My doctor pulled out my brain scans and declared them, “perfectly normal.” Then, he kindly looked me over and handed me a prescription for SSRIs, the common medication for depression.
This immediately became a joke among my friends: that I had gone to see a brain doctor and he gave me antidepressants instead. I laughed too, but I was puzzled. I never filled the prescription, but continued to get automated messages from CVS, telling me that my SSRIs were ready to be picked up; a robot voice telling me that what I was feeling wasn’t real.
I repeatedly cast back to these experiences while talking to Chentsova-Dutton and Ryder, who said they wanted to rewrite the various outdated theories claiming that the Chinese were too “immature” to feel their true emotions. But they also said they didn’t want to ignore something that their work and the work of others has continued to show: The way the Chinese process and attend to their emotions might actually be different. Part of rewriting the past, in other words, meant learning that different doesn’t mean bad.
“Your cultural context just tells you what is important to pay attention to,” Chentsova-Dutton said. “Usually when you develop depression, you are hit with so many changes in your mind. You’re thinking differently, you’re feeling differently. You’re essentially looking for some sort of explanation in your cultural environment, and if you happen to be in China and people around you talk about neurasthenia, they will tell you what is important to pay attention to.”
Just like she learned the Orion constellation from her father, a Chinese kid could have used the same stars to see a different shape: the White Tiger of the West. In her current experiments in collaboration with Ryder, Chentsova-Dutton is bringing Chinese and American students into her lab and putting their emotional constellations to the test. In their most recent study, which is still under review, the team showed Chinese and European American young women a sad animated, wordless film. While watching the film, the women had their physiological activity measured, their facial expressions recorded, and they filled out self-reports.
Chentsova-Dutton found that the Chinese women reported more bodily sensations. They said their heartbeat and breathing changed, they noticed goosebumps, and body temperature shifts. Both groups reported that they felt sadness, but the Chinese women also reported some positive feelings. While the movie was sad, they appreciated the beauty of the illustrations, for example.
Chentsova-Dutton said it reminded her of an ancient Chinese fable, from the Taoist tradition, about a farmer and his horse. One day the horse runs away, and the farmer’s neighbor says, “I’m sorry about your horse, that’s bad that he ran away.” The farmer replies, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” The next day the horse returns with a dozen feral horses, and the neighbor says, “What good fortune!” The farmer says, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” And on, and on. The moral is that with each fortune comes a little misery, and vice versa. Nothing is purely good, or purely bad; the classic yin-yang model. Chentsova-Dutton’s participants, watching the sad film, were exhibiting this lesson, or what she calls a cultural script. Though thousands of years old, it was influencing the way they experienced their emotions and, also, their bodies.