Emotions run the gamut, from sadness and grief to happiness and euphoria and many others in between. But little is known about how and why those emotions change at different times and during different stages of life. A team of researchers at Harvard University recently conducted a study to explore these questions.
Leah Somerville, Ph.D, associate professor psychology, and director, Affective Neuroscience and Development Lab, oversaw the study, which involved 143 subjects between the age of five and 25.
Clinical psychologist graduate student Erik Nook, the “resident expert” on this work – according to Somerville – has long been interested in “…how language and emotion interact…” and what might influence a person’s ability to regulate emotions.
This study investigated a process known as emotion differentiation, which refers to how specifically people experience their emotions. Somerville reported that Nook took the lead in the research.
As part of the study, all subjects viewed 20 disturbing images that included oil-slicked birds mired in greasy water, war scenes involving guns and a raging house fire.
The team collected data related to the intensity level of emotions the images evoked. Nook admitted that one of the challenges the team faced was how to assess emotions across a wide age range. He pointed out though, that using different images for the different age groups could complicate, rather than aid, interpretation of results.
The research team had two competing hypotheses for their results. According to one hypothesis, their findings would be linear, suggesting that emotion differentiation would improve with age.
“But there was a quadratic effect,” Nook said. The ability to distinguish between emotions increased in childhood, declined in adolescence and rose again in adulthood, he explained.
“We were surprised to find that children had high [emotion differentiation] scores. But when you look deeper at other studies, you find that kids have a strong tendency to express one feeling at a time,” Nook said.
As children become adolescents, they are more likely to experience emotions simultaneously, and this leads them to struggle to differentiate their emotions. In other words, adolescents are less successful at interpreting several emotions at the same time.
According to Nook, identifying one’s emotions has raised many questions and hypotheses in the scientific community.
“One popular idea is that to be successful at regulating your emotions, it’s important to know what you are feeling,” he said. “If you are confused, it’s hard to come up with solutions to work through an experience.”
Nook added that once a person identifies the emotion, he or she might then be able to employ the right tool to get through a situation. He emphasizes that there is “no clear scientific proof” for this theory.
The subjects in this study were primarily healthy individuals, according to Nook. “But we know that emotion differentiation decreases in people with mental health issues and that adolescents have an increased risk of developing mental health disorders,” he said.
Putting these two concepts together raises the question of a connection between reduced emotion differentiation and an increased risk of mental illness in teens, Nook added.
More research is needed in this area, as it’s important to have scientific backing for work done in the clinic, according to Nook.
Phyllis Hanlon has been a regular contributor to New England Psychologist since 1999. As an independent journalist, she has also written for a variety of health, medicine and business consumer and trade publications. She also serves as writer/editor for custom publications.