Emotions, the classic thinking goes, are innate, basic parts of our humanity. We are born with them, and when things happen to us, our emotions wash over us.
“They happen to us, almost,” says Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and a researcher at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital.
She’s also the author of a book called How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. In it, she argues for a new theory of emotions which is featured in the latest episode of NPR’s program and podcast Invisibilia.
The “classical view” of emotions as innate and limited in variety, she says, “matches the way that many of us experience emotion, as if something’s happening outside of our control,” she tells Shots.
“But the problem with this set of ideas is that the data don’t support them. There’s a lot of evidence which challenges this view from every domain of science that’s ever studied it.”
Lisa Feldman Barrett spoke to Shots about her alternative theory of emotions. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the “classical” theory of emotions
The classical view of emotion is the idea that somewhere lurking deep inside you are the animalistic engine parts of your brain. There are circuits — one each for anger, sadness, fear, disgust and so on. And that when something happens in the world to trigger one of those circuits — say, for fear — you will have a very specific facial expression, a very specific bodily response, and that these expressions and responses have universal meaning. Everyone in the world makes them and recognizes them without learning or any experience at all.
On the wide variety of human emotions
There’s tremendous variability when it comes to emotion. Variety is the norm. It’s not the case that there are there’s one set of facial movements that you make when you’re sad, or when you’re angry, or when you’re afraid. For example, people don’t just scowl when they’re angry or smile when they’re happy. People smile when they’re sad, they cry when they’re angry, they scream when they’re happy. A person can tremble in fear, jump in fear, freeze in fear, scream in fear, hide in fear, attack in fear, even laugh in the face of fear.
So, I think that’s one important observation that’s really meaningful for understanding how emotions work in everyday life. That it may feel to you as if you look at someone’s face and you just know how they feel. But in fact your brain is guessing, [and] it’s using your own experiences from the past to make those guesses.
On how the brain’s predictive “guessing” can change how we think about emotions
Your brain is organized in such a way as to [make] anticipatory guesses about what is going to happen next. And this is happening entirely outside of your awareness. You have past experiences, and those experiences become wired into your brain, and then your brain uses those past experiences to make guesses about the immediate future.
So, emotions aren’t happening to you. Your brain makes them as you need them. You are the architect of your own experience. It’s just that most of this is happening outside of your awareness.
On how much control people have over their emotions under Feldman Barrett’s theory
It’s interesting. There are two ways in which I would say you are not a slave to your past. One is that your brain is able to take bits and pieces of past experience and combine them in new ways. Think of it like this: if you have a set of general ingredients in your kitchen, you can combine them in novel ways to make new recipes that you’ve never made before.
The other way though is that we can invest effort in the present to cultivate new experiences for future use in prediction. This is a really nice discovery, because what it means is that your horizon of control over your own experience is much broader than you might think.
For example, if you look at cognitive behavioral therapy, if you look at many of the books and articles which talk about cultivating compassion, cultivating wonder, cultivating a number of pleasant experiences that are thought to have beneficial effects, this is exactly what’s happening. Your past experience is one ingredient to making emotions in the present.
On how states of displeasure and arousal are related to emotions
Those feelings are not properties of emotion, they’re properties of consciousness because they’re always with you, whether or not your brain is using them as ingredients of emotion, or for thoughts or perceptions. They are part of you and your experience of the world even when you are not experiencing emotions.
For example you know that’s a delicious drink. That guy’s a [jerk]. You know this is a beautiful painting. These are these are examples of when affective feelings from your body are very strong, but you are not making emotions with them. You’re making perceptions of the world or perceptions of another person.
But when an effect is very intense, those are the moments when the brain is usually making emotion out of them. [For example], you can sometimes have a very strong feeling of fear when you’re feeling very unpleasant and very worked up. But fear can also be pleasant. When you’re on a roller coaster, for example. People pay money to be afraid.
My point here is that in the classical view is that anger is negative — sometimes positive, but usually negative. Fear is negative, disgust is negative, happiness is positive.
But what the evidence shows is, in fact, that the pleasantness or unpleasantness of an emotion is really variable. So there are varieties of sadness that can feel very pleasant, varieties of happiness that can feel very unpleasant. And the quality really comes from these sensations in your body.