Week 6 (5/7/19) – How Emotions Are Made Introduction, chapters 1 through 6, and Appendices B through D

This week we begin our discussion of Lisa Barrett’s book.

Book selections will be finalized at this week’s class session.

12 thoughts on “Week 6 (5/7/19) – How Emotions Are Made Introduction, chapters 1 through 6, and Appendices B through D

  1. Barrett notes “People like to say that seeing is believing, but affective realism demonstrates that believing is seeing. The world often takes a backseat to your predictions” (77). Barrett starts making this case in a personal example in which she thought she was attracted to a guy during graduate school, but in reality the flush she felt in her face was due to an incoming bout of the flu (30). She explains this as the brain “construct[ing] feelings of attraction from a fluttering stomach and a flushing face” (33).

    An extension of constructing emotions is when our we experience affect and don’t realize the cause of the affect, resulting in affective realism, where we “experience supposed facts about the world that are created in part by our feelings” (75). Examples include people being happier on sunny days and interviewers being more likely to rate applicants negatively on rainy days. Affective realism also leads to more serious implications like wrongful police shootings where objects are misidentified as dangerous and threatening due to high pressure situations.

    Given the consequences of affective realism, this brings into question whether or not we should put into place certain controls to stop the effects of affective realism. For example, maybe interviewers should only rate applicants on days with the same weather so that they aren’t biased towards any one applicant based on whether or not the sun is out when they read the application. Are these controls necessary or is it enough to just be more aware of the bias that affective realism causes? Barrett would likely think that awareness isn’t enough because the brain is “wired for…delusion…which we then use as evidence about the world” (76).


    1. There would certainly be very interesting applications of Barrett’s framework on policy. It would be difficult to decide where to act, considering the construction of our experience is so ubiquitous. I like her suggestion later in the chapter to use this knowledge to your own personal advantage– only accepting interviews on sunny days, for example. I would be worried, however, were we to impose too many laws or restrictions based on this information, since affective/emotional bias isn’t simply an opposing force to logical, reasoned thinking– as Barrett so effectively demonstrates, they necessitate each other for normal decision making. In fact, are “emotional” and “logical” thinking not just categories that we’ve constructed from a massive variety of overlapping and complementary behaviors, just like any other type of active construction Barrett describes?


  2. According to Barrett, emotion words are central to forming new emotion concepts. Barrett hypothesizes that “emotion words hold the key to understanding how children learn emotion concepts” (102). The role of emotion words in teaching emotion concepts relates to how emotion concepts vary across cultures. Emotion words in other languages often capture concepts with “no equivalent in English.” Russian, German, and Mandarin have two, three, and five distinct concepts for ‘anger’ and Greek has two distinct concepts for ‘guilt’ (103-104). Emotion words can, however, diffuse across languages and “engender… new concept(s).” Barrett notes the incorporation of German schadenfreude into English and proposes that the same be done with Greek stenahoria (103). Barrett believes “it may be easy to teach emotion concepts across cultural boundaries” (54). I am, however, skeptical of this claim. I recognize that “with the fast pace of globalization,” (48) emotion words will likely disseminate between cultures. Nevertheless, the adoption of a foreign emotion word does not entail the adoption of its nuanced, underlying meaning. For instance, American-English could assimilate schadenfreude or stenahoria. However, American-English speakers would likely interpret their associated emotion concepts differently than native speakers. While we can adopt foreign emotion words and their translated definitions, we may lose touch with the emotion concepts they convey. Barrett argues that emotion words and their associated emotional meanings are informed by the “collective knowledge” of those in your social world (104). If that is the case, then, given divergent social environments, someone learning of schadenfreude in Germany will likely understand it differently than someone learning of schadenfreude in America. Though it is enticing to think that through linguistic exchange, emotion words and concepts could converge across cultures, in the absence of uniform environments, emotion words will carry different meanings depending on where they are learned and by whom.


  3. Throughout the first section of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, she discusses the ways in which we construct our own realities and how our “brain uses concepts to simulate the outside world” (29). A mix between past experiences, our “interoception”, and contextual factors constructs the world through “billions of prediction loops” (56, 64). Although this individual construction of reality is fascinating, it is a concept that has a few different concerning implications. First of all, if the world is taking “a backseat to your predictions”, then individual biases and past experiences could lead to unnecessary conflict, which is exemplified through biases within our social structures. For example, on page 77, Barrett references the example of hearing a rustle in the woods. Past experiences lead to the prediction of danger and the body prepares itself in a way to expect that danger. These internal predictions are what allows us to make sense of our perceptions, however, it could be dangerous when passed biases lead to misinformation. If those in positions of power “choose data that fits the hypotheses, [and ignore] everything else”, they could be creating a reality that is completely wrong and unjust. This has been exemplified in many different instances from tragic police shootings of innocent people to biases within the criminal justice system. If we truly do construct our own realities, it is necessary to continue to share our own individual constructions of the world with one another to promote empathy and understanding. If we have a more collective idea of each other’s mental states, we can construct our own perceptions and influence our future actions with a wider understanding of the world around us.


  4. Feldman Barrett proposes a theory of constructed emotions (xiii) and explains the underlying mechanism, simulations in emotion (26): “Your brain uses your past experiences to construct a hypothesis […] simulation lets your brain impose meaning on the noise, selecting what’s relevant and ignoring the rest” (27). Your brain combines the context of your physiology with the outside world to create emotions (30) and predictions with explanatory power (59). This fundamental meaning-making idea is contrary to our intuitions that our perceptions are reactions to the world. Feldman Barrett notes that we shouldn’t just accept theories because they are simple and intuitive (xiii); theories cannot be accurate if they can not explain all of the data.

    While she argues that we actively construct our emotional experience, she has not yet made the more profound jump that that means that we can consciously change our experience to be more positive, and that we can gain some control over our emotions. For example, since our simulations of emotions are based on “mental concepts” (28) of the objects in our environment, can we train ourselves to frame certain people and certain stimuli to our advantage? Now that we know that our control and interoceptive networks actively work to create our experience (124), can we choose how we incorporate context into our meaning making and how we categorize feelings after the fact (86) to best comply with our goals? These reframing techniques have proven powerful in therapies like CBT for anxiety and depression, even though they are traditionally associated with the thought-emotion divide and the classical theory of emotion. Can we combine CBT with the theory of constructed emotions for an even more powerful effect for patients?


  5. From the moment Barrett introduced the concept of emotional granularity, I was immediately curious as to the importance of language within the notion that, “people vary tremendously in how they differentiate their emotional experiences” (3). Barrett mentions the significance of our own personal definitions/experiences in emotion construction, and that, “your familiar emotion concepts are built-in only because you grew up in a particular social context where those emotion concepts are meaningful and useful, and your brain applies them outside your awareness to construct your experiences” (33). However we don’t really receive a fuller description regarding the importance of linguistics until chapter 5.

    Up until this point, I was still wondering exactly how we learn and utilize words such as anger, sadness, and fear. Barrett then explains her hypothesis of these emotion words: they “hold the key to understanding how children learn emotion concepts in the absence of biological fingerprints and in the presences of tremendous variation” (102). Furthermore, children develop whole conceptual systems for each emotion implementing different facial and bodily configurations for the same emotion, internalizing variation as the norm. But how do we learn these norms? Through, “statistical regularity that speeds concept learning” (97). In answering the question of linguistic significance, Barrett also addresses the dichotomy of variability vs. regularity. This comparison between her view of variation construction and the classical, regular “fingerprint” view of emotion psychology is one that is mentioned quite repeatedly throughout the first few chapters of this book. The absence of biological fingerprints is replaced by the presence of linguistic ones. “The statistical regularity that holds together a concept like ‘Happiness’ or ‘Anger’ … [is] in the words themselves” (103


  6. Barrett makes a compelling case for a different approach to the science of emotion, that of holism. This philosophy emphasizes viewing phenomena in proper context and developing a broader conceptual understanding, and is introduced explicitly in her discussion of emotion and also implicitly in her overview of the history of emotion science.

    Proper context is a key weapon Barrett uses against the “classical” view of emotion. This view “concluded that emotion recognition is universal: no matter where you are born or grow up, you should be able to recognize American-style facial expressions” (7). Along with studies disproving this biologically (7), Barrett cites the importance of context. She explains how researchers proved that we “take tremendous information from the surrounding context” when estimating emotion. Putting emoting faces onto the bodies of people experiencing a completely different emotion, they found that subjects almost always identified emotion “appropriate to the body, not the face” (9). We are easily misled when we lack full understanding.

    Applied more broadly, without the right conceptual understanding or contextual knowledge, we may miss out on key insights. I believe Barrett is sending a message to fellow scientists, especially in reviewing the history of emotion science. Her approach is relatively novel in that she believes “each ingredient of emotion must be studied in the context of the rest of the brain that influences it” (37). She notes that“other cultures can and do make other kind of meaning from the same sensory input” (33), but this meaning-creation was overlooked historically by scientists. Scientists like Ekman, who concluded that there existed “universally-recognized”(7) emotional markers may have lacked understanding of cultures that don’t conform to the Western emotional responses, sometimes unwittingly teaching non-Westerners the “proper” (aka Western) facial responses for emotions before involving them in studies.


  7. Barrett writes “you don’t need an emotion word to construct an instance of that emotion, but it’s easier when you have a word.” (107). She speaks of emotion words as tools we use to label and communicate our feelings and instances of emotion. However, I’m a bit skeptical with using such words as categories for feelings. Since the beginning of the book, Barrett writes about the complications and inaccuracies that arise from using words to describe emotions. Emotion words have different goals and meanings across cultures and demographics. People associate differing contexts and feelings based on their personal idea of a word, leading to inconsistencies in understanding what others are feeling. We do not recognize or identify emotions; rather, we construct our own emotional experiences. Thus, these perceptions will differ from person to person. Such was the case with Barrett’s difficulty when her subjects were unable to distinguish between anxiety and depression… the usage of these terms is inefficient when it comes to describing emotion. So, should we still be attempting to create and use these emotion words?

    Emotion words do have value when it comes to efficiency and teaching infants necessary conceptual knowledge. How are they related to using concepts, though? Barrett writes that “concepts are critical for experiencing and perceiving emotion,” but is this the same as saying that emotional granularity is also necessary? “People who exhibit low emotional granularity will have only a few emotion concepts,” and Barrett therefore concludes that these people cannot perceive emotion (106). So, when Barrett is advocating for the usage of emotion words, is she hoping that people just expand their vocabulary? I’m a bit confused as to her purpose / goal with the usage of emotion words and their relationship to how our minds conceptualize things.


  8. Before introducing her theory of constructive emotions, Lisa Feldman Barret begins by calling into question many of the most commonly accepted theories of emotion. In this comment, I will summarize and clarify Barret’s counter-claims against “the classical view of emotion (X)” in order to illustrate why Barret believes that a new theory of human emotion can allow us to view our emotions “in a new and more scientifically justified light (XIV).”
    The “classical view of emotions (X),” as described by Barret, views emotions as “built-in (X)”, “distinct (X)” and “automatic (X)” because each emotion has a distinct emotional circuit that is “said to cause distinct set of changes (X)” in the brain and body. Barret begins to dismantle this view by first illustrating that “(A)n emotion … does not have a single expression, but a diverse population of facial movements that vary from one situation from the next (11).” Barret claims that “variation is the norm (11)” and that “we cannot claim, with any reasonable certainty, that each emotion has a diagnostic facial expression (12).” This claim immediately draws into question all prior research that relies on “emotion recognition (7).” Barret builds upon this claim using multiple “meta-analyses (14)” to support her claim that “research has not built a consistent bodily fingerprint for even a single emotion (15).” She continues to dismantle the idea that specific brain pathways are responsible for specific emotional responses by citing research involving the activation of different “voxels (21)” of the brain. Meta-analyses of the probability of voxel activation in various emotion-related experiments proved that “no brain region contained the fingerprint for any single emotion (22).” Finally, in chapter three, Barret disputes the claim that “emotion recognition (43)” proves the existence of universal emotions by citing how recognition success rates plummet when subjects must “freely label (45)” images and how widespread subscription to the “basic emotion method… (helps) create the universality (54)” of emotions.


  9. Within Chapters 2, 3, and 5 of How Emotions Are Made, Barrett deconstructs the classical view of emotion through its traditional labeling, going further on her claim that the classical view is inaccurate and bringing to light that emotions themselves are categorized concepts.

    Within Barrett’s deconstruction, she targets emotional labels, such as “happiness”, “sadness”, “surprise”, and “disgust”, and establishes that these are not unique concepts within the brain, nor similar across experiences. Specifically, she speaks of the teaching of categorization and how her daughter came to shape a variety of feelings and experiences into “angry” (100-101). While I too believe this hypothesis and its supporting evidence, I wonder how much the deconstruction of this emotional labeling and subsequent expansion of categorization is effective in truly understanding emotion.

    When discussing neuroscience, extremely specific language is used to pinpoint very exact areas in the physical human brain. We use terms such as, “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex” to indicate the precise spot we are talking about activity in; spots of immense value to cognitive neuroscientists, that are largely insignificant to the vast majority of people who are not. When it comes to concepts however, such as emotion, this is not as concretely necessary to convey. If someone states they are “happy” or “sad” or experiencing Gezellig, we may not know the exact underlying context, or sequence of events behind that state of being – because it’s simply not needed, and we could just ask.

    While emotions certainly lie on a spectrum, I wonder what need there is to greatly expand that conceptual spectrum. The human experience itself exists on a massive spectrum, and yet I don’t feel the need to expressly define every piece of it. While it does not appear Barrett is advocating for that yet, defining the undefined seems a potential next step.


  10. In this comment I will consider the possibility that Barrett’s framework for how the brain functions—not just the construction of emotions, but the entire “predictive” system (p. 59-65)—calls into question some of the findings postulated by Robert Sapolsky in Behave. Take, for example, this passage on classical scientific explanations of fear: “When [a] snake appears, a ‘fear circuit’ in your brain, which is usually in the ‘off’ position, supposedly flips into the ‘on’ position.” (57). The “fear circuit” described here sounds very similar to the brain circuits behind aggression and disgust described by Sapolsky in his chapter “One Second Before.”

    Barrett’s research calls into question the classical view sometimes espoused by Sapolsky. There are no emotional “regions” in the brain (20). There is no fear circuit either. Rather than the sight of a snake firing off a chain-like sequence of events and reactions in the brain, your “intrinsic brain activity” (58) might have prepared for this outcome far earlier through “prediction” (59) and then “simulation” (26). You were probably already walking along a path in the jungle. You might have even been warned of snakes appearing on this walk. And so, your “body-budgeting regions” (67) initiated the release of cortisol into your system hours before, elevating your heart rate and dilating your blood vessels. At the instant the gigantic snake slithered across your path—if your predictions were spot on and you had already simulated the event internally—you might not even feel fear. There would be no perturbation to your intrinsic activity— you would respond appropriately and move on, your brain hardly reacting at all. There is no fear circuit; as Barrett says, emotions are “constructed” rather than initiated via stimulus from the outside world (29-30).

    Is the view expressed by Barrett problematic for Sapolsky’s circuitry-rooted arguments on aggression, disgust and the like? Perhaps. But Sapolsky understood that brain circuitry is only one analytical bucket by which human behavior can be analyzed. Rather than negating Sapolsky’s view, Barrett helps connect the buckets. Through the concept of “intrinsic brain activity,” we gain further insight into how experience, culture, hormones and the like can modulate both our behavior and the ways we feel.


  11. Moved from accidental post on last week.
    (Note: Kindle copy of Behave, paperback copy of How emotions are made)

    Back in Sapolsky’s book, he mentions how he thinks that “a term like ‘forgiveness’ and other related to criminal justice (e.g. “evil,” “soul,” “volition,” and blame) are incompatible with science and should be discarded.” (Sapolsky 79). He lateron gives a historical anecdote about witch hunting (605) to suggest that these terms will be later replaced with more scientific explanations.

    The words mentioned by Sapolsky are similar to how emotions are described in Barrett’s book. She discusses throughout in chapter 1 how there is no clear biological markers for particular emotions whether facial (experiment on page 10), or brain region (32). In chapter 2, she describes how emotions are socially constructed boundaries as shown in the experiments with the Himba tribe (48). In chapter 5, she describes how the concepts are formed through the anecdote of her daughter learning the word ‘anger’ (101).

    A question that arises from both readings is whether emotions will become replaced by more biological concepts the way Sapolsky did with moral terms? Will our categorization of emotion change from how it is?


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