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Conference explores 'Foundations of Emotions in Mind, Brain and Culture'

If emotions are universal, describing just what those intangible feelings are depends on who you ask.

Take schadenfreude, the German word describing the joy that comes from others' suffering, especially if we feel wronged by that other person. There is no comparable term in English, even though we easily understand the twinge it illustrates.

"German speakers explicitly recognized this very complex social emotion long before we English speakers had a ready vocabulary to do so," says Robert McCauley, the director of Emory's Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture. "Now apply that not just across cultures but across disciplines. We've got a lot to teach each other."

Such teaching is the focus of the CMBC's upcoming conference, "Foundations of Emotions in Mind, Brain, and Culture," which runs 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 11, and from 9:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 12, in the Cox Hall Ballroom.

The headliner for the free event is famed neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux of New York University, who will discuss his research about the biological framework of fear and memory.

Another dozen experts from Emory and beyond, who work in disciplines as diverse as English to biology, will present on related issues such as empathy and moral emotions.

In addition, the conference will feature a poster session on Friday, to allow students and other faculty to present their own research during a buffet lunch.

The conference and luncheon poster session are open to everyone in the Emory community and any interested members of the public. Attendees will also be able to drop in for sessions at will, because of the central location in Cox Hall.

The event is expected to be the largest major conference for the CMBC since it was founded in 2008. The center previously held a two-day conference on evolution in 2009, timed for the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth.

"Especially for people outside of the academic world, the hope is that the conference will provide them with an opportunity to engage with scholars and inquire on a topic that we all have an interest in," McCauley said.

Some of those conversations may not just be about how feelings can influence complex behaviors. Laura Otis, professor of English, will discuss more negative, even taboo emotions.

Her interest lies in looking at those emotions — such as resentment, self-pity and grudge-bearing — and the metaphors used to represent them, such as "holding on" versus "letting go," she says.

"If there is a take-home message, it's that emotions are a political as well as a physiological issue," Otis adds.

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