What makes us ‘human’


The 13th century Persian poet Saadi is quoted as saying that a person who is indifferent to the pain or suffering of others is a traitor to that which is truly human.

Although empathy is more in line with what Saadi was referring to, numerous studies have shown that pain, suffering, fear, and other emotional responses can be socially acquired through observing the suffering of others. Hatfield et al.’s (1994) fascinating book, Emotional Contagion, for example, offers a glimpse into the mechanisms behind the spread of emotions and emotional synchrony.

mouseBut this suffering and response business isn’t just for humans—animals do it too! Experimental studies such as Jeon et al. (2010) found that mice developed freezing behavior after observing another mouse receive repeated foot shocks (ouch!). Moreover, the observer mice’s fear responses were intensified when the shocked mice were socially related (e.g., mates, siblings)! This may give you something to ponder when purchasing your next mousetrap.

More accessible accounts of emotion in the animal world include The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow and Empathy–And Why They Matter by Mark Bekoff, How Animals Grieve by Barbara King, and When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals by Jeffrey Moussaleff Masson and Susan McCarthy.

Are you feeling sad for the mice in Jeon et al.’s (2010) study? Perhaps sympathy…er…empathy? Is there a difference? Here’s a quote from my in-press publication:

The terms empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but an examination of interactants’ affiliative work warrants greater precision. Empathy “involves sharing the perceived emotion of another – ‘feeling with’ another” (Eisenberg and Strayer 1990: 5) and is “the imaginative sharing of someone else’s experience” (Hepburn and Potter 2007: 99). Heritage defines empathy as “an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition” (2011: 161). Sympathy may be thought of as “‘feeling for’ someone, and refers to feelings of sorrow, or feeling sorry, for another” (Eisenberg and Strayer 1990: 6), but it does not require sharing or identifying with the other person’s feelings.

(Prior, in-press)

You can also watch this entertaining 3-minute video which explains the difference between empathy and sympathy quite nicely.

Can we say, then, that this shared lack of indifference to suffering—whether it’s a physiological or psychological response, a show of compassion, or something else—makes both people and animals truly “human”? Hmm…


  • Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J.T., & Rapson, R.L. (1994). Emotional contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jeon, D. et al. (2010). Observational fear learning involves affective pain system and Cav 1.2 Ca2+ channels in ACC. Nature Neuroscience 13(4), 482-490.


“Some like to observe human beings, others to experiment with mice.”

– Peter L. Berger (in ‘Invitation to Sociology’, 1963, p. 24)

Eustress & Distress

canstock0359890Feeling stressed? Is it eustress or distress? A number of researchers (and laypersons) distinguish between stress that is beneficial or facilitative (eustress) for the individual and stress that is debilitative or destructive (distress). Early work on stress owes an intellectual debt to Hans Selye. See, for example, his 1974 book, Stress Without Distress.  

Selye and Associate

But Richard Lazarus, in his book Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis, discusses some of the problems with this simplistic binary—namely, the assumption that so-called “positive emotional states, such as joy, love, and positive striving (as in the case of challenge), facilitate health and protect against illness, whereas negative emotional states, such as anger, envy, and jealousy, damage health” (2006, p. 264).

Folk beliefs surrounding contemporary notions of stress have continued to perpetuate the “eustress and positive emotion are good” and “distress and negative emotion are bad” perspectives. It is true, we do find that research shows high levels of distress are associated with poorer performance and reduced learning, increased anxiety and aggression, memory impairment, and other negative outcomes. But many studies have also demonstrated that lower levels of stress are necessary for activating and maintaining attentional and response resources, for stimulation and relieving boredom, for personal growth and developing self-regulatory strategies. Without stress, there is no growth and no opportunity for resilience.

In SLA and Applied Linguistics, we are now seeing researchers working to tea978-3-319-32954-3se apart tDocument1hese issues and their relevance for L2 learning, teaching, and use by drawing on the findings and perspectives of positive psychology. This offers a pleasant counterpoint to the prevailing focus in the field on anxiety and “negative” emotions by exploring flow, happiness, enjoyment, perseverance, empathy, hope, and other “positive” emotional states. Leading the way are edited volumes by MacIntyre, Gregersen, & Mercer (“Positive Psychology in SLA”) and Gabryś-Barker & Gałajda (“Positive Psychology Perspectives on Foreign Language Learning and Teaching”).


Aging and death are natural (and inevitable) parts of the human experience. These are as much emotional and even spiritual matters are they are physical and mental. As a result, they are deeply relational—affecting the whole person and their quality of life as well as the lives of their family, caregivers, and friends. How are we addressing the emotionality and spirituality of aging across the lifespan? What questions should we be asking and what conversations should we be having? Where and how can we listen better?

Young hand holding old hand
“People are reluctant to talk about old age and death because they are afraid of emotion, and they willingly avoid the things they feel the most emotional about, though these are the very things they most need to talk about.”  – Paul Tournier (in ‘Learn to Grow Old’)

Thoughts on a discursive constructionist approach (rhetoric all the way down)

“A systematic, data-centered approach, DC [discursive constructionism] refuses to remove the researcher from the analysis. Though the DC approach advocated here supports basing analytical claims on what can be warranted and substantiated in the data, it diverges from canonical CA [conversation analysis] by explicitly making use of extra-discursive insights, including participants’ and the researcher’s own cultural knowledge and interactional histories. This offers an eminently critical perspective and radical challenge to assumptions about social and emotional life and its significance. As a result, it counturtlesters dominant narrative-centered and thematic approaches in L2 interview-based studies by shifting the usual focus from content to construction and action. It embraces creativity and variability of self-representation, and it makes visible speakers’ agentive work and their various interactional competences. (Prior, 2016, p. 17).

Because the researcher is not exempt from this analytical scrutiny, DC is an equalizing approach par excellence. Potter’s (1996) own book is a model of reflexive practice at work. Speaking of ‘an element of self-destruction’, Potter (1996: 9) notes, ‘At the end of the book the ideal reader should be able to turn their gaze back on the book itself and decompose the techniques and tropes that it draws on so freely.’ Thus the processes and rhetoric undergirding our analyses and their representations also become objects for deconstruction (or even ‘destruction’, following Potter). To turn a phrase from the well-known ‘turtle’s back’ myth about the earth’s cosmological origins, we might say that a DC approach reveals the ways in which talk-in-interaction as well as the processes and practices of research are supported by rhetoric ‘all the way down’ (Prior, 2016, p. 51).