A new theory of how the brain constructs emotions that could revolutionize psychology, health care, the legal system, and our understanding of the human mind
A new theory of how the brain constructs emotions that could revolutionize psychology, health care, law enforcement, and our understanding of the human mind
Emotions feel automatic, like uncontrollable reactions to things we think and experience. Scientists have long supported this assumption by claiming that emotions are hardwired in the body or the brain. Today, however, the science of emotion is in the midst of a revolution on par with the discovery of relativity in physics and natural selection in biology—ans this paradigm shift has far-reaching implications for us all.
Leading the charge is psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, whose theory of emotion is driving a deeper understanding of the mind and brain, and shedding new light on what it means to be human. Her research overturns the widely held belief that emotions are housed in different parts of the brain and are universally expressed and recognized. Instead, she has shown that emotion is constructed in the moment, by core systems that interact across the whole brain, aided by a lifetime of learning. This new theory means that you play a much greater role in your emotional life than you ever thought. Its repercussions are already shaking the foundations not only of psychology but also of medicine, the legal system, child-rearing, meditation, and even airport security.
Why do emotions feel automatic? Does rational thought really control emotion? How does emotion affect disease? How can you make your children more emotionally intelligent? How Emotions Are Made answers these questions and many more, revealing the latest research and intriguing practical applications of the new science of emotion, mind, and brain.
The Search for Emotion’s “Fingerprints”
Once upon a time, in the 1980s, I thought I would be a clinical psychologist. I headed into a Ph.D. program at the University of Waterloo, expecting to learn the tools of the trade as a psychotherapist and one day treat patients in a stylish yet tasteful office. I was going to be a consumer of science, not a producer. I certainly had no intention of joining a revolution to unseat basic beliefs about the mind that have existed since the days of Plato. But life sometimes tosses little surprises in your direction.
It was in graduate school that I felt my first tug of doubt about the classical view of emotion. At the time, I was researching the roots of low self-esteem and how it leads to anxiety or depression. Numerous experiments showed that people feel depressed when they fail to live up to their own ideals, but when they fall short of a standard set by others, they feel anxious. My first experiment in grad school was simply to replicate this well-known phenomenon before building on it to test my own hypotheses. In the course of this experiment, I asked a large number of volunteers if they felt anxious or depressed using well-established checklists of symptoms.1
I’d done more complicated experiments as an undergraduate student, so this one should have been a piece of cake. Instead, it crashed and burned. My volunteers did not report anxious or depressed feelings in the expected pattern. So I tried to replicate a second published experiment, and it failed too. I tried again, over and over, each experiment taking months. After three years, all I’d achieved was the same failure eight times in a row. In science, experiments often don’t replicate, but eight consecutive failures is an impressive record. My internal critic taunted me: not everyone is cut out to be a scientist.
When I looked closely at all the evidence I had collected, however, I noticed something consistently odd across all eight experiments. Many of my subjects appeared to be unwilling, or unable, to distinguish between feeling anxious and feeling depressed. Instead, they had indicated feeling both or neither; rarely did a subject report feeling just one. This made no sense. Everybody knows that anxiety and depression, when measured as emotions, are decidedly different. When you’re anxious, you feel worked up, jittery, like you’re worried something bad will happen. In depression you feel miserable and sluggish; everything seems horrible and life is a struggle. These emotions should leave your body in completely opposite physical states, and so they should feel different and be trivial for any healthy person to tell apart. Nevertheless, the data declared that my test subjects weren’t doing so. The question was .?.?. why?
As it turned out, my experiments weren’t failing after all. My first “botched” experiment actually revealed a genuine discovery ?— ?that people often did not distinguish between feeling anxious and feeling depressed. My next seven experiments hadn’t failed either; they’d replicated the first one. I also began noticing the same effect lurking in other scientists’ data. After completing my Ph.D. and becoming a university professor, I continued pursuing this mystery. I directed a lab that asked hundreds of test subjects to keep track of their emotional experiences for weeks or months as they went about their lives. My students and I inquired about a wide variety of emotional experiences, not just anxious and depressed feelings, to see if the discovery generalized.
These new experiments revealed something that had never been documented before: everyone we tested used the same emotion words like “angry,” “sad,” and “afraid” to communicate their feelings but not necessarily to mean the same thing. Some test subjects made fine distinctions with their word use: for example, they experienced sadness and fear as qualitatively different. Other subjects, however, lumped together words like “sad” and “afraid” and “anxious” and “depressed” to mean “I feel crappy” (or, more scientifically, “I feel unpleasant”). The effect was the same for pleasant emotions like happiness, calmness, and pride. After testing over seven hundred American subjects, we discovered that people vary tremendously in how they differentiate their emotional experiences.
A skilled interior designer can look at five shades of blue and distinguish azure, cobalt, ultramarine, royal blue, and cyan. My husband, on the other hand, would call them all blue. My students and I had discovered a similar phenomenon for emotions, which I described as emotional granularity.2
Here’s where the classical view of emotion entered the picture. Emotional granularity, in terms of this view, must be about accurately reading your internal emotional states. Someone who distinguished among different feelings using words like “joy,” “sadness,” “fear,” “disgust,” “excitement,” and “awe” must be detecting physical cues or reactions for each emotion and interpreting them correctly. A person exhibiting lower emotional granularity, who uses words like “anxious” and “depressed” interchangeably, must be failing to detect these cues.
I began wondering if I could teach people to improve their emotional granularity by coaching them to recognize their emotional states accurately. The key word here is “accurately.” How can a scientist tell if someone who says “I’m happy” or “I’m anxious” is accurate? Clearly, I needed some way to measure an emotion objectively and then compare it to what the person reports. If a person reports feeling anxious, and the objective criteria indicate that he is in a state of anxiety, then he is accurately detecting his own emotion. On the other hand, if the objective criteria indicate that he is depressed or angry or enthusiastic, then he’s inaccurate. With an objective test in hand, the rest would be simple. I could ask a person how she feels and compare her answer to her “real” emotional state. I could correct any of her apparent mistakes by teaching her to better recognize the cues that distinguish one emotion from another and improve her emotional granularity.
Like most students of psychology, I had read that each emotion is supposed to have a distinct pattern of physical changes, roughly like a fingerprint. Each time you grasp a doorknob, the fingerprints that you leave behind may vary depending on the firmness of your grip, how slippery the surface is, or how warm and pliable your skin is at that moment. Nevertheless, your fingerprints look similar enough each time to identify you uniquely. The “fingerprint” of an emotion is likewise assumed to be similar enough from one instance to the next, and in one person to the next, regardless of age, sex, personality, or culture. In a laboratory, scientists should be able to tell whether someone is sad or happy or anxious just by looking at physical measurements of a person’s face, body, and brain.
I felt confident that these emotion fingerprints could provide the objective criteria I needed to measure emotion. If the scientific literature was correct, then assessing people’s emotional accuracy would be a breeze. But things did not turn out quite as I expe...
"Chock-full of startling, science-backed findings...an entertaining and engaging read."
"Fascinating...a thought-provoking journey into emotion science."
—The Wall Street Journal
"Fascinating... If you want to read emotions better, read this book."
"I have never seen a book so devoted to understanding the nature of emotions...the book is down-to-earth and a delight to read. With a high level of knowledge and articulate style, Barrett delivers a prime example of modern prose in digestible chunks."
—Seattle Book Review, 5 Stars
"Most of us make our way through the world without thinking a lot about what we bring to our encounters with it. Lisa Feldman Barrett does—and what she has to say about our perceptions and emotions is pretty mind-blowing."
"Drawing on neuroscience and experimental psychology to overturn the assumption that emotions are innate and universal, this book describes them as 'goal-based' concepts designed to help us categorize experience...Upbringing has the biggest influence, but we can all reshape our mental makeup and learn new concepts. The latter part of the book considers how doing so can affect our health, the law, and our relationship with the natural world. As Barrett frequently repeats, 'You are an architect of your experience.'"
—The New Yorker, "Briefly Noted"
"A neuroscientist offers an enjoyable guide to a revolutionary scientific theory of emotion and its practical applications."
"Prepare to have your brain twisted around as psychology professor Barrett takes it on a tour of itself... Her enthusiasm for her topic brightens every amazing fact and theory about where our emotions come from...each chapter is chockablock with startling insights. ...Barrett's figurative selfie of the brain is brilliant."
— Booklist, STARRED
"A well-argued, entertaining disputation of the prevailing view that emotion and reason are at odds...Highly informative, readable, and wide-ranging."
—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED review
"Barrett (psychology, Northeastern Univ.) presents a new neuroscientific explanation of why people are more swayed by feelings than by facts. She offers an unintuitive theory that goes against not only the popular understanding but also that of traditional research: emotions don’t arise; rather, we construct them on the fly. Furthermore, emotions are neither universal nor located in specific brain regions; they vary by culture and result from dynamic neuronal networks. These networks run nonstop simulations, making predictions and correcting them based on the environment rather than reacting to it. Tracing her own journey from the classical view of emotions, Barrett progressively builds her case, writing in a conversational tone and using down-to-earth metaphors, relegating the heaviest neuroscience to an appendix to keep the book accessible. Still, it is a lot to take in if one has not been exposed to these ideas before. VERDICT The theories of emotion and the human brain set forth here are revolutionary and have important implications. For readers interested in psychology and neuroscience as well as those involved in education and policy."
—Library Journal, STARRED review
“This meticulous, well-researched, and deeply thought out book reveals new insights about our emotions—what they are, where they come from, why we have them. For anyone who has struggled to reconcile brain and heart, this book will be a treasure; it explains the science without short-changing the humanism of its topic.”
—Andrew Solomon, best-selling author of Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon
“A brilliant and original book on the science of emotion, by the deepest thinker about this topic since Darwin.”
—Daniel Gilbert, best-selling author of Stumbling on Happiness
“Ever wonder where your emotions come from? Lisa Barrett, a world expert in the psychology of emotion, has written the definitive field guide to feelings and the neuroscience behind them.”
—Angela Duckworth, best-selling author of Grit
“We all harbor an intuition about emotions: that the way you experience joy, fear or anger happens automatically and is pretty much the same in a Kalahari hunter-gatherer. In this excellent new book, Lisa Barrett draws on contemporary research to offer a radically different picture: that the experience of emotion is highly individualized, neurobiologically idiosyncratic, and inseparable from cognition. This is a provocative, accessible, important book.”
—Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and A Primate's Memoir
“Everything you thought you knew about what you feel and why you feel it turns out to be stunningly wrong. Lisa Barrett illuminates the fascinating new science of our emotions, offering real-world examples of why it matters in realms as diverse as health, parenting, romantic relationships and national security.”
—Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls & Sex
“After reading How Emotions Are Made, I will never think about emotions the same way again. Lisa Barrett opens up a whole new terrain for fighting gender stereotypes and making better policy.”
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Unfinished Business
“What if everything you thought you knew about lust, anger, grief, and joy was wrong? Lisa Barrett is one of the psychology’s wisest and most creative scientists and her theory of constructed emotion is radical and fascinating. Through vivid examples and sharp, clear prose, How Emotions are Made defends a bold new vision of the most central aspects of human nature.”
?—Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy and How Pleasure Works
“Lisa Barrett writes with great clarity about how
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