Are humans, as a recent Natural News article states, losing the ability to experience emotions? Recent research published March 20th, 2013, in open-access journal PLoS titled “The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books”, cited by the Natural News article, found a significant decrease in the communication of emotions in both the United States and Britain’s written word.
The study investigated literature in regard to “non-content” words and created parameters to filter for emotional content. They found similar data among authors in the same time periods, indicating that methods of expression are socially normed and relatively consistent within time periods and societies. Most alarmingly, the written expression of all emotions -joy, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise- decreased significantly since 1900, with only fear rising since the 1980s.
The first mistake in the Natural News analysis was to apply trends seen in the US and British culture, which are fairly similar historically, culturally, and linguistically, to “humans,” as if Anglo-American culture represents the whole of humanity.
But, does this steep reduction in emotional communication really translate to people, or even just Anglo-Americans, “de-evolving” to no longer be able to process emotions, as the Natural News article states?
Any responsible interpretation of scientific data should always leave itself open to multiple theories. The study shows a decrease in the use of emotional words: this says little about the affective (emotional) experience, but more about peoples’ abstraction about said experience.
The data would be more indicative of a decrease in emotional intelligence (the ability to understand your own emotions), and thus a decrease in the ability to discuss emotions abstractly. It could also indicate that we have moved from a society which values subjective opinion to one which tries to be more objective, or that we have moved into a time where we take our perception as facts instead of subjective experience. I personally find it most likely that people have become less aware of their emotions.
Could this distanced emotional state be due to the oversaturation of our emotions through media and advertising? Through a confusion in knowing which reactions are being created from without us (what Pavlov would call (un)conditioned stimulus) and which truly from within?
Whether this study shows a rise in objectivity, a decrease in emotional intelligence, or something entirely different, it is highly unlikely that humans are “de-evolving” or truly losing the functionality of their hardware (limbic system), but rather the software: consciously understanding their emotions.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? We don’t know. It means that industrialised humans are likely becoming more dependent on cognitive constructs as opposed to also directly understanding the input from their surroundings relayed through their limbic system (emotions). Both emotional and cognitive systems can make mistakes: lead us to false judgements. This is why, I would say, we need both: balance.
1) Acerbi, Alberto et al . 2013. “The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books”. http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0059030
2) Mike Bundrant. March 23, 2013. “Society of Droids”. http://www.naturalnews.com/039608_emotions_literature_culture.html