Edgar Gerrard Hughes on lost emotions and vocabularies

Every week at the Browser we conduct edifying interviews with interesting figures. Today we speak to Edgar Gerrard Hughes, the author of the fabulous new book, The Book of Emotions. For more, see the rest of our Browser Interviews.

Uri Bram: We're going to play a game called The Last Word, where we ask people to answer incredibly difficult questions in a very short number of words. Your book is about emotions, so I was wondering if you could start us off by telling us everything we need to know about emotions in exactly 10 words.

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: Well, it's going to be very difficult to pick apart anything about emotions... including what they are to begin with. So I guess with that in mind...

Far too broad a category to be contained in... word.

What are emotions?

Uri Bram: That's wonderful. So a big part the argument of the book is that we actually don't know what emotions even are.

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: One insight to begin with is that the whole concept of emotions—especially as the primary way of talking about feelings—is surprisingly new.

They were introduced into the English language in the 18th century and became much more common across the 19th century, but before then we talked about a whole panoply of other phenomena—mental phenomena. So sentiments, sensibilities, passions, and all of those things had different meanings. The idea of emotions as one category containing everything from jealousy to wonder to anger to melancholy is a really very new thing.

It is a set of concepts that comes from physicalist psychology, where emotions were seen as motions in the body that perturb you or unsettle your mind in some way. There's the idea that emotions are somehow pre-conscious or vestiges of previous periods of evolution. But with that explanation we've lost ideas that were contained in previous concepts such as passions, sentiments, or the idea that emotions are also something that can have a sort of moral valence and might be a consequence of one's  judgment and beliefs about the world.

There are also several different contributors to the book, so it contains many different people with their own ideas—some of them contradicting each other. So I can't really pin down a single argument, but within the approach of having having all of these perspectives is the idea that the way we think about emotions is too reductive. It's popular to reduce feelings down to several basic emotions—such as in the film Inside Out—but we want to have a way of thinking about emotions that can reduce them to as small and self contained categories as possible and treat those as the building blocks for all of this sort of experiences we talk about when we talk about feelings. I want to offer some alternative ways of thinking about emotions.

...was that was that more than 10 words?

Uri Bram: No I'm pretty sure that was ten.

It's fascinating to think about passions, sentiments and previous ideas about emotions in that way. In general, we're very stuck in our present conceptions, but understanding the history of ideas can help us see how limited we are in our views. Can you tell us more about how people used to view the things that we now think of as emotions?

Emotions and evolutionary theory

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: One of the sections of this book is a collection of different ways that people have created typologies of emotional expression. If you look at 19th century ways of categorizing emotions, you can find people like Charles Darwin or Duchenne—who Darwin drew on in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. They wanted to prove that emotions were vestiges of previous periods and evolution. They argued that emotional expressions were reflexes that were, on a whole, not that useful to us anymore, but had served some purpose in a previous period.

They were responding to thinkers such as Charles Le Brun, who believed that contorting your face into these different shapes was a way of orienting yourself towards God. So the open mouth was openness to the world—reflecting some kind of divine plan—and in expressing different emotion we were expressing different attitudes towards God.

Also if we consider 18th century cultures or sensibilities, there's the idea that emotions are a better way of kind of communing with people since you are overcoming the limiting effects of language. So if you can communicate on a purely bodily level—just by blushing each other and sighing—then that's a more honest and, in a way, a more refined way of talking than talking about emotions.

Uri Bram: That's fascinating. Wait, I regret saying anything, I should have just nodded knowingly and moved my eyebrows.

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: Perhaps instead of giving you 10 words, I can give you three facial expressions to answer your questions.

On obscure and lost words for emotions

Uri Bram: Something that fascinates me is the breadth of emotions that we do not have names for. So in exactly five words, could you tell us about—either of your own invention, or that you have read about an researched—an obscure emotion that you appreciate?

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: Hmm. So five words on one emotion? Well, that's tough.

Compersion... the opposite of jealousy.

Uri Bram: I am informed and intrigued simultaneously. Could you tell us more about compersion?

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: This comes from a section of the book called "Lost and Found Emotions" where I discuss emotions that once had words attached to them—but now don't—and emotions that have come to into existence in recent years. Compersion is a new idea that comes from polyamorous communities. It's a name for the feeling that you have on witnessing your romantic or sexual partner with somebody else, and feeling joy on their behalf rather than jealousy. It's an attempt to reinvent the emotional norms of monogamous relationships for a different model of being with people. That's one of the many found emotions that I write about.

Another would be Solastalgia. It's the feeling of pre-emptive nostalgia for a lost homeland or way of life. This is particularly associated with indigenous communities responding to climate change—the anticipation of a collapse of an environment that you that you rely on.

Those are both found emotions, but a lost emotion would be something like acedia. It's a feeling that fifth century monks in North Africa used to have where they'd be sitting in their cells—meditating and praying all day long—but then a complete languor and listlessness would come over them all of a sudden in the afternoons. They'd have no commitment to any sort of spiritual discipline, just this overwhelming urge to give up on everything. In some ways, it's an afternoon slump, but with a very intense spiritual crisis attached.

Uri Bram: I mean, highly relatable.

Are we able to feel different things if we have words for them?

Uri Bram: There's an emotion I'm feeling right now that I can't describe with a word: the feeling of asking a question one fears is slightly banal. But the question is, how do you feel about the relation between words and emotions? Are we able to feel different things if we have words for them? Or are we already feeling them, but the word just gives us a label to put on it?

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: So I'm coming at this book from the perspective of having done a PhD in the history of emotions and in this discipline there's a strong commitment to cultural relativism about emotions—in essence that language determines our emotional repertoire to quite a large extent. And more than that, because some cultures don't have the same language for emotions, inventing new terms forms the emotion in people. I basically think that's true, and an important corrective to the quite naive neuroscientific idea that you can just isolate emotions in the brain—i.e. this firing of neurons is anger, this is sadness, this is fear.

My own more wishy-washy feeling is that we should be better at drawing a distinction between messy stuff that's going on inside of us all the time—which is clearly pre-cultural and pre-linguistic—and the way we bring it into language and make sense of it. There's lots of research that when parents are talking to their children, they're almost teaching them how to make sense of feelings. Lisa Feldman Barrett, the famous psychologist, writes that when a child cries their parents will often say, "you're not really sad, you're just you're just frustrated, but you're just tired." So we're teaching children how to make a narrative out of the things they're experiencing. However, the way we give words and narratives to feelings has a lot of power that sometimes we don't acknowledge.

Uri Bram: That's particularly interesting and relevant in reference to compersion, which you mentioned earlier. I have a lot of polyamorous friends and some of them started out feeling relatively little romantic jealousy—had maybe always naturally not felt jealous when their romantic partners wanted to be with other people—but the word compersion has come to fulfil this important role of encouraging people to interpret their emotions through that lens. It has also become a way to communicate the emotion that gives social validity to the feeling itself.

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: Yes, exactly. I think you put it much better than I did.

Uri Bram: Nonsense, nonsense. Now I'm experiencing embarrassment at a compliment that I feel is undeserved. Although I don't have a word for that, so I'm limited in how much I can feel.

The sense of confusion when it comes to interpreting emotions

Something very unusual about your book is that it's not structured to convince the reader of one big thesis, but instead is more of a patchwork quilt. I thought that was a very interesting decision. If you could tell us everything we need to know about it... in exactly three words.

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: Hmm...

My own confusion.

One thing that I really wanted to get across is is how is to validate the sense of confusion that people have about emotions. The best thing that you can do when interpreting your and other's emotions is to give them as broad a repertoire as possible.

When I was brainstorming with the publisher about how to structure this book, all of the ideas that we originally came up with—for instance talking about one emotion at a time—seemed to sort of formulaic and fed into this idea that you can kind of neatly categorise different feelings. So we made a bit of a mess to reflect the mess inside the heart.

Although there is a little bit of a structure. The first the first section is about emotions in the body, so thinking about where emotions occur. For instance there are studies where they asked people to draw heat maps of their own bodies and describe what parts felt hot and cold when they're feeling different emotions. It's interesting to see what kinds of cultural differences and similarities arise in those cases.

After that we go to expression and then to relationships—the way that emotions form and are formed by interpersonal dynamics. Then we go further out to cultures of emotion before, finally, reaching a bit on transcendence and the way emotions are discussed in religion or reaching contact with higher states of being.

The book contains everything from essays high and low to quizzes. What I like about the book is that it's not really taking you on a journey, it's spinning around and around, hoping that you end up somewhere kind of interesting.

Uri Bram: On a personal level I have often felt books are too reductive and linear. Much of nonfiction is about trying to push people down a particular line of thinking. You know how in the history of visual art we shifted from realism to artists who thought that the truth was better better captured by Cubism or whatever? Where they began depicting things from six perspectives at once yet it was is in some ways more real and more true?

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: Well, I don't want to claim to be the Picasso of nonfiction, but thank you, I guess.

Locating emotions in the body

Uri Bram: You mentioned emotions in the body and how sometimes we are able to identify the physical location of an emotion. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: One of the most important theorists of emotion is William James—the psychologist and philosopher—and he thought that bodily movements were the emotions themselves. His famous example is how when you see a bear you actually don't immediately feel scared, but then your heart start beating, your bowels go a bit loose, and you start sweating.  He thought that when you feel your pulse racing, that's the subjective consciousness of fear itself.

That theory is still very powerful in emotions theory and a lot the debate is structured around the question of whether you can separate emotions from from bodily sensations. Most people would find it very difficult to imagine what an emotion would feel like if it wasn't in the body. If you really introspect, it's hard to separate emotions from feelings.

One of the more recent theories in this book is an idea called interoception, where we have perception of the insides of our body that we're barely aware of and that's what emotions are—our ability to perceive things in our body and make sense of them. For instance, there is research that suggests people can feel their heartbeat. Can you can you feel your heartbeat right now?

Uri Bram: I'm suddenly aware of it.

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: There's actually huge range in people's ability to feel their pulse, and those can feel their heart rate are much more susceptible to things like anxiety. So the idea is that you're suppressing many things you can feel about your body—i.e. your brain is not allowing them to enter your consciousness—but the extent that you can do that determines how you feel emotionally from one month to the next.

Another thing that's become much more common is considering emotions through the lens of Eastern philosophy—such as considering the effects of meditation and yoga. So much of those practices are about tuning into your bodily sensations as a way of getting to grips with the fluctuations in your feelings that you're not always conscious of but yet determine the patterns of your thoughts.

Uri Bram: Well, we have reached the last word, and I was wondering if you could give us exactly one word you would like our audience to go away with today.

What does gruntled mean?

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: We were talking earlier about lost words and found words for emotions. And I'm going to go with a lost word, which is:


Uri Bram: I love that. Please, could you tell us what it means to be gruntled?

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: Gruntled is one of several lost positive emotions—we say "disgruntled" but not "gruntled". Another is "mayed" which is now part of "dismayed". Or "ruthful" as the opposite of "ruthless". "Reckful" is the opposite of "reckless". These all existed before, but we're very neggy I guess, so we just keep the bad ones and remove the good ones.

Gruntled is what I hope you'll feel after reading the book. As the opposite of disgruntled, it means pleased, satisfied, and generally fulfilled. So there we go.

Uri Bram: Well, let me just say that I am exceptionally gruntled. I'm more than gruntled. It's been such a pleasure talking to you. And please, if you could just tell people where they can find your book and your work more generally.

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: You can find it if you go to the Redstone Press website, that's the best place to order it. You can get the book animations and lots of other little charming books. Also on Amazon, and hopefully at your nearest bookshop, but that's if you're in Britain.

In America, it will be released under a different name. In fact, that's quite important. It's called "How do you feel?" in the USA. You'll be able to order that online now, but it will be available in book shops next month.

Uri Bram: Fantastic. Edgar, thank you so much for joining us today.

Edgar Gerrard Hughes: It's been a pleasure.

The Book of Emotions (UK edition) - Redstone Press, Hive, Bookshop, Amazon

How do you feel? (US edition) - Powell's Books, Amazon

Charles Darwin and Duchenne

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin

Charles Le Brun

Solastalgia and indigenous communities responding to climate change

Acedia, 5th century North African monks, and you in quarantine

The neuroscientific idea that you can just isolate emotions in the brain

Lisa Feldman Barrett

Studies where people to drew heat maps of their own bodies and described what parts felt hot and cold when they're feeling different emotions

William James


Looking to hear more from interesting people? See our other interviews which include conversations with three Stanford professors on where Big Tech went wrong, Slime Mold Time Mold on the obesity epidemic, and Chris Williamson on how Love Island cured his existential crisis.

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