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Intense Emotions May Be the Hardest to Understand, Study Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • The belief that the stronger an emotion, the more easily identifiable it is, is wrong, according to research.
  • While people can interpret some emotions, they have a hard time interpreting maximally intense emotions.
  • Although intense emotions might alarm people, their meaning isn’t always known.

Some emotional responses are easy to connect and identify with their purpose.

For instance, if your friend is upset about being stuck at a traffic light, and blurts out “Come on!” you might not be surprised. And if that same friend got rear-ended you might expect their reaction to be much stronger.

While research on emotion has historically assumed that emotional expressions are more distinct as their intensity increases, there is not much evidence to back the idea.

To investigate the role of emotional intensity, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, New York University, and the Max Planck NYU Center for Language, Music, and Emotion (CLaME) teamed up.

The researchers used nonverbal vocalizations, such as screams, laughter, sighs, groans, and more, which expressed both positive and negative emotions. The emotions ranged in intensity from minimal to maximal. 

Participants listened to the vocalizations as the researchers examined how the participants perceived the sounds differently depending on the emotional intensity being expressed.

“The widely held belief that the stronger an emotion, the more easily identifiable it is, is actually wrong. Extremely intense emotions are maximally ambiguous when it comes to understanding their meaning,” says lead author Natalie Holz of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.

Natalie Holz

The widely held belief that the stronger an emotion, the more easily identifiable it is, is actually wrong. Extremely intense emotions are maximally ambiguous when it comes to understanding their meaning.

— Natalie Holz

Holz and team observed that as the intensity of the emotions increased, the listeners’ ability to judge them also improved. However, when the emotions became maximally intense, their ability to interpret the intensity declined.

Holz says the fact that extremely intense emotions are not ambiguous is key.

“Listeners are clearly able to infer expressed intensity and arousal, even if other affective features, such as valence and emotion category, prove ambiguous. In other words, the relevance of the signal is readily perceived, even if the affective meaning is not,” she says.

One way to think of maximally intense expressions is as attention-grabbing filters, ensuring the detection of big events and relevant activation, explains Holz. 

“It is possible that this central representation of biological relevance, or ‘alarmingness,’ comes at the cost of affective meaning, that is, disambiguating positive from negative, or anger from fear, for example,” she says.

Does Surprise or Disbelief Play a Part?

Based on the results of the study, the researchers thought that people may have a hard time judging extremely intense emotions because they are rarely confronted with emotions being communicated in an unrestrained way, such as adults screaming at the top of their lungs.

However, when participants were asked how authentic they found the emotion expressions to be, peak emotion was perceived as authentic.

“Extremely intense expressions are not just exaggerated caricatures. They believably convey emotion, and it seems that evaluating genuineness is not dependent on having a clear idea of which emotion is being expressed,” says Holz.

Natalie Holz

Extremely intense expressions are not just exaggerated caricatures. They believably convey emotion, and it seems that evaluating genuineness is not dependent on having a clear idea of which emotion is being expressed.

— Natalie Holz

She adds that there is no evidence that participants were too shocked by a scream, cry, or grunt, to interpret its expressed emotion.

But Holz did point out that researchers on her team previously found that screams, for example, exploit the same acoustic space as other alarm signals, such as sirens.

“They sound shrill, rough, unpleasant, and, in fact, exactly this soundscape contributes to their rapid and efficient processing,” she explains. 

“Left-Brain Interpreter” Could Contribute to Processing

Patrick Wanis, PhD, human behavior expert, believes this research shows that when emotions are subtle, it’s hard to read them. As the emotion increases in intensity, it becomes somewhat clearer. As the emotion response gets past the point of what Holz calls the “sweet spot,” it becomes overwhelming and confusing.

“We understand the emotion response’s relevance and we say, ‘Okay, we need to react quickly and we need to get out of here or do something, but we’re not able to give it greater meaning or greater understanding,” Wanis says.

He says the brain is designed to adapt to the environment in order to survive and thrive, and because of this, it doesn’t need to analyze everything.

“Plus, if the emotion is triggering the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response), and that goes into overdrive then we become overwhelmed, and if we become overwhelmed to the extent that we don’t think we know how to respond, then we shut down,” says Wanis.

Patrick Wanis, PhD

If the emotion is triggering the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response), and that goes into overdrive then we become overwhelmed, and if we become overwhelmed to the extent that we don’t think we know how to respond, then we shut down

— Patrick Wanis, PhD

He also refers to the neuropsychological concept "left-brain interpreter.” Developed by the psychologist Michael S. Gazzaniga and the neuroscientist Joseph E. LeDoux, this concept refers to how the left-brain hemisphere tries to make sense of situations by taking in new information and interpreting it with what it already knows.

“Gazzaniga found that the left brain tries to interpret what is happening and it doesn’t always have the right information,” says Wanis.

For example, he says if a person asks, “Why did you buy that red car?” you might say, “Red is my favorite color and I thought it was time for a change.”

“That’s your left brain trying to interpret your motivations, but it doesn’t necessarily interpret the truth. Most of our behavior occurs without conscious thought and it’s based on emotions and impulses that aren’t processed in the cognitive areas of our brains. So, it’s our left brain trying to make sense of our emotions, impulses and behaviors, and it’s not always accurate,” explains Wanis. 

What This Research Says About Emotions

One of the main implications of Holz’s research is that understanding emotions is a complex and multi-layered process.

“Making sense of someone else’s affective state requires more than just a direct read-out of peoples’ voices, faces, or bodies,” Holz says.

Natalie Holz

Making sense of someone else’s affective state requires more than just a direct read-out of peoples’ voices, faces, or bodies.

— Natalie Holz

This is insightful because many of the assumptions about emotion, in clinical settings, in industry, and even in people’s lives, are based on the idea that emotion expressions allow a clear signal-to-meaning mapping, Holz explains.

“Variability and diversity in the communication of emotion are likely underestimated,” she says. 

Researchers are digging deeper to better understand where the confusion at extreme emotion originates.

“In our current work, instead of focusing on human perception, we reverse the problem and look at the expression side. Is it really the case that maximally intense expressions do not carry sufficient discriminatory information for listeners to make sense of them? Or, is all information on emotion represented in the acoustics of the signal, but listeners are unable to use it? Stay tuned for the answer,” says Holz. 

What This Means For You

While interpreting intense emotions isn’t an easy task, understanding peak emotions can help with how you communicate emotion.

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