How Emotions Are Made: A Q&A with Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett


BW: How good are we at interpreting emotions?

LFB: That’s a great question, and I can answer it as a scientist or as a person. “How good?” is what a scientist would call “validity.” If you and I are talking, and I’m guessing that you’re interested — how “valid” is my guess? Normally, in science, we want to have an objective criterion — so we can objectively measure your interest and let me compare that to my judgment. Nothing like that in emotion exists, because there’s nothing about your face, your body, or your brain that, even in combination, will tell me in a given instance whether or not you’re interested, or feeling contempt, or feeling angry. The reason why, is that the category of emotion, like interest, is not a thing. It’s a variable set of instances — in the way that any member of a given species, like a cocker spaniel, is not a “perfect” individual. It’s a highly variable group of individuals whose features vary in a way that’s important to the environment that they live in. The same thing is true about emotions.

As a consequence, to ask about the questions of validity — am I guessing correctly — we have to compare it to something else, like your judgment of whether you’re interested, or somebody else’s judgment of whether you’re interested. Do we have two people agreeing? — what we call “inter-rater reliability.” Now it turns out in everyday life, that’s mostly what matters. Mostly what matters for our ability to communicate, is that I’m guessing in a way that makes sense of your physical movements and the acoustics of your voice, in the same way that you’re making sense of your own sensations.

That’s actually what brains do. It’s not that you have some state of interest that then you detect and perceive, it’s that you have a set of ingredients that are available to your brain, and your brain “makes” interest. What it’s doing when it’s making interest, or anger, or actually any mental state at all, is it’s trying to make sense of internal sensations in your body in relation to what’s going on around you in the world.

So am I good at making sense of all of this in the same way you are? I would say if we come from similar backgrounds, then I’m probably not bad. If we’ve learned the same ways of making sense of things, I’m probably not bad. It’s also possible that I’m not great, but the question is how much agreement do you actually need? So in some cases all you need is the gist — I just need to know that you’re feeling pleasant or unpleasant. That’s enough. So I might not think you’re interested. I might think that you’re happy, but it’s close enough for the purposes of a single interaction.

However, there are lots of times when it’s not enough. For example, take the whole #MeToo movement. It’s really important that people are making sense of their own sensations in a way that’s congruent with how other people are making sense of their actions. When that doesn’t happen, lots and lots and lots of problems arise. I’m not saying instances of sexual harassment, rape, or what have you; I’m talking about instances where people are misunderstanding each other, which happens quite frequently. It can happen in the courtroom, it can happen very tragically in the emergency room, it can happen definitely across cultural boundaries. It happens enough that we should pay attention to it and try to fix it.

BW: So how do we fix it?

LFB: Imagine you’re interested in changing how something tastes — like baked bread. You could just slather some butter on, right? — or peanut butter and jam, or something. You could add something after the fact. Or you could just learn how it’s made — and you can alter the recipe. So if we understand how emotions are made, and more so how our own brains work, in relation to our bodies and what’s going on around us, then we’re in a better position to change the recipe. Maybe even to change the ingredients.

That’s a more effective way of doing things. Instead of asking where are emotions located in your brain, explain to people: “Here is how your brain works. This is what we know so far. Given that this is how a brain works, in the world surrounded by other brains and bodies, what’s the most effective way to change the ingredients? ” That’s really the approach that I take in my book.

BW: How are emotions created?

LFB: Your brain didn’t really evolve to think and feel and see, it evolved to regulate your body. As bodies got bigger, what scientists call the “ecological niche” of an animal got bigger — their brains got bigger. I like to think about the brain as kind of like the financial office of a company. In a company, you have lots of offices, and each office is spending revenue and getting deposits. The goal is to not let any office go bankrupt. You need to keep the whole country fiscally sound and everything in balance. You want to be able to invest in opportunities that may not pay off, but you want to take that chance. I think that’s what the brain is really doing for the body — it’s running a budget.

Instead of money, the budget is for things like glucose and salt and water. It’s tracking expenditures and revenues, and it’s attempting to do this in the most metabolically efficient way, because a major constraint on brain function is metabolic efficiency. Twenty percent of your brain is metabolic budget. It turns out the most efficient way to regulate a system is to run a model of that system and correct it, as needed. Basically, you have a model and it makes predictions of what’s going to happen next in the system, and if the model’s wrong, you just correct it.

It turns out that the brain is structured this way — that neurons in the brain are structured to predict as opposed to react to the world, so basically what your brain is attempting to do is while it’s thinking and feeling and seeing, it’s simultaneously attempting to anticipate the needs of the body and meet those needs before they arise. If your brain’s going to stand you up, it will raise your blood pressure before it stands you up so you don’t faint.

You may be asking what all of this has to do with emotion — well, it’s really important to understand this to understand how your emotions are made, because when your brain is regulating systems in your body, there are sensations that arise from those changes. You don’t experience those changes in high fidelity, in the same way that you see and hear. Instead of like an HDTV, it comes in like a fuzzy, black-and-white image. You experience them as simple feelings — pleasant or unpleasant, feeling worked up. These feelings are with you every waking moment of your life. They’re not emotions, they’re the result of your brain’s budgeting.

So we have names for these feelings — some people call them “moods,” scientists call them “affect,” some people call them “gut feelings.” So your brain is trying to make sense of these feelings and of the world, in order to prepare your body for what to do next. If I have a big change in the systems of my body, and I feel intensely unpleasant, my brain might make an instance of anxiety. It might make an instance of longing if I’m waiting for my lover or best friend or daughter to come home. It might make an instance of nausea or just hunger.

But it may affect my perception of the world — if I’m driving on the highway and someone cuts me off, my perception could be that that guy’s a jerk. I might think he’s the cause of these sensations of unpleasantness. So it’s not your reactions to the world — it’s the way your brain makes sense of the inner workings of your body in relation to the world.

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