Plumbing the Depths

Posted on April 10, 2014


CarPeople like to explain how they’re feeling. Without provocation, they’ll tell you how bad their headache is, or how much they love pancakes, or how often they fantasize about murdering their dental hygienist. It’s this tendency to express ourselves to anyone who will listen that propels multi-billion-dollar industries, from social media to psychotherapy to television talk shows. It’s also what drives public protests, labor strikes, and group celebrations.

We believe our emotions somehow make us unique. At the same time, we hope that by sharing them, we will become more closely connected with others.

The problem with all of this is that, for most of our existence, our ability to explain what we’re feeling has been limited, hemmed in by a restrictive and superficial set of choices. In fact, since the dawn of humanity, when the first vertebrates crawled out of the sea and began to pursue degrees in social work, we’ve been forced to pick from only six basic emotions – happy, sad, angry, surprised, fearful, and disgusted. A half-dozen words to describe the full and diverse range of life experience. I’d say it’s no wonder so many of us are frustrated, but I can’t, because frustration isn’t one of the options.

Not yet, anyway. But now it appears that help is on the way. According to a recent article in PNAS, the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences, ambitious researchers have identified fifteen new human feelings, which more than triples our potential responses to the world around us. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time. In the past, people could get away with simplistic pronouncements:

“I’m sad that President Harding is dead.”

“You seem much less fearful since the lobotomy.”

“Weren’t you surprised when that giraffe was struck by lightning?”

But things are more complicated these days. When our favorite sports team wins a championship, some of us are so overjoyed that we’re compelled to go out into the street and flip minivans upside-down, or hurl solid objects through store windows. These are strange ways to behave after something good happens, and they seem hard to understand. But the new catalog of emotions is equally complex, and therefore up to the task. The delirious fans aren’t merely happy. They’re angrily happy. And that can be an overwhelming situation, and so disorienting that clapping and cheering prove insufficient.

On the other hand, when someone leaves the front door unlocked and a grizzly bear lumbers into the bedroom and begins trying on our favorite sweaters, we may become fearfully angry. We’re terrified of the bear and furious at the person. After the bear leaves, we might find ourselves feeling sadly surprised when we notice that he’s eaten just the tropical fish and some scraps of toast left over from breakfast.


The possibilities, suddenly, are endless.

The article, written by a team of cognitive scientists, explains that these compound emotions are derived by marrying elements from the six basic categories. However, we all know that even the twenty-one resulting combinations won’t be enough. What is it that we’re sensing when we find ourselves trapped in the juice aisle at the supermarket by a former neighbor who insists on giving us a minute-by-minute recap of his recent camping excursion to Death Valley National Park? Faced with that kind of predicament, I typically pass through a series of emotions. I might start out feeling genuinely fascinated, but after about ten minutes I will have moved on to discreetly bored, then impatiently irritated, and if the conversation isn’t over soon, secretly homicidal.

How about when we answer the phone and we’re caught in a survey asking about our latest trip to the bank, or imploring us to rate the oil change we had last week? What about political polls and product reviews? No longer bound by extremely unlikely and somewhat satisfied, we can now fine-tune our responses to more accurately match our deepest sentiments. We’ll be able to say we’re slightly infuriated or depressingly thrilled.

I only wish I could tell you how I feel about that.




Posted in: In Over My Head