How emotions are made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Score: 5/5

This book is recommended to me by Paula Kurylowicz (thanks!). The author illustrates an alternative to the classical view of how emotions and how the brain works. It is interesting because it allowed me to have more awareness of my emotions and what might cause them.

Some main themes of the book

  • The classical view is that there are a basic set of emotions any human can have, and no matter what upbringing, everyone will share that same set and will express and interpret them the same way. That is why some novels and art works are universal – we can all experience the same emotions that the authors intended for us to experience.
  • The view of the author is that it is not true. Newer experiments showed that the previous ones had significant flaws – giving people a limited set of options to choose from, translation issues for subjects of another country, giving just the facial expression instead of a background story that caused such a facial expression, how our culture reinforces those set of facial expressions and the mapping from them to certain emotions.
  • The author argues that our brain interprets emotions just as how it interprets any other more physical experiences like feeling tired or an accelerated heartbeat.
  • If you do not have a well-formed fine-grained “concept” of emotion, then you might not interpret them clearly compared to another more emotional-aware person. E.g. anger in Chinese have many words – 愤 怒 恼 怨 恨 嗔 愠 忿 恚 each is slightly different. If you are just taught the word “anger” then your brain might react the same way to the different potential causes of those emotions. Thus your behavior changes when you obtain more “emotional vocabulary”.
  • Your brain also regulates the energy spent at every minute. In order to do that, it needs to predict your bodily functions, your emotions, as well as the outside world. Thus your brain might misinterpret hunger for something else such as “I don’t like this person” or “this criminal is guilty as charged”, because it may not know the reason behind a drop in glucose in your blood – maybe that is because this person in front of me made me feel threatened, so we need more glucose!! But in fact it’s just because you forgot to have breakfast.
  • Your brain constructs the reality you experience as much as the environment outside your body.
  • Schadenfreude
  • In law, emotions are said to make people less guilty of the crime they committed. But should it be? We can argue that people should be more aware and in control of their emotions. And if you don’t do that, you should be just as guilty as anyone else. But that is hard in the current legal system because emotions are hard to measure.
  • Other interesting experiments:
    • Human babies are more sensitive to human speech as opposed to any kind of audio when we try to teach it a new category of things – a concept. They are not universal learners. They have built-in bias.
    • Moving the body into a different environment or location will help combat addiction. During the vietnam war, 15% of US soldiers used Heroin. 95% of them recovered after the war, compared to only 10% of the normal people. It is hypothesized that the env change from Vietnam to home helped.
    • Infants prior to 1980 were operated without anesthesia, on the belief that they do not feel the pain.