Talking Across Emotional Divides

Thomas Dixon, Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions and new member of The Human Mind Project Advisory Board, talks to Anna Hopkins about the Centre’s latest project Living with Feeling, and building productive research relationships between the humanities and sciences.

Thomas Dixon, Director of The Centre for the History of Emotions

To start with, can you tell us a bit about your research here at Queen Mary and what the Centre has been up to in 2016?

We set up the Centre for the History of the Emotions in 2008 and since then we’ve run a range of projects about emotions in the past, and what people think about emotions today. Our current project is called Living with Feeling and it’s a Wellcome Trust funded project about emotional health. We’re interested in how ideas about emotional health have changed over time, what effects emotions have on our bodies as well as our minds, and what humanities research can teach people about their feelings, and understandings of health, medicine and science today. The project is a collaboration between the humanities and social sciences. That’s one of the reasons I’m keen to be involved in The Human Mind Project and meet neuroscientists and psychologists, people who study the mind in a scientific way. We have collaborators from science and medicine, and we want to work with them in understanding what emotion and emotional health; I hope we can learn from them and offer them insights that are relevant to their work. For example, we’re working with an organisation called Medicine Unboxed, to look at the place of emotions in the medical encounter.

So what is it that got you motivated to research the emotions? How did you end up where you are today?

I think really I’m interested in emotions, and always have been, just because I’m a human being and I have strong emotions. I wondered, academically, about what these things called emotions are and how people have spoken about them. I remember as a student being interested in what makes an emotion an emotion, for example, what distinguishes a thought from an emotion?

[Anger] seems to me a very current emotion in terms of the culture and politics that we live in — Brexit and debates about immigration, the Trump phenomenon in America. The contemporary politics of anger is very interesting.

At the moment I’m particularly interested in researching anger and rage, and the history of those very violent passions. I have to confess I do sometimes have bouts of slightly bad temper, and struggle not to lose it, which can be quite a frightening experience. In some ways it can be one of the most extreme emotional experiences, if you really feel rage boiling up. It also seems to me a very current emotion in terms of the culture and politics that we live in — Brexit and debates about immigration, the Trump phenomenon in America. The contemporary politics of anger is very interesting. And then I have a more academic interest in whether or not there are such things as ‘basic emotions’. The work of Paul Ekman and other psychologists has popularised the idea that there a small number of basic emotions, that each one has a distinctive facial expression, and that we can learn to recognise them. Anger always features on that list. But I’m interested in seeing what history and philosophy can teach us about the existence of these basic emotions.

Emotional characters from Pixar’s Inside Out

One of your books, Weeping Britannia, looks specifically at British emotional history. Do you think there’s a distinct British emotional type?

Yes, I think there is! The book started with the cliché of the British ‘stiff upper lip’, and asking where that came from. It seems such a strange idea, that one nation would have some particular aversion to, or ability to restrain their emotions. What recent work on the history of emotions has shown is that different emotional styles or regimes prevail in different times and places. The idea of emotional style is one I really like — each of us individually probably have our own emotional style; we might or might not be expressive or exuberant, likely to hug and kiss our friends, be outgoing, or be miserable. It could be part of our personality if you like, a performance that we learn throughout our childhood and development. Equally a nation can have, not exactly a shared emotional style, but some kind of characteristically different way of being. In the case of Britain in the twentieth century, it was well known for being clipped and restrained. The idea of the ‘stiff upper lip’ actually wasn’t about not having feelings, but about not showing them.

From Darwin’s (1872) Expression of the Emotions

So, really my book on the history of weeping is about the history of expression, and then that idea of expression itself has a history. Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals written in 1872 was the foundational text in the scientific study of expression. In a way, the study of expression is miles easier than the study of emotion, because that’s the stuff you can see! That’s what science is good at, the observable bits. Anger and other emotions are much more intangible.

It sounds like the work you do is quite interdisciplinary. Do you meet much resistance to the notion that emotions are historical from people working in the sciences, who might be more used to treating emotions as fairly coherent things?

What’s interesting actually is that I meet both resistance and agreement among scientists and psychologists. Within academic psychology there is a very lively debate about whether or not basic emotions exist, simply as a scientific question; that has been one of the great discoveries for me over the past few years running this Centre. I met Jim Russell who is a leading psychologist of the emotions at a lecture and we realised that for completely different reasons we both had this resistance to the idea of basic emotions. Through his research he had come to the conclusion that emotion isn’t a natural kind, that it doesn’t divide mental nature up at the joints. That was really intriguing for me, to find an ally in scientific psychology. On the other side, yes, there are people who still believe in basic emotions and that makes sense for them. What is incumbent on me as a historian is to make sure I know at least a bit about the science, if I want to get into these interdisciplinary conversations.

You do find sometimes with interdisciplinary work that there is a kind of culture clash… I’m not sure that it’s worth bemoaning the divide. What we can do to change it is to have conversations across disciplines.

You do find sometimes with interdisciplinary work that there is a kind of culture clash. The temperaments and sympathies of humanities vs scientific researchers. I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with that, and I don’t think it’s ever going to change! I’m not sure that it’s worth bemoaning the divide. What we can do to change it is to have conversations across disciplines. That was one of the great things that came out of your event on Emotions, Memory & the Mind in Brighton in July.

Yes I found that interesting. I’m from a social science background and listening to the conversations at the event it struck me that viewing emotions as very complex things has many practical consequences for neuroscientific research.

Yes — if all I was saying was that emotion is not a coherent scientific category that would be a purely negative point. I kind of feel like it’s not my job to rethink the science of emotions — although maybe I’m not being ambitious enough! I think I’ll take that back: maybe it is my job.

I think there should be a historian and philosopher on every scientific research project… When it comes to science and history, I think it is incumbent on us to understand each other.

I think that’s actually what’s really interesting and fruitful about interdisciplinary work; I think there should be a historian and philosopher on every scientific research project. They can genuinely open up these big conceptual issues, which obviously scientists think about as well, but historians and philosophers might be able to spend more time on. We might be able to point out to a scientist who is deep in the details of their research project: ‘what exactly do you mean by “emotion”?’ ‘what are you referring to when you say “anger”?’, and I think that’s healthy. And then I suppose its for scientific research projects themselves, in dialogue with others, to come up with new ways of talking and thinking. And if you look at some of the scientific literature on emotion, we can see that happening today.

A brain MRI workflow

You’ve recently accepted an invitation to join the Board of The Human Mind Project. Why do you feel the project is relevant and how does it relates to your work?

I very enthusiastically accepted the invitation to join the Board because I’m very much in favour of interdisciplinary conversations. I genuinely think that the history of emotions can contribute to scientific research now. In helping to stimulate conceptual, and even perhaps political or philosophical questions, about why scientific research is being done in the way that it is.

I think there is a genuine tension between the kinds of work that we do, but I wouldn’t want to get rid of it. [It’s] creative tension, and that’s a good thing.

Why are certain questions are being asked, and how are certain concepts are being used? I also think it’s good that historians of emotions should know what they are talking about in terms of science. Human brains and bodies do share certain characteristics, traits, capacities and limitations, and its exceedingly hard to generalise about them (which is why I’m not a scientist!) but they are clearly very relevant to understanding emotions in the past. When it comes to science and history, I think it is incumbent on us to understand each other. I think there is a genuine tension between the kinds of work that we do, but I wouldn’t want to get rid of it. In basic terms, scientists investigate sameness, and the humanities want to emphasise difference. This is a genuine, creative tension, and that’s a good thing.

Thomas Dixon is the Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions. Tweet to him @ProfThomasDixon

Anna Hopkins is Project Officer at The Human Mind Project. Tweet to her @_annanuma

The Human Mind Project Q&A Series is part of our Grand Challenges, an attempt to explore the future of the research on the mind in order to identify new areas for research and novel interdisciplinary funding styles. We’re now running a Public Consultation on the future of research, and we’re asking researchers across higher education, and beyond, for their perspectives on what the critical questions in the study of the mind are.

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