We humans read each others’ emotions with great enthusiasm.  Not a lot of accuracy, as anyone who has ever been annoyed by the question, “What’s the matter?” can attest.  If you answer, “Nothing, that’s just my face,” people strangely assume that they’re correct and you are grumpy.

But we do this because we care, enormously, about other people’s intent.  What do they mean, and what do they mean toward us?  Are they friend or foe?  Powerful or subservient?  A potential mate, or not?  And so on.

The question that inevitably follows on this highly practical concern about other people’s feelings, is more philosophical.  It comes perhaps first in that moment when someone’s response to an event surprises you because it’s different from your own.

You wonder, “Is that other person experiencing the same event as me?”  Which leads to the more general question, “Do we humans experience similar emotions, or are we all different?”

Philosophy has come up with different answers over the years, but generally the conclusion is that, on the whole, we’re incommensurate with one another.  That’s a mouthful, but it means that your experience of last night’s football game was different than mine.  Maybe I cared more about the home team than you did, or maybe I don’t care about football at all.

Taking it a step further, think about individual words.  If I say, “London” to you, you most likely get a mental picture of the great English city, but what is it based on?  Have you been to London?  I have, both as a tourist and on business, so I’ve got a walking familiarity with the city.  But someone who lives there will inevitably have a much more detailed, rich, and emotional response to the word “London” than either you or me.  Here’s their favorite pub, here’s their usual Tube stop, here’s where they got fired from one job, here’s where they currently work – and on, and on.

Can we say that the word “London” means the same thing to all of us?

And yet, neuroscience is teaching us that we’re more alike than we are different. Recent work on brain scans, for example, can read human emotions with 90% accuracy.  Researchers showed people pictures of unpleasant things – physical injuries, hate groups, and acts of aggression – and they found that people reacted in predictable ways.  But more than that, they all reacted with pretty much the same brain patterns.

We’re more alike than we are different.

Similarly, work by a team of psychologists at Princeton University found that when a storyteller and a listener get together, their brain patterns match up identically.  Stories take over our brains – and in the same ways.

Human emotions are similar, and the brain patterns show it.  As the chief researcher, Dr. Luke Chang, put it, emotions have a “neural signature” which is essentially the same from human to human.  That also suggests that computers could learn to recognize these emotions with high accuracy – 90% so far.  The 2001: A Space Odyssey scenario is not as far off as we’d might like to think.

And there’s one further implication, which is that accuracy rate for computers is much higher than humans can manage.  And here’s the kicker – higher even than humans can manage about their own emotions.  We’re not even very good at recognizing how we feel ourselves.

Reading other peoples’ emotions, as well as our own, is essential for good communications, and public speaking.  That the research shows that we are more alike than different suggests that humans can profitably learn to become more accurate at reading emotions, and that the results might pay off in better communications for anyone who attempts it.

(The study was published in the journal PLOS Biology (Chang et al., 2015).)

For some advanced training in body language and emotions, come to our one-day workshop, Powerful Public Speaking, on March 31st in Boston.  Spaces are limited, so sign up now!


  1. Hi Nick

    I have lived in London for near 10 years and both kids were born there and my daughter now lives there.

    More recently I have a friend, an American lady, living now in Cork, Gina London, Emmy Awarding reporter for CNN in the past and now communications expert and wonderful speaker. And a wonderful person.

    I have read from you and other sources about “mirror neurons” which I understand play a part in aligning the brains of a speaker and the audience.

    I thing it is very positive to learn that we, as a speakers and our audience are more alike than different.

    Thank you.

    Kindest regards

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.