Claudia Hammond is an award-winning author, broadcaster and psychology lecturer. She received her MSc in Health Psychology studying at Sussex and Surrey University. Whilst she still lectures in the subject at Boston University in London she is perhaps best known as the long term presenter of BBC’s ‘All in the Mind’ and the author of a number of popular psychology books including ‘Time Warped’ and ‘Emotional Rollercoaster’.
There’s a whole range of things now within neuroscience and different psychological techniques for kind of getting to the bottom of emotions.
On earliest memories of science
I had a really brilliant physics teacher in what was the first year in old money, so [age] 11,12, and I just remember the Van de Graaff generator and all the experiments that we used to do and all the things you could do in the chemistry lab - turning on the gas for a laugh and doing things with bunsen burners - and I just remember it being really fun, and I liked the fact that you could start and do something, do an experiment, and then get a result and find something out at the end and then do nice diagrams of it all, which I quite enjoyed too.
On choosing to study science
Well, I decided that psychology was a really interesting because it combined my interest in kind of having a rigorous scientific method and doing experiments and seeing what you could find out with my interest in people and, you know, what makes us tick and what’s going on, and so that seemed like the perfect subject, which it turned out to be.
On working in health psychology
Health psychology includes everything from doctor-patient communication and why, say, lots of patients often won’t finish their course of antibiotics and why that is, to patient satisfaction, to what you can do to help people with particular conditions, say cancer or diabetes, what you can do to help them with the psychological aspects of those conditions, or through to how the mind and body link together, basically.
In a typical day for me I’m usually doing lots of interviews for programmes, reading about new research that’s gone on or I’m lecturing to students about things to do with health psychology or social psychology, but most of it is looking at new research and working out how you can explain that new research to other people.
On Emotional Rollercoaster
My first book was called Emotional Rollercoaster and it was all about the science of emotions, so nine chapters on different, very common emotions: sadness, fear, love, anger, those sorts of things, and I was looking at the best research that’s been done around the world on what we now know about those emotions. I mean, all sorts of extraordinary things like why whether your earlobes are symmetrical or not seems to correlate with people’s tendency to feel jealousy, all sorts of extraordinary things like that, like why disgust is such a powerful emotion, why it is that if you give people a glass of water, ask them to spit into it and then drink the glass of water again, a lot of people don't want to do it even though there’s nothing wrong with that, that saliva’s just been in your mouth, its definitely not going to give you anything, but a lot of people feel a strong disgust and don't want to do it, so I’m looking at all the different emotions and all the range of research that’s been done about them.
On the study of emotion
There have been lots and lots of studies about different emotions; there was some interesting research done a few years ago on love and they wanted to know which parts of the brain seemed to light up the most, seemed to become the most active, when people were looking at a picture of someone they loved compared with a picture of someone who they’ve known for about the same amount of time but don't love, so they didn't want areas of familiarity to light up, if you like. And they advertised for students to do this: they put signs up on all the trees around campus saying, are you madly in love, we need your brains, and sadly only four people answered, which was very sad, but then they emailed everyone in the whole university and they got lots and lots of people, put them in the scanner and found that four particular areas of the brain seemed to be implicated. They're areas to do with different things and in a way they're areas to do with different arts, with different elements of feeling in love. One of the areas is an area where there’s very much the crossover between physical and psychological concepts or feelings, so an area that might account for having butterflies in your stomach, say. They were all areas deep inside the brain; they were all areas that are simulated by cocaine as well, the same areas, interestingly. One area was about other people’s feelings, so that might represent the idea that they love you as well. I’ve always thought it would be really interesting to do that study again and look at people where there’s unrequited love to see does that area still light up or not and what happens with that.
So there’s a whole range of things now within neuroscience and different psychological techniques for kind of getting to the bottom of emotions, and for a long time they were ignored because people thought they were too much inside, they were too subjective and couldn't be studied, so for a long time psychologists were studying memory and learning, things that are easier to measure and easier to explain, but now, particularly in the last 15 years, there’s been a massive explosion of interest in research on emotions.
So we’ve now found the different areas in the brain for different emotions but it’s not as neat as one of those old phrenology heads, it’s not, you know, love is here and sadness is here and here’s disgust, it’s not as neat as that, but what we do know is the amygdala - which is this walnut-shaped area quite deep inside the brain - seems to be the seat of some emotions but not all, sometimes you'll hear people saying, ‘oh, that’s the seat of the emotions’, and it is for something like fear, but not for all of them. But there do seem to be different…rather than whole different areas for emotion, there are different combinations of brain systems for different emotions.
You see, I don’t think that learning more about emotions and about the science of emotions takes away from the power of those emotions; I mean, you only have to feel those emotions to know that. You know, I might know why it is that I feel so angry but that doesn't mean I still won’t feel so angry. But there is something about knowing what’s going on and why one thing leads to another that can make things better, even just a step forward is to ask yourself, ‘what emotion is it I’m feeling?’ If you’re really, really upset with somebody, what are you really feeling, are you disappointed and sad that they didn't trust you, say, or that they questioned you in some way, or are you afraid that if it’s a partner that they might leave you, or are you angry because you're feeling rejected, what is it you're really feeling when you’re really feeling upset with them? If you try and boil it down into the more basic ones, then that can give you more information about it and hopefully help.
I think that understanding why you're feeling a particular emotion and the processes going on behind it doesn't necessarily stop you feeling it altogether, and we wouldn't want to stop feeling it, because we've evolved to feel all these emotions for a reason, that they're useful, they’re all useful at different times, even the negative ones; but what it might allow you to do is to step back a moment and to say, ‘well, this is what I’m feeling and this is the reason why’ and then to think, ‘so, I know thats going to happen, but in a while I’m going to feel a bit better again, what can I deliberately do to try and distract myself and make myself feel better?’ Toddlers are very, very poor at emotion regulation, and so are small children, and it’s something we gradually learn as we get older and some people get better at it than others, but we do all deliberately, we might not even notice we’re doing it, but when we’re in a really bad mood, in the end, you go and do something to make yourself feel a bit better: you put on some music or slam the door and go out for a walk, we do all sorts of different things, but actually we’re regulating our emotions all the time and trying to cope with different situations and learning successfully how to do that.