Elusive thoughts

Emotional Rollercoaster: a journey through the science of feelings

Claudia Hammond <em>Fourth Esta

I don't know if disappointment counts as an "official" emotion, but I felt disappointed after finishing this book. At first, I couldn't work out why. It delivers a comprehensive review of the latest research on emotions, with separate chapters on joy, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, jealousy, love, guilt and hope.

Every couple of pages yields an interesting snippet of emotional trivia. Given a choice between a meal and a shot of dopamine - the chemical that engenders joy - rats will starve themselves to death. Sixty-two per cent of gamblers will sacrifice some of their winnings if this means an opponent gets less. Five times as many Norwegians claim to be happy as Italians. After many years researching the causes of contentment, one social psychologist, who met Claudia Hammond shortly before he died, concluded that the key to a happy life is to take a brisk ten-minute walk twice a day.

Taken as a whole, however, Emotional Rollercoaster is a let-down. Only some of the blame for this lies with the author. I suspect the book would be better read out loud, which only reflects its origins as a series for Radio 4. Hammond, setting out to be accessible, intersperses her all-encompassing survey of the science with anecdotes which, I imagine, are intended to jolly things along. But do we really need to hear about a friend's uncharitableness to understand what guilt is, or learn of Hammond's father's tonsillectomy to grasp that boys are not supposed to cry more than girls?

A more serious problem is that the book's academic vignettes are often inconclusive. No doubt this accounts for the numerous qualifying phrases Hammond uses when describing experiments - "this suggests . . . the hypothesis . . . not entirely conclusive . . . might have finally . . . could link". For psychological research to work, it has to be very specific and limited in its aims. The field as a whole relies on a patchwork of findings that may or may not knit together to illustrate more than the sum of their parts. As I read Emotional Rollercoaster, I started to understand why, despite the "explosion" of interest in this field in recent years, such breakthroughs are unusual. In Hammond's book, we get lots of "whats" and some "hows", but disappointingly few "whys".

At the end, Hammond laments that "emotions have somehow come to occupy a position of mystery. Rather than tools, they tend to be seen as feelings which overtake us. In fact they are ours to exploit." Science, aided and abetted by the author of this survey, is intent on convincing itself, and us, that we can understand our emotions if only we think more about them. But this claim is akin to believing that, if we could just get the shape and colours right, we could paint a tune. It wilfully ignores the fact that emotions are not a subset of the rational, but are something altogether different.

As a psychotherapist, I see every day how elusive the meaning of our emotions can be. When our thoughts and emotions are acting on us unconsciously, they are not merely elusive to straightforward intel-lectual inquiry but immune to it. Much happens in therapy - as in life - that cannot be reduced to the conscious, rational discourse that the experimenters described in this book wish to force upon us.

Hammond makes the very comforting assumption that our emotions are really no different from our conscious thoughts. If this were the case, our emotional life would indeed be something we could "exploit". Unfortunately, however, the truth is more disturbing.

Derek Draper writes for the Mail on Sunday's Night and Day magazine