Sharing a Shift in Emotion Science

This is a photo of Lisa Feldman Barrett.

In her new book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, APS Past Board Member Lisa Feldman Barrett talks about what she sees as a paradigm shift in the science of emotion.  As part of this recurring series on communicating science to lay audiences, Barrett discusses the development of the book from concept to publication, and how she hopes it will change the public’s understanding of emotion.


Observer (OBS): Why did you decide to write this book?

Lisa Feldman Barrett (LFB): About 7 to 8 years ago, I began speaking with the press more frequently to help educate the public about the benefits of psychological science. It’s also important for people to understand how research money is spent — what they’re getting for their tax dollars. Every journalist would ask me, “Why does it matter if our understanding of emotion is incorrect? What are the implications for the average person?” To be honest, I found these questions annoying at first. I wondered why psychology and neuroscience can’t be interesting for their own sakes. I mean, nobody asks a physicist to explain how the Higgs boson will immediately improve people’s lives. I felt the science of the mind was held to a different standard, and it was frustrating.

But then in 2013, a journalist from Boston Magazine, Shannon Fischer, interviewed me extensively for a feature article. In speaking with her, I realized that classical views of emotion are guiding policies and practices that actively harm people. I’m talking about medical research that assumes fear has a biological essence, a legal system that assumes cognition and emotion are separate systems in the brain doing battle with one another, and airport security training that wasted $900 million of taxpayer money. Not to mention the billions of dollars that companies such as Google and Facebook are pouring into emotion-reading gadgets based on flawed assumptions.

The issue that put a fire in my belly, though, was the impact on families who have children with autism. I imagined being a parent of such a child, which is devastatingly difficult because the child’s struggles directly impact the child–parent relationship. The things I cherish most about my own daughter’s young childhood can be lost to these parents. Then I imagined someone telling me that my child could improve her social relationships if she simply learned to recognize six basic facial expressions. I imagined her struggling to learn them, and succeeding in the lab, as the research shows these children do. But the research also shows that this learning doesn’t translate into better social functioning in the real world. That loss of hope would be devastating, but it would be even worse to find out that scientists have had evidence for a long time that should have made them question whether the whole approach would work in the first place! Scowls in anger, pouts in sadness, widened eyes in fear, and so on, are stereotypes that were stipulated by scientists, not discovered by them. Learning to recognize a scowl as anger does not prepare you for the diverse facial movements that people make when angry. (When is the last time an actor won an Academy Award for scowling when angry?) My empathy for these families was a key factor that drove me to write the book.

Around the same time, my daughter, Sophia, emerged into adolescence and faced the traditional struggles that adolescents do. I wanted to write a book that she could read to understand what she was feeling and why. I figured that other parents and teens could also use the book to negotiate the same difficulties we were facing.


This is the cover of Lisa Feldman Barrett's book, "How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain."OBS: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing this book?

LFB: Classical views of emotion assume that emotions have essences. Essentialism is straightforward and easy to understand. But the real world is complicated. It’s simple to draw a picture of a brain with an arrow pointing to a brightly colored blob in the amygdala and say, “Fear lives right here.” Simple — but wrong.

To move beyond these essentialist notions, I had to explain — in language for the average young adult — that instances of emotion are made, on the fly, within the interacting networks of a brain housed in a body full of interacting systems, in an environment largely created by that brain, and also populated by other brains in bodies. I had to introduce new ideas like predictive coding, emergence, complex systems, degeneracy, and ad hoc concepts without making people’s heads explode. I’m very happy with how it all turned out, but the simplification process was challenging.

Fortunately, I had the benefit of more than 40 test readers, many of whom are not academics, to keep me from getting too cerebral. My husband Dan, in particular, is an experienced writer and editor and was my first and most important reader. He spared no opportunity for constructive criticism, shall we say. Actually, some days we were so at odds over wording that we resorted to handheld signs, one that said “Science” and the other “Readability,” as tools to halt arguments. Other key editing insights came from my two editors at Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt (Courtney Young and Alex Littlefield) and James Ryerson at The New York Times.


OBS: Emotion science appears to be going through a paradigm shift. What are the most important takeaways from your book that you would point to?

LFB: Takeaway 1: Population thinking, straight out of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, also applies to emotion. A species is not a collection of individuals who share an essence, but a category full of variety with no essence at its core. Variation is signal, not error. It allows a species to thrive in varied environments. The same applies to emotion categories. There is no universal “fingerprint” in the face, body, or brain for fear, happiness, or any other emotion category. Each one is a diverse population of varied, situated instances.

Takeaway 2: There is no brain area “for” emotion — the emotions we experience emerge from core brain systems. Emotions aren’t made in dedicated neurons that reside in discrete brain regions, networks, or sprawling patterns. They are constructed through the interaction of domain-general networks — the same networks that implement thoughts, perceptions, and other mental phenomena.

Takeaway 3: Classical views of emotion are portrayed as “the” evolutionary view of how emotions came to be, but they actually represent just one evolutionary hypothesis. The ideas have their roots in Darwin’s thinking about emotion, which, ironically, didn’t include population thinking or natural selection! Ernst Mayr, the evolutionary biologist, considered these to be among the most revolutionary ideas in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. My theory of constructed emotion is an evolutionary view of emotion that incorporates them. Newer evidence from evolutionary biology shows that natural selection almost never results in systems of independent functional modules, whether in the brain or elsewhere. Instead, variation is the norm. A modern concept like degeneracy (multiple paths to the same outcome), which is a prerequisite for and consequence of natural selection, makes for a much more realistic theory of emotion.

Takeaway 4: Context is important. Science is not about finding universal laws, which tend to lose their universality in the face of new discoveries (think Newtonian physics vs. relativity theory or quantum mechanics). It’s time for psychological science to take this insight seriously. Psychological science, and science in general, discovers the conditions under which an effect is likely (or doubtful). Einstein didn’t replace Newton’s laws; he just discovered their boundary conditions. The so-called replication crisis in psychology, in my view, is actually a philosophical misunderstanding of what science is and how it works. When an experiment doesn’t replicate, it doesn’t necessarily imply that the original discovery is false. It might mean that some psychologically potent but as-yet unappreciated bit of context was different across experiments. It’s an opportunity for discovery. That is the definition of scientific progress.


OBS: What are your hopes or expectations about how the book will change our understanding of emotion science?

LFB: There is a paradigm shift going on in certain branches of psychology and neuroscience. We’re moving away from essentialism, which asks where in the brain psychological phenomena are located, and toward a constructivist approach, which asks how a brain creates thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and actions. Other sciences have had similar paradigm shifts away from essentialism: Darwin’s discovery of population thinking is a prime example. So is Einstein’s theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics. Some areas of psychology, such as memory, vision, and action, seem to be ahead of the game. The science of emotion has lagged behind, but now it is rapidly catching up.

I hope that the theory of constructed emotion outlined in my book will encourage a different approach to the science of emotion. A robust, replicable science requires that we understand emotions in all their variability, not just the stereotypes of a couple of emotion categories that come from a highly selective reading of Darwin. We must study emotion in context, high-dimensionally (measuring many systems simultaneously), and dynamically (e.g., changes over time using Big Data approaches to understand an individual mind). We’ve wasted a lot of precious time and funding in the pursuit of static “emotion fingerprints.” Right now, other disciplines offer us the methods and analytics to bridge lab and world, and to modernize the study of emotion.

I also have a secret wish that the theory of constructed emotion will inspire us, as educators, to reflect on and revise how we train our students to do science. They need different mathematical and experimental skills, not to mention a different philosophy that treats essentialism as a topic of study, not as a set of assumptions to guide scientific inquiry. All that stands between us and this bold new approach is the will to challenge our own familiar, comfortable ways of doing things.


OBS: How do we know when we’re channeling unconscious cultural biases? And how do we rise above them?

LFB: A human brain runs an internal model of the world, using past experiences as predictions. These predictions guide our actions and determine our perceptions and experiences. Everything we see and hear and do is rooted in memory. The wiring of the brain guarantees it. So, to some extent, we always channel unconscious cultural biases.

How to rise above these biases? In the moment, make an effort not to presume that your perceptions reveal reality. (Avoid naïve realism.) Be curious about what other people are thinking or feeling. Even if you are supremely confident in your own perceptions, try and remember that confidence is just a feeling. It’s not evidence of mental X-ray vision.

As my book points out, your responsibility to avoid cultural bias extends beyond the present moment. Your mind is a computational moment that is conjured in a predicting brain. It’s effortful for a brain to try and correct predictions once they’ve been launched, but you can proactively shape your brain’s future internal model (i.e., its future predictions) by cultivating certain experiences and avoiding others. For example, if you grow up surrounded by racism, it’s helpful to seek out and curate experiences to seed more egalitarian predictions, which, in turn, automatically shape your behavior.

The motivation to rise above your cultural biases isn’t some touchy-feely liberal bull. Regardless of your world view, it’s pragmatic. We are a social species, and we have flourished as a species because we live in social groups. This means we are constantly negotiating the dilemma of getting along versus getting ahead. Cultural biases are barriers to both. You’ll be more successful at whatever you do if your brain can flexibly shift its internal model according to the context. Communicating across a cultural boundary, whether it is the border between two countries or the threshold between the street and a mosque or synagogue, requires a brain that can predict in sync with others. Ridding yourself of cultural biases helps you get ahead. Persuasion is the art of translating your beliefs and goals into terms that others care about and ultimately make their own. Dissolving biases also helps you get along; this is so obvious it needs no explanation.

Reducing cultural biases is just one way for you to be the architect of your experience. Even though your brain makes your mind, you’re not consciously controlling every thought, feeling, and action, and they can catch you off-guard in the moment. You can’t just snap your fingers to have a different life. But you can take steps now to influence your future, to sculpt who you will be tomorrow.