When we think of human emotions, the usual suspects like anger, fear, joy, pride, sadness and happiness come to mind. But what if – just like humans – emotions were subjective and constantly evolving, unable to be so defined or permanent?
This subjectivity of emotions is a topic that is explored in Tiffany Watt Smith’s latest book The Book of Human Emotions. A research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University in London, Smith seeks to understand the complexity – or what she calls “emotional granularity” of the inexpressible.
“It’s this idea that what we mean by ’emotion’ has evolved,” Smith tells Science of Us. “It’s now a physical thing — you can see a location of it in the brain.”
It’s this advancement in research that has allowed researchers like Smith to delve into a deeper understanding of what emotions actually mean to us.
“It’s a long-held idea that if you put a name to a feeling, it can help that feeling become less overwhelming,” she said. “All sorts of stuff that’s swirling around and feeling painful can start to feel a bit more manageable,” that is, as soon as you can put a name to it.
Tiffany Watt Smith has scoured the globe and drawn on history, science, art, literature and even music to uncover answers to questions we have all pondered at one point in time.
If you’ve ever felt an emotion but struggled to put it into words so that others can truly understand how you are feeling, Smith may have the answer for you.
Here are some of our favourites from the book.
If you’ve ever had a sudden urge to do something reckless or even just a bit mischievous, then this might be your new favourite word.
A French word for “the ‘strange excitement’ of wanton destruction,” Smith says that the origins of ilinx can be traced “back to the practices of ancient mystics who by whirling and dancing hoped to induce rapturous trance states and glimpse alternative realities.”
Translated literally from German, torschlusspanik means “gate-closing panic” or more simply, the feeling we get when life seems to be passing us by or when we feel, begrudgingly, that time is running out.
We bet you’ve all felt this at once stage in your life. Do you consider yourself highly sociable? Able to work a room effortlessly or partake in a stimulating conversation at the drop of a hat? Yes?
Well what about when you find yourself in an unusual situation, like when you’re suddenly in the same room as your CEO out of work hours, or stuck in a lift with a hero of yours?
If you’ve ever been lost for words, when you would otherwise be exploding with conversation, you can now put it down to malu – “the sudden experience of feeling constricted, inferior and awkward around people of higher status.”
The feeling of unshakable longing for a place we’ve never been to is often an indescribable force. How is it possible to miss or pine for a place you’ve never travelled to you ask?
Kaukokaipuu has also been described as a specific form of wanderlust – a craving for a distant land or a deep feeling of ‘homesickness’ for a place you’ve never seen.
The Finnish recognise that this emotion is very real and so named it kaukokaipuu.
We have all fallen victim to regretting the time we promised our relatives they were welcome to stay ‘anytime they like’, but we are surprised that after they depart, there is an air of loneliness or emptiness.
The Baining people of Papua New Guinea, felt this emotion so often that they named it awumbuk or the feeling of emptiness “after visitors depart”.
Smith also notes the ritualistic treatment of this feeling, saying that it’s so prevalent in this community that “once their guests have left, the Baining fill a bowl with water and leave it overnight to absorb the festering air.
The next day, the family rises very early and ceremonially flings the water into the trees, whereupon ordinary life resumes.”