Where do emotions come from?

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“Mother love or parental love is very central in our thinking about child rearing, but that wasn't always the case,” says Psychologist Batja Gomes de Mesquita. “Mother love only was invented at some point in the 19th century, when mothers stayed home and when it became a cornerstone of child rearing.” Photo by Shutterstock.

It’s natural to assume that most human emotions are universal — love and hate, or anger and shame, are feelings that we tend to think of as innate. The reality is that emotions do not happen in a void, nor are they simply biologically-driven responses to challenges and opportunities. How we feel and what we feel are shaped and influenced by our surroundings, personal interactions, and largely by our culture.  

“It's not our emotions that are universal,” says author and cultural psychologist Batja Gomes de Mesquita. “We feel good and bad about things, but how those emotions evolve, what they mean exactly .... those emotions are very different across cultures.” 

Being angry at your toddler or boss is very different from the anger you may feel towards your partner. Parental love or motherly love differs across cultures, and is very different today than it was a century or so ago. 

“Mother love only was invented at some point in the 19th century when mothers stayed home and when it became a cornerstone of child rearing,” Gomes de Mesquita says. “Before that, children needed to fear their parents and obey rules. So the idea that love should be the one emotion that makes the relationship between parents and children is very recent.”

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In her latest book “Between Us: How Culture Creates Emotions,” Gomes de Mesquita analyzes academic studies and stories from around the world to show that how we experience emotions depends on our own experiences, as well as what is valued in our culture or how we relate to other people. 

Book cover  “Between Us: How Culture Creates Emotion." In her new book “Between Us,” psychologist Batja Gomes de Mesquita arquest that emotions are made as we live our lives together. Photo by Eva Eysermans. 

For example, Gomes de Mesquita explains that in Taiwan, mothers constantly draw the attention of their children to shameful events or what the child did wrong. 

“From an American's perspective, that may sound cruel, but it actually isn't,” she explains. “What these mothers try to do is to teach their kids what is the right way of being a person — a person who knows their place, who doesn't embarrass their parents, who will behave according to their modest role in the hierarchy.”

Jonathan Bastian talks with Gomes de Mesquita about her book and how her own upbringing influenced her research. Born and raised in the Netherlands by Jewish Holocaust survivor parents, she was always aware of a trauma her parents experienced that she did not fully understand.

“My parents had a lot of emotions that I may not have always understood,” Gomes de Mesquita explains. “We were a happy middle class family, but there was anxiety and depression. Not lots of middle class families have those, but they were outbursts that I really couldn't understand. My childhood aspiration was to become a psychiatrist, or a psychologist who looks for these deep emotions, and then fixes them.”

Mesquita argues that emotions are made as we live our lives together and that when we look at relationships, whether at work, school, or at home, we see how those emotions are created, understood, and might change a situation and us.




Andrea Brody