It's the first snow of winter. You step outside your front door to revel in the cold morning air, entranced by the falling flakes. Every object is still, blanketed in white. The landscape is deeply quiet. Suddenly your crotchety neighbor starts up his roaring snowblower, shattering your peace. Callous clod! Youd like to walk right over there and clobber him. But of course you dont. You step back inside, your moment of bliss ruined and your fury churning inside you.
Whether they evoke joy or rage, calm or anxiety, glee or grief, the most commonplace events unleash manifold emotions within us. And we are almost constantly trying to control them. Virtually no reaction passes through our consciousness without alteration. We love to hear the boss praise us, but if our favorite colleague is in the room we downplay our joy as a way of appearing humble. If that same colleague says something particularly stupid, we bite our tongue to keep from laughing and making his plight worse. We humans are not just emotional animals: we are animals who control our emotions.
Researchers are interested in two questions here. First, why do we try to harness our feelings at all? We need them: anger gives us the courage to stand up to a threatening foe; sympathy prompts humans to help others. Second, how do we succeed in taming our emotions? Deeply rooted in our biological heritage, the animal inside us seems much stronger than any contrived mediation mechanism.
Death by Suppression
Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists generally agree that we control our emotions--almost reflexively--because we have learned that knee-jerk reactions can hurt us. Emotions have their dark sides: anger can lead to violence; anxiety can lead to depression and that to suicide. As clinical psychologists now know, psychic disorders often result from exaggerated reactions that individuals can no longer control.
In addition, in todays technological world, out-of-control feelings can quickly lead to terrible consequences. If a gun-toting worker goes berserk or an incensed driver lets his rage flow through his accelerator pedal, catastrophic results are sure to follow. The ability to stay coolheaded appears to be necessary for survival.
How we exert such control, however, has baffled researchers for years. For one thing, even when we think we have our emotions under wraps, we may not. They may well be simmering just underneath the surface of our conscious minds. That, of course, is what Sigmund Freud believed. He bestowed on psychology the concept of repression: we shunt into our unconscious minds particularly painful feelings or those we cannot square with our ideals. Freud held that the psychic energy that is associated with those emotions, however, has to go somewhere, and it may vent in the form of neurotic or physical disorders.
Other researchers later reinforced Freuds hydraulic hypothesis. In the 1930s Hungarian-born Franz Alexander, a pioneer of psychosomatic medicine, maintained that people who consciously stifle their feelings develop lasting high blood pressure. Or perhaps people with hypertension restrain their feelings. Alexander lacked an adequate way to measure emotions and their control, so he could not pin down a cause-and-effect explanation.
Since then, psychologists have devised ways to manipulate emotions in the lab. James J. Gross of Stanford University investigates which control strategies work best and how they affect mental well-being and physical health. Several years ago he asked subjects to watch shocking, disturbing videos--one showing an arm amputation, another an African circumcision ritual. The volunteers were told not to look away. Gross instructed half of them to prevent their facial expressions from betraying their inner turmoil while they watched--they were to devote all their energies to maintaining a poker face. This type of self-control is called suppression. The other half of the subjects got no instructions about how to react.
During the tests, Gross filmed the subjects faces and tracked such physiological data as heart rate, intensity of heartbeat and the electrical conductivity of their skin. All participants also filled out questionnaires asking how they had felt while watching the videos.
The poker-faced subjects, for the most part, succeeded in hiding outward signs of their feelings. The questionnaires indicated, however, that they had experienced no less disgust, horror or even fear than the subjects who had no special instructions. And yet their autonomic nervous systems reacted especially strongly--an intense stress reaction--lending credence to the notion that controlling powerful feelings may be bad for your health.
Research done by various experts in the past five years shows that the negative effects of suppression are not limited to physical stress. As psychologists Roy F. Baumeister and Dianne M. Tice of Florida State University have demonstrated in recent studies, people who suppress their feelings are also less able to meet mental challenges. Jane Richards of the University of Texas at Austin discovered that suppressors had more difficulty remembering the details of emotionally significant experiences. Interpersonal relationships suffer, too. Emily Butler of the University of Arizona paired subjects with partners, some of whom were told not to show any sentiment during the pairs conversations. The subjects judged the instructed people to be less sympathetic and interesting than other partners who had been given no directions.
Reining in emotions apparently has lasting consequences. In a 2003 study by Gross and Oliver John of the University of California, Berkeley, students were asked how much they tended to control their feelings in everyday life. They were then placed into two groups: people who express their emotions fairly openly and those who do not. The suppressors, who typically swallowed their irritation, fear or sorrow, were on average more pessimistic, more prone to depression and less self-confident. In addition, these students had fewer and less meaningful friendships. Keeping a cool demeanor seemed to entail considerable disadvantages.
Work by psychologist Johan Denollet of the University Hospital of Antwerp in Belgium confirms this view. Denollet questioned people who had suffered heart attacks about their emotional habits. He wanted to know, for instance, how frequently they were in bad moods or had negative feelings such as dread, anger or regret. Did they share their feelings with others or keep them to themselves? When Denollet contacted the same patients 10 years later, in the early 2000s, to ask them the same questions, about 5 percent of the total had died. But of those who had originally reported greater-than-average levels of negative emotions or who had acknowledged a tendency to repress their feelings, a striking 25 percent were dead. Letting off steam, it seems, may literally save lives.
Monks in the Scanner
Denollets findings leave us in a quandary. Psychology tells us that we cannot get along without containing our emotions, yet doing so leaves us socially isolated and physically ill. Fortunately, recent work has pointed to a way out of this dilemma. Emotional regulation does not have to lead to negative consequences if it is done right.
In the studies mentioned above, subjects had merely controlled their behavior, not the associated feelings themselves. If we can learn to see events in a different light, by changing our point of view, we can positively influence our feelings. Slow service in a restaurant might usually make us furious--but if we stop to realize that the poor waiter is overwhelmed by the number of customers, our resentment can dissipate.
Several researchers are now looking at how such cognitive emotional regulation operates--and if it can prevent the problems associated with suppression. People watching films of amputations could experience less trauma if encouraged to view the video with a detached, impersonal eye--say, to examine them as a doctor would.
This strategy was tested in 2002 by Kevin Ochsner of Columbia University, Silvia Bunge of the University of California, Davis, and John D. E. Gabrieli and Gross of Stanford. The neuropsychologists examined subjects with functional magnetic resonance imaging. This method, by detecting the oxygen content of blood, shows the relative amounts of activity in various brain regions. Ochsner and his colleagues showed subjects disturbing images of surgery, fatally ill children and lunging rottweilers. Some of the subjects were merely asked to watch the films, and the rest were told to distance themselves from the contents as much as possible, using strategies they had been taught and then practiced independently. The leading technique was to reappraise the stories behind the pictures--for example, they were asked to imagine that a sick baby in a photo gets well again or that a snarling dog is really pretty far away, behind a high fence.
Ochsner and his colleagues found that subjects who could mentally distance themselves clearly registered more activity in the prefrontal cortex, a region responsible for so-called executive functions--everything having to do with planning, deciding and implementation. [For more on executive function, see Brian Wilson: A Cork on the Ocean, by Brian Levine, on page 36.] When frontal-lobe neurons were more activated, neurons were quieter in the limbic system, especially in the amygdala, which is involved in dealing with negative emotions. Cognitive strategies, it seems, can control emotional reactions. Subjects who coped well also described themselves as having experienced less nausea and disgust, and they demonstrated reduced activity in their autonomic nervous systems. As Shakespeares Hamlet put it: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
The big question is whether such techniques work in stressful, real-life situations. Richard J. Davidson of the University of WisconsinMadison turned to Tibetan monks for an answer. The monks spend many hours a day in meditation for all their lives. An important Buddhist goal is to rid oneself of all negative feelings and think positively. Monks say that they feel much less anxiety, grief or annoyance than other people in society. In the past, some Tibetan monks who were threatened with torture by their Chinese occupiers chose suicide by setting fire to themselves--with smiles on their faces.
To Davidsons good fortune, the Dalai Lama, the most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, is very interested in neuroscience and several times in the past decade has brought together Buddhists, psychologists and neuroscientists. Using electroencephalograms, Davidson recorded the brain activity of eight veteran monks while they were practicing deep meditation. He then compared their brain waves with those of novices who had received only a weeks training in meditation.
The longtime monks exhibited significantly higher levels of so-called gamma waves--which have frequencies ranging from 25 to 42 hertz and which appear during periods of increased awareness. The gamma-wave levels were greater than any ever reported in scientific literature, except in pathological cases. This effect was especially pronounced in two regions of the frontal lobes that are involved in the intellectual modulation of emotions. From Davidsons point of view, the activity was neuronal evidence of the monks ability to master their feelings.
Different cultures offer various ways to successfully regulate emotions. Anthropologist Jean L. Briggs lived for many months in the early 1960s among the Utku, an Inuit tribe in the Canadian Arctic. She was amazed by how little discord existed among them. From long interviews with her hosts and observation of their daily lives, she determined that the Utku viewed with extreme disapproval the display of any negativity. Toddlers were simply ignored if they began to scream. An adult who raised his voice in rage was treated as an idiot or a danger to the community. Briggs (now professor emeritus at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada) experienced such shunning herself once when she got mad at her host family; she immediately had to find a new place to stay.
Briggss fieldwork resulted in a book, Never in Anger (Harvard University Press, 1970, republished in 2005), which has become a classic about the effective control of downbeat emotions. Critics have argued that the Utku may simply belong, en masse, to the segment of humans who suppress emotions. But recent research reinforces the idea that customs and beliefs do affect the subjective experience of emotions--that emotions are not just biologically determined reactions.
Social psychologist Hazel R. Markus of Stanford compared the attitudes of Americans and Japanese in this regard. The norms of most Far Eastern cultures demand stronger individual limits on emotions than do those in the West. According to Markuss findings, Westerners see attempts at control as exercises in pretense or deception. Some also consider such efforts as a possible cause of physical ailments such as cancer or heart disease. For most Japanese, however, a calm exterior is a sign of inner mental and physical health, as well as satisfaction--a positive feeling that may buoy them against the strain of suppression. And the Japanese people are among the longest-lived populations on the earth. Whereas Americans tend to obey the exhortation to let it out, Japanese men and women generally prefer more calm emotional states and less emotional expression.
If societal and cultural influences can channel us from early childhood into learning the right methods, then in principle, any person with sound strategies could learn to deal with his or her emotions in a healthy way. Recall the overwhelmed waiter. To prevent us from becoming livid, we could consider his position for a moment. The change in perspective can work wonders. Suddenly the short wait will not seem so significant--after all, we are not in a rush, and soon enough we will get our food. By using this type of strategy, we redirect unconstructive impulses. With practice we can begin to see more situations through other peoples eyes, without having to stop and think about them.
Many questions remain. Why is regulating emotions so much harder for some people than for others? Which techniques are most effective? How exactly do we go about learning them? What can we adopt from other cultures? The message from science is hopeful: we are not helpless slaves of our emotions. We can gain the upper hand.