Are emotions real? Are they hardwired to our physiology? Are they pre-cognitive and purely affective? Was Darwin right in speculating that facial expressions are human universals that accurately represent a small repertoire of emotional experiences (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals)? Or instead are emotions a part of the cognitive output of the brain, influenced by context, experience, expectation, and mental framework? Lisa Feldman Barrett is an accomplished neuroscientist who addresses all of these questions in her recent book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, based on several decades of research on the emotions. The book is highly interesting, and has important implications for the social sciences more broadly.
Barrett’s core view is that the received theory of the emotions — that they are hardwired and correspond to specific if unknown neurological groups, connected to specific physiological and motor responses — is fundamentally wrong. She marshals a great deal of experimental evidence to the incorrectness of that theory. In its place she argues that emotional responses and experiences are the result of mental, conceptual, and cognitive construction by our central nervous system, entirely analogous to our ability to find meaning in a visual field of light and dark areas in order to resolve it as a bee (her example). The emotions are like perception more generally — they result from an active process in which the brain attempts to impose order and pattern on sensory stimulation, a process she refers to as “simulation”. She refers to this as the theory of constructed emotion (30). In brief:
Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. 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. (31)
Particular concepts like “Anger” and “Distrust” are not genetically determined. 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)
This theory has much in common with theorizing about the nature of perception and thought within cognitive psychology, where the constructive nature of perception and representation has been a core tenet. Paul Kolers’ motion perception experiments in the 1960s and 1970s established that perception is an active and constructive process, not a simple rendering of information from the retina into visual diagrams in the mind (Aspects of Motion Perception). And Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained argues for a “multiple drafts” theory of conscious experience which once again emphasizes the active and constructive nature of consciousness.
One implication of Barrett’s theory is that emotions are concept-dependent. We need to learn the terms for emotions in our ambient language community before we can experience them. The emotions we experience are conceptually loaded and structured.
People who exhibit low emotional granularity will have only a few emotion concepts. In English, they might have words in their vocabulary like “sadness,” “fear,” “guilt,” “shame,” “embarrassment,” “irritation,” “anger,” and “contempt,” but those words all correspond to the same concept whose goal is something like “feeling unpleasant.” This person has a few tools — a hammer and Swiss Army knife. (106)
In a later chapter Barrett takes her theory in a Searle-like direction by emphasizing the inherent and irreducible constructedness of social facts and social relations (chapter 7). Without appropriate concepts we cannot understand or represent the behaviors and interactions of people around us; and their interactions depend inherently on the conceptual systems or frames within which we place their actions. Language, conceptual frames, and collective intentionality are crucial constituents of social facts, according to this perspective. I find Searle’s arguments on this subject less than convincing (link), and I’m tempted to think that Barrett is going out on a limb by embracing his views more extensively than needed for her own theory of the emotions.
I find Barrett’s work interesting for a number of reasons. One is the illustration it provides of human plasticity and heterogeneity. “Any category of emotion such as “Happiness” or “Guilt” is filled with variety” (35). Another is the methodological sophistication Barrett demonstrates in her refutation of two thousand years of received wisdom about the emotions, from Aristotle and Plato to Paul Ekman and colleagues. This sophistication extends to her effort to avoid language in describing emotions and research strategies that embeds the ontology of the old view — an ontology that reifies particular emotions in the head and body of the other human being (40). She correctly observes that language like “detecting emotion X in the subject” implies that the psychological condition exists as a fixed reality in the subject; whereas the whole point of her theory is that the experience of disgust or happiness is a transient and complex construction by the brain behind the scenes of our conscious experience. She is “anti-realist” in her treatment of emotion. “We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems” (40). And finally, her theory of emotion as a neurophysiological construct has a great deal of credibility — its internal logic, its fit with current understandings of the central nervous system, its convergence with cognitive psychology and perception theory, and the range of experimental evidence that Barrett brings to bear.