Friday 11 November 2016

Inside Out: Emotions in Hollywood and Science

On Monday I went to an excellent event run by the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

The event involved a screening of Inside Out, followed by presentations by Profs Tony Manstead, Stephanie van Goozen and Andrew Lawrence, with Dr Job van der Schalk as ringmaster.

Inside Out was excellent. If you have not seen it, here is one of the scenes I like, which really demonstrates emotional contagion in action:

Following the film, the talks covered a wide range of areas. A number of points struck me.

I was interested in Tony Manstead's points about the functions of emotions, and the distinction between the intrapersonal and the interpersonal functions. At the intrapersonal level, emotions are often a signal that we need to act, often preparing us for an emergency response: fight or flight. At the interpersonal level, they enable learning, links to other people and communication. A particularly interesting example was the 'is it safe to cross?' experiment with toddlers. The toddler is on a surface that appears to disappear, and is invited to crawl towards his or her mother. When the mother's face communicated fear, none of the toddlers ventured to cross. When the mother's face communicated joy, 74% of them did so.

Stephanie van Goozen talked about the development of emotional problems in children. These can range from being rejected by peers to aggressive behaviour. She pointed out that these may arise from difficulty in recognising emotions in others, and difficulty in controlling one's own emotions. This, of course, resonates with some of the underpinning ideas of the Emotional Intelligence movement (as does the idea of emotional contagion, already mentioned). She highlighted two phases in the developing child's life when problems may develop: early childhood and puberty/adolescence.

Andrew Lawrence introduced us to some of the neuroscience that sits behind all this, including explaining how to parse fear in a human being (fmri scans and tarantulas are involved...). In particular he highlighted the key role of the amygdala, which is central in the processing of emotions, and how well connected it is to many other areas of the brain, which are related to many other important processes. So emotional responses to stimuli have wide ranging effects on perception, memory, interpretation, and so on.  All of that, of course, resonates particularly with the issues I look at in Shifting Stories.

So a very rich afternoon - much richer than this brief summary suggests - with plenty of food for thought, as well as a lot of confirmation of the underpinnings of various aspects of my work.

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