotions and the etiology behind the history of those terms completely escaped me. Well done!

  • Am I just a sociopath or does anyone else like feeling sad?

  • Xmas.

  • Complete Science of Faith with its《The Principle Of Natural Law》
    Be with God and its "Trinity"
    Be with Allah and its "Trinity"
    Be with Buddha and its "Trinity"
    Be with "Great Permanent" and its "Trinity"
    Be with "Tao" and its "Trinity"

  • What's the emotion called that makes me want to rub small fluffy animals on my face?

  • "I feel so Amae when my wife is driving. "

  • I like this video and they didn’t ask for it.

  • 2:35. The woman in the lime jacket looks at the man to her left. Possibly the best timing of facial expressions ever

  • I thought she is an psychologist but at the end of the video she said she is 13:46 an historian. #amazed

  • WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON DEPRESSION COMPARED TO THESE non scientific 'medical' diagnosis of emotional states

  • So you can blend the six primary emotions however you like and give them different names. Was that really worth a talk ?

  • Fantastic describe Analysis Philosophy in Depth Emotion Cognitive Human!!!!
    Affect the degree in our Emotion of positive or negative is the sense of humanity, but how to control the feelings and your ability to deep feelings is mind in the feel in love is beautiful positive control of strong feelings be through the realization in the positive, but your emotions deep in the minds of mankind Better Idea.

  • It is hard to place how important emotions are for one who feels them. They are probably they only think we feel that we do not intuitively understand.

  • uniquely german word for an emotion: "fremdschämen" (stranger shaming) – the feeling of being emberrassed yourself when watching somebody else doing something emberrassing

  • Easy,&;
    to the point.
    Thank’s a lot.
    Ps:’a man child’.
    google doesn’t get irritated,
    for been stubborn with thank’s.’

  • This talk reminded me of the term "existential crisis". It is a unique emotion that has only recently begun taking hold of our society. It stems from the fact that we have begun being aware of our place in the universe, and the anxiousness we feel about our future. It can be a powerful emotion, because it puts in perspective just how important our choices are, and the impact our decisions, or lack of decision making, is.

  • She left out the part in 2016 where emotions replaced facts for an entire political party lol

  • This feeling when you speak Russian and heard the familiar word "Tosca"

  • It was discovery for me that some people died from nostalgia.

  • This is stellar. Thank you.

  • This is was a very interesting TED talk. I've felt this "dismay" emotion myself a few times, but didn't quite understand it. I always thought swooning is just made up for drama, not something people actually do. And it also seems rather arbitrary. During my time in the army, I've seen a lot of ugly things but there is a very specific kind of injury, where even thinking about it makes me feel very strong dismay for no apparent reason. I've also discovered the same effect on other, completely unrelated concepts. Maybe the emotion itself isn't gone, maybe we just stopped recognizing it as such. Any book recommendations on that topics are very welcome!

  • man you could have an entire 30 minute video alone of the crybaby millennial emotions… their feelings are hurt by clicking on this.

  • Very insightful but I think the discussion could have been better explained if Tiffany used some references to primordial beings, especially documented behavior prior to speech being acquired and behavior as language evolved. I often consider if the advancement is speech was the reason humans evolved from cave dwellers to humans who work on a micro and macro level unconsidered just 100 years ago. A historically short period of time that has seen unprecedented technological advancement.

  • wow itso goodddddddddddd

  • Well maybe defining what a emotion is for starters.labling a feeling is not definition for emotion . As a historian I think you should also study psychology to give you a better understanding of what emotions are, also linguistics will help you understand how words are charged with vocalization .

  • Pixar missed one in Inside Out. =/

  • "Kilig" tagalog word
    When you feel good if someone you like do something nice or just being near to you. 😅😂

  • I admire her savvy with words and how well she presented her idea(s). Well-worth sharing!! I'm so glad I saw this. Thank you, Tiffany. You are Brilliant! Rich content, presented masterfully. 👏

  • Hi everybody! Please anyone knows how to download the script of the video in txt or doc format?
    I need it. Thanks in advance.

  • I need the script …. , in 2-3 days

  • I need the script …. , in 2-3 days

  • An offshoot of this talk would be to quantify and journal everything (even the pettiest of things) that happen in our lives; and this helps us to better deal with life

  • ste vidio me a desepsionado muxisimo yo pnsava k seria mas intresant catorse minutos de mi presiada bida perdidos

  • Check out The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

  • Спасибо за русские субтитры! Выступление потрясающее. Спасибо, Тиффани!

  • Some of her definitions are kind of different from her book 😕

  • Emotions. What Are They And Where Are They Coming From?

  • If you close your eyes, she sounds like Sansa Stark

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