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When I say “I Love You” I may not mean what you think

23 January 2018 - Dr Jan Orman

Human emotions are a complex thing

Some scientists try to identify and classify emotions using electroencephalographic signals in the deep neural network. Others study body movement and gesture dynamics. Others concentrate on physiological indicators.

Atlas of emotions

Since the 1990s Paul Ekman and his colleagues have developed an “atlas of emotions” including a new interactive learning tool but Ekman is probably best known to the general population as a human “lie detector” based on his knowledge of facial expressions. You might also know of the “parent’s guide to using Inside Out”, which he wrote to help parents teach their children about emotions after collaborating with the film’s director. The guide can be found on Ekman’s personal website . His work, however, has not been without controversy.

Ekman classifies emotions around six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness and surprise. He later added amusement, contempt, contentment, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride in achievement, relief, satisfaction, sensory pleasure and shame. Other researchers talk about primary and secondary emotions and if you are interested in knowing more here is a complex table of these based on Parrot’s work .The Parrot classification is just one of many attempts to pin human emotions down to a manageable classification system.

Emotions change over time

What interests me is the fact that the way we see emotions and the importance we place on them changes over time and that they can vary from culture to culture. There is a fantastic TED talk about this by Tiffany Watt Smith, a historian and linguist. Prof Watt Smith gives many examples that illustrate the way emotions change over time. 

Did you know that once upon a time people used to die of “nostalgia” which in its true sense means “homesickness”? The last recorded death from “nostalgia” was in WW1! Does this mean this deadly emotion no longer exists or do we call it something else altogether?

There are emotions described in other languages for which English has no equivalent. Welsh sailors experience, 'hwyl' the elation of having the wind fill their sails. There is no clear equivalent in the English language. Does this mean English speakers don’t feel it or do we just think its not important enough to have a special word for it?


Then there are all the permutations of love. How about kara sevde the Turkish term meaning “black love” – that lovesick feeling of passionate blinding love for another person? Or razbliuto, that sentimental feeling a Russian might have for someone he used to love but no longer loves? Or forelsket, the overwhelming euphoria that a Norweigian feels when he is falling in love? Apparently the Germans even have a word, fensterln, for the time you have to climb in through someone’s window in order to have sex with them without their parents knowing about it.


That brings me to an old preoccupation of mine which is that I don’t think we have enough words for depression. In our struggle to classify human emotions we tend to bully them into boxes, put lots of varieties and severities of emotion into the same box and close the lid hoping that if we do so we can treat them all the same way and all will be well. I think we all know that it just doesn’t work like that. Whilst there are many similarities, depression is different for everyone and everyone needs nuanced treatment for optimal recovery. We can’t just stand back and throw pills at everyone who “meets criteria” hoping for the best. We need to individualise treatment and use every skill we have (and some we don’t) to help each person get as well as they can.


Click here to read - Classification of Human Emotions from Electroencephalogram (EEG) Signal using Deep Neural Network

Click here to read - Recognising Human Emotions from Body Movement and Gesture Dynamics

Click here to read - DEAP: A Database for Emotion Analysis ;Using Physiological Signals

Click here to explore the Atlas of Emotions

Click here for Ekman's personal website and to find out more about "parent’s guide to using Inside Out"

Click here for information on Parrot's classification system 

Click here to view Prof Watt Smith TED talk 

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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