Emotional Discrimination

Psychology is supposed to be the empathetic science. So, it surprised me to learn that many psychologists believe the entire range of human feeling can be distilled down to a list of ten. On the off chance this list grew too unwieldy, it was subdivided into two categories: primary emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust; and secondary emotions: embarrassment, jealousy, guilt, and pride. (Steven Johnson, Mind Wide Open, 37) Let's say, for the sake of argument, that it was necessary to compile this emotional Top Ten list: who decided that "embarrassment" qualified, but "love" didn't make the cut? Call me finicky, but this strikes me as reductionism run amok.

Thankfully, Simon Baron-Cohen, the guru of autism research, recently embarked on a quest to compile a more comprehensive emotional inventory. The Cambridge psychologist set his minions to work pouring through thesauri to document "discrete emotional concepts." They found thousands. Only after much agonizing were they able to whittle the list down to a manageable number: 412.

Baron-Cohen's ultimate goal was to quantify "emotional detection" skills. And he had a hunch that he could do this by honing in on the amygdala--the part of the brain's medial temporal lobe believed to be responsible for fear and pleasure responses. Prior research has shown that amygdala damage impairs people's ability to "read" fear in others. But Baron-Cohen suspected that this piece of brain hardware was far more sophisticated than previously imagined. He theorized that the amygdala read not just fear, but the full gamut of human emotion.

To prove his hypothesis, Baron-Cohen devised an eye-reading test. The test consists of a series of pictures of eyes frozen in various emotional states. Accompanying each picture are four emotional descriptors, cherry-picked from his catalogue. The more often you choose the correct emotion, the higher your test score.

It's virtually impossible to do justice to the subtlety of this test without the benefit of pictures, but it goes something like this: You're shown a picture of a man with a wild-eyed stare. You choices are: jealous, panicked, arrogant, or hateful. Sound easy? Well, it's not. Author Steven Johnson took the test fully prepared to ace it. What he found was that the longer he stared at each picture, the more confused he got:

. . . with each image, the clarity of the initial emotion grew less intense the longer I analyzed it . . . When I tried to interpret the images consciously, surveying each lid and crease for the semiotics of affect, the data became meaningless: folds of tissue, signifying nothing.

(From Mind Wide Open, 41)

Does this mean that Johnson has brain damage? No. It means that the part of our brains wired for emotional detection isn't intellectual, it's intuitive. The more he allowed gut instinct to lead him, the better he did on the test. In the end, Johnson scored a B+. As it turns out, this is not something to be terribly proud of. Most of us are capable of this level of emotional discrimination. Autistics, in contrast, tend to flunk the eye-reading test.

In an effort to find out why, Baron-Cohen hooked his subjects up to an MRI machine while they took the test. Here's what he found:

. . . MRI scans of [normally functioning] people taking the 'reading the eyes' test . . . found that the amygdala lights up in trying to figure out people's thoughts and feelings. In people with autism, they show highly reduced amygdala activity.

(From Mind Wide Open, 41)

These findings suggest that Baron-Cohen is right in assuming "the amygdala is actually used to detect a much broader range of emotions." What scientists will do with this information remains to be seen.


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