Emotions in Historical Documents

File:Étienne Jeaurat 001.jpg

La conduite des filles de joie à la Salpêtrière : le passage près de la porte Saint-Bernard
Étienne Jeaurat (1699 – 1789)

“Jurors do not and cannot detect remorse or any other emotion in anybody, ever. Neither can I and neither can you. And that’s because emotions are not what we think they are.” This straightforward statement introduces the TED talk You Aren’t at the Mercy of your Emotions–Your Brain Creates Them, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist, psychologist, and professor at Northwestern University (and one of my nerdy heroes!)

I first got to know Barrett’s work back in 2017 when I read How Emotions Are Made (a book that covers the TED talk topics in more detail). I picked up her book after reading Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust and A.D. (Bud) Craig’s How do You Feel?. Having been captivated for years by the study of emotions—as an actor, as a historian, and as a person who feels them—I had been in a personal and professional quest to understand the role of our neurobiology in our emotions.

Barrett is referring to the trial and conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. The final verdict gave Tsarnaev the death sentence rather than life in prison, in part because the jurors did not think that he felt remorse for killing and hurting so many people. The New York Times reports that “Only two jurors believed that Mr. Tsarnaev had expressed sorrow and remorse for his actions” while “Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and renowned death penalty opponent, [believed] that he was ‘genuinely sorry’ for what he had done.” Jurors interpreted Tsarnaev’s emotional expression in one way, a catholic nun interpreted it in a diametrically opposed way.

Who is right?

Well, according to Barrett, both and none. This is because emotions are not an independent reality that exists outside of the brain of the interpreter: an observer’s brain creates the emotion that the observer thinks comes from the person being observed. In this context, the jurors—weighted down by the responsibility of granting someone the right to live or die—brought their own emotional baggage into their interpretation of Tsarnaev’s emotions, and a majority of them interpreted him as being remorseless. Helen Prejean, a leading humanitarian who has been fighting for the abolition of the death penalty for years, also brought her own baggage into her interpretation, judging the accused as experiencing remorse. The bottom line: it is impossible to disentangle someone’s emotional expression from the observer’s  interpretation of that expression. Emotion is co-created by observer and observed. After learning about these insights by Barrett and her team, I started to think of historical documents in a different way…

Take the example of women accused of prostitution in old regime France. They were incarcerated at the Salpetrière in order to mend their morals and atone for their sins. In order to be deemed worthy of eventually being released, a woman had to show signs of true contrition during her long stay at the hospital. Her freedom depended on signs of sincere conversion, and her continued incarceration was justified by signs of pretense. But of course, it was not easy to distinguish sincere repentance from pretended repentance!

Consider the case of the sisters Jeanne and Madelaine Thibault, discussed by Philip F. Riley in A Lust for Virtue. They had been incarcerated at the Salpetrière in 1698 “for having committed the double sin of prostitution with priests and then the sin of sacrilege by receiving the sacraments to mask their evil commerce.” (p. 58) Madeleine was freed after 4 years, but her sister Jeanne had to stay for 10 years before she was released in 1708. Riley notes that Jeanne’s wardens were quite suspicious of her behavior, and in 1705, they attested that her good behavior was due to her having learned of her father’s death, and not due to true repentance for her sins. I am left to wonder how the wardens’ own ideas about each sister might have influenced their interpretation of sincerity or pretense.

Now we know from Barrett that it is hard—actually, impossible—to unambiguously detect remorse in someone’s face. In the case of remorse in historical documents, there is an added layer of camouflage: the words of the scribe. For a historian interested in people of lower social rankings, who very rarely left accounts written by themselves, this insight it an eye opener. Indirect sources on poor people’s lives are all that I have to work with, but I have to be extremely sensitive to what I infer based on these indirect, and often unsympathetic, written accounts.

Greetings, Personal Space, and Privacy


Greetings can be weird.

When you are new in town, greetings can put you in awkward situations because of unknown tacit conventions of the new cultural environment. I was once at a party in Montréal and the topic of greetings came up, each of us outsiders reporting on awkward moments where greetings went wrong in the new town. I had been living in Québec for a while and had noticed that people would often greet each other by offering their left cheek for a kiss. I had also noticed that people who came to Montréal from elsewhere in Canada were more likely not to kiss as a greeting, but rather shake hands or just wave, sometimes hug. In my experience until then, coming from São Paulo, I had seen most people offer the right cheek for a kiss when greeting someone, which sort of trained me to also do the same, allowing for a seamless greeting experience of the cheeks fitting nicely. But that habit was tricky, because in Québec, with people trained to offer the other side of their faces for the kiss, a polite greeting would very often almost turn into a kiss on the lips, which was not the desired goal! I had to retrain myself on how to greet people.

Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain
Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain, on the Isle of Pheasants in the Year 1660 by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) and Edme Jeaurat (1688–1738)
Source: https://library.princeton.edu/versailles/item/905

Greeting conventions intersect with conventions of personal space, and for us humans they seem to change depending on a lot of variables: region of the world, social occasion, differences of gender, hierarchy, sometimes even by the mood of the people involved. A friend of mine recently told me about an international professional occasion gone weird. After a productive conversation with a potential client, she offered her business card, and when the two people were parting, she offered a firm handshake as a final greeting. The man with whom she had been conversing—older and from a different region of the world than the one she came from—at first shook her hand, but after a split second of hesitation, smiled awkwardly, and offered a hug in addition to the handshake. She was slightly surprised, but in the quickness of the moment, she responded to the hug as if it were normal. But she was left with a weird feeling because, even though hugging was normal where she came from, she knew from experience that this was not the case in the place where she was, where people rarely hugged each other in professional occasions.

Regarding this anecdote, I waver between an innocuous interpretation, and a more grudging one: was the man—being aware of the cultural difference between himself and my friend—trying to culturally adapt to the situation by offering a hug? Or did he misinterpret my friend’s upfront and confident demeanor as flirting, then try to take things from the professional realm into the personal with his awkward hug?

When we greet someone, we temporarily shrink the bodily distance that we normally keep between us and other people. This can put us on alert mode. In his book The Spaces Between Us, neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano compares the function of this buffer region around our bodies to bubble wrap: it is a sort of layer of protection that arises because some of our brain capacity is dedicated to constantly monitoring the region around our body. Graziano spent the 1990s studying peripersonal neurons and peripersonal space (which had been first described by Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues in the 1980s). According to Graziano, our bodies use different sensory inputs—vision, touch, audition, perhaps even smell—all in combination with our memory to keep track of the safety of our bodies, making sure that we maintain a minimal distance from potential threats to our wellbeing.

This is not unique to humans. Graziano credits biologist Heini Hediger as a pioneer on the study of proxemics on other animals. When Hediger was director of the Munich Zoo, he transformed cages into environments that attended to the needs of the animals that inhabited them:

More than just having territories, animals partition their territories. And this insight turned out to be particularly useful for zoo husbandry. An animal’s territory has an internal arrangement that Hediger compared to the inside of a person’s house. Most of us assign separate functions to separate rooms, but even if you look at a one-room house you will find the same internal specialization. In a cabin or a mud hut, or even a Mesolithic cave from 30,000 years ago, this part is for cooking, that part is for sleeping; this part is for making tools and weaving, that part is for waste. We keep a neat functional organization. To a varying extent, other animals do the same. A part of an animal’s territory is for eating, a part for sleeping, a part for swimming or wallowing, a part may be set aside for waste, depending on the species of animal. (Graziano 2018, p. 14)

As a historian interested in questions of bodily privacy, I am constantly confronted with the idea that privacy is a Western concept. People with more radical positions, who I have once in a while encountered in casual conversation, even go so far as to say that this purportedly Western concept is culturally imposed on other cultural environments of the world, where people are prone to live more communal lives and not worry about privacy so much.

But the need to protect one’s body from harm is not a cultural imposition from the West. It is a widespread need that spans across many species. I am left with an empirical question: what is the relationship between this buffer space around our bodies—which arises from the need to protect oneself from physical danger and which is present in many species beyond humans—and the need for a safety buffer zone around ourselves that has a more emotional nature, which we sometimes associate with the concept of privacy?

In my next post, I will talk about what I have been learning from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on the social construction of emotions and put it in conversation with what I learned from Michael S. A. Graziano’s work on peripersonal space.

Graziano, Michael S. A. The Spaces between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.