Last week, I read the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Now, before you start thinking “why only now? It’s a classic!”… I’m from The Netherlands, and we don’t get taught English literature in high school (at least, not extensively. Harry Potter is as far as we get and we are even allowed to read the Dutch translation >_<). And so I had never read Brave New World before last week.
It was a quick read and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I found many of Huxley’s concepts surprisingly insightful and interesting. Especially if you consider the book was first published in 1932.
A (very) short summary
Brave New World is set in the UK of the far future. People are no longer born the normal way, but are bred in tubes. They are conditioned in their sleep, and emotions as we know them are banned. If people feel uncomfortable, they take “soma”, a drug that suppresses any form of emotion (without any side-effects).
I don’t want to spoil too much about the story, and essentially I would like to discuss the way people experience emotions and how they live in Brave New World.
According to the leaders in Brave New World, emotions caused all negativity in the world. Unhappiness because of a broken heart, grief over a lost family member, jealousy, anxiety, guilt, etcetera. To create a “happy” world, they thought that all emotions should be banned. And so, the people of the Brave New World no longer experienced unhappiness, grief, jealousy, anxiety, guilt or any of those other pesky emotions. They were conditioned so that they wouldn’t fear death, would enjoy their duties, and if they felt unpleasant, they were conditioned to take soma.
Soma, a form of drug, would ban all emotions. Instantly rewarding, it removed all unpleasant emotions without any side-effects.
The society of the Brave New World
Yes, there was never war in the Brave New World, or civil unrest, or unhappiness. But at the same time, they could not experience love, either, and were repulsed by the idea of “parents” (as they were conditioned to be repulsed by it). They were conditioned to be socially promiscuous, and if you didn’t “have” more than one person a week, you were considered an oddity.
But some people, particularly a few of the “alpha” group (those that were bred to be smart and to do the important jobs) felt there was something missing. Despite of their years of being conditioned, they were aware that there should be more.
Philosophy of emotion
There are very many theories regarding human emotions, of which the “James-Lange theory” is the best known. This theory was developed in the 19th century, by two scholars named William James (an American psychologist and philosopher) and Carl Lange (a Danish physician and psychologist).
The James-Lange theory states that emotions are caused by the activation of the nervous system. As a response to an experience, the autonomic nervous system creates physiological events such as a heightened heart-rate, muscular tension, perspiration, etcetera. Emotions are caused by these physiological events, instead of the other way around (the emotion causes the physiological event).
Of course, this theory has been challenged many times. Criticism such as “we feel the emotion before the physiological event”, “cutting nerves from the viscera has no effect on emotions” and “whatever emotion we experience, the visceral response remains the same” has been frequently brought up.
The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion is the theory that challenged the James-Lange theory most directly. This theory states that physiological changes are caused by emotions.
It is entirely possible that Aldous Huxley was influenced by the Cannon-Bard Theory of emotion, as it was proposed in the 1920’s. The use of soma does suggest this, as people used it to subdue their emotions before they would cause any physiological symptoms.
A question I would like to discuss is this: would you prefer to live in a world like Brave New World? Would you give up experiencing emotions for world peace?
Next week, I will discuss the many psychological theories around emotions, and the neuroscience of emotions. Stay tuned ^_^.
(P.S. I’m currently working on a list of topics that I will write about in future blogs. If you have any topics you would like to learn more about or that you would enjoy reading about (that is, in the field of Psychology and Philosophy)… Please let me know!)