How does the language you speak shape what emotion you see on someone else's face?

We assume that emotions emanate from other people’s faces for the world to see and that all people perceive facial expressions in the same exact way. For instance, we assume that when a friend scowls, we automatically know she is angry, and that when a loved one frowns, we automatically know he is sad. It’s also assumed that this process is identical the world around, so that you could enter any culture and automatically understand the emotions expressed on the faces of the people there.

Yet my research suggests that information on someone else’s face is not sufficient for perceiving emotion. It turns out that processes in the mind of the perceiver are also critical for emotion perception to proceed normally—and one such process is, surprisingly, language. My research demonstrates that knowledge about emotion words—“anger,” “disgust,” “fear,” etc.—serves as a form of context that helps us make meaning of other people’s pleasant and unpleasant facial movements as specific emotional expressions. For instance, in one study we demonstrated that individuals who don’t have access to emotion words any longer due to a neurodegenerative disease can no longer see scowls as angry, frowns as sad, or wide-eyed expressions as fear. Instead, these individuals can only detect the very general positive or negative meaning of facial expressions (e.g., they judge scowls, frowns, wide eyes, and wrinkled noses all as “bad” and smiles as “good”). In other recent research, we show that learning to associate facial expressions with emotion words such as "anger" shapes how you perceive and remember later angry faces. Our on-going work seeks to understand the neural basis of the role of language in emotion, how language helps children acquire emotion concepts, and how language shapes people's experiences of emotions in their own bodies. Understanding the more basic processes at play during emotion perception has implications for the study of social communication, emotional intelligence, socio-emotional development, and psychopathology.

☛ Learn more:

Nonverbal Accents »
- APS Observer

What Faces Can’t Tell Us »
- The New York Times


What do people know about emotions and how does this shape what they feel?

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It’s common sense that emotions are things that just happen to us, triggered by the outside world and proceeding unbidden to affect our bodies and behaviors. But what if what you knew about the emotion had the power to shape what you felt in the first place?

My research examines how knowledge about emotion (which is in part supported by the language you speak; see above) shapes what you feel in a given context. For instance, when you’re standing on a bridge and your heart is pounding and palms are sweating, what you know about the concept of “fear” will shape whether you feel debilitating anxiety, excitement, or just a pounding in your chest. Similarly, individuals in one of my studies who were exposed to knowledge about the concept “fear” while listening to unpleasant music later saw the world as more risky (a behavior consistent with fear) when compared with individuals who were exposed to knowledge about the concept “anger” while listening to the music or those who just listened to unpleasant music. Understanding how knowledge about emotion shapes experiences has important implications for the study of emotional intelligence, socio-emotional development, and psychopathology.


How is emotion created in the brain?

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Ultimately, the brain creates the mind. Understanding how the brain creates emotions in particular can shed light on what emotions are, how they function, and what goes awry in emotional disorders. To address questions about the brain basis of emotion, my research uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) to “peer into” a healthy human brain as it creates emotions in real time.

Although common sense suggests that emotions are distinct types of mental states and that there are emotional “centers” in the brain, my research reveals that, in fact, emotions are the product of many more basic processes that are not unique to emotion per se. For instance, my research demonstrates that there is increased activity in a set of brain networks that register body feelings and cause changes in the body during emotion. There is also activity in brain areas involved in accessing and using memory and knowledge, and deploying attention. These same networks also show increased activation when individuals experience other mental states, such as body feelings or thoughts in reaction to a set of scenarios.

Meta-analysis is a useful tool for understanding which brain regions consistently show increased activation during emotional experiences and perceptions, and whether activity in a given brain region is specific to a certain emotional experience or perception, or general to many emotions and other mental states. Across several meta-analyses, we have demonstrated that the brain regions that show an increase in emotional experience and perception are not specific to any one type of emotion (e.g., anger vs. fear vs. disgust, etc.). Rather, it appears that the same brain regions activated during emotions are part of neural networks that play domain-general functions in the human brain and are active during other emotional and cognitive mental states. We have also used meta-analysis to understand how the brain represents even more basic processes such as pleasant v. unpleasant value.

These findings demonstrate that emotions and other mental states are created out of the same basic neural “ingredients”. They also suggest why damage to areas of the brain involved in memory or attention can also impair emotions, and why emotional experiences change as neural networks supporting memory change across development. Understanding how the brain creates emotions has important implications for our understanding of the biological processes involved in emotional disorders and can also contribute more generally to our understanding of how the brain creates the mind.

☛ Learn More:

What Can the Brain Tell Us About Emotion?
- Emotion Researcher

Where in the Brain are Emotions?
- Emotion News Blog


What makes people differ in the complexity of emotional experience?

Some individuals clearly experience their emotions as discrete and specific (e.g., "anger" vs. "fear," or "joy" vs. "pride"), whereas others experience their emotions as general and vague (e.g., good or bad). My research investigates whether these differences in the complexity of emotional experiences stem in part from differences in the complexity of someone's knowledge about emotions.

We predict that individuals who literally know more about emotions will experience their emotions as more complex. We are particularly interested in why negative emotions tend to be more complex than positive emotions and the implications of this for well-being. Together, this research will allow us to better understand avenues by which a person could increase the complexity of his or her emotional experiences and has implications for emotional intelligence and for improving therapeutic techniques.


How do body states shape emotional experiences?

It is common sense that the body is involved in emotion—our hearts beat, breathing increases, and palms sweat during fear and excitement, and our heartbeat and breathing slow during calmness and depression. I am interested in how these putatively non-emotional body states might help create an emotional experience in the first place when they are made meaningful as emotional feelings. Our on-going work examines how states such as hunger and inflammation contribute to emotional experiences. These findings have important implications for psychopathology, stress, and coping.