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Ingenious: Lisa Feldman Barrett

Inside a new theory of emotions that spotlights how the brain works.

Do you think you can read emotions like joy or anger in another person’s face and actions? Read them because joy and anger are universal…By Kevin Berger

Do you think you can read emotions like joy or anger in another person’s face and actions? Read them because joy and anger are universal emotions and we all know what they look and feel like? Well, if so, says neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, you are winging it, guessing at best. Emotions like happiness and despair are not baked into our brains, waiting to be triggered by experiences in the world. Sure, we have a range of feelings, stimulated by our senses. But those feelings cannot be categorized as emotions innate in everyone. What we call emotions, Barrett says, are concepts constructed by our individual neural systems, molded by our cultures and past experiences.

In her new and first book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, based on years of research at her neuroscience lab at Northeastern University, Barrett spells out the “theory of constructed emotion.” Ultimately she believes the theory can help us from stereotyping one another through reductive lenses like a woman’s “angry” face. The theory can help us be more tolerant of the ways people from a variety of cultures express themselves. The breadth of the book, though, illuminates what emotions tell us about the ways the body and brain work, an anatomy lesson of how we make our way through the world.

In short, Barrett writes, emotions reveal that our brains are like a black box in our bodies, being fed outside information by our senses, and figuring out how to best navigate the chaos. “An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean,” Barrett writes. “From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. You wouldn’t know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to behave and deal with them. With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is emotion.”

Earlier this month Barrett stopped by the Nautilus office to explain more about the inner maps that our brains create in a noisy world. With equal parts good humor and scientific acumen, she explained why we get angry, how childhood molds our brains, and how emotions inform us that we are not living in our own private Idaho.

To see the video interview, click the “play” button at the top of this article.

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Interview Transcript

What is the theory of constructed emotion?

Constructed emotion is the idea that emotions aren’t given. It’s not the case that there’s a ready-made circuit available in your brain and when it’s triggered, you get this cascade, this suite of characteristic patterned responses. Instead, your brain makes emotion, as it needs it, on the spot, using a set of all-purpose ingredients.

The same brain networks that make emotion also make thoughts and memories and perceptions. Emotion is basically your brain’s way of making sense of the sensory changes that are going on inside your body in relation to what’s going on around you in the world. So, an emotion is your brain making meaning of sensations from the world. It’s not your reaction to the world; it’s your construction of what the world is, what your body is like in the world as it appears to you in that moment.

What causes our sensations, what we feel?

I don’t know that we feel sensations. Our feelings are more like perceptions than they are sensations. In psychology, we make a distinction between sensory inputs and perception. Basically, the way that your brain is wired, if you look around the room, there are objects in the room, there are other people in the room—it feels to us like the visual input from these objects just makes its way through our retina to our brains and then we see the world. But that’s actually not how your brain is wired, and that’s not how your brain works. Your brain is constantly using its past experience to guess at what sensory inputs are about to happen next. So your brain’s not reactive, it doesn’t react to stimuli in the world; it anticipates what’s going to happen. We know this by looking at the anatomy of the brain; we know this by a number of brain imaging studies and electrical recording studies of individual neurons.

The way that I like to explain it is, if you think about it from your brain’s perspective, your brain is in a dark, silent box called your skull and it can’t get out and experience the world directly. It can only know the world through the sensory inputs that come through your sensory systems—your ears, your eyes, and so on. It only has effects. It only has wavelengths of light, or changes in air pressure, or concentrations of chemicals and it has to figure out what caused those in those wavelengths of light, or changes in concentration, or air pressure, and so on, so that it knows what to do next. So how does it do that? When there’s a flash of light, how does it figure out what that flash of light means? All it has at its disposal is your past experience, the past experience that it has wired into itself, basically.

Your brain is not only regulating your body budget; it’s also helping to regulate other people’s, and other people are helping to regulate you.

So what it does is it tries to pattern match. It tries to create a representation that is the anticipated cause of those sensations. Now, it’s not guessing, after the fact. The way the brain is structured for efficiency reasons—metabolic efficiency—it actually attempts to anticipate what those sensations are going to be. It’s kind of preemptively guessing, kind of all the time, based on past experience, what sensory inputs are coming. Then it uses, like a scientist, its hypotheses, and then it uses the sensory inputs as data.

Your sensations that you experience, the colloquial idea of a sensation, is actually a perception. You don’t experience all of the sensory input that comes in; your brain takes a lot more in than you consciously experience. So what we colloquially refer to as “sensations” are really perceptions. They’re your experience of the sensory inputs that your brain has made sense of already.

How did emotions evolve?

There are two pieces, I guess, to answer this question. The first is that we often ask the question, “How did the brain evolve thinking? How did the brain evolve emotion? How does the brain think? How does it feel?” Because, we’re very concerned with thinking and feeling. But actually, your brain evolved to control your body.

If you didn’t have a body that moved around, where you were expending energy and having to take in energy, you wouldn’t really need a brain. So as bodies get more complex, brains get bigger. The way I like to think of it is that your brain is kind of like the financial sector of a company. It’s like the financial office of a company. Companies have many bank accounts. They have to move funds around so that they remain solvent, they don’t go bankrupt and similarly, that’s what your brain is doing with your body. It’s constantly having to keep your body systems in balance and it’s doing that simultaneously, as it creates thoughts, and feelings, and perceptions. In fact, you could even argue that it’s creating thoughts, and feelings, and perceptions in the service of keeping your body in balance.

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Are emotions byproducts of our brain at work, maintaining our body?

That would be one way to think of it. Another thing to understand is that we don’t keep our nervous systems balanced on our own. We are social animals. We evolved to be social animals. That means that individuals in a social species regulate each other’s nervous systems. Your brain is not only regulating your body budget; it’s also helping to regulate other people’s, and other people are helping to regulate you.

In insects that are social, they primarily use chemicals to regulate each other. Termites, for example, are a social species, and they pretty much use olfaction and chemicals. Other mammals, like rats and rodents, use touch, and they also use hearing to regulate each other’s nervous systems. Primates, that are not human, also use vision. We use all of those sensory systems—and we also use words and concepts. I can sit here and talk to you. I can change what’s happening in your body just by merely speaking a few words. So emotion concepts, and concepts in general, evolved in part because we have to manage our relationships with each other; but as we’re doing that, we are constantly regulating each other’s nervous systems, for good or for ill.

What do you mean that “emotions are social reality?”

The physical changes in your body that give you physical sensations don’t have a psychological meaning on their own. We impose that meaning collectively as a group.

Much of what we do, and feel, and think each day is determined by social reality, the reality that we collectively have made.

The reason why scowling means anger to us, the reason why we sometimes scowl when we’re angry, is that we all agree that scowling is anger and we’ve learned to make scowls for that purpose. If we didn’t impose that meaning on that facial movement, it wouldn’t have that meaning. It’s real; people really scowl and they really feel angry, but it only has that meaning because we imposed that meaning. In many cultures, scowling is not anger. Scowls exist and anger’s not even a category in those cultures.

It’s sort of similar to money. Little pieces of paper are real. But they are only real as money when we all agree that we can trade them for material goods. If I hand you a piece of green paper, you will only hand me a coffee if we all agree that the piece of paper has value. If we stopped agreeing the pieces of paper had value, they actually wouldn’t have value anymore.

Still, if emotions are individualistic, aren’t we all living in our own private Idahos?

We go through our everyday life interacting with reality and we assume it’s all physical reality, that it’s all just given. But much of what we do, and feel, and think each day is determined by social reality, the reality that we collectively have made.

We have a president of the United States because we all agreed that we’re a country called the United States and that that country has a role called a president who has certain powers. If we decided one day that we weren’t that country anymore, we would no longer have citizenship. That’s just a made up thing. That’s something a bunch of people made up. This is actually really important at this particular political moment in time. What’s happening is that people are negotiating over the social reality that structures their lives. They’re not aware that that’s what they’re doing. But that actually is what they’re doing.

So, no, you’re not living in your own private Idaho; but you have a way of making meaning of what’s going on in your body in a way that is culturally shared with a bunch of other people. If you were to encounter somebody, say from a completely different culture, they may make sense of their bodies in a very different way. For them, they may not experience sadness, they may experience illness. We make meaning out of what is physically real, but as a consequence, we establish an extended reality that we share. If no one else was using the concepts you were using, you would be unable to communicate with people. You’d be completely alone, and then you’d die more quickly. Because people who are completely alone die sooner.

Why do we get angry?

I always want to preface this by saying as I’m saying it, if I take my scientific hat off and I put my just person hat on, it sounds completely preposterous what I’m about to say.

So your brain is always predicting; it’s always predicting what’s going to come next. Sometimes, it predicts a conflict, or an obstacle, or a competition. In each of these cases when it’s making this prediction, it’s using knowledge that in our culture belongs to the concept of anger. As it prepares your body to meet the conflict, deal with the obstacle, compete in the competition, you have bodily changes that you experience as affect, and your brain is making sense of those sensations as anger, and it constructs anger for you—just in the same way that right now my brain is taking in wavelengths of light and it’s constructing the perception of objects. It’s very, very similar; in fact, it’s an identical process.

Does a strong emotion signal that our body is out of balance?

Your nervous system evolved to be out of harmony occasionally. It needs to be out of harmony occasionally in order to be balanced the rest of the time. That’s why exercise is good for you. Exercise is good for you because you’re deliberately throwing your body out of balance so that it learns to get itself back in balance fast. Also, what do you do when you exercise? Well, maybe you have carbohydrates before you exercise or protein after you exercise, you drink; so you’re actually not just spending resources, you’re also taking resources in.

We have an ecosystem of stress in our world that we’ve created, that makes it really hard for us to stay in balance.

So a bout of anger is kind of like a bout of exercise. Your brain’s preparing you to do something and you’ll go and you’ll do it and it will cost you something, but presumably, the revenues that you get back will be worth your investment. But, sometimes what happens—especially in everyday life in the modern world—we’re spending a hell of a lot more than we’re taking in. That’s what stress is.

Stress is when your body budget’s out of balance and you are running a deficit. When that happens, you feel like crap, basically, and the flavor of crap that you feel will be determined by how your brain is making sense of those sensations. That’s not healthy, and we have an ecosystem of stress in our world that we’ve created, that makes it really hard for us to stay in balance—like really hard. We don’t sleep enough, we eat food that, you know, maybe isn’t really even food, we don’t often exercise sufficiently, move our bodies as much as they need to keep healthy.

The best thing for a human nervous system is another human, but the worst thing for a human nervous system can be another human. So in social evaluation, particularly what’s ambiguous is extremely hard on a human nervous system. We now have 24 hours a day social media that we can be interacting with; now silence could be potentially a social rejection—you text someone, you can see they’ve read your text; why aren’t they answering you back? Email ... So all of this stuff, in highly ambiguous circumstances, basically means that we are swimming in a pool of stress, and that makes it more likely that people won’t have a single bout of anger; it makes it more likely that they’ll have many bouts of anger, and many bouts of fear, and many bouts of anguish, [and] many bouts of guilt—and any other unpleasant emotion that you can think of because their body budget’s out of whack and they’re feeling crappy.

How important is childhood to leading an emotionally rich life?

The early experience is pretty important. One thing we’ve learned is that an infant brain doesn’t look like an adult grown-up brain: It’s not wired in the same way. In fact, babies are born with brains that await instructions on how to wire themselves.

Even for your brain to just form normally—to develop the rest of the way normally—it expects certain inputs. This is also part of our suite of evolutionary adaptations. The brain is very malleable and it requires care in the form of social interactions with caregivers. It’s not enough just to feed a baby. You have to feed a baby while you are engaged in some kind of social interaction. You don’t just change a baby’s diapers; you have to cuddle it, you have to talk to it, you have to do all these things. And it matters, the words that you speak even to a 3-month-old. The words that you speak matter to the development of that infant’s brain.

So yes, it matters. On the other hand, you don’t stop forming concepts when you’re 2 or 3 years old. You are learning new concepts and elaborating the concepts that you have throughout your entire life. The richness and variability of your experiences as a child, as an adolescent, as an adult, matter to the conceptual system that your brain has at its disposal, that’s wired into its connections.

For example, little kids, school-age kids who are taught emotion vocabulary to expand their vocabulary of emotion concepts, not only regulate their behavior better on the playground, they actually do better in school. Their academic performance improves and the whole climate of the classroom changes. This is with a minimal amount of instruction, too.

So early experiences are extremely important. It’s actually much more important, I think, than anybody who is a policy maker really realizes. If we were going to do one thing, one thing to improve the global competitiveness of our country it would be to solve childhood poverty. You could make appeals to people on the basis of morality or humanity, but you could also make the argument just based on economics, frankly.

But that doesn’t mean that your ability to learn new concepts stops in an early age. If you take the time and invest the resources to cultivate, to curate new experiences for yourself, you are in effect wiring your brain to be very flexible at creating those experiences and others, broadening your flexibility in the future.

How does constructed emotion redefine “what it means to be a human being?”

In the classical view, the assumption is we all have the same mind. I might have more anger than you or maybe you might have more guilt than me. I might have more happiness than you, maybe you have more awe than me; but we all have the same parts.

That flies in the face of what we know to be true—what anthropologists know to be true, what sociologists know to be true, what some psychologists know to be true, and now even some neuroscientists. We experience thoughts and feelings as separate from each other and we also experience them as distinct from the physical ailments of our bodies. But in half the world, that’s not true.

So if it’s really the case that what evolution has endowed us with is a brain that wires itself to the physical and social realities of the environment, of its environment, then this means that we have the kind of brain that doesn’t produce one mind. It produces many kinds of minds and appreciating that diversity, and even celebrating it, but also recognizing the challenges that it presents to us in a global world is I think the benefit of understanding the mind as a constructed phenomenon.

What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?

You know, it depends on the day when you ask me. Sometimes, I think I would like to open an ice cream shop; or I would really like to have a nice little French bakery in a beach town, you know, so I could wake up every morning, I could see the ocean, feel some awe. I like to occasionally feel like a speck—your problems can’t be very important if you yourself are very tiny. Sometimes I try to cultivate this feeling of insignificance; it’s very good. And then I can go and bake pastries all day.

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