[iDC] The Politics of Perception

Daniel Reetz danreetz at gmail.com
Tue Sep 23 15:08:50 UTC 2008

> Wow, who said I don't have fear? I also said nothing about what emotions are
> "normal" or not. My only point is that one of the effects of the discourse
> surrounding this study is normalization of the status quo, because the
> doctors assume that emotion can ONLY be produced by "deeply ingrained"
> factors like "childhood," "reflexes," or "genetics."  I have no doubt it can
> -- but why not ALSO things like media discourse, politics, and current
> experience, just to name a few?

I believe your statement mischaracterizes the work. The BBC article
uses the words "may be" and other qualifiers, not words like "only"
and "must be". I sincerely doubt that if you spoke with the
psychologist who conducted the experiment, he would say that only
"deeply ingrained" factors can produce fear. While science (and here I
mean hypothesis testing) is inherently reductive -- one *has* to be to
get down to controlling a single variable -- most scientists have a
strong sense of the volatility and unpredictability of the world. In
fact, it is evident in every scientific paper in the form of
confidence intervals and error bars.

The kind of fear response that this particular scientist is talking
about is called the "startle response" and it is a well-characterized
physiological manifestation of reflexive fear, both in humans and
animals (even marmosets). Put crudely, there's a twitch in your eye
that happens when you see an fear-inducing picture or hear an
fear-inducing sound. The magnitude of this twitch can be measured and
the amplitude and timing of it reflect (among other things) how
frightening something appears.The pictures that they were shown were
almost certainly IAPS pictures -- a database of images designed to
elicit emotional responses in people and characterized across several
emotional dimensions, including fear. (User's manual:
http://www.unifesp.br/dpsicobio/adap/instructions.pdf ). IAPS
represents a case of deliberately characterizing emotional response to
images and could conceivably act as a crude "guide" to emotional
manipulation with images. Personally, I think advertisers are doing a
much more sophisticated job.

When discussing science like this, it is really important to go back
and look at what the scientists did and what they actually claimed, vs
what the journalist claimed or interpreted. In this case "fear" is
actually a little twitch of the eye. While there's everything right
about discussing the work and the implications of it, or using it as a
jumping-off point for analogizing it and taking off into deep creative
space, into play -- there's also some real value to find out just what
the real claims were.

Hi iDC, my name is Daniel Reetz I am a Ph.D student in the Visual
Neurosciences, but my background is in the Visual Arts and I remain an
artist. I spend a lot of time reading fresh research about human
vision and seeing it badly butchered by the press.  Part of the
problem here is the specialist language -- neuroscientists and
psychologists use lots of words like "attention" "startle" and "fear"
in ways that don't reflect the common usage, and don't reflect a
common-sense usage, either. I have little faith in this area of
neuroscience/psychology (meaning, the emotional and affective stuff),
and I dislike the way they use common words as jargon, but they've
been doing that for longer than I've been alive so generally I just
avoid it altogether.


More information about the iDC mailing list