Apr 27, 2011
Works of art have the power to touch people. As a result, arts such as literature, film, painting, dance, and opera are one of the key areas of research within the Languages of Emotion cluster, a research alliance funded as part of the Excellence Initiative jointly sponsored by the German federal government and the governments of the individual federal states.
Since late 2007, scholars of the humanities and social sciences have been working jointly with natural scientists to study the interplay of languages and emotion. This complex set of interdependencies plays a role not only in how we perceive and think about works of art, but also in practically every area of human life – from language acquisition in toddlers and small children to speeches at major political conventions.
With such a huge field of research, the range of questions addressed in the cluster’s projects is equally broad. Ethnologists and developmental psychologists, for example, are jointly studying differences in child-rearing across three Indonesian cultures and how they affect the children’s emotional perceptions and experiences. Another interdisciplinary team, this one made up of sociologists and psychologists, is studying national sentiment in connection with soccer games between different countries’ national teams. In other projects, scholars and scientists are studying what happens when people are unable to perceive and express their own emotions and those of others. Music and theatre studies professor Clemens Risi, meanwhile, is examining how the opera, dubbed the “powerhouse of feelings” in the 19th century, works
While Risi is researching a specific era in the history of opera from the perspective of theatre and music studies, scholars of literature and psychologists are working together on other projects. For example, experimental research has helped illuminate what Aristotle described in antiquity as the “paradox of tragedy.” Sad stories – presented once as a newspaper article and once in short prose form – are read with significantly more relish when labeled “literature,” even if the wording is exactly the same. Even images that might shock or disgust are viewed with a far more positive eye as soon as they are declared to be art. “The psychological theory that the way we think and feel is shaped by learned cognitive schemata and affective expectations – meaning, in this case, a concept of art that is associated with aesthetic desire – explains this effect, which we have measured in experiments,” says Winfried Menninghaus, Professor of General and Comparative Literature at Freie Universität and the initiator of the cluster.
As for how literature can change the emotional outlook and experiences of readers even in the longer term, Irina Rosa Kumschick has learned all about it over the past three years – at least when the readers are between the ages of seven and nine, and have been asked to consider the award-winning children’s book Ein Schaf fürs Leben (English title: Sheep with Boots) by Maritgen Matter. In the story, a wolf suppresses his instincts and spares the life of a naïve sheep that the wolf actually wants to devour. Kumschick, a psychologist and former elementary school teacher, has developed a program intended to foster elementary students’ emotional competence as part of a project headed by psychology professor Michael Eid. After the children complete the program, they should be better able to perceive, name, understand, and talk about their own feelings and those of others.
Over 200 scholars and scientists from more than 20 disciplines work together in the Languages of Emotion cluster. Most of the participants are based at Freie Universität Berlin, but there are also cooperative arrangements in place with Technische Universität Berlin and with Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, along with several Max Planck Institutes.