Do you think you can read emotions like joy or anger in another person’s face and actions? Read them because joy and anger are universal emotions and we all know what they look and feel like? Well, if so, says neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, you are winging it, guessing at best. Emotions like happiness and despair are not baked into our brains, waiting to be triggered by experiences in the world. Sure, we have a range of feelings, stimulated by our senses. But those feelings cannot be categorized as emotions innate in everyone. What we call emotions, Barrett says, are concepts constructed by our individual neural systems, molded by our cultures and past experiences.
In her book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, based on years of research at her neuroscience lab at Northeastern University, Barrett spells out the “theory of constructed emotion.” Ultimately she believes the theory can help us from stereotyping one another through reductive lenses like a woman’s “angry” face. The theory can help us be more tolerant of the ways people from a variety of cultures express themselves. The breadth of the book, though, illuminates what emotions tell us about the ways the body and brain work, an anatomy lesson of how we make our way through the world.
In short, Barrett writes, emotions reveal that our brains are like a black box in our bodies, being fed outside information by our senses, and figuring out how to best navigate the chaos. “An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean,” Barrett writes. “From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. You wouldn’t know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to behave and deal with them. With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is emotion.”
In March, 2017, Barrett stopped by the Nautilus office to explain more about the inner maps that our brains create in a noisy world. With equal parts good humor and scientific acumen, she explained why we get angry, how childhood molds our brains, and how emotions inform us that we are not living in our own private Idaho. [Continue reading…]