A review: “How Emotions are Made” by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Take a moment and think about the last time you saw someone cry, or broke into a fit of laughter with your friends. It’s memories like these that last the longest in our minds and ultimately make up who we are – our ability to feel a vast range of emotions, and to share those emotional experiences with others, I would argue, is one of the most unique and meaningful parts of being alive.
You might think of emotions as one of the few universal aspects of the human experience – it seems safe to assume that all people have experienced some form of joy, sadness, and anger at some point in their lives. But how universal are emotions, and what can current research teach us about how emotions are constructed in the brain?
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett aims to answer these questions in her book “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.” Dr. Barrett is a Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University and has spent the last few decades of her career researching emotion. Her interest in this topic began as a graduate student when she tried to replicate a well-known phenomenon about the roots of low self-esteem and how that leads to anxiety or depression. After failing to replicate the study eight times, she realized that the wide variety of ways people describe their emotional experiences suggests that the same emotion can be experienced differently by different people. In order to understand Dr. Barrett’s theory of emotion, it’s first important to understand what she calls the “classical view of emotion.”
For a long time, it was thought that each emotion triggered a specific circuit in the brain, like a unique “fingerprint” that is uniform across individuals regardless of age, sex, and culture. This idea was first established by several studies done in the 1960s and 1970s [2,3,4]. Researchers showed subjects photographs of actors exhibiting specific facial expressions believed to represent emotions like anger, fear, sadness, and happiness (Figure 1). Subjects were shown one photograph along with a set of words and had to choose the word that best matched the face. They consistently found that people could accurately match the same emotion word to each photograph. Since then, hundreds of studies have used this method to demonstrate that this effect persists in people from all across the world, proving that emotion recognition is universal. Essentially, these scientists argued that the only way that expressions could be universally recognized is if they are universally produced.
Are emotions universal?
So far, you might be thinking that the evidence overwhelmingly points toward universal emotions. However, more current research has shown that altering this test in specific ways completely changes the results. For instance, if the list of emotion words to choose from was removed, test performance significantly decreased . Two- to three-year-old children were not able to freely label the photographs until they learned the concepts for each emotion . Perhaps most strikingly, Dr. Barrett’s lab ran similar tests on a tribe in a remote village in Namibia, Africa. When asked to sort the photographs by emotion, the villagers grouped them by behavior (i.e. laughing, looking) rather than inferring mental states or feelings (i.e. happy, fearful) . Overall, the subjects showed no evidence of universal emotion perception. This led Dr. Barrett to conclude that this ubiquitous emotion test only works when the participants are “guided to construct perceptions of Western-style emotions,” and forced to choose from a predetermined list. You might be picking up on why this is problematic: rather than establishing that emotions are universal, this method guides subjects to construct perceptions of Western emotions.
So, if the way we express and interpret emotions isn’t universal, then what are emotions exactly, and how are they represented in the brain?
Solving the mystery of human emotions
Dr. Barrett spends most of the book describing her theory of constructed emotion, so this section will at most provide a highlight reel, summarizing some of her main points. Her alternative to the universal emotion theory rests on the idea that our perception is a result of our brain making predictions in real time based on past experiences. This process begins with interoception, which is our brain’s representation of everything happening inside our body (heart beating, stomach digesting, etc.). These sensations come from what she terms the “interoceptive network” of the brain, which is comprised of areas implicated in many functions including emotional responses, decision making, memory, and maintaining homeostasis (Figure 2). By themselves, these internal sensations carry no innate meaning. However, our ability to form associations allows us to ascribe meaning to our internal experience as well as the world around us. These associations, or concepts, are the key to how emotions are constructed.
Concepts are the building blocks that determine how we experience the world. This can be as simple as grouping things into categories like plants and animals, but also applies to more abstract things such as language, music, and emotion. From the moment we’re born, we constantly learn new concepts through our parents, friends, and school (of course, these concepts can vary greatly depending on culture, socioeconomic status, and many other factors). Our brains use concepts and knowledge of past experiences to make predictions and ascribe meaning to internal sensations, such as a racing heart. Have I lost you yet? Fortunately, all of this can be summarized much more clearly in the following anecdote from Dr. Barrett:
Back when I was in graduate school, a guy in my psychology program asked me out on a date…. As we sat together in a coffeeshop, to my surprise, I felt my face flush several times as we spoke. My stomach fluttered and I started having trouble concentrating. Okay, I realized, I was wrong. I am clearly attracted to him. We parted an hour later – after I agreed to go out with him again – and I headed home, intrigued. I walked into my apartment, dropped my keys on the floor, threw up, and spent the next seven days in bed with the flu. [p.30]
This (hilarious) story gets at the core of the theory of constructed emotion: in each moment, our brain and our body are working together to make meaning of our current state based on our knowledge of concepts and past experiences.
So what makes this theory different from other more well-known theories? For a long time, ideas such as the universal theory of emotion dominated, which ultimately gave the impression that we passively experience emotion as a reaction to external stimuli (i.e., you win the lottery, and your happiness circuit is triggered). In contrast, the theory of constructed emotion states that emotions are not simply reactions to the world. Instead, we use a combination of sensory input and past experience to make meaning of our internal sensations, thereby actively constructing instances of emotion.
Understanding emotion in this new way is important because it promotes the idea that we have more control over our emotional responses than we think. So rather than feel trapped in the mental prison of our negative emotions, we have the power to change our experience once we realize the active role we play in that process. For instance, this new understanding can allow us to deconstruct a feeling into its physical sensations, and then form new associations. Maybe your heart racing before a big presentation doesn’t mean you’re nervous but instead, you’re excited. Using that logic, those who were raised in societies that taught anger and hate can learn new concepts, and as a result become less angry and more empathetic and compassionate. Of course, none of these changes are easy – but as Dr. Barrett repeats throughout the book, “You are an architect of your experience.”
My final thoughts
Overall, I found this book to be well-written and thought-provoking. While I do think some of her analogies and explanations were oversimplified, I also can see how this simplicity makes the book approachable to a non-scientist audience. However, as a scientist, I was interested in learning more about the neuroscience research that supports her theory. Despite these minor complaints, I appreciate that Dr. Barrett pushes the reader to question their own preconceived notions about emotion. This process of investigating the nature of our own minds can lead to important insights and realizations.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in neuroscience or psychology – you do not need a scientific background to understand the concepts. This review has only scratched the surface of this fascinating topic, so if you’ve ever wondered about how emotions are made, consider reading the book!
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- Gendron, M., Roberson, D., van der Vyver, J. M., & Barrett, L. F. (2014). Perceptions of emotion from facial expressions are not culturally universal: evidence from a remote culture. Emotion, 14(2), 251.
- Kleckner, I. R., Zhang, J., Touroutoglou, A., Chanes, L., Xia, C., Simmons, W. K., … & Barrett, L. F. (2017). Evidence for a large-scale brain system supporting allostasis and interoception in humans. Nature human behaviour, 1(5), 1-14.