For some time now a ‘third way’ between cultural studies and the sciences has been emerging. Both disciplines are more closely entwined then ever before, in part due to the major inroads made by neuroscience over the last 20 years, and it is at this juncture we find Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s new book How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

Introduced by Professor Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas’ spring programme, Lisa Feldman Barrett is a Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. Her first foray into popular science writing explodes many commonly held misconceptions about emotion and the brain.

Scholars have long disagreed about the definition of emotion, a lack of consensus which has hindered research. From the cutting edge of neuroscience Barrett’s work shows how emotions are not distinguishable at the level of brain activity. Her work describes emotions as widely varied, for example with regard to anger, some individuals may not scowl but be stony faced or even cry when enraged. There are as many types of anger as there are individuals and situations. The concept and expression of anger is not as ubiquitous as one may initially believe and in neuroscientific terms there is no single discrete circuit for each emotion, processing takes place across the entire brain.

Barrett uses examples of remote Tanzanian tribes who do not equate scowling with anger at all; making a strong case for this being learned and culturally transmitted behaviour. She notes how our own language and culture may lead us to consider our concept of emotions as absolute. However she doesn’t deny that at some level biology does play a part. She is quick to point out that there is a strong biological element for affects such as attachment or arousal. However the accompanying emotional phenomena that are experienced by the individual are constructed fleetingly in the moment. This distinction between affect and emotion are key to understanding her new theory.

So the long-held assumption that there are hard-wired universal emotions and accompanying expressions is simply not borne out by the evidence.  She points out that this idea was first laid out by Plato. It gained further credence from being published in Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Unfortunately he seemed to have missed many of his insights about variation that had appeared in On the Origin of Species and the idea went largely unchallenged, making its way into popular culture.

Despite this fascinating background, Barrett tells us that How Emotions are Made is not a history lesson. She drives home the important real world application of her findings, using a wide range of examples from healthcare and education to security. She points to multi-million dollar training of US airport staff, directing them to look for certain expressions to reveal individuals who might pose a threat but in light of her findings this is baseless. It is easy to see the tremendous loss of resources incurred and also an alarming basis on which to detain people. She also notes how mature women face higher risk of death due to misreading of emotions: when presenting with heart problems at emergency rooms they are often deemed to be anxious and sent home.

In a similar vein many audience members asked further questions about how her findings relate to other social issues such as depression, road-rage and other day-to-day scenarios. Barrett embraced the audience’s interest in how her research can be used by the individual to better understand the self. She explained how, by actively cultivating certain experiences, we can change our own responses to situations. Since we are using our past experience to predict and guess what is going on around us, conscious intervention into this process can lead to a reduction in unwanted thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Although she only touched briefly on how this can be achieved through artistic contemplation or meditation techniques, it felt like an empowering idea for those seeking personal understanding. Interestingly these comments about meditative practice were similar to those raised at an earlier Festival of Ideas talk. During Daniel Dennett’s ‘On Back to Bacteria: The Evolution of Minds’ event, he and Susan Blackmore discussed meditation possibilities raised by such introspection.

Returning to broader implications Bruce Hood raised the importance of recognising the variability in emotions in order to avoid ethnocentric bias in studies, pointing out that social sciences often suffer from a WEIRD bias: that is the participants are overwhelming White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and from Democracies. Indeed this much more nuanced approach has great potential for a deeper understanding of different cultures and societies.

The book itself contains meta-analysis of previous studies of emotion, amusing anecdotes and case studies making it varied and accessible. Perhaps most importantly it is part of a greater paradigm shift making its way in popular consciousness, about how we can understand ourselves as individuals and humanity as a whole using a melding of both science and culture for more sophisticated insights. Furthermore the knowledge that it is possible to actively teach our minds to react in different ways, offers a high note, the promise of greater agency and hope for real change. It would seem that there is no one who would not benefit from reading Barrett’s How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. It is wonderful to see these ideas being brought to larger audience in such a tangible manner and it is conceivable that we will see the results across institutions and society in years to come.

Share this/