What if someone told you that emotions are not fixed, distinct, and universal circuits in your brain? And then went on to add that emotions are determined by culture, more so than biology?
This is the premise that psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett makes in her latest book How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. She came to talk about the book at a recent event organised by the Bristol Festival of Ideas.
In How Emotions are Made, Barrett challenges the assumptions on the established theory of emotion dating as far back as Plato. These assumptions are deeply ingrained in our society – and not only as popular belief but among scientists as well.
Barrett questions all this by looking at what the data has to offer. After consulting various scientific studies, she reached a conclusion with the support of modern neuroscience which disproves the old idea of human emotions as we know it.
She discovered that emotions don’t just happen to us. What the brain does instead is predicting what will happen next – in the body and brain – by guessing and making predictions using experience to make sense of the sensory world.
Barrett mentioned many interesting studies she delved into while researching – one of them conducted back in the 1960s by two psychologists using a method considered illegal nowadays, and which involves injecting test subjects with adrenaline and other control substances without telling them. As controversial and shocking it sounds, this classic study suggested that the way we make sense of our bodies is by affiliating with other people.
Another argument that Barrett makes is that emotion isn’t a thing – rather it’s a collection of variable instances. This means that the familiar theory of emotion which claims that everyone in the world has a characteristic way of recognising and expressing emotions is simply not true at all.
It’s interesting to learn that what one feels when experiencing a certain emotion changes from instant to instant, so that sometimes one may express anger by shouting, or at other times by withdrawing. The body interprets the sensory information it receives and makes predictions on what is the best reaction at the time.
This is good news, since it tells us that we are not trapped with a given disposition forever. It also tells us that if we focus on creating valuable future experiences, our brains will use these and adjust our reactions and emotions accordingly.
The most valuable contribution by Barrett in presenting a new theory of emotion is her explanation that emotions are determined by culture, showing examples from her research of cultures where some of those so-called emotions do not exist. Therefore, the argument here is that the necessary ingredient to have an emotion is experience, since the brain requires a formed concept to have and nurture a certain feeling.
Lisa Feldman Barrett’s research has a worldwide importance in how we view the world itself and our social interactions, with potential positive implications in the healthcare sector. How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain is a worthy read that will leave us better equipped to cultivate our emotional lives.