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Alchemies of the Mind by Jon Elster

This article was inspired by Jon Elster's Alchemies of the Mind . If you enjoy this article then consider purchasing or borrowing the book.

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A Better Understanding of Emotions

“Some emotions are essentially social: They are triggered only by beliefs that make a reference to other people.”

Ironically, emotion, an essential aspect of psychology, can’t fully be understood through the science of psychology itself. Laboratory experiments are limited by ethical concerns. For example, guilt can’t be studied by simulating theft and then catching the subject in the act of the crime.

Philosophy and the arts have shed more light on the subject of emotions than psychology. From Aristotle’s observations of emotion to William Shakespeare’s ability to create psychologically complex yet realistic characters, philosophers and artists have to understand emotions if they wish to be successful.

Though the arts may not always produce the same degree of emotion as a direct experience, they may produce even stronger emotions in some cases. Reading a love story is not the same as actually falling in love, yet art is pure expression, causing your experience of love to feel stronger than in a real experience. We may also experience emotion when the structure of art amazes us. For example, classical music listeners will marvel at the speed and revel in the lighthearted tune of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.”

Psychology is tricky as a science, as the formation of “laws” can present a problem – a cause-and-effect relationship is difficult to establish, as a stimulus may result in very different types of reactions and contradictory stimuli can cause the same emotions.

Rather than relying on laws of emotions, consider mechanisms that drive emotions, while allowing for diverse emotional responses. Understand that culture often has the most profound of influences on emotion.

Medieval people were incapable of experiencing boredom as we do, since the Church recognized this emotion as “sloth” (one of the seven deadly sins). The ancient Greeks couldn’t feel our concept of guilt, as their culture hadn’t developed an awareness of this concept yet.

Medieval people and ancient Greeks could experience emotions we might consider boredom and guilt; however, they did not recognize these emotional concepts yet, and so they had different reactions to these feelings than we do today.

These ideas can be better explained by dividing emotions up into the three following categories:

  1. “Proto-emotion” – These types of emotions can be felt, yet they can’t be named or fully conceived.
  2. “Meta-emotion” – When you identify the emotion you are experiencing, your awareness may cause another emotional response. You may feel guilty when you realize that you are jealous of a friend.
  3. “Second-party emotions” – As you identify the emotions of others, you can feel several different emotions simultaneously towards them.

Through cultural context, we determine what meta-emotions and second-party emotions are appropriate, and we can conceptualize and name our proto-emotions. Of course, reactions to emotions vary by culture. For example, some approve of revenge while others look down on it.

By recognizing the effects culture has on emotion, we can better understand how our feelings shape the world around us and how society shapes our own lives.


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