Dancing with feeling

A nearly 2,000-year-old Hindu text on the performing arts has opened a new avenue of research into emotions. The ancient book, known as the Natyasastra, describes nine primary emotions and how to express each of them in Indian classical dance. Until now, researchers studying emotions have mainly had volunteers assess pictures of facial expressions.

Natives of both the United States and India shown videotapes of these dances identified the emotions accurately in two out of three trials, a new study finds. Volunteers recognized displays of anger, disgust, fear, and sadness, which some Western investigators have designated as the basic emotions that occur in all cultures (SN: 9/19/98, p. 190: https://www.sciencenews.org/sn_arc98/9_19_98/Bob2.htm). Participants also frequently discerned dance portrayals of humor-amusement, love, and wonder, all emotions that have positive connotations.

These preliminary results suggest that “there may be more positive basic emotions than have been previously recognized,” conclude psychologist Ahalya Hejmadi of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his colleagues.

Hejmadi, who is experienced at classical Indian dance, performed three brief versions of each of the Natyasastra’s nine primary emotions: anger, disgust, fear, heroism, humor-amusement, love, peace, sadness, and wonder. He also acted out three versions of another emotion from Indian classical dance that corresponds to shame or embarrassment. Indians view this emotion in a positive light, unlike many Westerners. Finally, Hejmadi performed 15 emotionally neutral dance sequences.

A total of 48 U.S. college students, ages 18 to 25, and 47 Hindu Indians, ages 18 to 40, watched the videotaped performances in random order. About half of the volunteers selected responses from a list of the 10 emotions and a “neutral/no emotion” item. The rest wrote down the word or words that they considered appropriate for each display.

Participants from both countries accurately identified emotions in two-thirds of the cases when selecting from the list, Hejmadi’s group reports in the May Psychological Science. They did nearly as well on written responses. Several synonyms for each emotion counted as correct, such as accusing and rage for anger, and amazed and wow for wonder.

On written responses, Indian volunteers more often detected portrayals of shame-embarrassment, peace, and heroism than U.S. students did. Those emotions, at least when expressed in Indian classical dance, may have more meaning for people exposed to Indian culture, the scientists suggest.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.