Book Review: How Emotions Are Made

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Reviewed by Wayne Dodge

This is a very important book that has been getting widespread press attention. Professor Barrett is a researcher in the area of emotions, with a background in clinical psychology.

What she challenges here is the ‘classic’ view of emotions – which is that our emotions are ‘built in’ templates that ‘fire’ off. The older concepts of particular emotional circuits in the limbic system of the brain and that ‘anger’ is a built-in defense mechanism of the reptilian fight/flight/freeze pathways, do not appear to hold up to newer understandings of neuroscience.

This also means that beliefs about the universality of expression of emotions – which harkens back to Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) – and popularized by the psychologist Paul Ekman (a favorite of Gwen and myself – and the basis of the TV series Lie to Me) are also not ‘true’. 

Instead, our emotions are being constantly constructed by our brains – using current body inputs, past experiences and our cognitive construction of the world. Barrett clearly acknowledges that it doesn’t ‘feel’ that way as emotions happen – and she supports her thesis both with reference to the literature and with clear explanations.

And this does not include just our emotions, but our experiences as well. In the apt description by Gerard M. Edelman, our current experiences are “the remembered present.” What we experience in the moment is filtered through  both our past experiences and the expectations (predictions) that we make about what is happening.

What is ‘hard wired’ in the human is that we will make such constructions – but the construction (e.g., anger, happiness) is itself not a specific circuit in the brain. Nor do we construct our emotional concepts on our own – we do so embedded in our culture. 

So it is interesting that the emotional ‘granularity’ varies from culture to culture. Russian has two distinct concepts for ‘anger’; German has three and Mandarin has five. Barrett makes the point that these different nuances actually change the experience – just as Russians have a different experience seeing a rainbow (which for them has six distinct bands of colors) than do those whose languages only recognize five distinct colors (and, of course, the rainbow actually has no distinct color – just a constant gradation of color). 

Then, of course, there are the emotions that are ‘unique’ to specfic cultures – such as ‘Forelsket’ (a Norwegian concept for an intense joy of falling in love) or ‘Gigil’ (a Filipino concept for the urge to hug or squeeze something that is unbearably adorable) or ‘Age-otori’ (a Japanese concept for the feeling of looking worse after a haircut). Barrett make the point that these are just as ‘real’ an emotion as anger or sadness.

We create our constructions in community and communication with others – thus the strong effect that others have on our current experience. 

Barrett explores the implications of this constructive theory in chapters on ‘Mastering Your Emotions’, ‘ Emotion and Illness’, ‘Emotion and the Law’  – and has a concluding chapter on how the brain, using constructions, creates the mind as well.

Your personal experience, therefore, is actively constructed by your actions. You tweak the world, and the world tweaks you back. You are, in a very real sense, an architect of your environment as well as your experience. Your movements, and other people’s movements in turn, influence your own incoming sensory input. These incoming sensations, like any experience, can rewire your brain. So you’re not only an architect of your experience, you’re also an electrician. (Pg 285)

Although this book challenges ideas such as the universality of anger and ‘the limbic system as the emotional circuit in the brain, I was happy to see that it jives so well with fundamental precepts of The Haven (self-responsibility; the core importance of curiosity; the openness to change). And, once again, I’m impressed with how ‘foresightful’ Ben and Jock were in the construction of The Haven concepts.

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