The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


In 1872 Charles Darwin, by then an eminent Victorian naturalist acclaimed for his theory of evolution, described conducting a curious experiment on himself in the reptile house at London Zoo. Standing before a glass tank containing a deadly puff adder, Darwin thrust his nose up against the glass plate “with the firm determination of not starting back if the snake struck.” Of course, no sooner had the angry puff adder lunged at the glass than Darwin skittered several paces backwards.

Later he admitted that the incident had “amused” him. Like the early-twentieth-century theorist of laughter Henri Bergson, Darwin knew that our bodies can be ludicrous when they misbehave despite our best intentions. According to Bergson, it is when our body’s automatic processes are at work that we become ridiculous, even to ourselves.

Surprise is one of the most sudden and fleeting of emotions. Triggered by some startling occurrence for which we are entirely unprepared, it flares up, and then disappears almost immediately. No one can stay surprised for very long (although sometimes they say they are: “What surprises me about your behavior…”). Surprise proper seizes us, and sets off clattering reactions: the eyes ping open and the pupils dilate; the eyebrows shoot upward and the jaw drops. It’s a reflex response that we’re born with—even babies in the womb respond to loud noises with a “moro,” or startle, reflex. If SHOCK silences us and roots us to the spot, surprises are often far noisier. They make us spring backwards, knocking over the furniture, or drop whatever we’re holding, or let out gasps and excited shrieks. We might feel surprised (and delighted!) when our friends jump out from behind the sofa to celebrate a birthday; flabbergasted (and disgusted!) by an unexpected tax bill.*

When the philosopher René Descartes created his list of the “primitive passions,” any sudden and overwhelming attack of emotion was called “a surprise.” WONDER, he wrote, was a “sudden surprise of the soul.” JOY, HATRED, even LOVE could be felt as surprises, convulsing the limbs and seizing the heart. It’s the sense of one’s whole body being taken over by an outside force that makes feeling surprised so disorienting. Some relish being swept off their feet (see: ILINX). But there are others for whom being surprised can feel undignified, embarrassing, even enraging. Perhaps what’s most peculiar about being surprised is the dislocated sensation it brings—and the sneaking sense that we’re not as in command of our bodies as we might like to imagine. The body’s automatic responses make us ridiculous, as Bergson thought. But our lack of control is unnerving too.

All emotions include an involuntary aspect. The fact that so many of our feelings of anger, joy and disgust rise up without our permission—usually at inopportune moments—is part of what makes them both exasperating and alluring. It was these moments of emotional disobedience that particularly intrigued Charles Darwin. Why do we jump back in surprise from a snake stored safely behind glass? Or shut our eyes when frightened in the dark? He wondered if these unnecessary emotional responses were vestiges, emotional habits left over from much earlier times. It was as if our bodies had learned to feel in a certain way a very long time ago, and were simply compelled to act out these earlier scenarios. Darwin’s theory called into question the cherished idea that our emotions express some innermost part of ourselves, replacing it with a picture of human feelings shaped by vast forces, which stretched far beyond the margins of our individual lives. He showed us that our emotions don’t entirely belong to us. And that though we might fondly imagine ourselves to be the drivers of our bodies, we are more like passengers, along for a ride.

See also: FEAR.