How Frogs Taught Us How to Feel

Our evolving ideas about emotion, and what electrocuting small animals has to do with it.

You may wonder why on a Sunday afternoon, I would find myself tapping out this note to you, dear reader, about Aristotle and Edmund Burke and gory 18th century experiments with frogs and mice. Unfortunately, it boils down to this: My boyfriend, who loves me and therefore pretends almost convincingly to be interested in my scholarly pursuits, is at the Home Depot, pondering flooring. No joke. And my BFF down the hall, with whom I exchange scholarly discussions day and night, is otherwise ocupado with grading. So that leaves you, dear reader, to hear my tale of emotion and rhetoric. And small horses.

Emotion and rhetoric — the art of persuasion — are inherently bound up in each other. That’s something we’ve known for thousands of years, since Aristotle pointed out in his The Rhetoric that in order to persuade an audience, you have to understand how to appeal to its emotions. You have to know the listeners’ psychology — to know what motivates them or could motivate them.

For Aristotle, most emotions weren’t personal to the individual; rather, most were dependent on the social circumstances, unless it was an emotion necessary for immediate survival, like fear. Get the urge to scream when a big, ugly, 3-inch-wide spider appears in your camp shower, as one did to me last summer? Your emotion springs from an intuition that this spider will bite you and you will die before your loved ones can fetch the antitoxin.

On the other hand, if you do something bad, like embezzle millions of dollars, you will feel guilt or shame — social emotions — only if you do it in front of adults; for, as Aristotle puts it, “no one feels shame before babies or small animals.” Smuggle an unpaid-for Slurpie out of the 7-Eleven? If there were people in the store, shame on you! But if there was a Shetland pony handling the cash register that day and no one else around, no worries! You’ve hit the “small animal” category. You will be guilt-free.

Fast-forward a few thousand years and we see Edmund Burke taking up Aristotle’s binary discussion of emotions and applying it to aesthetics. While most of us today know Burke as the go-to man for conservative thinkers, this 18th century philosopher and statesman had a vast influence on the idea of beauty, even as he defended the French monarchy and Marie-Antoinette as a reflection of tradition, hierarchy, and stability. He did this so well in Reflections on the Revolution in France that at times the reader is apt to wonder whether or not on his visit to France, Burke secretly hoped for a clandestine love affair with her. But that is beside the point.

Along with his fellow philosophers, such as Kant and Hume, Burke wanted to know beauty and how to create it, especially sublime beauty. To do so, he felt that one first had to understand what emotions people have and why. Like Aristotle, Burke set up emotions as social constructions, but he divided them into emotions belonging to self-preservation and those belonging to society.

Passions (emotions) of self-preservation include things like pain, danger, sickness, death, life, and health, and are necessary for survival. You want to feel pain when you accidentally cut into your thigh, as my father did years ago when in the process of fixing the garage door, so you can yell passionately for your wife of 30-plus years to run down with the gauze.

In contrast, passions of society are emotions like sympathy, imitation, ambition, and tragedy, and are developed in relation to social surroundings. One will feel sympathy, Burke argued, when it’s socially appropriate to do so and when it’s helpful to us. He wrote: “The delight we have in such things hinders us from shunning scenes of misery; and the pain we feel prompts us to relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer.” For Burke, feeling sympathy for the earthquake victims of Haiti is something we do not only because it’s the right thing, morally and socially, but because it also relieves us emotionally to do so.

Then along came Joseph Priestley, the 18th-century dissident preacher, amateur scientist, educational reformer, inventor of soda fizz, and finder of oxygen (This is sadly where suffocating mice in glass jars was necessary). He came up with the idea of “sensibility” — that human beings innately have the capacity to feel, and that this capacity sprung from our biology instead of our social circumstances. This concept was actually something quite new, and something Aristotle probably never would have accepted.

To come to this idea, Priestley laid a frog down in his laboratory (I hope it was already dead), cut into its throat, and peeled back layers of skin and fat until he reached the muscle. He jolted the throat with a battery; it contracted. Priestley did this again and again, noting that the contraction could be felt as a pulsation in the heart, and that the heart of the frog beat rapidly for several seconds.

Seeing a jolt to one part of the body cause pulsations in a completely different part of the body seemed fairly perplexing back in the 18th century, when nervous and circulatory systems were just beginning to be understood. (Around this time, scientist Humphry Davy was proposing that breathing’s essential function was to carry sunshine into the lungs.)

Sensibility — and emotion — was how Priestly and his contemporaries explained how a dead frog could react to stimuli even when no self-preservation or social persuasion could possibly apply. Philosophers and writers deduced that humans, as well as animals, were inherently equipped for intense physical and emotional feeling; that they were constructed almost like pianos, so that if your writing touched the right string, your reader couldn’t help but vibrate with the emotion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this concept would reverberate through English literature and popular science — as in, for example, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, where Elinor, “sense,” gets to be the reasoned sister, while Marianne, “sensibility,” is the feeling sister who’s more in tune with her emotional vibrations.

After repeating this experiment on other frogs and on serpents and toads, Priestley, I’m happy to report, decided to retire this particular experiment. “It is paying dear,” he wrote in The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments, “for philosophical discoveries, to purchase them at the expence of humanity.” It seems Priestley felt some shame — his own innate emotion vibrating through his own musculature system this time, instead of a frog’s, or toad’s, or snake’s.

While the Olympics were on in February, I had a problem with the Visa Olympic “Go World” commercials. Namely, they made me cry. I’m talking Costco-sized amounts of Kleenex.

So there I was in my apartment, alone one evening, tearing up (Again!) over a Dan Jansen commercial with Morgan Freeman’s narration. (The one where speed skater Dan Jansen’s sister is dying, but she tells him to skate at the Olympics anyway, and so on.) And it started me thinking about sensibility, and the 18th century science texts I was reading, and the Burke I should have been reading, and the Aristotle I had read. About human beings’ in-born capacity for emotion, and how it can be tapped into for persuasion. And, most importantly, about how that emotion is our human connection to one another.

Aristotle may have understood that appealing to emotions was essential for persuading an audience, but he never could have grasped that emotional responses could be hard-wired into the biology of a million solitary television watchers and used to inspire warm and fuzzy feelings about an athlete — or about a credit card company, for that matter.

I blathered on about all this to James, my boyfriend and an Edmund Burke lover, later that night after he got back from the Home Depot.

“You see,” I said, “with sensibility, it’s like emotion is this thing that all humans share across cultures. It’s more innate, and physical, and it helps us relate to each other.”

“Ah,” he said, getting that terribly smart and thoughtful tone he often does. “That’s just like Jung.”

It might have just been my emotional strings vibrating, but I confess that in that instant, my scholarly heart beat with a little extra love.

Article © 2010 by Heather Blain