Emotions and Language

Storyteller on a mission, breakfast enthusiast, reluctant master's student

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Imagine your favorite childhood cartoon character. Picture how the artist drew their face when they were shocked, excited, or angry. It’s the artist’s job to make sure that what they’re feeling is perfectly clear. What about your mom, roommate, or spouse? Is what they feel always apparent? Does shock or anger always look the same?

I recently read Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book, How Emotions Are Made. The first part of the book describes how the brain issues thousands of microscopic predictions to meet your needs before they arise. These predictions (which happen constantly, outside of our awareness) are the foundation for everything we think, feel, and experience.

Dr. Barrett then goes on to challenge the idea that emotions are universal feelings—felt and expressed the same way by everyone—that are triggered within the brain. She instead proposes that our emotional experiences are constructed in real time from our life experiences and feedback from several brain systems. In the same way that the brain predicts what is happening around you by comparing current information to past life experience, our emotions are an interpretation of what we are experiencing based on our past emotional experiences.

If what you feel is based on what you have experienced, then could a wider vocabulary of emotions translate to an ability to feel more things? My favorite section of the book talks about how important language is in the construction of experiences. Having a name for something we’re seeing or feeling makes it easier to identify. And the more specific words we have, the better granularity we have in naming those experiences.

Let’s say, for example, a large, diesel-powered vehicle with flashing lights drives past your house early in the morning. If the only word you know to describe that object is “truck,” it would be a truck to you if it was a garbage truck, delivery truck, fire truck, or even a school bus. Having more specific descriptors enables our brain to have more nuance in how it reacts to seeing it.  This sounds obvious—your reaction to a school bus stopping on your block should be different than your reaction to a fire truck pulling up in front of your house—but without the ability to name those things, it’s harder for your brain to choose the appropriate action.

Now imagine the words that we use to describe how we feel. Feeling “sad” could mean you’re frustrated, bored, annoyed, or regretful. Feeling “happy” could be excitement, joy, surprise, or contentment. All of these feelings are probably distinct experiences to most, and indicate different reactions. However, if the only words you have to describe how you feel is “happy” or “sad,” it’s much harder to choose the proper prediction and reaction.

This got me thinking, would my life feel richer if I had more ways to describe it? As a native English speaker, I am somewhat limited to emotions that I have words for. Dr. Barrett gives a few examples in her book, and I compiled a list from a google search. Here are a few words—some recognizable (other people feel that too!) and some you probably haven’t felt yet. If we learn them, maybe we can experience them.

Gigil, a feeling familiar to Filipinos, is an urge to squeeze something that’s unbearably cute.

Schadenfreude, a transplant from German that describes taking pleasure in another person’s misfortune.

Tartle, the Scots descriptor for a “panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember.”

L’esprit de l’escalier, a French descriptor of the feeling you get when you think of a witty remark just a little too late.

Pretoogjes, a Dutch noun that describes the twinkling eyes of someone engaging in harmless, lighthearted mischief.

As a student at MIT, I often find that I feel a lot of things at once. I’m busy, I’m stressed, I’m fulfilled by work that I’m doing, I feel connected, I feel adrift. (Or to quote the great philosopher, T. Swift, we’re “happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time.") With all of these simultaneous emotions, I sometimes find myself struggling to find my way through the emotional soup of being a grad student. I wonder if intentionally naming what I feel would better enable me to identify and react? What word describes the feeling of being a grad student at MIT? Do you feel it too?

If you want to dig a bit deeper, I highly recommend Dr. Barrett’s book, How Emotions Are Made. It’s heavily backed in neuroscience and peer-reviewed research. It made me think and challenged what I thought I understood about emotional intelligence. With that, I wish you a wonderful weekend, free of any morkkis (Finnish description of post-hoc embarrassment or shame at one’s drunken behavior; a moral hangover).

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