Emotion and Empathy: How Voice Can Save the Culture

By Helding, Lynn | Journal of Singing, March 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Emotion and Empathy: How Voice Can Save the Culture


Helding, Lynn, Journal of Singing


I began writing this column in early November of 2016, with less than a week to go before the elections in the United States of America. When it was finished, the election was over and had culminated in a victory that was shocking to foes and supporters alike. By the time this article sees print, this horrid election season will be well behind us and our new president will have been sworn in to office; but the toxic seeds of division that were sown in these not-so-united states will, I fear, remain. Whether those seeds are nurtured to fruition or allowed to wither will depend upon the actions of each and every citizen. High degrees of emotion (anger, frustration, mistrust) were unleashed during the 2016 campaign season, leading to protests that featured both acts of civil disobedience and outright lawless behavior. Those in positions of power must enforce our laws, but reinforcing commonly held beliefs about justice and human decency is the mandate of every citizen. Such a mandate will always find common cause with the pursuit of art and beauty.

This installment of "Mindful Voice" is about the twin pillars of emotion (currently on full display in every arena of American life) and empathy (currently in short supply). This article is not about "feeling," but about the neural substrates of emotion that are entwined with our ability to reason and to empathize with others.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF EMOTION

Recently, I was asked to give a talk on the topic of emotion and its relation to voice. As apparent as this pairing may seem, emotion itself is a vast and daunting research topic, as well as an age-old conundrum; emotion has bedeviled human beings for as long as we have been sentient.

Aristotle's (384-322 BCE) term for emotions was pathé (plural), variously translated as "desires" or "appetites."1 During the 17th century, René Descartes recognized the physiologic upheavals generated by the "passions of the soul" and attributed this "agitation" to the pineal gland in the brain, which he believed to be home base for the human soul.2

Eighteenth century beliefs about emotion, particularly as influenced by romantic thought, saw emotion as "a kind of excess, something housed in our nature, aching for expression," an idea that persisted throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is still present today.3

In the early 20th century, emotion experienced a kind of banishment at the hands of behaviorist psychologists, first spearheaded by John B. Watson's 1913 dictum, "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," which eschewed the products of the mind (especially emotion) as too frivolous for serious scientific study. Behaviorist psychologists endeavored to join psychology to the ranks of the hard sciences by transforming the field from its Freudian preoccupation with interior mental states, to a discipline strictly confined to considering observable behavior.

With the advent of the so-called "cognitive revolution" in the late 1950s, behaviorism came "to be labeled by its opponents as a narrow, rigid, dogmatic and authoritarian system."4 Despite this, behaviorism still reigned as the dominant school of psychology in America for most of the 20th century, and behaviorist principles, particularly tenets of "operant conditioning," were enthusiastically applied to controlling group behavior in settings like prisons, factories, and classrooms.

The pioneers of cognitive science chipped away at behaviorism, and eventually displaced it by ushering in the current era of brain science; but those pioneers had as much interest in emotion as their predecessors, which is to say, almost none. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has ascribed the omission of emotion at the time as nothing more than plain geekiness. "These were nerdy guys interested in the nerdy aspects of cognition," he explains. "It's not that our emotions aren't interesting topics of study, but these weren't the topics that they were interested in. …

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