Gerald Cupchik: Up the Down Stair Case of Emotion

Aug 22, 2016 by


An Interview with Gerald Cupchik: Up the Down Stair Case of Emotion

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Cupchik, can you first of all tell our readers a bit about you and your research interests?

My research explored phenomena related to emotional and aesthetic experiences. This work continues against the background of fundamental concerns about the methods we use to observe and study psychological phenomena. All too frequently, students and professors get trapped in “accepted” methods because this is how they were trained and advance their careers. In other words, in order to get accepted as a lab trainee, to publish in mainstream journals, and to obtain grant support one must work within accepted (i.e., mainstream) paradigms.

Of course, we must be responsible scholars and maintain rigorous standards, but the future lies in “revolutionary” ideas and, to this end, we need to take conceptual and empirical risks. Moving beyond mainstream paradigms is made easier if we focus on lived-experiences and reflect on how they interact with personal meanings and bodily processes.

2) Recently, you completed a book entitled “The Aesthetics of Emotion”. What led you to write this book, and what other books have you written in this realm?

This book is a culmination of 20 years or more of thinking about problems related to psychology of emotion and aesthetics. According to my approach, ideas should be thought of in complementary terms. Rather that thinking that one approach or idea is “right,” I prefer to look for complementary relations among ideas which can be grounded in real life events. To that end, I examined potential relations between seemingly opposing ideas in emotion theory that contrast emotions, such as happiness or sadness, with dimensions of bodily feelings related to pleasure and arousal. I propose “emotional phase theory” whereby emotions emerge from bodily states in situations that are personally or social meaning given background experiences during one’s life time.

A crucial idea is that bodily states shapes emotional experiences when they are below the threshold of perception and attention. When these changes stand out, a person does not immediately experience emotion but, instead, tries to logically find out the cause. An emotional experience as such does not occur.

Aesthetics enters into the picture as a potentially enriching analogy so that relations between mind and body during adaptive or emotional episodes are analogous to relations between subject matter and style in art and literature.

During challenging life episodes or to achieve goals and satisfy needs, the body provides energy to help the person focus and make the right choices to adapt to the situations. In an analogous manner, realistic paintings or narratives provide background information that enable the viewer or reader to easily interpret the subject matter of the image or the story. During both these adaptive and aesthetic episodes the focus is outward to the situation that has to be understood and resolved.

In emotionally loaded life episodes, bodily reactions associated with earlier life episodes are reawakened. These reactions shape and distort our experiences of time (slow down or speed up), space (shrink or expand), causality (which might become illogical), sensation (awareness of taste, touch), and connection (or disconnection) with others.

In an analogous manner, highly expressive style (such as in expressionism or impressionism) stands out and provides a context within which the subject matter is experienced.

In addition, there is an interesting trade-off between subject matter and style in art when it comes to “expressive leakage” similar to “nonverbal leakage” in emotional behaviour. If the artist focuses on subject matter, emotion can leak out unconsciously in how the work is executed. If the artist focuses on problems of style, the choice of subject matter can unconsciously embody themes and meanings of importance to them.

Thus, relations mind and body are like relations between subject matter and style in aesthetics.

3) Now, you have a website linked to your book, with several lectures about the book- whose idea was this? (see website below)

This all happened by lucky accident. Cambridge University Press saves money by only publishing black and white images in the body of its books. My graduate student, Ian Dennis Miller, suggested that I use QR codes as a link to colour images on a dedicated website. This led to my meeting with our director of web development Andrew Egan and it all took off from there. Joseph Stewart, who works under his supervision, designed the cover. The image of Poseidon, which appears on the cover, was proposed by a friend who curates the collections of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario down the road about 80 km from Toronto.

Then a friend showed me a program which appears on the platform which involved 10 minutes of wonderfully orchestrated narrative. I had wanted to video record a lecture that would appear on a DVD, but that was not plausible and so the lecture series was born. These lectures are related to the book, but go beyond it and are Open Access, freely available to anyone who is interested. Someone who wants greater depth and scholarly elaboration can then go to the book.

In addition, we are interviewing the artists whose works are presented and discussed in Chapter 11 of the book. Michael Murphy-Boyer has done wonderful work as both videographer and editor, producing both the lecture and interview videos (that will be on the website in later September). Yuval Avital, as Israeli guitarist and composer living in Milan, provided original music for the introduction and closing of each video.

We have reflected upon the entire process and this will appear in a video recorded roundtable which reviews the notion of “kinetic publishing” as a process that breaks down barriers within institutions, such as universities, so that people with different kinds of skills can work as equals in a creative endeavour.

4) You also have some beautiful pictures to complement the web site and your lectures. How long did it take to construct the entire web site?

The images come from artists who are involved in the book and the video of hydrodynamic fluids that appears in Lecture One comes from the laboratory of a colleague at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, Matthew Wells. We have been working on the project for two years and it will be completed in September once all the videos are online.

5) In this day and age, why do you think it important to have both visual and auditory supplements to a book or to a lecture series?

The easy answer to this question is that modern “consumers” expect this in the internet age. The colour images on the website provide a richer appreciation of the materials presented in black and white in the book. But this is not a “supplement.” Rather, the lectures and interviews are made available free of charge so that visitors can learn about my ideas without having to pay for access to them. This represents a democratization and equalization of the scholarly communication process. I am also providing additional materials, such as the 1973 autobiographical interview with my postdoctoral adviser Daniel Berlyne, which colleagues around the world have requested. I happen to have a personal copy of the interview.

6) What has been the reaction so far? From students, colleagues?

Too early to tell. The book just came out in Europe and will appear in America in September.

7) You also have a kind of roundtable discussion- do you think these types of things are important- where colleagues, say, discuss an issue?

The roundtable discussion is not about ideas in the book but about the future of scholarly publishing. It involves the chair of my department who helped fund the book, the head of copyright at the University of Toronto, and the director of web development at my campus. We each bring different perspectives to the problem and process of sharing scholarly ideas. This video is also available on the website.

8) Beauty, art, aesthetics, emotion–why should the average person be interested in these things, and how can your book and books and this wonderful website help?

The average person lives with his or her emotions and it doesn’t hurt to find out more about what shapes them. We also live in a world filled with stress and taking a moment to encounter and learn about beauty doesn’t hurt. More importantly, our encounters with art tell us about what is important to us in our lives. Art and literature are not separate from our lives.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

When I think of something else, I will add it….now I have to run to lunch with a friend and am late already!

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