It was unheard of for a junior boy to be present in the dining room by the time the seniors had filed in.
This was an intense emotional experience for me, and as you can probably tell, the memory remains sore to this day. But is humiliation any more intense than the other negative emotions, such as anger or shame? If it were, how would psychologists and neuroscientists demonstrate that this was the case?
You might imagine that the most effective method would be to ask people to rate and describe different emotional experiences – after all, to say that an emotion is intense is really to say something about how it feels, and how it affects you.
Yet in a paper published earlier this year, a pair of psychologists – Marte Otten and Kai Jonas – have taken a different approach. Inspired by claims that humiliation is an unusually intense emotion, responsible even for war and strife in the world, the researchers have turned to brain-based evidence. They claim to have provided the “first empirical, neurocognitive evidence for long-standing claims in the humiliation literature that humiliation is a particularly intense emotion.”
The researchers conducted two studies in which dozens of male and female participants read short stories involving different emotions, and had to imagine how they’d feel in the described scenarios. The first study compared humiliation (e.g. your internet date takes one look at you and walks out), anger (e.g. your roommate has a party and wrecks the room while you’re away) and happiness (e.g. you find out a person you fancy likes you). The second study compared humiliation with anger and shame (e.g. you said some harsh words to your mother and she cried).
Throughout, the researchers used EEG (electroencephalography) to record the surface electrical activity of their participants’ brains. They were interested in two measures in particular – a larger positive spike (known as the “late positive potential” or LPP); and evidence of “event-related desynchronization,” which is a marker of reduced activity in the alpha range. Both these measures are signs of greater cognitive processing and cortical activation.
The take-home result was that imagining being humiliated led to larger LPPs and more event-related desychronization than the other emotions. This means, Otten and Jonas said, that humiliation, more than the other emotions they studied, leads to a mobilization of more processing power and a greater consumption of mental resources. “This supports the idea that humiliation is a particularly intense and cognitively demanding negative emotional experience that has far-reaching consequences for individuals and groups alike,” they concluded.
I’ve written with skepticism on this blog before about the current (in)ability for neuroscience to add greatly to our understanding of psychological processes. I feel the same way about this paper. For instance, if you look at one of the main brain-based measures used in this study – the LPP (which was higher when imagining humiliation) – the researchers admitted that it really remains unknown what mental processes underlie this marker. The brain seems to be doing more when you’re feeling humiliated, they’re effectively saying, but we don’t really know what. One possibility, which in fairness they acknowledge, is that humiliation requires more mental processing, not because it’s so intense, but because it’s a complex social emotion that involves monitoring loss of social status.
I’m unconvinced this study provides meaningful evidence for the unique intensity of humiliation. It provides a crude neural correlate of people imagining feeling the emotion. But surely the proof of humiliation’s intensity is in the subjective feeling of it, in the personal and public stories we share. Why does this need persist, to find visible markers in the brain for something that we already knew from the inside?
Source: wired.com BY CHRISTIAN JARRETT