When you can’t quite put your finger on how you’re feeling, don’t worry — there may be a non-English word that can help you out. There are hundreds of words across the world for emotional states and concepts, from the Spanish word for the desire to eat simply for the taste (gula) to the Sanskrit for revelling in someone else’s joy (mudita).
But what about those words that exist across many languages — “anger”, for example, or “happiness”? Do they mean the same thing in every language, or do we experience emotions differently based on the culture we are brought up in? Is the experience we call “love” in English emotionally analogous with its direct translation into Hungarian, “szerelem”, for example?
As anyone who’s ever had to scold their dog for stealing food off a plate or jumping onto that oh-so-tempting forbidden sofa can attest, dogs are pretty good at understanding what we’re saying to them — at least when it suits them.
Research has also shown that dogs are able to understand some aspects of human communication, perhaps because throughout history we’ve used dogs for their ability to respond to our commands. Words, hand signs and gestures, tone of voice and facial expression — it seems that dogs have the ability to understand them all. But what about human understanding of dogs?
All human cultures feature music. But the majority of studies of perceptions of music have been conducted on Western university students. This can make it hard to know whether the findings are biologically-driven, and common to all people, or the result of cultural influences.
To disentangle these two possibilities, you need a society that hasn’t really been exposed to Western music, for comparison. They’re not easy to find. But in 2016, a team led by Josh McDermott at MIT reported that the Tsimane’, a group of people living in the remote Bolivian rainforest, showed some unexpected differences in their musical perceptions compared to Western listeners. For example, while a chord comprised of an A and an F sharp sounded horribly grating to Western ears, for the Tsimane’ it was just as pleasant as a C with a G, which Westerners also enjoyed. Culture had to explain these differences.
Now a new study, led by Nori Jacoby at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Germany, has found that the Tsimane’ don’t perceive pitch in the same way as Americans, either. This work adds to other research finding cultural variations in perceptions that had once been assumed to be universal, such as colour perception.
Turn on the news tonight and you’ll be bombarded with gloomy stories. You’ll hear about disasters and human suffering, political scandals and environmental destruction. Maybe there will be some good news sandwiched in there — a piece on an exciting new scientific discovery, perhaps, or a profile of a talented young musician. But overall, news coverage is predominantly negative.
Why is that the case? Ultimately, of course, journalists decide what stories and issues receive coverage. But they are also catering to the demands of their audience — and it seems that we respond most to negative stories.
But not all of us. A recent international study in PNAS looking at people’s physiological responses to news reports has found that overall we do seem to have greater reactions to negative stories. However, there is so much variation in how different people respond, say the researchers, that there may be a bigger market for positive stories than journalists often realise.
Hikikomori is a dark term that describes people who stay holed up in their homes, or even just their bedrooms, isolated from everyone except their family, for many months or years. The phenomenon has captured the popular imagination with many articles appearing in the mainstream media in recent years, but, surprisingly, it isn’t well understood by psychologists.
The condition was first described in Japan, but cases have since been reported in countries as far apart as Oman, Indian, the US and Brazil. No one knows how many hikikomori exist (the term refers both to the condition and the people with it), but surveys suggest that 1.79 per cent of Japanese people aged 15-39 meet the criteria. However, while some assumptions about risk factors have been made, based largely on reports of specific cases, there has been a lack of population-based research. A new study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, plugs some of the knowledge gaps.
Feeling good in an emotional sense helps to foster better physical health – at least that’s what’s been found in studies in the West. But “feeling good” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in all cultures. In the US, people tend to report that being excited and experiencing other so-called “high arousal positive (HAP) states” is what makes them feel good. Many people in Japan, however, place greater value on the opposite extreme, viewing calm, quiet “low arousal positive (LAP) states” as more pleasant and desirable. So, does this mean that engaging more often in stimulating activities – like a fitness work-out or a party – will make for better health in US citizens, while for people in Japan, engaging in more calming activities – like taking frequent baths – will have more of a beneficial effect? A new paper, published in Emotion, which explores this question, reveals some clear cultural variations – though not all of them are as the researchers predicted.
How important is your country, really? It’s a pointed question, especially with Brexit looming and the reinvigoration of nationalistic movements in the U.S. and EU. So it feels like a fitting time to look at a creative study that evaluated differences in, well, national self-importance.
Shame feels so awful it’s hard to see how it could have an upside, especially when you consider specific triggers of the emotion – such as body-shaming, which involves criticising someone for how their body looks. But is shame always an ugly emotion that we should try to do away with? Or can it be helpful?
The answer, according to a new study published in PNAS of 899 people from all over the world is that, as an emotion, shame can not only be useful but is fundamental to our ability to survive and thrive in a group. The essential job of shame, it seems, is to stop us from being too selfish for our own good.
Intelligence is a concept that some people have a hard time buying. It’s too multifaceted, too context-dependent, too Western. The US psychologist Edwin Boring encapsulated this scepticism when he said “measurable intelligence is simply what the tests of intelligence test.” Yet the scientific credentials of the concept are undimmed, partly because intelligence is strongly associated with so many important outcomes in life. Now Utah Valley University researchers Russell Warne and Cassidy Burningham have released evidence that further strengthens the case for intelligence being a valid and useful concept. Their PsyArXiv pre-print presents a cross-study analysis suggesting a single intelligence-like factor underpins mental performance across a wide range of non-western cultures.
No matter where they live, people interpret certain kinds of vocalisations, even from animals, as conveying a particular emotion – as “angry”, for instance, or “soothing”. It’s tempting to think that there might be similar cross-cultural universals in the ways that we use music – that a song used to calm an infant in Melanesia, say, should bear striking similarities to a song created for the same purpose by a culture in the Arctic Circle.
Well, it’s tempting if you’re a cognitive scientist – though not if you’re an ethnomusicologist (who studies music from different cultures), according to a survey of the opinions of academics reported in a new paper, published in Current Biology. “Historically, the idea that there might be universals in music from many cultures has been met with considerable scepticism, especially among music scholars,” note the authors of the study, led by Samuel Mehr at Harvard University, which then goes on to explore whether they do exist.