Home books The Science of Emotions: Neuroscience on Constructing How We Feel

The Science of Emotions: Neuroscience on Constructing How We Feel

by Marianne Navada
science of emotions

In the book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, we learn the difference between two theories on human emotions. The author, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., explains the flaws of the classic view of emotion and offers support for the theory of constructed emotion.

The book has 3 main parts. First, the author explains why research on classic view of emotions fail to live up to their main contentions. Second, she explains how we construct our emotions by discussing the intersections of our brains, bodies, experiences, and society, aka, the theory of constructed emotion. Third, she offers a self-help application of her argument, on both personal and social level. For example, this new way of thinking about emotions has the potential to change the way we treat depression.

What Does the Classic View of Emotions Believe In? 

  • Emotions are hardwired and artifacts of evolution. 
  • We are born with certain emotions. 
  • Emotions come quickly and automatically. 
  • We can detect emotions based on the face, voice, and bodies. 
  • Emotions transcend age and culture
  • Our emotions rely on reflex and instinct, which our rationality regulates. 
  • Emotions are akin to a “fingerprint” or follow a “circuit”, wherein a particular set of neurons and physiological events are triggered when someone is happy or sad. For example, you see a snake, which acts as a stimulus, then the fear circuit activates.

This classic view dominates our culture and social institutions, which the author laments. Contrary to the classic belief, research shows that people use angry, sad, or afraid interchangeably. The same goes for positive emotions such as calm, happy, and proud, for example. This questions the idea of patterns and universality of emotions. Moreover, research on facial electromyography shows no distinct pattern in the way our facial muscles move based on an emotion. So, we can’t exactly read emotions from the face or body. 

The author argues that there are negative consequences to the classic view of emotions. For instance, currently, professionals use body language and facial expressions to detect terrorism or crime, but how accurate are the meanings we attach to them? Also, society can take on a gendered view when it comes to interpreting emotions. A woman complaining of chest pressure and shortness of breath might be diagnosed as just being anxious, but a man is having a heart attack. 

When it comes to research, the classic view would ask the question “where are the neurons that trigger fear?” On the other hand, the theory of constructed emotion would ask “how does the brain create instance of fear?”. 

What Does the Theory of Constructed Emotion (TCE) Argue? 

  • We make our own emotions and construct our own emotional experiences. 
  • How we perceive emotions is rooted in our culture and personal experience. 
  • The brain constructs the experience of emotion. The brain predicts rather than react.
  • “A mental event, such as fear, is not created by only one set of neurons. Instead, combinations of different neurons can create instances of fear. This principle is called degeneracy, meaning, “many to one”. Many combinations of neurons can produce the same outcome, which explains why an emotion, let’s say sadness, can’t have the same pattern for everyone. Moreover, it can’t even have the same pattern for an individual. Meaning, an individual who experiences instances of sadness throughout their life may arrive at this feeling in many ways. 

How Does the Brain Construct Feelings? 

The body-budget region of your brain or allostasis predicts your body’s needs to keep you alive, well, and to operate efficiently. Emotions start with body-budgeting.

When your body-budgeting predicts you will need a quick burst of energy, these regions instruct the adrenal gland in your kidneys to release the hormone cortisol. It’s a mistake to call it a stress hormone since cortisol is released when stressed. Main purpose is to flood the bloodstream with glucose to provide immediate energy to cells, breathe deeply to give more oxygen to blood stream and all of these internal motion is accompanied by interoceptive sensations.

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain | Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D.

The interoceptive sensations or interoception regulates your body-budget. A part of your brain which represents all sensations, “from your internal organs, tissues, hormones, blood, immune system”, interoception receives cues from the body. For example, you feel a stomach ache, your brain then makes predictions based on that sensation. 

“So your interoceptive network controls your body, budgets energy resources, and represents your internal sensations, all at the same time.” 

Using the stomach ache example, when we experience the sensation, our brain makes predictions and in this case, choices, based on experience or knowledge may include: Should I loosen my belt to alleviate my stomach ache? Am I hungry? This shows that depending on your interpretation of the sensation, you will act differently. 

What Happens When Body-Budgeting Becomes Unbalanced 

To explain how body budgeting can affect judgment and emotions, the author cites a study on parole grants and judges in Israel.

The study finds that judges are more likely to deny parole before lunchtime. This is an example of how “when you experience affect without knowing the case, you are more likely to treat affects as information about the world, rather than your experience of the world.” Affect refers to feeling of either pleasant or unpleasant (valence), or feeling calm or agitated (arousal). Changes in body budget can change your affect.

This shows that what WE feel (pleasant or not or whether we feel calm or agitated), influences how we assess the people or situations around us. Similar studies show how rainy days lead to more negative reactions when it comes to job interviews, for example. 

How the Brain Makes Meaning 

From language to social situations, society gives meaning to our emotional experience. This partly explains why certain languages have words for certain feelings and others don’t. The German word schadenfreude, which refers to pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune, is an example. Our language or the concepts and words we are exposed to facilities the construction of our emotions.

For the author, the “brain constructs prototypes” of emotions as you need them. These groupings are usually goal-based concepts, which offer flexibility and adaptability. Emotions, in essence, have goals and rely on context.

“To make meaning is to go beyond the information given. A fast-beating heart has a physical function, such as getting enough oxygen to your limbs so you can run, but categorization allows it to become an emotional experience such as happiness or fear, giving it additional meaning and functions understood within your culture.”

If you see a person panting and sweating wearing workout clothes, you probably won’t think nothing of it. Or maybe even feel happy for the person for working out. You see the same physiological signs from a person wearing a suit, you might react differently. People around us, therefore, peg emotions to our actions, which emphasizes the social aspect of our emotions. 

The Lessons

The book argues that we construct emotions and that our experiences, language, and more generally culture define our emotional spectrum. As some of the book reviewers from Amazon and Goodreads point out, the book needs more peer-reviewed content. Also, the dismantling of the classic view of emotions can be over the top. But there are some critical lessons.

  • Expanding your knowledge and vocabulary give you a broader understanding of your feelings.
  • It’s possible to master your emotions by taking into account your body-budget and your past.
  • Don’t assume you know how people feel based on how they look. 
  • Analyze your emotions, their goals, and the purpose they serve you and those around you.

The example from the book about the disgruntled employee also makes for a useful template on how to tease out feelings and get a clearer understanding of how feelings guide your actions. Here’s a synopsis of the story.  

The book also serves as a reminder of how dominant the English language has been when it comes to defining emotions. Thankfully, the globalization of yoga and even social media, which makes it easier for us to get to know other cultures, has led to the global acceptance of non-English words such as hygge, ahimsa, and ubuntu

Thinking of emojis as a form of global communication, I wonder how emoticons will standardize feelings and expression. Will it limit our emotional spectrum?

Lessons from the book reminded me of my experience teaching in college. Looking at a sea of faces, I thought I knew who felt bored during lecture, until a student approached me after class. He expressed how interested he was in the subject we were discussing and asked for more resources. He was one of the people I thought wasn’t paying attention. 

The Workplace Example

An employee works hard, but does’t get the promotion. The employee starts having sensations and interprets them as anger. Diverse predictions of anger can be towards, the boss, a person, the system, for example. Physical reactions vary. The person might yell, whisper, or stay silent. With all these scenarios and iterations, the brains selects an “instance of anger”. Goals for this emotion, vary as well. Goal can be to change the boss’ mind, or become convinced that the boss is incapable. It’s possible that the same scenario will construct a different emotion, such as regret. This feeling can also manifest as a non-emotion, such as stomach ache.

Commit to living.