What is an emotion? How many different emotions are there? Are all emotions universal? The journey towards understanding, whether the knowledge of science or the wisdom of philosophy, is as much about the refinement of the language as it is about experiments and treatises. In the context of emotions, there is still much work to be done in building a coherent framework of terms thanks in part to the generous scope the word ‘emotion’ has acquired. Paul Ekman’s work is a substantial and invaluable step towards achieving this goal.
Ekman’s Emotions Revealed (subtitled ‘Understanding Faces and Feelings’) is the second book that I have read as a direct consequence of Nicole Lazzaro’s GDC talks. This, in many respects, is the underpinning of Nicole’s Four Keys model, which collects patterns of emotions collated from direct observation of players with their favorite games. Despite my love of Nicole’s work, I was rather underwhelmed with Cziksentmihalyi Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience which, after presenting a great thesis in the first chapter, spent the rest of its time tediously repeating the same information in different contexts. Ekman’s work is of a far greater pedigree.
I will catalogue the emotions Ekman uses in his (still incomplete) taxonomy of emotions in the footnotes below (for my own future reference). In essence, the book works its way through sets of related emotions examining the key work by other researchers in the field, before moving on to discuss the specific signs that allow emotions to be spotted in other people.
This is the
aspect of the book which is most outstanding. Ekman has analysed all the
muscles in the face, and identified how these muscles react when different
emotions are experienced. He provides a series of facial pictures (some
composed digitally) which demonstrate the signs and signals of each emotion in
turn. This is astonishing work, like nothing else I have seen in the field, and
will doubtless ensure Ekman’s work is remembered for a long time to come.
Not to be underestimated in assessing the importance of this book is the manner in which it completely yet politely destroys the assumption that there are no universal signals to emotions. It recognises that emotional behaviours and triggers vary from culture to culture, but firmly and surely identifies common responses that hold true around the world. Cross-cultural studies are immensely difficult to execute, and Ekman must be soundly lauded for his work in this area.
Ekman’s observes in passing that emotions can override drives which some psychologists have claimed are the most powerful fundamental motives – hunger, sex and the will to survive. This is a significant point, although vastly outside the scope of the book to explore fully. He also observes that when under the influence of an emotion individuals become temporarily incapable of accessing information inconsistent with their current emotional state. The recognition of this refractory state can be a valuable aid to anyone struggling to reach a more balanced emotional state.
Emotions Revealed is not the ultimate scientific reference book on emotions that it could have been, simply because so much of the research in the field is still vastly incomplete. It is nonetheless the most exhaustive and carefully observed guide to emotions that has been seen so far, and is written with the goal of improving people’s understanding of their emotional states which in itself is a worthy goal. Few scientific books combine a self-help perspective with such erudite work. When the ultimate reference book on emotion is finally written, many years down the line, Ekman will be substantially referenced, and warmly remembered.
Emotion: Ekman’s definition of emotion is at the back of the book, and is too complex to reproduce in full. In short: an emotion consists of  a set of sensations experienced  briefly (longer experiences Ekman considers moods)  about something that matters to the person experiencing it.  Emotions happen without the experience being chosen consciously;  a subconscious appraisal process triggers the emotion.  While an emotion is being experienced there is a refractory period during which information inconsistent with the emotional state cannot be accessed.  People become consciously aware of an emotion once it has begun.  There are universal emotional themes that reflect our evolutionary past, and culturally learned variations which reflect our individual experiences.  The desire to experience or not experience an emotion motivates much of our behaviour, and  a clear, rapid and universal signal informs others of how an emotional person is feeling.
Mood: if an emotion lasts for hours,
Ekman considers this a mood, not an emotion. He deploys separate terms for
moods than for emotions.
Sadness: dysphoria, helplessness, hopelessness
Agony: intense and painful version of sadness; elements of protest
range of states from annoyance, through frustration to rage
3. Surprise and Fear
Surprise: short lived response to the unexpected
Fear: retreat from the threat of harm; physical or psychological
4. Disgust and Contempt
Disgust: feeling of aversion, repulsion
Contempt: disdain; experienced towards people or their actions
Similar emotions are grouped together. Separate terms are used to indicate that there is a different sign for display, and differences in the triggering states. Disgust and contempt, for instance, seem related, but have different facial expressions and radically different triggering states. They appear to be two separate emotions.
from slight amusement, through to intense amusement with laughter and tears
the feeling that there is nothing more that need be done
response to novelty or challenge
felt immediately after a strong emotion subsides
feeling of being overwhelmed by the improbable and incomprehensible
11. Ecstasy (or Bliss)
intense self-transcendent rapture
triumph over adversity, commonly seen in sporting victories
pride in the accomplishment of a child or student (or of a parent or tutor)
uplifting feeling in response to unexpected kindness and compassion
appreciation for an altruistic gift that provides benefit
delight in the suffering of enemies (in the context of play, of our friends)
Regrettably, the bulk of the book is concerned with the non-enjoyable emotions, and only a single chapter is devoted to these sixteen emotions. There is clearly much research still to be done.
Emotions not covered by this book:
(no clear signal)
2. Shame (no clear signal)
3. Embarrassment (no clear signal – blushing cannot be observed in dark-skinned people)
4. Envy (no clear signal)
Not covered, and not considered emotions:
(Ekman does not consider this to be an emotion, but an emotional scene or plot;
it is expressible in terms of the other emotions)
6. Love (Ekman does not consider parental or romantic love to be an emotion on the following grounds: emotions can be very brief, but love endures)
Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings is published by Phoenix, ISBN 0-75381-765-9.