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Hypocognition: Opening Doors to New Emotions

Is it possible that there are unknown words that could unlock new and unique feelings?

A couple walks into a park. The sun shines brightly in a cloudless sky. The trees, high and low, offer shelter to tired runners, avid readers, and hopeless romantics. Hydrangeas of all colors decorate the sidewalks made of volcanic rocks. However, with a goal in mind, the pair does not look and not even chat in their pursuit to their final destination, eventually missing it all. They don’t have what is called Onism, the awareness of how little of the world it is to be perceived. Without a familiarity with this word, the couple can’t appreciate that in life there are places that can be seen only once. This is hypocognition, a term describing the lack of awareness that a concept exists and the absence of a word to represent an object or idea. In essence, hypocognition is an idea that when overcome, can open doors to a new emotional spectrum in the lives of many.


Firstly, to paint a bigger picture of the effects of hypocognition, it is relevant to highlight a studied scenario. While conducting his research, anthropologist Robert Levy was faced with a strange situation: native Tahitians never developed a word to describe grief. They understood sorrow exclusively as pain and sickness because they had no knowledge of how to separate the different layers of grief. Tahitians only sensed the losing part of grief, but without knowing what was grief, they couldn’t recover by remembering a funny memory of a departed lover and feeling nostalgic about it, for instance. Therefore, hypocognition hindered most of the natives’ ability to overcome pain from death.


With the examples above, an absence of awareness regarding a person’s emotions results in unperceived feelings being cast aside by the individual. Additionally, that can lead to lifelong consequences by preventing a person from deeply engaging with consecutive life experiences. Nevertheless, it is possible to master the unknown and Tim Lomas, a University of East London professor, recently found an answer. By looking at other culture’s vocabularies, he created the Positive Lexicography Project: an online index featuring “untranslatable” words composed of multiple feelings unique to a language which can’t be described by another culture within a single term. Lomas believed the emotions we label are the ones we know. By recognizing other words and their meanings, an individual can sense experiences in new and unique ways. This has been backed up by research conducted by the Northeastern University, which identified that being able to use precise words to describe feelings - for instance, despair meaning specifically despair rather than a general bad sensation - helps people to decide how to relieve and use those emotions. Emotional granularity is the term used to define this ability.


In the end, hypocognition is a concept that inhibits people’s capacity to feel their lives with more vividness. However, by perceiving this lack of knowledge and acting upon it through learning a wider emotion-related vocabulary, it is possible to find the doors to the hidden emotional spectrum and ultimately, a richer existence.

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