Map Critique: Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions

Map Choice: Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions (

I wanted to look at the Atlas of Emotions, created by psychologists Paul and Eve Ekman in collaboration with Stamen Design. This map was commissioned by the Dalai Lama, who wanted a map that could lead us to find a calm mind, which would in turn get us to a more peaceful world. The map is intended to be an interactive tool through which the viewers become more in touch with their inner emotions and develop strategies that help them respond in helpful, constructive ways. Specifically, the Ekmans want the atlas to be used as an educational tool so that educators and therapists can use it with their students/clients to help them better understand themselves.

In visualizing the landscape of human emotion, Paul and Eve Ekman categorizes human emotions into five “continents”: anger, fear, disgust, sadness and enjoyment. The movement of continents signify that emotions vary in their strength and intensity in different situations.

It then shows what emotional states we can experience within each continent:

…and proceeds to direct us towards possible responses, and an assessment of whether each response is constructive, destructive or ambiguous in each situation.

Another prominent feature of this atlas is the “timeline” of emotional experience, where the trigger, the experience, and the response are mapped in a cause-and-effect relationship.

Together, the maps in Atlas of Emotions attempt to present a landscape of universal human emotions. One thing to keep in mind is that the Atlas maps a hypothetical emotional experience, rather than a specific experience of a specific human being. The Atlas maps a generalized understanding of human emotion; what is being mapped is not “emotion” per se but a very particular perspective and measurement on how to understand the unfolding of emotions in time. As such, Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions is more of a model or a methodological guideline. To better understand how this model works and where it fails to work, I drew a map of my emotion(s) from the sample trigger – “a friend gets angry with you.”

Through this quick exercise I did find the Atlas a useful tool in rationalizing what I feel and the responses I resort to. In that respect, the Atlas certainly accomplishes its goal.

But what if rational, coherent, logical understanding of my emotions is not what I want?

Above all, I am not satisfied with how the maps in the Atlas of Emotions present emotional experience through a linear narrative with a clear chain of causality. Following the Ekman model made me realize the contingency of my emotions, yet such contingency is obscured by the mapmakers’ attempt to portray emotions as universal and generalizable. While the mapmakers do acknowledge that each trigger and emotional state occurs in a context, those contexts are taken out from the maps altogether. What are the factors that make us feel differently in response to the (seemingly) same trigger? What lies between “A friend gets angry at you” and “You feel anger”? To me, this circumstantial dimension of our emotional experience that is reduced to an arrow in the Ekman Atlas is what a map of emotion should try to chart out.

Other questions on the ways Paul and Eve Ekman rendered affect as a mappable object: What does the separation of emotions into discrete “continents” do to our perception of emotions? On what basis can you measure the intensity of each sentiment? Can trepidation never be as intense as terror? Can those two states always (or ever) be neatly separated? Those of us who suffer from anxiety, as well as anyone who have experienced terror born out of uncertainty (unstable living arrangements, futile job searches, etc.), might disagree. So whose measurement is taken as default, and in turn gets naturalized? Similarly, what are the standards of constructive and destructive responses? What are the markers of constructiveness and destructiveness? All in all, I find Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions as perpetuating normative and prescriptive understandings of our emotional capacity. I suspect that instead of leading us towards world peace, the map might establish what Jacques Ranciére calls a “regime of meaning” – a mode of government that dictates “a reality that is experienceable as a sense datum and which has only one possible signification” and demands our compliance.

As an anthropologist, I am trained to think of emotions as always and already political. I believe mapping the human emotional apparatus requires an attentiveness to various structures that shape how our emotions are articulated/disarticulated, and calls into question the configurations of what is given as the landscape of feelable as the object of our perceptions and the field of our interventions. I find Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions lacking in that aspect.

In rendering affect as a mappable object, how can we take into account the variable of time – the tempos and temporalities of sentiments? How do we map various interruptions to our emotional experiences? In acknowledging that triggers, sentiments and responses do not always take place in a linear progression (sometimes the order is inversed), what can a non-linear mapping of emotional experience look like? How would it reveal the arbitrariness as well as the rationality underlying human affect? Through what map of affect can we bring attention to the incoherence of our emotional experiences – the gap between what we feel and what we perform? Doing so will inevitably illuminate structures of power that allow us certain feelings and disallow others. We cannot map silenced feelings, but we can certainly attempt to map what makes it dangerous, unsafe, and otherwise undesirable to articulate one’s feelings in certain ways.

These questions led me to create a map of interrupted and disallowed emotions as my prototype. For this map, I went over memoirs and interviews (gathered from ethnographies and newspaper articles as well as phone interviews) of inhabitants of Jeju Island, the focus of my atlas project. I then identified moments of emotional numbness/confusion/paralysis, and tried to map that. In doing so, my goal was to make visible the confrontation between the power and the impotence of a body, between a life and its sensible and sensorial (im)possibilities.

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