how emotions are made -- 7/14/17

Today's selection -- from How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. A new theory of emotions:

"The time-honored story of emotion goes something like this: We all have emotions built-in from birth. They are distinct, recognizable phenomena inside us. When something happens in the world, whether it's a gunshot or a flirtatious glance, our emotions come on quickly and automatically, as if someone has flipped a switch. We broadcast emotions on our faces by way of smiles, frowns, scowls, and other characteristic expressions that any­one can easily recognize. Our voices reveal our emotions through laughter, shouts, and cries. Our body posture betrays our feelings with every gesture and slouch. ...

"Emotions are ... thought to be a kind of brute reflex, very often at odds with our rationality. The primitive part of your brain wants you to tell your boss he's an idiot, but your deliberative side knows that doing so would get you fired, so you restrain yourself. This kind of internal battle between emotion and reason is one of the great narratives of Western civilization. It helps define you as human. Without rationality, you are merely an emo­tional beast. ...

"And yet ... despite the distinguished intellectual pedigree of the classi­cal view of emotion, and despite its immense influence in our culture and society, there is abundant scientific evidence that this view cannot possibly be true. Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion. When scientists attach electrodes to a person's face and measure how facial muscles actually move during the experience of an emotion, they find tremendous variety, not uniformity. They find the same variety -- the same absence of finger­prints -- when they study the body and the brain. You can experience an­ger with or without a spike in blood pressure. You can experience fear with or without an amygdala, the brain region historically tagged as the home of fear. ...

"So what are [emotions], really? When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real -- that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of hu­man agreement. This view, [is] call[ed] the theory of constructed emotion."

Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.



Lisa Feldman Barrett


How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2017 by Lisa Feldman Barrett


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