Emotions speak a language all their own. We've known this since the 1970s, when maverick scientists like Dr. Candace Pert redefined how emotion works throughout our physical structure. Pert, a researcher and pharmacologist, rocked the neuroscience world when she and a group of colleagues discovered the opiate receptor in the brain. A receptor is like a chemical lock on a cell into which a particular substance or key fits. A typical nerve cell has millions of receptors on its surface, each waiting for another molecule to wander by and bind to it. In the case of opiate receptors, this discovery showed that the brain is hardwired to respond to the body's internal mood enhancement system.

"It didn't matter if you were a lab rat, a first lady or a dope addict - everyone had the exact same mechanism in the brain for creating bliss," Pert told a reporter.

Neuropeptides are "the body's biological correlate" to emotions, our body's most basic communication network. The chemistry of emotion is the vehicle that the mind and body use to communicate with each other. What's strangest about Pert's discoveries is that, because these peptides are not limited to the brain, we have emotions all over our bodies -- in our stomachs, glands, and major organs, anywhere that we find receptors. When you have a feeling in your gut, in other words, that's not just a figure of speech; the stomach is thickly laced with peptide receptors. Anger and fear, sadness and joy, awe, pain and pleasure, are all over us - literally.

Pert found, too, that emotions travel in two directions, from brain into body and up the body into the brain. She uses a humorous example of body-to-brain emotion and how the mind puts a story on it. Let's say that a woman drops a cup of hot coffee in her lap. Her first reaction to the scalding is surprise and feeling pain. This sensation travels up her body till it gets to the level of the thalamus. That's when the woman thinks, "Oh, it's hotter than it usually is." "It's only when [the emotion] gets all the way up to the cortex that she can actually blame her husband," Pert likes to joke. "That's where we put the whole spin on it."

Nowhere is the body-to-brain interaction more complex and revelatory than in the realm of facial expression. In this field, Paul Ekman is the man. The world's foremost authority on the physiology of emotion, Ekman, who's seventy-five and lives in northern California, almost died three decades ago during a research trip to New Guinea. (He'd flown a Cessna into the jungle there to photograph the faces of the indigenous people and had been forced to make a nearly fatal crash landing.) Comparing the facial expressions of humans around the world, Ekman found that there was not a single emotion that could not be recognized by people universally.

Next, he spent months of strenuous self-scrutiny with a hand mirror in an attempt to map the emotions on his own face - for which he was viciously mocked by his peers at the time - and created the FACS, or facial coding system, which, for the first time, explained how complex emotions are mirrored in the face. There are eighteen types of smile, for instance, from ultra-sincere to fake as a two-dollar bill. Compelling, too, was the evidence that facial expressions create emotion. When he grimaced, Ekman found that doing so elicited particular feelings (racing heart, anxiety). When he stuck out his tongue, as if disgusted, Ekman could feel his stomach turn over. We tend to think of emotion as a one-way street, beginning in our brain, but pioneers like Pert and Ekman have shown us that, in fact, our bodies are emotional superhighways with exits, entrances, overpasses, and merging lanes we never knew existed.

Ekman's research has helped us to understand how we make ethical choices. Using his FACS, he found that people with angry facial expressions tend to blame others for injustices. People with perpetually sad expressions, on the other hand, tend to attribute injustice to fate or impersonal factors. These "blame judgments" were proved to be guided by sensations arising in the viscera and facial musculature. And when it came to the smile, Ekman had a personal crash course in mirror neuron love. It happened during a week in Dharamsala, India, visiting the Dalai Lama. He had traveled to the foothills of the Himalayas with a group of Western scientists to talk to the Tibetan leader in exile about the science of compassion. Ekman, who is not a Buddhist, claims to have felt something in the Dalai Lama's infectiously mirthful presence that he'd never encountered before in all his anthropological travels. "At the airport afterward, my wife looked at me and said, ‘You're not the man I married!'" Ekman told me with a laugh. "I was acting like somebody who's in love."

Deconstructing this enigmatic, contagious benevolence, he detected four characteristics common to people with this transmissible power. First was a "palpable goodness" that went far beyond some "warm and fuzzy aura" and seemed to arise from genuine integrity, Ekman explained. Next, an impression of selflessness - a lack of concern with status, fame, and ego - a "transparency between their personal and public lives that set them apart from those with charisma, who are often one thing on the outside, another when you look under the surface." Third, Ekman observed that this expansive, compassionate energy nurtured others. Finally, he was struck by the "amazing powers of attentiveness" displayed by individuals like the Dalai Lama, and the feeling one experienced of being "seen in the round," wholly acknowledged by someone with open eyes.

Daniel Goleman happened to be on that same trip but was already familiar with this uplifting phenomenon, which he'd first noticed among seasoned meditation practitioners in India while a Harvard postdoc fellow in the 1970s. These people seemed to exude what Goleman calls a "special quality, magnetic in a quiet sense." 9 Contrary to stereotype, these spiritual types did not seem otherworldly at all. "They were lively and engaged, extremely present, involved in the moment, often funny, yet profoundly at peace - equanimous in disturbing situations," he told me. What's more, it seemed to him that this quality was communicable. "You always felt better than before you'd spent time with them, and this feeling lasted."

Smiling has a lot to do with it. Anthropologists tell us that the human smile is among biology's greatest triumphs. In our emotional toolbox of adaptations promoting cooperation, smiling is indispensable. Psychologists have called this the "happy face advantage"; we recognize happy faces more easily and readily, which is how nature fosters positive relationships among those who smile. Smiling is also good for your health. We know this from a famous long-term study that compared high school graduation photographs of a group of Mills College alumnae. It was found that those graduates with the warmest smiles reported less anxiety, fear, and sadness than their insincere sock hop sisters, and went on to happier lives.10 When smiles turn to laughter, cooperation levels soar.

Laughter preceded language in human evolution, after all, and can help bond even the snarliest of enemies. In a deadlocked negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis in the 1970s, talks between historical enemies are said to have taken a "dramatic turn after they had laughed together," psychologist Dacher Keltner reports. In divorce studies, not laughing with our spouses has been shown to be more predictive of splitting up than not having sex.

Our emotions create or destroy the world, our relationships, health, well-being. The language of emotions is a new vernacular in our understanding of what it means to be alive in a complex world of uncertain outcome.

You are reading

Ethical Wisdom

Speaking Truth to Power: An Interview With Peter Buffett

The philanthropist musician talks about the antidote to greed.

Dropping the Struggle: A Conversation With Roger Housden

The author and teacher offers a radical approach to happiness in his new book

The One Life We're Given: A Conversation With Mark Nepo

The poet and philosopher talks about how to live an awakened life