“It takes more than one human brain to create a human mind.”
— Lisa Feldman Barrett (neuroscientist, psychologist, and author)
Depending on where you’re from, expressing a particular emotion is harder than you might think. It’s even harder to spot that emotion in someone else.
The artist Oskar Zwintscher once painted a woman sitting on an opulent marble bench. She is with her preoccupied bull terrier. A crown of loosely knit flowers rests on her fiery red hair, hair that blends seamlessly with her long, winding dress. Her legs are crossed. Her fingers interlocked. Her eyes are wide and black. Distant. The painter, using his skills of form and lighting, made sure we could see that the woman’s mouth is slightly ajar, and see that there is a lump in her throat.
The title of Zwintscher’s painting is Sehnsucht. That’s the German emotional term for having a lifelong yearning for an alternative state of affairs. With sehnsucht,things are one way and you wish they were another. You are sick with the desire for something can never be.
To look at the woman’s face after reading the above text, you might think that her feeling of longing is obviously (as well as literally) painted on her face. But it’s not. Read Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, or Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers and you will learn that there is nothing universal about how we wear our deepest emotions on our faces. Without reading this post, you might’ve looked at the same painting and thought the same woman was simply sad, or relaxed, or excited, or anxious, or musing.
The only way to ever know if someone needs our ear is to ask them. Because there is always a risk that you could look at someone who is sick to the stomach with a desire for their life to be another way and then wrongly assume, by looking at their face, that they are just fine. We can’t guess a person’s state of mind from a face because emotions are not universally expressed. Words like sehnsucht show us that different cultures are able to encapsulate cocktails of complex emotions in unique ways.
Oskar Zwintscher also painted a Self Portrait with Death. While Zwintscher’s eyes pierce through the canvas to look at you, Death’s skeletal arm peaks through a window to snatch an hourglass that sits in front of the artist. Zwintscher died in 1916, aged just 45.
How might you avoid a yearning for something that can never be? And how might you help someone with such sehnsucht when you can’t assume their mental state from their facial expression?
- How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23719305-how-emotions-are-made.
- Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown and Company, 2019, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43848929-talking-to-strangers.
Dr Marc Reid is an academic scientist and entrepreneur based in Glasgow, Scotland.
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