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Can Westerners understand emotions from a remote culture?

ResearchBlogging.orgClassical Indian dancing is a tradition that extends back 2,000 years. Unlike much Western dance, it is intended to express specific emotions and tell detailed stories. The Natyasastra, a text from the first or second century A.D., offers instructions for how to depict nine primary emotions, and these rules continue to be followed in Indian Classical dance today. This movie demonstrates one form of Indian Classical dance:

As you can see, each gesture has a highly-specific meaning, which, to my eyes, at least, isn’t obvious. Yet much research has shown that many emotions share “universal” characteristics. Smiles and frowns seem to be recognized as positive and negative expressions nearly everywhere. So what about the traditional emotions of Indian dance? Can people who’ve never been exposed to the dances still understand the emotions the dancers intend to express?

In 2000, Ahalya Hejmadi, Richard Davidson, and Paul Rozin showed videos of a dancer (Hejmadi herself) depicting 10 emotions using Indian dance to 48 Americans and 47 Indians. (The emotions depicted were Anger, Disgust, Fear, Heroism, Humor, Love, Peace, Sadness, Lajya — shame/embarrassment/shyness, and Wonder) Half the viewers were given a list of possible emotions and asked to pick which one was being depicted. The other half were asked to simply write a word or words to describe the emotion being depicted. A total of 30 videos were shown, three for each emotion.

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