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Emotions Revealed    by Paul Ekman order for
Emotions Revealed
by Paul Ekman
Order:  USA  Can
Times Books, 2003 (2003)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

If you have any interest in the psychology of human interaction, or simply want to understand your own or others' emotional reactions better, then read Emotions Revealed. The author has investigated human emotions since the 1950s, and has done in-depth research across a variety of cultures on facial expressions. He tells us that his goal in this book is 'to help readers better understand and improve their emotional life.' He explains to us why 'it sometimes feels as though our emotions are a runaway train' and suggests that a better understanding of the physiological infrastructure of emotions can help us to control them.

A test in the appendix can be taken to see how good you are at identifying emotion from facial expression alone; my results were so-so. Later chapters in the book show very detailed muscle movements that create the expressions that go with sadness and agony, anger, surprise and fear, disgust and contempt, and different kinds of enjoyment. Photographs of specific facial cues and the explanations in these chapters can be used to improve recognition skills, though the author repeatedly warns that emotions don't tell you what triggered them and assumptions can often be wrong.

Reading about research in the area of emotional expression is totally fascinating. Apparently the author initially believed that 'expression and gesture were socially learned and culturally variable' in accordance with renowned scientists whom he consulted, but in opposition to Charles Darwin who made the opposite claim. Ekman's subsequent research in isolated cultures resulted in important discoveries about the universality of facial expressions. He developed a tool for measuring the face in 1978 and found that over 10,000 expressions can be made! Another important finding was that emotions can be generated by making the muscular movements that are the universal expressions of emotions. Try it; it works for me.

Aside from these breakthroughs in understanding, what I found most intriguing in this book was the intersection (only briefly discussed unfortunately) of scientific discovery with Buddhist mindfulness and meditation techniques. Though emotional expression is universal, emotional triggers vary by individual and culture, and 'scripts from the past' can affect their intensity. Research shows that acquired emotional triggers create new pathways in the brain. In terms of controlling emotions, the author suggests we don't want to turn it off, but to develop the habit of 'attentiveness' (similar to mindfulness), learn to cool our hot emotional triggers and avoid destructive emotional episodes. He gives suggestions on how to do this, while also explaining why it is so difficult.

Apparently this is an area of burgeoning research, and the author tells us that there 'will be many new findings in the next decade' to add to what he shares with the reader in Emotions Revealed. Fascinating stuff!

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