There is a very compelling question which arose in the 37 minutes of this Invisibilia podcast, entitled High Voltage (Emotions Part II): Is it possible to discover an emotion? Have you ever felt something so powerful and innate but it doesn’t exist in between the margins of happiness, anger, sadness, etc? Perhaps the “palette” of human expression is more diverse and some cultures experience others more often because of their circumstance.
Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo was faced with these revelations during his stay in the Philippines where he integrated himself and his family into two indigenous tribes and studied their culture, language, and lifestyles. However, Rosaldo didn’t expect his study to expose him to another layer of emotions he never thought existed- all because of one word: “legut”. The Ilongot tribe often used this to describe a feeling of chaos, absurdity, discord, or “high voltage” (as Rosaldo best likes to explain it). They are a tribe prone to head-hunting expeditions where they march into the Carabello Mountains and decapitate a person and howl after they feel the sensation of legut.
It’s a word Rosaldo never knew how to define and he initially believed it meant “progressive” or “powerful” based on examples of legut he found in the village but he never was able to discover the bizarre feeling embodied in that word until tragedy struck a few years later after his departure.
He and his wife Shelly moved to a village of a northern Filipino tribe known as the Infagul. One morning, while Rosaldo was staying behind with his two young sons, Shelly went hiking with Infagul women among the rain forest’s rice terraces where she fell off a 65-foot cliff. Devastated as the anthropologist was after his wife’s tragic death, he returned to California and resumed the life he lived before researching the Ilongot and Infagul tribes. Rosaldo explains that, unbeknownst to him, “the seed of an alien emotion he’d never experienced before began to grow inside him”.
Rosaldo was driving through Palo Alto one sunny day, however, and felt a powerful sensation he inherently knew was legut. And he started to howl. It was an emotion he felt possess his entire body and consciousness and this howling gave him insight to the world of invisibilia. Because he was able to conceptualize legut, he discovered this new and wild form of human expression as well as a cure for his grieving. Fortunately, Rosaldo didn’t feel the desire to go “head-hunting” but what is so compelling about his experience is that it demonstrates how our conception of things as diverse and varied as human emotion is possible for how we express them.
Whenever I am excited, for example, positive thoughts float through my mind like bubbles and they make my perspective more optimistic and my actions more productive or influential. But when I was fourteen years old, I experienced a series of depersonalization and derealization episodes during a depressive state that lasted for months. I had no idea what I could do because I felt n u m b everywhere. It wasn’t sadness or even anxiety because those emotions including the rest of them felt entirely exhumed from my psyche. I knew nothing of how to react to the emptiness I felt and the way I recovered from it was through expressing it to a psychiatrist.
Like the howling of Renato Rosaldo, expressing our emotions in sometimes peculiar ways is essential to our recovery and reconstructing the concepts that we use to define our emotions.