How to kill a popular book - review it as if it were a bad scientific research report. by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr, Ph.D. June 2, 2013

This is a critique of the review by HOWARD T. BLANE, Ph.D. in 1963 of

The Body and Its Mind—An Introduction to Attitude Psychology by Nina Bull
Las Americas Publishing Co., New York, 1962, 99 pp., $3.50.

RK: Note. This is a popularization book; the original report was more technical and was published as a Nervous Disease Monograph in 1951.

HB: This small volume presents a theory of emotion based on a modification of the James-Lange theory.

RK: See James–Lange theory. In true time-binding fashion, Nina Bull abstracts from and builds on the James-Lange theory.

HB: Bull's central thesis is that preparatory motor attitudes held up from going into action cause feelings. She conceives of these body attitudes as reflexes of orientation and intuition that are instinctive, involuntary, and unconscious.

RK: A better explanation is that the sum of proprioceptive and interioceptive sensory input from the body, including the effect of hormone changes, is experienced as an overall gestalt when we activate our flight or fight response in response to a sudden startling event. Our immediate response is to jump into running away or to turn and face the intruding event and prepare for defense/attack depending on the prior context, for examples, walking on a dark street at night alone, walking on a dark street at night with a dependent companion, etc. The gestalt feeling starts immediately upon the first preliminary motor preparations

Having these feelings has great survival value, especially if the build-up that Nina Bull describes, leads to consummation of the appropriate action. Cornered by a not too hungry tiger, the fear feeling (preparation to run away) builds up and the potential tiger diner bolts and escapes just often enough to pass on his or her genetic ability to feel this “charging capacitor” action. (False starts at the runner starting gate is another example of the effect.) Other emotions also serve survival of the genomes - elation by helping to form pair-bonds and enhance mating, anger to attack blocks to desires, depression to keep group status order without constantly spending energy to compete for status, disgust, to consolidate emptying the gut of spoiled or toxic food.

HB: Feeling is assumed to intervene between preparatory attitude and consummately action; when there is no delay between attitude and action there is no feeling state. Consummatory action serves to extinguish the feeling states.

RK: This is not an assumption, it is a consequence of the findings based on trained observers and the reports of subjects under hypnosis. To get more technical detail on this, one must go back to the original Nervous Disease Monograph published in 1951; it reports the experiments in detail. In a popularization book, many of the technical details are excised in the interest of choosing language suitable to the target audience - a popular audience.

HB: Bull adduces the findings of two series of hypnotic experiments to support her position. In the first, subjects assumed consistent body attitudes when asked to experience various emotions,

RK: The consistency was abstracted by observers who were tasked with describing the postures in detail of the subjects - I believe without informing them as to what the hypnotized subjects were told to experience, “being angry”, “being disgusted”, “being depressed”, etc.

HB: and in the second, subjects fixed in certain physical attitudes were unable to experience feelings associated with body attitudes different from the ones in which they were fixed.

RK: This leaves out too many details. The subjects were physically placed in the motor attitude position being tested. Then they were told to experience “being angry” or any of the other five. Observers noted that two things happened. 1) the subjects would spontaneously change their motor attitude consistent with the commanded feeling, or 2) they would spontaneously report that they could not feel “being depressed”, etc., when they were told to experience one of the 5 conflicting emotions.

RK: It needs to be understood here that the word 'emotion' is technical in this theory. The correlation being tested is between the “feelings” of an emotion and the physiological motor orientations that were consistently observed by the trained observers during phase 1 of the experiment.. If the postures (subtle preliminary motor attitude) were independent of the emotions (the feelings of the emotions) there would be a 16.6% chance of matching two. Also the results of phase 1 would be highly unlikely - that consistent but conflicting postures were in evidence for each of the views.

HB: In subsequent chapters, Bull extends her theory to include goal orientation, frustration, and depression: much of this is based on Maier's distinction between goal-oriented and frustration-motivated behavior.

RK: Maier (p. 140) contrasts angry behavior and frustrated behavior noting that in angry behavior the subject continues to act towards a goal, while in frustrated behavior goal orientation disappears. Nina Bull is providing a theoretical structure which accounts for the distinction of Maier as the result of a sequence of behavior.
a) goal directed behavior
b) blocked goal
c) Anger - attack the goal. (If successful, resume goal directed behavior)
d) When not successful, stop wasting resources and accept the loss, but at the expense of carrying an unfulfilled goal. This also occurs when the goal can not be attacked.
Depression, then becomes the result of blocked goals that can not be released together with blockage that can no longer be attacked. In evolution it serves to keep one in his or her established place in the social/status hierarchy. Groups survive better when status struggles are kept to a minimum (not wasting energy), so once your place in the status hierarchy is established, every time you meet or come up to someone higher, you accept your place by the resurgence of the “depressed” attitude and defer to the higher. In combination with “anger” when somebody less than you meets you, having beaten the block they first posed, you have the slight elation feeling in which you continue to maintain your position, successfully placed higher in status than the other. As status is somewhat loser among humans, most of this has become highly symbolized.

HB: This in brief is the content of the book.

RK: As noted, the reviewer's perspective fails to include necessary details.

HB: Both as a contribution to theories of emotion and as an example of scientific writing this book suffers serious defects. Although few would question that emotions as psychological phenomena are also revealed in internal and external behavior, there is little evidence to assume a direct causal relationship between body attitudes and emotions.

RK: This begs the question by assuming that the truth of this new theory depends upon it's having had previous evidence. That is faulty reasoning.

HK: Such an assumption obscures the manifest complexity of affective processes.

RK: Wow! What an abstract statement. The purpose of simplified theories is to provide a first glimpse of structure. Fully complex structure do not arrive fully developed; they must be built piece by piece, and Nina Bull provides such a view of a part of the iceberg above water. More research will be needed to bring the underwater potions into view. This reviewer is treating this beginning theory as if it should have been fully formed and complete. This is a red herring. As I have noted a number of times, 1) Women did not feature strongly in science research in the 1940's, the “good-ol'-boys” culture was strongly prejudicial of female participation, and 2) the theory placed the feelings (of emotion[al responses]) contrary to the entrenched, and still entrenched, belief that feelings come before action. People do not understand that feelings followed by action is not proved wrong, merely a triggering pre-act posturing occurs that starts the process of feeling an emotional response. [And, I have claimed that orientation to or from is immediate from the evaluation of to approach or avoid.]

HB: Bull's work as a whole has an anachronistic quality, and this for several reasons: reliance on the James-Lange hypothesis, which has for several decades received scant attention other than as historical background in introductory psychology tests;

RK: That this early theory has also not experienced a lot of attention does not mean that it is not part of the development of thought about emotion. It only takes a tiny bit of terminological change (to update the sense) and yield consistency with much of the modern view, particularly when you use anger, blocks, depression instead of the more strictly behavioral perspective.

HB: an almost complete lack of reference to the relevant literature of the past 20 years;

RK: Well, Nina Bull does not go that far. Consider Mark Clifton:

"... would regard the absolutely true facts proved beyond question by science with an attitude of skepticism, temporarily accepting the incontestably immutable as only provisionary, and probably quite wrong."

"Disregard everything everybody has ever said; to start out from scratch as if nobody had ever had the sense to think about the problem before; to doubt most of all the opinion of the experts, for, obviously, if the experts were right then there would be no problem."

HB: and emphasis on one-to-one causal relationships and on the concept of instinct.

RK: Causal, yes, that is what science is about., Instinct - well, we are talking about more or less automatic physical responses to various stimuli, much of which is learned, but we can not forget that we evolved, so there is no shame in having programmable “insticncts” that serve us well in propagating the species.

HB: Use of notions involving multiple determination, probability, or the social and cultural vicissitudes of emotion are notable by their absence. Key terms, such as emotion, instinct, feeling, and unconscious are not defined. Bull's style is overly terse, so that an outline rather than a full fledged work emerges, and the book is further marred by the inclusion of two testimonials. In summary, this work, a poor example of scientific writing,

RK: The reviewer is treating this book as if it were a scientific research report. It is not; it is a popularization of the original work, published in 1951 in the Nervous Diseases Monographs.

HB: does little to advance theoretical statements about emotion. HOWARD T. BLANE, Ph.D.

RK: This book was never intended as a pure scientific writing. For that, he needed to go to the 1951 publication.

In summary, this review is biased from the start, and some of the characteristics it claims as flaws are actually to the credit of the author.

In more recent developments...

On a couple of occasions I have noted research that seemed to corroborate Nina Bull's work.  And, on occasion, I have written to the researcher in question.  While I can not find my correspondence on these right now, I did get back an affirmation in one case that agreed that his current work was consistent with Nina Bull's findings.  More and more evidence is accumulating to show that our "understanding" is "embodied". Recall that recent brain research shows that when asked to think about some sport activity, brain scans reveal activity in the motor cortex. So understanding the feelings of "fear", "anger", etc, as studied by Nina Bull as "embodied" in subtle, slight, preparatory motor attitudes, is beginning to be corroborated in general brain research.