Guardian books podcast from the Edinburgh Festival about the neuroscience of emotion, I was fascinated to learn that the latest version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) reclassifies grief as a mental disorder. As the Guardian interviewees note, this raises important questions about emotions, their contexts and how emotional states are related to brain activity. How should psychiatrists respond to neuroscience? How do we distinguish between feelings and emotions and how do we classify disorder?
In the podcast, Kathleen Taylor and Giovanni Frazzetto refer to Schachter and Singer's two factor theory of emotion, which suggested that emotion is a function of both cognitive factors and physiological arousal and that people may label unexplained physiological arousal by scanning their environments and looking for emotionally relevant cues to attribute it to. Participants in Schachter and Singer's initial experiment were given the same stimulant (adrenaline) under different conditions and were exposed to different emotional cues. Their responses to these cues were then monitored. The results suggested that people can be manipulated into states of euphoria, anger, or amusement: if a subject has a state of physiological arousal with no explanation, they will label this state according to the cues available.
Norman MacCaig writes about the relationship between objects, people and the world around both, the impossibility of 'knowing' anything for sure. But then, it wouldn't take much to put me in mind of Norman MacCaig: I've recently come back from a week in Assynt, following his footsteps to the base of mountains like Suliven and marvelling at the landscape that inspired him from the top of Stac Poliadh.
MacCaig's extraordinary sensitivity to context and scale is apparent in a poem like 'True Ways of Knowing', which you can hear set to music in another Edinburgh Guardian books podcast here. In it, he describes a form of understanding which is 'not an ounce excessive, not an inch too little':
The news you bring me has been news forever,
So that I understand what a stone would say
If only a stone could speak. Is it sad a grassblade
Can't know how it is lovely?
In the world of MacCaig's poetry, things are frequently both obvious and inexpressible. In fact, they're often inexpressible precisely because they are obvious. The last stanza of 'True Ways of Knowing' holds something of this beautiful contradiction:
The way that flight would feel a bird flying
(If it could feel) is the way a space that's in
A stone that's in water would know itself
If it had our way of knowing.