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


BW: So this is why so many people express their emotions differently.

LFB: Yes. It’s not so much that other people express their emotions differently — it’s that you yourself experience the same emotion category differently in different situations. Sometimes in anger you’ll lash out, but sometimes in anger, you cry, you freeze. Sometimes in anger, you withdraw, or you laugh in the face of anger. It’s very similar to Darwin’s definition of a “species” — you know, just like there are many individuals in a species, you have many different instances of emotion, a category like anger. There are also differences in people between cultures and also within a culture. In some cultures, anger doesn’t even exist as a category — people make sense of those sensations in a very different way.

BW: Do you think artificial intelligence will ever be successful at understanding human emotion?

LFB: We’re just a bunch of brains trying to understand how brains work. That’s a very limiting factor. I think technology holds the key to answering some of these questions. If variability is the norm in any emotion, then how does the human brain solve this problem? The answer is the human brain has a way of dealing with variation. We just have to take a clue there. So if we’re building technology to answer questions like how to read an anger expression, and what they mean by that is to detect a scowling face, that is going to go nowhere. They’re equating the measurement with their interpretation of the measurement. Facial movements alone have no meaning without context and the rest of the signals in creating an emotion. I think the answer is there, I just think someone in the technology industry has to be brave enough to ask the right questions.

BW: How does gender bias guide our emotional perception of other people?

LFB: In very significant and substantial ways I would say. The law is probably the clearest place where you can see this. You can see it in politics pretty clearly I think. You can see it anywhere really, medicine too. We have very gendered beliefs about emotion. So for example, when people in our culture look at a man who is scowling or appears to be angry, on average, people assume he’s angry because something in the situation has caused him to be angry. His anger reflects something about the state of the world.

When a woman is angry, on average, people assume she’s angry because she’s a shrew or she’s overly emotional — that her anger reveals something about her as a person. Women have a bit of a “double blind” in our culture — because the stereotype is that women are these overly emotional creatures who can’t control themselves, and who should not be in positions of authority. That’s a bit of a caricature, but it’s still assumed that women are more emotional than men. If you ask a woman if she’s more emotional than a man, on average, she’ll say yes and men agree.

When you track women’s and men’s emotionality in day-to-day life, you don’t see any differences on average between men and women. So there are some people who are more emotional and some who are less, but, on average, men and women are not different.

I’ll give you an example. I have a student who’s a woman — she was trained in linguistics, but she spent the last several years in graduate school learning computational modeling from a group of signal processing engineers — very mathy, sophisticated stuff. She wrote a fellowship application. Despite the fact that she has been making progress over several years and has letters of recommendation from engineers saying she’s a fantastic candidate, one of her reviewers denied her application. She may not get funded now because she’s a woman. That bias that girls can’t do math, could affect the rest of her career. So I think the idea that when women are logical, it’s an anomaly — but when they’re emotional, they’re not fit for leadership or anything that requires logical analysis.

BW: How do we build emotions?

LFB: If you believe you were born with a set of emotional circuits prewired into your brain, and the way emotion works is one of these circuits gets triggered — then you have a feeling, an expression, an obligatory change in your body — then regulating emotion means that all you can do is avoid the situations that will trigger the circuit or try to regulate things after the fact. When you understand how the brain works and how emotions are made within that framework, what it does is widen the horizons of control for you. There are things that you can do, outside of the moment, that will make it easier for your brain to construct the feelings that you find beneficial.

Generally speaking, there are three domains of ingredients the sensations of regulating your brain’s body budget — mood or affect. There’s the situation you’re in that your brain is trying to make sense of. And there’s the internal model that your brain is running, to make predictions about what’s going to happen next, which comes from your past experience. So if you change any of those things, you change your emotions. You have control over your emotions.

Some of them are easy; some of them are much harder than others. It’s never the case that you can snap your fingers and just change how you feel. On the other hand, you have more control than you might imagine. Some people like to ask, “If I could control one thing about my emotions, what would it be? ” and the answer is — get some sleep. Get enough sleep. That sounds really boring, and I sound like a mother when I say this, but I am actually talking as a neuroscientist. Anything, which makes it easier for your brain to keep your body’s budget in balance, will make it easier for your brain to make beneficial instead of problematic emotions. Eat properly, eat healthfully, which is really hard to do in our culture, and exercise on a regular basis. The more difficult it is, the more unpleasant you will feel the greater opportunity there is for negative emotions.

It’s that simple. Another thing you can do is in the moment — change the situation that you’re in. Get up, take a walk. Get outside yourself. If you can’t physically change rooms, you can figuratively change, by paying attention to different things around you. In any room that you’re in, your brain is paying attention to some things and ignoring others — so you can change your surroundings by just paying attention to other things. You can look out a window, look at a plant, look at a photograph. This is why a lot of people are interested in mindfulness. The most interesting thing you can do — you can’t change your past, but you can cultivate experiences in the moment that sort of feed your brain to predict differently in the future. You can expand your emotion vocabulary. You invest a little in the present to cultivate emotions that we know to be helpful — gratitude and wonder and awe. Practice them enough, and your brain learns how to make them automatically.

You May Also Like

My Life With Tourette’s
Are We Alone? The Question is Worthy of Serious Scientific Study

Sponsored Link

About Us

A magazine dedicated to the brain.

We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

Education and Training

Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to our newsletter below and never miss the news.

Stay Connected