Mama’s Last Hug

Today’s encore selection — from Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal. Emotional expressions are innate and part of biology:”[Researcher Paul] Ekman set up controlled tests with people from more than twenty different nations, showing them pictures of emotional faces. All these people labeled human expressions more or less the same way, showing little variation in recognizing anger, fear, happiness, and so on. A laugh means the same all over the world.

One possible alternative explanation bothered Ekman, though. What if people everywhere were affected by popular Hollywood movies and television shows? Could this account for the uniformity of reactions? He traveled to one of the farthest cor­ners of the planet to administer his tests to a preliterate tribe in Papua New Guinea. Not only had these people never heard of John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe, they were unfamiliar with television and magazines, period. Yet they still correctly identified most of the emotional faces that Ekman held in front of them, and they themselves showed no novel, unusual expressions in one hundred thousand feet of motion pictures of their daily lives.

Ekman’s data so powerfully argued in favor of uni­versality that they permanently altered our view of human emotions and their expression. Nowadays, we consider them part of human nature.”We should realize, though, how much all these studies rely on lan­guage. We are comparing not just faces and how we judge them but also the labels we attach to them. Since every language has its own emo­tional vocabulary, translation remains an issue.

The only way around it is direct observation of how expressions are being used. If it is true that the environment shapes facial expressions, then children who are born blind and deaf should show no expressions at all, or only strange ones, because they’ve never seen the faces of people around them. Yet in studies of these children, they laugh, smile, and cry in the same way and under the same circumstances as any typical child. Since their situation excludes learning from models, how could anyone doubt that emotional expressions are part of biology?”We have thus returned to Charles Darwin’s position in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin stressed that facial expressions are part of our species’s repertoire and pointed out similarities with monkeys and apes, suggesting that all primates have similar emotions.” 



author: Frans de Waal 
title: Mama’s Last Hug 
publisher: W.W. Norton & Company 
date: Copyright 2019 by Frans de Waal 
page(s): 54-55

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