Freitag, 29. März 2019

Report on the Workshop “Emotion Research: Current Methods and Approaches”

A blog post by Aleksandar Milenkovic, Mari Yamasaki, Chiara Ferella, Katharina Zartner, Laura Borghetti, Mirna Kjorveziroska.

On February 25 and 26 the members of the RTG 1876, together with the Mercator Fellow Prof Dr Douglas Cairns, organized a workshop on emotion research, with specific focus on methodology in various scientific fields. 

Workshop flyer

The members of the RTG had the pleasure to welcome Douglas Cairns as a Mercator fellow in December 2018, a position designed by the German Research Foundation (DFG) as a way to broaden and strengthen the scientific exchange between researchers from Germany and those abroad. Fellows, unlike visiting researchers, are connected to the projects over a longer period of time, and they remain involved in the project network even after their initial stay at the host institution. The workshop on emotions emerged as one of the outcomes of Douglas Cairns’ stay at the RTG 1876 in Mainz.

Those working at the RTG are concerned with questions of temporal and spatial origins of early concepts, and especially if such concepts came about independently or if they were transmitted or exchanged between early cultures. Although emotion research is not one of the main topics at the RTG, the variation in emotion concepts as well as the undeniable presence of emotion expression and emotion norms in most of the source materials dealt with by the PhD students, makes emotions intriguing and appealing for research. This interest was sparked either by a new approach to already familiar source materials, by tackling the question of universality or specificity in the interdisciplinary setting, or simply by variations in methodology. The emotion research proved most engaging to the students who belong to our research domain D, which deals with body concepts in a broader sense. The main objective of the workshop was to stimulate conversation among disciplines in order to (re-)examine methods and approaches from a wide variety of perspectives. 
Speakers of the workshop, from left to right: Sandra Hofert, Giovanna Colombetti, Douglas Cairns, Jochen Althoff, Mikko Sams, Ulrike Steinert, Jana-Verena Gerhart. (Photo: Alexandra Hilgner)

Douglas Cairns:
Language, literature, and culture in the history of emotion

Douglas Cairns, the chair of classics at the University of Edinburgh, gave the opening lecture and presented a brief history of research on emotions. As implied by the title, the questions that were addressed revolved around the role that language and culture play in our conceptualization of emotions. Approaching the topic as a classical philologist, he additionally presented some intriguing examples from Greek poetry, with focus on aidōs (respect, shame). Quoting Angelos Chaniotis (2012), who said that “the ancient historian cannot study what people really felt,” Douglas Cairns aimed to show the opposite. He believes that we are indeed able to study cultural models of emotions through their representation in language, and especially in the use of metaphor. The questions regarding terminology in emotion research, the problem of basic emotions, or the methods in reinterpreting emotions were some of the key questions that the speakers and the audience kept referring to throughout the whole workshop, attempting to come up with solutions from various scientific fields.

Mikko Sams:
Emotions: in evolution, in body, in brain

The second talk of the workshop titled “Emotions: in Evolution, in Body, in Brain” was presented by Mikko Sams, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering of Aalto University. In his talk, he tackled the topic of emotions from the perspective of the neurosciences, offering – as the title suggested - three main points of analysis: the evolutionary role of emotions; their bodily manifestations and localization; their correlation with brain activity.

Concerning the first point, he outlined how our behaviour had evolutional and cultural history and that emotions are always present in the behaviour. Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of studying emotion in continuity with consciousness/cognition and not as opposites: emotions and consciousness in fact serve the same function, but not at the same levels of differentiation. Moving on to the bodily maps of emotions, Sams presented the result of an experiment in which participants were asked to indicate on a silhouette the areas in which they physically perceived the effects of emotions. The results were surprisingly consistent notwithstanding the different cultural backgrounds of the participants. Finally, fMRI monitoring (functional magnetic resonance imaging) was used to find correlations between emotional states and brain activity: some areas appeared to be more related to specific emotions than others, but at the current state of research, no definite answers could be given concerning the differentiation in the localization of specific emotional activity.

Giovanna Colombetti:
Materially situated affectivity

Professor Giovanna Colombetti, philosopher of cognitive science at the University of Exeter, focused on two major methodological approaches: on the one hand, the idea of the scaffolded affectivity, on the other hand, the notion of incorporation and affectivity. Following a 2010 study of Sterelny on the scaffolded mind (the idea that the mind is “environmentally supported”), Colombetti extended it to the realm of affectivity, by showing that it is scaffolded according to the same three dimensions in which cognition is scaffolded: 1) trust (in our affective resources); 2) individualization or entrenchment (of some of those resources); 3) the degree to which the resource at stake is employed by an individual or is, rather, collective. As for the idea of incorporation and affectivity, Colombetti presented three modes of incorporation: 1) physiological incorporation, which refers to bodily changes that are necessary to emotional episodes (e.g. the effects of caffeine or any drugs in general on the body); 2) incorporation of artefacts into our bodily schema (e.g. trekking shoes for hikers facing a steep path and the way they influence their feelings); and 3) performative incorporation (e.g. the experience of a professional musician and her music instrument). In incorporation of artefacts and performative incorporation the object (the shoes or the piano) are perceived as part of the body and as that through which a certain affective state is then “articulated”.

Speakers and respondents, from left to right: Jochen Althoff, Mirna Kjorveziroska, Sandra Hofert, Giovanna Colombetti, Douglas Cairns, Mari Yamasaki, Katharina Zartner, Chiara Ferella, Mikko Sams, Ulrike Steinert, Jana-Verena Gerhart, Laura Borghetti. (Photo: Alexandra Hilgner)

Ulrike Steinert:
The ʻsentimental bodyʼ in ancient Mesopotamia: Glimpses from texts and images

Ulrike Steinert, social anthropologist and a post-doc fellow in the field of Assyriology at the RTG 1876, pointed out that the study of emotions is still in its infancy within Near Eastern studies. This may be due to some challenges that come along with this subject, e.g. that the expression of emotions is shaped by cultural context and may therefore differ depending on the language, geographical region or historical period which makes it harder for us to understand. In the case of images, for example, she reminded us that they function and serve a different purpose compared to modern art. While we intuitively would turn to the depiction of the face to detect emotions, there is a lack of facial expression in Ancient Near Eastern art. Instead, gestures and postures play an important role in the embodiment of emotions. Steinert pointed to the somatic dimension of emotions and to the interplay between body, language and culture in their conceptualization. Therefore, she chose an approach from textual as well as visual sources in order to see how intertwined they are. In the case studies that she had presented, it became apparent that emotions are intimately linked to divinities and that they are, to a certain degree, gender-specific in the ancient Near East (e.g. joy, erotic appeal, dignity and compassion as emotions with mostly female connotations; anger, aggressiveness and the evocation of fear as emotions with mostly male connotations). In her conclusions, Steinert emphasized that the decoding of ancient Near Eastern emotions is only possible if both perspectives, from texts and images, are taken into account.

Jana-Verena Gerhart:
An attempt to induce emotions through music in experimental designs

The paper of Jana-Verena Gerhart, research assistant at the Chair of Management and Social Media of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, was at the same time a pleasant musical interlude and an engaging contribution on the possibilities offered by a joined study of cognitive sciences and music. After offering a theoretical overview about emotions and mixed-emotional responses to music, she focused on certain music stimuli. As she explained, music stimuli can produce different (mixed) emotions in different people, depending on the modes and tempos of the piece. During Gerhart’s presentation, the members of the audience were tested by listening to the same musical piece in three different modes and tempos, thus analysing what kind of emotions the melodies would evoke in them. Gerhart used the test to introduce the last section of her presentation, where she reflected on the varieties and different grades of intensity of the emotions induced by music, while also presenting problematics connected to the statistic measurement of the average human reactions. This served as a smooth transfer towards the lively discussion that followed Gerhart’s presentation, which mostly focused on specific aspects of her research, such as the concept of “aesthetic awe”, or the question if the valence dimension of emotion could be viewed isolated from its activation.

Sandra Hofert:
Animals and emotions in German medieval literature;
the various roles of bestial imagery

Sandra Hofert, research fellow in the field of Medieval studies at the RTG 1876, presented the perspective that the emotional capacity can be conceptualized not only as a human privilege, but can also gain a far greater scope, as there is a whole set of literary possibilities in which the nexus between animals and emotion-experiences might be established. This can be observed on the level of the discourse, where animals serve as a source domain in metaphorical expressions about human emotions (the lion is conventionally connected with the heroic furore). Another scenario is to be found in fables, in which, on the level of a whole genre, one can analyse the question to what extent the anthropomorphization of the animals, primarily associated with cognitive and elocutionary abilities, reaches out into the sphere of emotional competence. A third horizon was opened with the Arthurian romance Iwein, in which gratefulness and compassion, on the narrative level, are being ascribed to a lion as the protagonist’s best friend or even an alter-ego in several situations in the fictional world. In the fruitful discussion many remarks from other disciplines were presented, as a perfect example for enrichment qua outside perspective: from remarks that the physiognomy with its insight in a person’s temperament from the outer experience and similarities with animal morphology was not common in the Middle High German literature, to possible parallels with the animal imagery in Chinese martial arts.


One of the most prominent aspects of the workshop was its structure which allowed ample time for discussion and audience participation, thus emphasizing the importance of the thought-provoking interdisciplinary exchange. During the roundtable discussion at the very end of the workshop, we were able to wrap up many conclusions, express agreement or disagreement with previously expressed arguments, and finally ask even more questions that would be eventually tackled in a possible publication.