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EmotionsReview - Emotions
A Brief History
by Keith Oatley
Blackwell, 2004
Review by Dina Mendonca
Jan 25th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 4)

In Emotions: A Brief History, Keith Oatley gives a comprehensive overview of the complex and rich reflections upon emotion. Examining crucial issues such as emotional evolutionary information, emotions and relationships, emotional disorders, and emotional intelligence, Keith Oatley manages to present in this brief history the interconnectedness of three historical meanings concerning the nature of human emotion. First, emotions' history is evolutionary because there are aspects of our emotions are the work of evolution. Second, emotions' history is personal connected to the biographical narrative of each one of us. Finally, emotions' history is also the way they have been conceived and interpreted throughout the history of ideas and of social and cultural movements. These three senses of history appear in each different chapter where Oatley shows their interconnectedness.

 

The first chapter is mainly concerned with establishing the way emotions are not a clear reality, for they are partly obvious and partly ambiguous. On one hand, emotions embody our most important values; on the other hand, there is a tradition of distrust regarding emotion. Showing how emotions appear with this ambivalent meaning from the birth of civilization, Oatley tries to clarify such ambivalence by showing how emotions are the underlying structures of both our more public and social world as well as our more intimate relationships.

The second chapter focuses on the inherited repertoires of emotion built upon by culture and experience. Giving a summary of Darwin's crucial contribution for the field Oatley presents how Darwin's legacy is alive in researchers upon emotion who gather evidence to indicate that certain expressions are as Darwin supposed human universals, as well as researchers who see emotions as types of action readiness and the result of an environment evolutionary adaptedness. Simultaneously, emotions and their creative power are highly dependent on the society in which we live as well as the ideas and concepts of society. Oatley finishes the chapter by showing that although humans start with much the same emotional repertoire derived from genetic information the effects of the genes are not fixed. Given that reactive emotions, sentiments, and preferences are also means by which genes translate adaptations into actions in the world, understanding our emotions and how they are dependent also upon our social and cultural world will determine the development of our emotional repertoire.

The third chapter examines how emotions are crucial element of our health. Explaining the Ancient Greek perspective of the Epicurean and the Stoic school, Oatley shows how control of emotions has always been a way to achieve mental health. The control of our emotional world expresses a choice of emotions. A choice that ends up turning emotions into traits of characters as is exemplified in the Christian tradition where we see bad emotions becoming sins and good emotions made into virtues. The Regulation of Emotion has changed throughout times. Oatley illustrates such changes by pointing out that we look at ancient judgments upon emotional situations differently, for example, we now see that some of the answer given by the Stoics is an answer based on a mental state of depression.

The fourth chapter gives a summary of the outstanding discoveries and continued research of neuroscience contribution for the study of emotion. Among other things, Oatley points out that the chemical therapy does not affect the events of the world but that they work on the brain mechanisms in the limbic system that orchestrates the repertoires of readiness, generate experiences, and set up the social interactive styles and scripts of emotions.

            The fifth chapter focuses on the social history underneath emotions, and how emotions study requires looking into what happens before and after the event. As Oatley writes, for a long time aggression was studied in animals without researchers remarking that most incidents of anger are followed by reconciliation. Showing how emotions include social goals, Oatley looks at how assertion plays a role in the behavior of a social group and how early emotional relationships work as foundations for later ones.

The sixth chapter shows the impact of emotions in our individual story by describing four influences on the component of character. Looking into several researchers work, Oatley ends the chapter by showing how the idea of emotion-based life scripts has lead to the proposal that each person has a predominantly emotion script which is developed as a balance among different systems of social emotional goals.

The seventh chapter looks into the history of emotional disorders of the West and explains that research has found that there are a group of the kinds of adversities that are most potent in provoking major depressions and anxiety disorders, such as loss, humiliation, entrapment, and danger. The other important result that has been achieved is to identify some of the factor that either protect or make someone more vulnerable to these kinds of adversity. Followed by a very brief history of Psychiatry where Oatley explains how in the recent decades the mental hospitals have diminished partly as a result of the critical look at involuntary institutionalization and because more drugs became available to control mood, behavior. Oatley concludes the chapter by stating how the study of the causes of emotional disorders may hold the key to establish what might be done to prevent them. 

The last chapter explains Emotional Intelligence by describing the four branches of emotional intelligence. Pointing out that the four branches explained indicate that the ability to have conversation and maintain dialogue with the people we relate is a crucial part of caring for our emotional life. Oatley ends the book by pointing how crucial understanding our emotions is for the continuation of the human species. 

 

Keith Oatley's book is an introduction to the topic of emotion that shows how the study of emotion requires a continuous interdisciplinary approach. The book points out some of the important discoveries about emotion and links them not only to the three historical perspectives of emotion but also to the quest to understand our selves, and others more clearly. 

 

© 2004 Dina Mendonça

 

 

 

Dina Mendonça is a Postdoctoral Fellow of Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, Portugal, at the Instituto de Filosofia da Linguagem in the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. Working in a research program on "Pragmatic Analysis of Emotion." This research, of Deweyan inspiration, aims at elaborating a critical interpretation of the philosophy of emotions clarifying: on the one hand, (1) the different methodological approaches to emotions; on the other hand, (2) the topics that surround reflection upon emotion. Among other things, the project aims at the production of a commented bibliography and a research database on philosophy of emotion.


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