Evidence suggests that there are real benefits of talking to yourself in the third person—in your head, not out loud. By Shayla Love December 28, 2020, Vice.com. Our external context is also shaping us though: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/12/life-simpsons-no-longer-attainable/617499/
According to the Bible, King Solomon, the Israelite king, was an incredibly wise man. People traveled far and wide just to ask for his advice, including two women who claimed to be the mother of the same baby. Solomon devised a clever way to solve the dispute.
Solomon’s wisdom, though, only applied to matters external to himself. His own life “was a shambles of bad decisions and uncontrolled passions,” wrote Wray Herbert in The Association for Psychological Science. “He kept hundreds of pagan wives and concubines, and also loved money and boasted of his riches. He neglected to instruct his only son, who grew up to be an incompetent tyrant. All these sins and misjudgments contributed to the eventual demise of the kingdom.”
This is referred to as Solomon’s Paradox. Whether the tales of Solomon are rooted in historical fact or not, they describe how we are often more wise when it comes to helping others than we are with ourselves. There’s something about the distance between yourself and another that provides the space to assess a situation more objectively, and control your emotions, rather than letting them cloud your thinking.
But there might be a remarkably simple way to access this kind of distance, and approach your own emotions, stress, and problems with a Solomon-esque distance: Talk to yourself in the third person.
Now, this suggestion might garner a certain gut reaction: that talking to yourself in the third person is strange at best, and annoying, narcissistic, or idiotic at worst. “Just think of Elmo in the children’s TV show Sesame Street, or the intensely irritating Jimmy in the sitcom Seinfeld—hardly models of sophisticated thinking,” wrote science journalist David Robson in The British Psychological Society Research Digest.
Yet decades of research now show that talking to yourself this way inside of your head—also called “distanced self-talk” can help foster psychological distance, a phenomenon that leads to better emotional regulation, self control, and even wisdom.
A recent study in Clinical Psychological Science is the latest in a robust body of work from University of Michigan professor of psychology Ethan Kross, Bryn Mawr College assistant professor of psychology Ariana Orvell, and others. It cemented the findings that when people use words for themselves that they usually reserve for others—their name, and third- and second-person pronouns—they are better able to deal with negative emotions, even in emotionally intense situations, and even if they have a history of having a hard time managing their emotions.
Distanced self-talk also raises interesting questions about the ways that language influences our emotions, and highlights the importance of psychological distance overall—if you’re feeling overwhelmed, see if getting a little distance from yourself helps.
Humans have the ability for introspection, which helps us solve problems or plan for the future. But when bad things happen or intense negative emotions arise, this introspection can transform into its darker cousin: rumination. That’s when we end up incessantly turning over thoughts or are plunged into negative emotions, worrying ourselves in circles.
“Why does that happen?” Kross said. “And are there ways of making introspection work for us better?”
When we’re struggling with this kind of distress, we tend to zoom in, “almost to the exclusion of everything else. We lose the ability to take the big picture into account,” Kross said. Then, we might have a hard time coping with strong emotions, or finding ways to emotionally regulate. Emotional regulation, simply described, is the broad set of strategies that people use to change or modify what they’re feeling.
In those situations, being able to think about your experience from a more distanced perspective can be helpful. Psychological distance is a construct that’s been around for a long time, said Kevin Ochsner, Professor and Chair at the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.
There are many different strategies studied that create distance: You can picture a person or scene moving away from you, into the distance, like the opening lines in Star Wars. Even the act of physically leaning back has been shown to help more easily perform a difficult task.
“All those things will decrease the emotional punch,” Ochsner said.
Kross stumbled across talking to yourself in the third person about 10 years ago while exploring other distancing methods. By talking to yourself in the third person, or even second person (the pronoun “you”) he found that people bypassed a lot of the effort that’s usually put into trying to change your perspective to a more distanced one.
“The idea was—which continues to be fascinating to me—that we all have these tools that are baked into the structure of language that can serve this perspective shifting distancing function,” Kross said.
The official term for talking in the third person about yourself is illeism. Many people have an internal monologue that crops up, when we’re figuring out what to do, reflecting on the past, or guiding ourselves through day-to-day situations, but we frequently use the pronouns I, me, mine, and my.
In Kross and his colleagues’ work, they set out to see what would happen if they told people to modify that. In one study, they found that third person self talk could help people manage the emotional distress that accompanies public speaking. They’ve also found that distanced self talk can be effective for people with social anxiety, who can be especially prone to stress and struggle with emotional regulation.
Other researchers have had similar results. Erik Nook, a clinical psychology Ph.D. student at Harvard University and intern at Weill Cornell Medical College, said that in his work, he and his colleagues asked people to reappraise or reinterpret negative images in order to make themselves feel better. Some of his subjects spontaneously stopped or reduced their use of words like I, me, mine and mine.
“I was familiar with what Ethan had been studying, so I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, they’re spontaneously distancing their language!” Nook said. The participants who distanced their language more strongly were more successful at regulating their emotions.
There’s now evidence that distanced self talk might enhance physical performance, as shown in a study where cycling time improved in people who talked to themselves in the second person. Distanced self-talk could also help people make healthier food choices.
In 2017, Breena Kerr wrote in The Cut how she started to talk about herself in the third person when she was in the initial stages of her divorce. “If I was going to get through it, I was going to have to imagine myself as someone else,” she wrote. “Thinking of myself as ‘me,’ a person wracked with guilt and sorrow, wasn’t working. So I switched things up: I started making a plan of action as if I was advising a friend — someone who I knew deserved to be cared for, someone who I loved, who happened to also have my name. It worked.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of distanced self-talk is that as a strategy for emotional regulation, it seems to take very little effort. In brain imaging studies in collaboration with Jason Moser, a Michigan State University associate professor of psychology, Kross and his colleagues found that not only did third-person inner talk reduce emotional overwhelm, but the brain areas associated with cognitive control weren’t sent into overdrive.
“Third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control,” they wrote in the paper, published in Nature Scientific Reports in 2017.
Of course, when you talk about yourself in the third person, it’s not so dramatic that you forget you’re reflecting on yourself and your own experiences. But this is a good thing, Orvell said. You retain the privileged access to all the details of your emotions and situations, it just provides the ability to take a slightly more objective view.
And even though self-distanced talk may be just one way to get psychological distance, the various types of psychological distancing could be interconnected. The Construal-Level Theory of Psychological Distance, proposed by Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman, suggests that there are different types of psychological distance, and they are related to one another. Psychological distance can be through time, distance in space, social distance, and distance by abstraction. They theorized that when you distance in one arena, the other areas become more distant too.
Nook’s work backs this up: when people spontaneously stopped using as many first person-pronouns, they also used fewer verbs in the present tense, increasing their temporal distance. They used past tense and future tense verbs instead.
Ochsner said that we still need more research on how short-or-long term the effects of different kinds of distancing are. Does talking about yourself in the third person offer immediate gratification, but little longer term relief? Are there certain kinds of distancing—perhaps ones that do require more effort—that are more helpful for other situations? Or if they’re all interconnected, is distanced self-talk a great way to achieve distancing overall?
“It’s a really fascinating question,” Ochsner said. “Why is that if I say, ‘What does Kevin want?’ it’s as if I’m talking about somebody else? Just by itself, it puts us into this mode where I’m not talking about me anymore. I’m not appraising this in respect to me. I’m appraising the meaning of this with respect to someone else.”
These psychological effects of switching up your pronouns suggest that language can somehow shape our emotional experiences.
Orvell has tried to explain this by examining pronouns like “you,” which is one of the most common words in the English language. These pronouns—like you, he, she, or they—are already flexible when we use them in everyday speech, Orvell said. In linguistics they’re called shifters, because they easily change meaning depending on the context. That may be one of the underlying mechanisms for how this psychological distancing can occur with so little effort, and through the use of language. “You” is a malleable word: it can refer to any other specific person, but also people in general. It might be that using the pronoun “you,” about yourself, helps to normalize your own stressful experiences.
“We’re so used to constantly shifting perspectives when it comes to our interpretation of those pronouns, it may be that when we use them to reflect on the self, it instigates this very seamless shift in perspective away from our egocentric immersed point of view, to a more distanced one—where we might be thinking about the self more similar to how we think about other people,” Orvell said.
Other research has shown that speaking in a foreign language about emotional experiences can also provide psychological distance, while cursing in a foreign language has less of an emotional impact.
It’s vaguely reminiscent of a controversial linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which proposed that a person’s experiences, thoughts, and actions were directly determined by the language they speak, meaning that a person can’t think or experience things that they don’t have the language for. This is known as linguistic determinism.
Nook said that while this research on distanced self-talk suggests that shifting your language can change the way you feel, it’s not as extreme as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis implies. It’s not as if, for instance, the people who are using distanced self-talk are gaining access to an experience that people who don’t can’t. Instead, while distancing can be accomplished in a myriad of ways, subtle shifts in language seem to be one easy access point.
So what about people who speak in the third person… out loud? “In the popular imagination, the usual context in which illeism appears is when people are signalling their own power or status,” wrote Chris Bourn in Mel Magazine.
It’s important to note that the research has only been done on internal distanced self-talk, not self-talk that happens out loud. But Kross speculates that while we might regard third-person talk as a narcissistic trait, illeism in culture and media reveal it’s more complex than that.
People we regard as having very different personalities and motives have reached for the third person: While Donald Trump has referred to himself in the third person, so did Malala in an interview with Jon Stewart. Julius Caesar wrote a book about himself in the third person. LeBron James talked about himself at a distance in a television interview. When we write resumes or bios in the third person, it can feel more comfortable to do so instead of using the first person. “It’s easier to talk about someone else’s accomplishments,” Kross said. “If that’s true, and this is all speculation, that would be the opposite of narcissism motivating a person to do that. It speaks, I think, to the complexity of this phenomenon.”
Orvell thinks that while people can use the third person in different ways, she wouldn’t be surprised if there are underlying commonalities. There is some effort being made to distance the self when Trump tweets his own name and when Jennifer Lawrence, in an interview with The New York Times, starts to get anxious, and says, “Get ahold of yourself, Jennifer.”
“Basically, I think it’s complicated,” Kross said. “I don’t think we understand what is motivating the externalized speech. And that makes it really exciting for us because it’s something we could study.”
All these various uses of the third person reveals something about psychological distance and emotional regulation in general: They are tools that can be both helpful or unhelpful depending on how and when you use them.
Emotional regulation could be used to avoid difficult emotions rather than face them, as in the case of phobias where people avoid encountering what it is they’re afraid of. It’s what you choose to do after the distancing that matters, and what differentiates adaptive emotional regulation from avoidance. When you achieve that psychological distance, you could run from your emotions. Or, you could dive back into your experience and grapple with those emotions, but from a slightly removed perspective, Kross said.
“When you distance yourself, people are not feeling nothing,” Kross said. “It’s not like we’re turning emotions off. We’re just taking the edge off a little bit. We’re making it easier to confront really powerful negative emotions.”
Orvell said that, like most mental health tools, distanced self-talk is not some magical cure for complicated disorders like social anxiety, but just one strategy that people might find helpful. Or not. For some people, talking about yourself in the third person might feel off-putting, and not the approach for them. Perhaps another kind of psychological distancing will be a better fit.
Many cognitive behavioral therapy approaches include methods for distancing, like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Mindfulness is also, at its core, rooted in creating distance between yourself and your thoughts. Ochsner pointed out that a component of Buddhism is increasing the gap between an impulse and an action. “A lot of insight based meditation or practices are about sitting with yourself and observing yourself in the third person,” Ochsner said.
Find the distancing method that works best for you: That’s the take-home message. At the moment, Kross said would not suggest talking about yourself in the third person out loud, simply because he doesn’t have any evidence about whether it’s helpful, harmful, or benign.
And Orvell said she wouldn’t recommend that people adopt a distanced perspective 24/7, even internally. It’s something to wield during times of intense emotional distress, when that kind of distance is helpful for getting perspective and not letting the emotions take over.
Still there may be times when we need more psychological distance than others. In a study from 2017, Kross, Orvell and their colleagues found that third-person self talk could reduce people’s worries and stress about the Ebola outbreak, and it had the most benefit for those who were the most anxious. This has compelling implications for people who might feel or continue to feel heightened anxiety about the current pandemic.
Besides feeling a little silly, you’ve really got nothing to lose by trying to talk to yourself in the third person, Nook said. “Whether they’re doing it privately to themselves or in the mirror before work or in a journal,” Nook said. “All of these are great strategies to try out and see if they work.”
Health The Pursuit of High Self-Esteem Is Making Us Miserable SHAYLA LOVE 06.19.19
Measure worth by how treat others. “Being kind to people, being empathetic, understanding, a good listener, and being present,” she said. “I want to base my self worth on those qualities.”
“We think of boosts to self-esteem as analogous to sugar: tasty but not nutritious.” By Shayla Love June 19, 2019
When Grace Dearing, 19, is asked to stay late at her retail job, she usually doesn’t have the time. She’s a student at Ohio University who balances school life with an internship, plus work at the store. “I have to decline due to already having plans with friends and family, or just simply being too exhausted to exert myself any longer,” she said.
But saying no causes her stress and anxiety too. She starts to worry about what her supervisors are thinking about her. “I spend the rest of the night wondering if my bosses view me as lazy or unmotivated.” The idea that someone might be thinking of her negatively rattles her sense of self-worth.
Dearing is describing a relatable scenario for many of us. Her self-esteem, or how she views her worth and abilities, is especially vulnerable to outside forces—other people’s opinions and thoughts, or what she imagines they might be thinking.
Psychologists have a name for this feeling: Contingent self-esteem. We all want to hold ourselves in high regard. But getting to that place through contingencies— I’m only worthwhile if my boss, friends, partner, or teacher thinks highly of me—can backfire. Self-esteem defined in this way can be an ill-fated desire, sprung up from a culture that puts an exaggerated amount of emphasis on the importance of self-esteem itself.
For decades, psychologists considered high self-esteem instrumental to a successful and positive life. But more recent self-esteem research has found it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, especially when it comes from what others think about you. Having someone else perceive you as hardworking or smart doesn’t necessarily contribute to a long-term sense of worth, nor does it help people be independent or have meaningful relationships.
“We think of boosts to self-esteem as analogous to sugar: tasty but not nutritious,” wrote Jennifer Crocker, a social psychologist at Ohio State University who has been researching self-esteem for 40 years, in a 2005 paper. A fixation on getting those brief hits of pleasure, especially if they’re contingent on other people saying nice things about you, she said, could instead make us miserable, adding to anxiety and depression.
“It’s like a bottomless pit, because there’s always another person who could be judging you, and they could have a higher standard or a different standard.”
Humans have long been trying to determine how to gauge self worth, and self-esteem is one of the oldest concepts in social psychology. William James (often referred to as the father of American psychology) is credited with coming up with the term “self-esteem” back in 1890 as a way to try to understand how we regard ourselves through our own and others’ expectations. The link between high self-esteem and achievement can be traced back to a 1969 research article called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden that said that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.”
In the 1980s, this blossomed into an unwavering belief that high self-esteem was something to be sought after. This period was referred to later as the “self-esteem movement.” In 1986, a state legislator in California named John Vasconcellos even helped create the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, which assumed that improving self-esteem would help address social problems like violence, drug abuse, crime, failure in school, and child abuse. Though the task force was mocked nationally—including in the cartoon Doonesbury—more than 40 out of the 58 counties in California had self-esteem task forces.
I Got Surgery to Look Like My Snapchat and Facetune Selfies
The self-esteem movement bled into schools, children’s books and media, parenting styles and more, until finally facing a tide of skepticism in the late 1990s and early 2000s when psych studies started to suggest that fostering high self-esteem didn’t do much at all. Researchers now think that a correlation between high self-esteem and success might be because people feel good about what they’ve accomplished, not that the high self-esteem caused the success in the first place.
“It’s time for people who have been claiming that improved self-esteem will improve performance to put up or shut up,” Roy Baumeister, a Case Western psychologist, told the LA Times in 1999.
But the effects of the self-esteem movement have lingered. Many of us still hunger for the self-esteem boosts that come from external sources. Branden himself became concerned that his suggestion that self-esteem was the key to success was leading to people seeking out self-esteem at all cost. In a later book he clarified that he meant for it to arise out of one’s own growth and behavior, not be “primarily determined by other people.”
Contingent self-esteem creates a yo-yoing sense of happiness and self-worth.
Gunner*, a 24-year-old accountant, doesn’t always have enough to do to fill the whole day, so he spends the hours with meaningless tasks to try and seem busy, for fear that others will judge him if they know he’s not busy. “This takes a serious toll on my mental health,” he said. “I find myself looking over my shoulder to see if the judging eyes are on me, questioning my every move.”
For Katia An Spencer, a 22-year-old living in Los Angeles, self-esteem can rest on the approval of friends. She recently teased a friend playfully, and days later was stuck on the possibility that he might think she had behaved unkindly.
“I can’t figure out what reality is, because I’m so distorted into assuming I’m doing something wrong when I’m not,” she said. If her friend did actually think that she was being cruel, or if friends were thinking other negative things about her, she said, “I have the impression that I would fully break down.”
This kind of instability is partially what leads to suffering, said Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Some experts think that it’s the stability of self-esteem—or having one constant level of self-worth—that is more important for a person’s happiness than how high or low it is.
Amy Canevello, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said keeping up with contingent self-esteem requires constant impression management.
Spencer wants to make sure she appears agreeable. Gunner and Dearing don’t want to be seen as lazy at work. Brylee Richmond, a 20-year-old in Lake Charles, said that when she fixated about what others thought about her when she first started college, “I was so worried about people knowing I wasn’t calm and collected and that school wasn’t easy that it was hard for me to even get out of my car and walk into the classroom some days.”
People who rely on contingencies for self-worth end up in a vicious circle of chasing approval, finding it, and then going on the hunt again. That’s exhausting, and can also make it harder to achieve your goals and be successful: Many people will actually sabotage themselves in order to have an excuse when they fail, Crocker said. This is called self-handicapping—say, for instance, getting drunk the night before taking a test so that if you do poorly you can say you were too hung over to have done well. People rely on it to prevent the low self-esteem that comes with not achieving something.
“I was a worthy and valuable person yesterday because I was able to do good work, but what about today?” Canevello said. “Can I make it happen again? That’s part of the anxiety. If you’ve been successful, there’s pressure to keep that success up.”
It’s tempting to say that millennials, because they were raised during the self-esteem movement, are more prone to seeking out self-esteem at all costs. But Crocker said she doesn’t know if there’s any data that shows specifically that contingent self-esteem is on the rise—though she acknowledged that the mental health issues that can result from an endless pursuit of approval, like depression and anxiety, are increasing in younger generations.
There might be some periods of life in which people are especially vulnerable to the temptations of contingent self-esteem. People often go out into the “real world” for the first time in college, or in their mid-to-late-20s, and are judged based on their performance both socially and professionally. Take those susceptible periods of life and combine them with private lives that are increasingly on display, an unstable job market, and proximity to the self-esteem movement, and you get an ongoing, desperate desire for approval from others.
But it’s probably not possible to get rid of self-esteem altogether, and some of it might be part of our social evolution. In the mid-1990s, psychologist Mark Leary, along with Baumeister, proposed that self-esteem is a barometer for how we’re doing in our social interactions, and called it sociometer theory.
When we get excluded or rejected, self-esteem drops, they said—which is a signal to reconnect with people or try to affiliate with different people. It likely evolved to promote group cooperation and social relationships. Canevello said to release the grip that self-esteem has on our lives, we should look at it as a kind of social litmus test—but not a sensation that is coupled with overall self-worth.
Ironically, impression management and contingent self-esteem can end up making a person a bit self-centered and hurt our relationships. When you are constantly worrying about how you’re being seen by others, you can stop paying attention to what other people really need Canevello said. “I think the message is not, ‘Don’t care about what other people think of you.'”
Crocker suggests instead asking yourself instead something like: “What is the contribution I’m trying to make in this situation?”
Maria Mora, a 29-year-old copywriter in New York City, is attempting to do this in her life—measuring her worth by how she treats others. “Being kind to people, being empathetic, understanding, a good listener, and being present,” she said. “I want to base my self worth on those qualities.”
Neff advised that people who suffer from the need for contingent self-esteem can find relief in self-compassion, telling yourself something along the lines of, “Of course I want people to like me, but it’s not working out right now,” Neff said. “That’s okay. I can still be there for myself, I can still support myself.”
Lastly, instead of making goals around validation, make them around learning, Crocker suggested. That way, failure—which happens to everyone—doesn’t threaten self-esteem, it’s just part of the process.
Ultimately, what all these strategies get at, is that asking yourself ” am I a worthwhile human being” isn’t very useful, Crocker said. Worth is subjective, and demanding such an existential question on ourselves all the time comes with great risk. “After all, to be a worthless human being is about as painful a thing as there is,” Crocker said.
Your Emotions Are a Social Construct, an invention of our brain to explain the cause of our sensations and actions
Our feelings aren’t baked-in, research suggests.
By Shayla Love July 21, 2017
Throughout the day, you experience a variety of emotions. Anger, when someone cuts you off on the highway; fear, should you happen across a snake on your morning run; sadness, well, most nights when watching the news. The emotions come and go automatically. It seems like they’re triggered by those “things”—the other car, the snake, the tragedy overseas. It turns out, that’s not the whole story.
According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, the director of Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, emotions are not something that happen to you. Instead, she says, we create them. We create our emotions from bodily sensations, past experiences, and from learning emotional concepts from our parents and cultural upbringing. In short, our emotions are not reactions to the world, but an invention of our brain to explain the cause of our sensations and actions.
I went to visit Barrett in Boston with a thought experiment that could help me understand her theory of constructed emotions: If a person was raised in solitary confinement, with enough food and water to survive, but no social interaction at all—would they have emotions? The simple answer? No.
The person would feel things. She could see the objects in her room, get stomachaches, and notice her heartbeat. But without societal input to tell her what her bodily sensations mean, she would feel them only as affect—a term for the raw experience of feeling.
“Emotion requires something more than affect,” Barrett says. “It requires making meaning out of that affect. That’s not something, if a child was born and grew up in the wild, with no other humans around, that would develop.” They would instead feel more vague sensations like pleasantness or unpleasantness; arousal or calmness—similar to the way that infants feel at a young age, or even the type of “emotion” we see in animals (that we often ascribe deeper meaning to).
Barrett’s theory of constructed emotions, which she writes about in her new book How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, is a result of decades of her and others’ research. It contradicts the classical view of emotion that has persisted for two thousand years that your emotions are baked-in. A person who grew up totally alone would have the same complex emotions as any other, because they were born with them.
For those of us not raised in solitary confinement, this is what emotions “feel” like: that we’re born with brain circuits for “sad” and “happy” and “fear,” and that they are evolutionarily programmed to allow us to respond in the best way to threats and rewards in our environment. But in graduate school, when Barrett began looking for these universal emotions, she was unable to find them. Not in facial expressions, physiological response, or in brain activation.
For example, in 2007, developmental psychologists Linda A. Camras and Harriet Oster used a gorilla toy to scare babies from different cultures, and held their arms down to make them angry. The researchers found they couldn’t distinguish the babies’ facial movements during these emotions, though adult test subjects—when watching the videos—perceived the babies as fearful or angry (based largely on context).
Barrett’s graduate student, Maria Gendron, traveled to Namibia to see if test subjects from the isolated Himba culture would sort facial expressions and vocalizations into the same emotion categories that we have in the US. There, and on subsequent trips to other groups, including hunter-gatherer communities in Tanzania, she found that people sorted emotions differently than we do, and labelled photos of posed facial expressions differently, often labelling them, instead, as behaviors.
In Barrett’s lab in Boston, volunteers viewed photos of famous actors with realistic emotional facial expressions, like fear. Certain volunteers saw only the faces, some got a contextual situation and a face (“He just witnessed a shooting on his quiet, tree-shaded block in Brooklyn”), and some received only the verbal description of the situation. They found that for all emotions, context mattered. For example, only 38 percent of those who saw a fear face alone, posed by Martin Landau, perceived it as “fear” (56 percent perceived the facial expression as surprise), while 66 percent who read the scenario alone or saw the face in the context of the scenario perceived fear. Knowing the situation changed how the face was experienced.
Barrett’s lab also did a meta-analysis of 100 neuroimaging studies on anger, disgust, happiness, fear, and sadness. It covered 1300 test subjects over a span of 20 years. What they found supported their hypotheses: there was no brain region that consistently held a “fingerprint” for any emotion. Even the amygdala, which we are told to associate with fear, was shown to increase in fear experience studies, but only in a quarter of them. And they found that the amygdala also showed increases in anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness, pain, learning something new, meeting new people, or making decisions.
Barrett was finding that the only consistency to emotion is its variability, so how do we know what “anger” is? The answer is through learning, prediction, and self-creation. The difference between our hypothetical person in solitary, and a baby in the real word, is that babies begin statistical learning at very early age. That means they start to learn simple concepts, group objects in categories, and notice patterns. Children learn what emotions are in these ways, like being asked, “Are you angry,” in different situations, and associating their bodily sensations in that moment and what they’re perceiving, with the word, “anger.”
“You see emotions in blinks, furrowed brows, and other muscle twitches; you hear emotions in the pitch and lilt of voices; you feel emotions in your own body, but the emotional information is not in the signal itself,” Barrett writes in her book. “Your brain was not programmed by nature to recognize facial expressions and other so-called emotional displays and then to reflexibly act on them. The emotional information is in your perception. Nature provided your brain with the raw materials to wire itself with a conceptual system, with input from a chorus of helpful adults who spoke emotion words to you in a deliberate and intentional way.”
In Russia, there are two cultural concepts for anger. In German there are three, and Mandarin there are five. If you were an English speaker learning those languages, you might feel like that person in solitary, as you try to grasp what situations and feelings correlate with that word. When you finally understand, it would still take a while before you could “feel” that emotion automatically, the way you feel “anger.”
Our brains feel the sensory changes in our bodies. But we give different meanings to those bodily sensations depending on context. If you went on a run and your heart started pounding, you wouldn’t be too alarmed. But as you’re reading this article, if your heart began racing and you began sweating, you might be concerned and call your doctor.
In graduate school, Barrett went on a date with a guy she didn’t feel that attracted to. But when she felt her face flush, her stomach flutter, and she had trouble concentrating, she experienced a strong attraction to him after all, and agreed to another date. It wasn’t until she went home, threw up, and spent the next seven days in bed that she realized she had flu, not love at first sight. Her brain took the beginnings sensations of being sick and constructed a feeling of attraction during the date. The bodily sensations in attraction and the beginnings of illness can feel the same, and her brain had used the context (the date) to make them meaningful as attraction. A 2011 study similarly showed that judges are harsher before their lunch breaks than after. That knot in your stomach that tells you you’re anxious, that you don’t trust someone—well, it feels an awful lot like hunger too.
“From your brain’s perspective, your body is just another source of sensory input,” Barrett writes. “Sensations from your heart and lungs, your metabolism, your changing temperature, and so on… These purely physical sensations inside your body have no objective psychological meaning. Once your concepts enter the picture, however, those sensations may take on additional meaning.”
Another good way to conceptualize how our hypothetical person would feel, upon emerging into a world of constructed emotions, is to talk to people who regained their eyesight, Barrett says. Our sight is another experience we take for granted: It feels as though an object exists in the world, and we merely see it. The truth is that we learn to see, just like we learn what emotions are. We interpret the light entering our retinas as shapes, dimensions, and objects, based on experience and being told what things are. For those who have cataracts removed, or those who have corneal transplants, the first moments (or years) of sight can be distressing.
In 1993, neuroscientist Oliver Sacks wrote about Virgil, a 50-year-old man who lost his sight as child, and gained it again after cataract surgery. Sacks describes Virgil’s first moments of vision: “There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, ‘Well?’ Then, and only then, he said did he finally realize that this chaos of light and shadow was a face—and indeed, the face of his surgeon.” Virgil continued to have difficulties, often not knowing what an object was until he touched it. He commented that his dog looked so different in various positions that he was sure there were multiple dogs in his home.
A professor of vision and computational neuroscience at M.I.T., Pawan Sinha, helped over 200 blind children from India regain their sight. After they could see again, he tested a centuries-old question from philosopher William Molyneux: if a person was blind from birth, could they tell a cube and a sphere apart—without touching it? The answer was, overwhelmingly, no.
It’s hard to conceive, if you have been seeing since birth. “When we open our eyes each morning it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see,” Sacks wrote. “We are not given the world: we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection. But when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for forty-five years—having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten—there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience, and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had not coherence.”
This kind of chaos would happen to a person who hadn’t learned any emotion concepts. Our emotion categories would seem random to them: why does anger sometimes involve yelling, and other times quiet rage? Why is it not sadness when you cry at a wedding, even if the bodily response is the same?
We actually don’t need to resort to imagination or metaphor to see how this would play out. There are unfortunate cases in which children have been raised with little social interaction, but had adequate food and shelter. After the fall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, hundreds of thousands of children were found to be living in orphanages, and had received little social contact from adults: no talking, no hugging, no eye contact, no emotional learning. These kids were emotionally and intellectually stunted, and Barrett says they seemed to feel things purely affectively—as expected.
Brain studies found that the children had much less white matter, the stuff in your brain that connects all the gray matter together, so that nerves can communicate. But there was more.
“Their brains just don’t develop normally, and their bodies don’t develop normally either,” Barrett says. “It’s not just that their brain development is substantially compromised, which it is, it’s also that their physical development is impaired. In the Romanian orphans, you would see a 14-year-old kid adolescent who literally looks like an 8-year-old.”
So not only would your brain not develop, but your body wouldn’t either. How is emotional development tied to physical growth? At the moment, it’s unclear. Barrett says that when the brain doesn’t get the input it’s expecting, one such input being social contact, development goes wrong.
“If somebody was in a white room, fed three times a day, the simple answer is no, they would not develop emotion concepts,” she says. “They would not develop abstract concepts of any sort actually. But they also wouldn’t develop normally. They wouldn’t have a normal body.”
Our social experiences are an integral part of normal human growth and development, and also: emotional development. Without these emotion concepts, we would enter a world as confusing and blurry as Virgil’s—who eventually re-lost his sight and returned, with relief, to “his own true being, the touch world that has been his home for almost fifty years,” Sacks wrote. The moral of the story: be glad your brain can construct emotions, despite how overwhelming they may sometimes be.
Speaking of stories, which are filled with emotions, I later asked Barrett: Could a person raised alone understand a story? What about a Disney movie? An Aesop’s fable?
“Probably not,” she says.
The Life in The Simpsons Is No Longer Attainable
The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence.DECEMBER 29, 2020Dani Alexis RyskampFreelance writer
The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence that now seems out of reach for all too many Americans. I refer, of course, to the Simpsons. Homer, a high-school graduate whose union job at the nuclear-power plant required little technical skill, supported a family of five. A home, a car, food, regular doctor’s appointments, and enough left over for plenty of beer at the local bar were all attainable on a single working-class salary. Bart might have had to find $1,000 for the family to go to England, but he didn’t have to worry that his parents would lose their home.
Sign up for The Atlantic’s daily newsletter.
Each weekday evening, get an overview of the day’s biggest news, along with fascinating ideas, images, and voices.Email Address (required)Sign Up
Thanks for signing up!
This lifestyle was not fantastical in the slightest—nothing, for example, like the ridiculously large Manhattan apartments in Friends. On the contrary, the Simpsons used to be quite ordinary—they were a lot like my Michigan working-class family in the 1990s.
The 1996 episode “Much Apu About Nothing” shows Homer’s paycheck. He grosses $479.60 per week, making his annual income about $25,000. My parents’ paychecks in the mid-’90s were similar. So were their educational backgrounds. My father had a two-year degree from the local community college, which he paid for while working nights; my mother had no education beyond high school. Until my parents’ divorce, we were a family of three living primarily on my mother’s salary as a physician’s receptionist, a working-class job like Homer’s.
- Is America Still the ‘Shining City on a Hill’?DAVID FRUM
- The Unbearable Weakness of Trump’s MinionsPETER WEHNER
- What the Pandemic Has Done for DatingSARA KONRATH
By 1990—the year my father turned 36 and my mother 34—they were divorced. And significantly, they were both homeowners—an enormous feat for two newly single people.
Read: How the coronavirus could create a new working class
Neither place was particularly fancy. I’d estimate that the combined square footage of both roughly equaled that of the Simpsons’ home. Their houses were their only source of debt; my parents have never carried a credit-card balance. Within 10 years, they had both paid off their mortgage.
Neither of my parents had much wiggle room in the budget. I remember Christmases that, in hindsight, looked a lot like the one portrayed in the first episode of The Simpsons, which aired in December 1989: handmade decorations, burned-out light bulbs, and only a handful of gifts. My parents had no Christmas bonus or savings, so the best gifts usually came from people outside our immediate family.
Most of my friends and classmates lived the way we did—that is, the way the Simpsons did. Some families had more secure budgets, with room for annual family vacations to Disney World. Others lived closer to the edge, with fathers taking second jobs as mall Santas or plow-truck drivers to bridge financial gaps. But we all believed that the ends could meet, with just an average amount of hustle.
Over the years, Homer and his wife, Marge, also face their share of struggles. In the first episode, Homer becomes a mall Santa to bring in some extra cash after Homer learns that he won’t receive a Christmas bonus and the family spends all its Christmas savings to get Bart’s new tattoo removed. They also occasionally get a peek into a different kind of life. In Season 2, Homer buys the hair-restoration product “Dimoxinil.” His full head of hair gets him promoted to the executive level, but he is demoted after Bart accidentally spills the tonic on the floor and Homer loses all of his new hair. Marge finds a vintage Chanel suit at a discount store, and wearing it grants her entrée into the upper echelons of society.
The Simpsons started its 32nd season this past fall. Homer is still the family’s breadwinner. Although he’s had many jobs throughout the show’s run—he was even briefly a roadie for the Rolling Stones—he’s back at the power plant. Marge is still a stay-at-home parent, taking point on raising Bart, Lisa, and Maggie and maintaining the family’s suburban home. But their life no longer resembles reality for many American middle-class families.
Adjusted for inflation, Homer’s 1996 income of $25,000 would be roughly $42,000 today, about 60 percent of the 2019 median U.S. income. But salary aside, the world for someone like Homer Simpson is far less secure. Union membership, which protects wages and benefits for millions of workers in positions like Homer’s, dropped from 14.5 percent in 1996 to 10.3 percent today. With that decline came the loss of income security and many guaranteed benefits, including health insurance and pension plans. In 1993’s episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” Lisa needs braces at the same time that Homer’s dental plan evaporates. Unable to afford Lisa’s orthodontia without that insurance, Homer leads a strike. Mr. Burns, the boss, eventually capitulates to the union’s demand for dental coverage, resulting in shiny new braces for Lisa and one fewer financial headache for her parents. What would Homer have done today without the support of his union?
Read: Generation work-from-home may never recover
The purchasing power of Homer’s paycheck, moreover, has shrunk dramatically. The median house costs 2.4 times what it did in the mid-’90s. Health-care expenses for one person are three times what they were 25 years ago. The median tuition for a four-year college is 1.8 times what it was then. In today’s world, Marge would have to get a job too. But even then, they would struggle. Inflation and stagnant wages have led to a rise in two-income households, but to an erosion of economic stability for the people who occupy them.
Last year, my gross income was about $42,000—the amount Homer would be making today. It was the second-highest-earning year of my career. I wanted to buy a home, but no bank was willing to finance a mortgage, especially since I had less than $5,000 to make a down payment. However, my father offered me a zero-down, no-interest contract. Without him, I would not have been able to buy the house.
I finally paid off my medical debt. But after taking into account all of my expenses, my adjusted gross income was only $19. And with the capitalized interest on my student loans adding thousands to the balance, my net worth is still negative.
I don’t have Bart, Lisa, and Maggie to feed or clothe or buy Christmas presents for. I’m not sure how I’d make it if I did.
Someone I follow on Twitter, Erika Chappell, recently encapsulated my feelings about The Simpsons in a tweet: “That a show which was originally about a dysfunctional mess of a family barely clinging to middle class life in the aftermath of the Reagan administration has now become aspirational is frankly the most on the nose manifestations [sic] of capitalist American decline I can think of.”
For many, a life of constant economic uncertainty—in which some of us are one emergency away from losing everything, no matter how much we work—is normal. Second jobs are no longer for extra cash; they are for survival. It wasn’t always this way. When The Simpsons first aired, few would have predicted that Americans would eventually find the family’s life out of reach. But for too many of us now, it is.DANI ALEXIS RYSKAMP is a freelance writer.
An Intimate Look at Seven Lesser-Known Types of OCD
These expressions of OCD are darker, harder to talk about, and can remain undiagnosed for years. By VICE Staff April 9, 2019
TONIC’s Shayla Love has had obsessive compulsive disorder since she was young. She’s typically experienced relatively stereotypical symptoms, like hand-washing compulsions or a fear of germs and sickness. But in her recent story, Love explains that her OCD has also manifested in more rare or misunderstood obsessions, like a fixation on bodily functions like swallowing, or the need to always be seen as perfect. Because of this, Love decided to take a deep dive into researching some of the darker and less common expressions of OCD, which can often remain undiagnosed for years. On this episode of The VICE Guide To Right Now Podcast, we sit down with Love to learn more.
Read This Next: What Dogs With OCD Taught Me About My Own Diagnosis