Thursday, December 31, 2020

Matriliny reverses gender disparities in inflammation and hypertension.

Fascinating obeervations from Reynolds et al.


Greater autonomy afforded to women in matrilineal societies has been hypothesized to benefit women’s health. Among the Mosuo, a society with both matrilineal and patrilineal subpopulations, we found that gender disparities in chronic disease are not only ameliorated but reversed in matriliny compared with patriliny. Gender disparities in health and chronic disease can thus be tied directly to cultural influences on health, including inequalities in autonomy and resource access between men and women.
Women experience higher morbidity than men, despite living longer. This is often attributed to biological differences between the sexes; however, the majority of societies in which these disparities are observed exhibit gender norms that favor men. We tested the hypothesis that female-biased gender norms ameliorate gender disparities in health by comparing gender differences in inflammation and hypertension among the matrilineal and patrilineal Mosuo of China. Widely reported gender disparities in health were reversed among matrilineal Mosuo compared with patrilineal Mosuo, due to substantial improvements in women’s health, with no concomitant detrimental effects on men. These findings offer evidence that gender norms limiting women’s autonomy and biasing inheritance toward men adversely affect the health of women, increasing women’s risk for chronic diseases with tremendous global health impact.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The generic "you" enhances connection between people and ideas

An interesting piece from Orvell et al.:
Creating resonance between people and ideas is a central goal of communication. Historically, attempts to understand the factors that promote resonance have focused on altering the content of a message. Here we identify an additional route to evoking resonance that is embedded in the structure of language: the generic use of the word “you” (e.g., “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”). Using crowd-sourced data from the Amazon Kindle application, we demonstrate that passages that people highlighted—collectively, over a quarter of a million times—were substantially more likely to contain generic-you compared to yoked passages that they did not highlight. We also demonstrate in four experiments (n = 1,900) that ideas expressed with generic-you increased resonance. These findings illustrate how a subtle shift in language establishes a powerful sense of connection between people and ideas.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Sixteen facial expressions occur in similar contexts worldwide .

I want to pass on this article by Cowen et al., which was the subject of a comment made on my December 2 post "Emotions are constructed, and are not universal." Here is the abstract:
Understanding the degree to which human facial expressions co-vary with specific social contexts across cultures is central to the theory that emotions enable adaptive responses to important challenges and opportunities. Concrete evidence linking social context to specific facial expressions is sparse and is largely based on survey-based approaches, which are often constrained by language and small sample sizes. Here, by applying machine-learning methods to real-world, dynamic behaviour, we ascertain whether naturalistic social contexts (for example, weddings or sporting competitions) are associated with specific facial expressions14 across different cultures. In two experiments using deep neural networks, we examined the extent to which 16 types of facial expression occurred systematically in thousands of contexts in 6 million videos from 144 countries. We found that each kind of facial expression had distinct associations with a set of contexts that were 70% preserved across 12 world regions. Consistent with these associations, regions varied in how frequently different facial expressions were produced as a function of which contexts were most salient. Our results reveal fine-grained patterns in human facial expressions that are preserved across the modern world.
Here is one fragment from the main text of the article:
Specific contexts including fireworks, weddings and sporting competitions are reliably and differentially associated with 16 patterns of dynamic facial expression, such as those often labelled awe, contentment and triumph by English speakers, in a similar manner across world regions. In total, 70% of the variance in the context–expression association was found to be preserved in all 12 world regions that we examined. In revealing universals in expressive behaviour throughout the modern world, our findings directly inform the origins, functions and universality of emotion.
It is important to note that the authors were careful to point out that these studies were done on behaviors throughout "the modern world" and used emotion categories defined in English. The results do not in fact contradict the assertions of Barrett that emotions do not have universal facial fingerprints, if data from the non-modern world of isolated tribes is taken into account. (see my post on chapter 3 of her book "Emotions are not universal")

Monday, December 28, 2020

Hallucinogens at a prehistoric rock art site.

Interesting work from Robinson et al. on stoned stone-age artists (open access article, see comment below)! 


Proponents of the altered states of consciousness (ASC) model have argued that hallucinogens have influenced the prehistoric making of images in caves and rock shelters. However, the lack of direct evidence for the consumption of hallucinogens at any global rock art site has undermined the ASC model. We present the first clear evidence for the ingestion of hallucinogens at a rock art site, in this case, from Pinwheel Cave, California. Quids in the cave ceiling are shown to be Datura wrightii, a Native Californian entheogen, indicating that, rather than illustrating visual phenomena caused by the Datura, the rock paintings instead likely represent the plant and its pollinator, calling into question long-held assumptions about rock art and the ASC model.
While debates have raged over the relationship between trance and rock art, unambiguous evidence of the consumption of hallucinogens has not been reported from any rock art site in the world. A painting possibly representing the flowers of Datura on the ceiling of a Californian rock art site called Pinwheel Cave was discovered alongside fibrous quids in the same ceiling. Even though Native Californians are historically documented to have used Datura to enter trance states, little evidence exists to associate it with rock art. A multianalytical approach to the rock art, the quids, and the archaeological context of this site was undertaken. Liquid chromatography−mass spectrometry (LC-MS) results found hallucinogenic alkaloids scopolamine and atropine in the quids, while scanning electron microscope analysis confirms most to be Datura wrightii. Three-dimensional (3D) analyses of the quids indicate the quids were likely masticated and thus consumed in the cave under the paintings. Archaeological evidence and chronological dating shows the site was well utilized as a temporary residence for a range of activities from Late Prehistory through Colonial Periods. This indicates that Datura was ingested in the cave and that the rock painting represents the plant itself, serving to codify communal rituals involving this powerful entheogen. These results confirm the use of hallucinogens at a rock art site while calling into question previous assumptions concerning trance and rock art imagery.

Friday, December 25, 2020

A musical offering for this day.

I'm grateful to a number of MindBlog viewers for their positive feedback on the recent series of posts on Barrett's book on emotions, and I thought I would pass on as a seasonal gift this YouTube video of the beginning of the Bach Christmas Oratorio showing a piano version of its orchestral musical score scrolling past as the performance proceeds. I enjoy sightreading the score on my Steinway B with the YouTube sound turned down a bit. 

(My YouTube channel shows some of my solo piano and chamber music efforts.)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The plasticity of well-being and the cultivation of human flourishing

I pass on the abstract of an open source article in PNAS contributed by my former colleague Richard Davidson and his colleages at the University of Wisconsin Center for Healthy Minds. I recomment that you read the whole article.
Research indicates that core dimensions of psychological well-being can be cultivated through intentional mental training. Despite growing research in this area and an increasing number of interventions designed to improve psychological well-being, the field lacks a unifying framework that clarifies the dimensions of human flourishing that can be cultivated. Here, we integrate evidence from well-being research, cognitive and affective neuroscience, and clinical psychology to highlight four core dimensions of well-being—awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. We discuss the importance of each dimension for psychological well-being, identify mechanisms that underlie their cultivation, and present evidence of their neural and psychological plasticity. This synthesis highlights key insights, as well as important gaps, in the scientific understanding of well-being and how it may be cultivated, thus highlighting future research directions.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Barrett's grand finale... From Brain to Mind: The New Frontier

Following our last installment on the emotions of animals, this post arrives at Barrett's final take home messages in Chapter 13 of "How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain." This is the final installment in a series of MindBlog posts that began on Nov. 18. The previous installment of this series covered Chapter 12, on the emotions of animals.
…the essences of the mind receive a makeover every century or two, and for the most part, the idea of mental organs has pretty much stuck around.* Casting away those essences remains a challenge today because the brain is wired to categorize, and categories breed essentialism. Every noun we utter is an opportunity to invent an essence without intending to do so.
As we amass petabytes of brain data with our twenty-first-century tech toys, however, the media, venture capitalists, most textbooks, and some scientists are still interpreting that data with a seventeenth-century theory of the mind (having upgraded to a fancy version of phrenology from Plato 1.0). Neuroscience has delivered a far better understanding of the brain and its function than our own experiences ever could, not just for emotion but for all mental events.
You perceive emotions without formal instruction, but that does not mean that emotions are innate or independent of learning. What’s innate is that humans use concepts to build social reality, and social reality, in turn, wires the brain. Emotions are very real creations of social reality, made possible by human brains in concert with other human brains.
Your mind is not a battleground between opposing inner forces—passion and reason—that determine how responsible you are for your behavior. Rather, your mind is a computational moment within your constantly predicting brain.
Your brain predicts with its concepts, and while scientists debate whether certain concepts are innate or learned, it’s unquestionable that you learned a slew of them as your brain wired itself to its physical and social surroundings. Those concepts come from your culture and help negotiate the quintessential dilemma of living in groups—getting ahead versus getting along—a tug-of-war that has more than one solution. On balance, some cultures favor getting along, while others favor getting ahead.
All these discoveries reveal a crucial insight: The human brain evolved, in the context of human cultures, to create more than one kind of mind. People in Western cultures, for example, experience thoughts and emotions as fundamentally different and sometimes in conflict. At the same time, Balinese and Ilongot cultures, and to a certain extent cultures guided by Buddhist philosophy, do not make hard distinctions between thinking and feeling.
Microwiring. Neurotransmitters. Plasticity. Degeneracy. Multipurpose circuitry. Neuroscientists sum up this incredible well of variation by calling the brain a “complex system.”…Complexity implies that the wiring diagram of a brain is not a set of instructions for a single kind of mind with universal mental organs. But the human brain has few preset mental concepts, such as perhaps pleasantness and unpleasantness (valence), agitation and calmness (arousal), loudness and softness, brightness and darkness, and other properties of consciousness. Instead, variation is the norm. The human brain is structured to learn many different concepts and to invent many social realities, depending on the contingencies it is exposed to.
A human brain can create many kinds of minds, yet all human minds do have some common ingredients. For millennia, scholars believed that the inevitable bits of the mind were essences, but they are not. The ingredients are three aspects of the mind that we’ve encountered in this book: affective realism, concepts, and social reality. They (and perhaps others) are inevitable and therefore universal, barring illness, based on the anatomy and function of the brain.
Affective realism, the phenomenon that you experience what you believe, is inevitable because of your wiring. The body-budgeting regions in your interoceptive network—your inner loudmouthed, mostly deaf scientist with a megaphone—are the most powerful predictors in your brain, and your primary sensory regions are eager listeners. Body-budget predictions laden with affect, not logic and reason, are the main drivers of your experience and behavior. We all think a food “is delicious” as if the flavor were embedded in the food, when flavor is a construction and the deliciousness is our own affect. When a soldier in a warzone perceives a gun in someone’s hands when no gun is present, he might actually see that gun; it’s not a mistake but a genuine perception. Judges who are hungry during parole hearings render more negative decisions.
The second inevitability of the mind is that you have concepts, because the human brain is wired to construct a conceptual system. You build concepts for the smallest physical details, like fleeting bits of light and sound… What is not inevitable, however, is that you have particular concepts. Sure, everyone may have some basic concepts as a function of their wiring, such as “Positive” versus “Negative,” but not every mind has distinct concepts for “Feeling” and “Thinking.” Any set of concepts that helps you regulate your body budget and stay alive, as far as your brain is concerned, will do just fine.
Concepts are vital to human survival, but we must also be careful with them because concepts open the door to essentialism. They encourage us to see things that aren’t present. … the classical view of emotion, whose mental organs are a human invention that mistakes the question for the answer.
Concepts also encourage us not to see things that are present. One illusory stripe of a rainbow contains an infinite number of frequencies, but your concepts for “Red,” “Blue,” and other colors cause your brain to ignore the variability. Likewise, the frowny-faced stereotype of “Sadness” is a concept that downplays the great variation in that emotion category.
The third inevitability of the mind that we’ve discussed is social reality. When you are born, you can’t regulate your body budget by yourself—somebody else has to do it. In the process, your brain learns statistically, creates concepts, and wires itself to its environment, which is filled with other people who have structured their social world in particular ways. That social world becomes real to you as well. Social reality is the human superpower; we’re the only animal that can communicate purely mental concepts among ourselves. No particular social reality is inevitable, just one that works for the group (and is constrained by physical reality).
When you create social reality but fail to realize it, the result is a mess. Many psychologists, for example, do not realize that every psychological concept is social reality. We debate the differences between “will power” and “tenacity” and “grit” as if they were each distinct in nature, rather than constructions shared through collective intentionality. We separate “emotion,” “emotion regulation,” “self-regulation,” “memory,” “imagination,” “perception,” and scores of other mental categories, all of which can be explained as emerging from interoception and sensory input from the world, made meaningful by categorization, with assistance from the control network. These concepts are clearly social reality because not all cultures have them, whereas the brain is the brain is the brain. So, as a field, psychology keeps rediscovering the same phenomena and giving them new names and searching for them in new places in the brain. That’s why we have a hundred concepts for “the self.” Even brain networks themselves go by multiple names. The default mode network, which is part of the interoceptive network, has more aliases than Sherlock Holmes.
When we misconstrue the social as the physical, we misunderstand our world and ourselves. In this regard, social reality is a superpower only if we know that we have it.
From these three inevitabilities of the mind, we see that construction teaches us to be skeptical. Your experiences are not a window into reality. Rather, your brain is wired to model your world, driven by what is relevant for your body budget, and then you experience that model as reality. Your moment-to-moment experience may feel like one discrete mental state followed by another, like beads on a string, but as you have learned in this book, your brain activity is continuous throughout intrinsic, core networks. Your experiences might seem to be triggered by the world outside the skull, but they’re formed in a storm of prediction and correction. Ironically, each of us has a brain that creates a mind that misunderstands itself.
Where construction advocates skepticism, essentialism is deeply committed to certainty. It says, “Your brain is as your mind appears to be.” You have thoughts, therefore you must have a blob in the brain for thoughts. You experience emotions, therefore you must have blobs in the brain for emotions. You see evidence of thoughts, emotions, and perceptions in other people around the world, so the corresponding brain blobs must be universal and everyone must have the same mental essences. Genes have allegedly produced a mind that is common to all humans.
Essentialism lays out not just a view of human nature but a worldview. It implies that your place in society is shaped by your genes. Therefore, if you are smarter, faster, or more powerful than others, you can justifiably succeed where others cannot. People get what they deserve and they deserve what they get. This view is a belief in a genetically just world, backed by a scientific-sounding ideology….The is another possibility…society’s stereotypes about race, which are social reality, can become the physical reality of brain wiring, the official welfare statistics are true because we, as a society, made them so. (Barrett cites research on the brain development of African American children born into poverty).
Now it’s time for me to drink my own Kool-Aid. Prediction, interoception, categorization, and the roles I’ve described for your various brain networks are not objective facts. They are concepts invented by scientists to describe the physical activity within a brain. I claim these concepts are the best way to understand certain computations being performed by neurons. However, there are many other ways to read the brain’s wiring diagram (some of which wouldn’t call it a wiring diagram at all). The theory of constructed emotion maps to the brain more closely than do so-called psychological essences or mental organs. In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more useful and functional concepts for the brain’s structure emerge.
In the coming years, I hope we’ll all see fewer and fewer news stories about brain blobs for emotion in people or rats or fruit flies, and more about how brains and bodies construct emotion. In the meantime, whenever you see an essentialism-steeped news story about emotion, if you even feel a twinge of doubt, then you’re playing a role in this scientific revolution.
Like most important paradigm shifts in science, this one has the potential to transform our health, our laws, and who we are. To forge a new reality. If you’ve learned within these pages that you are an architect of your experience—and the experiences of those around you—then we’re building that new reality together.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The emotions of animals - and our human mental inference fallacy

This post continues Barrett's discussion of the implications of our new understanding of how emotions work, passing on some of her discussion of animal emotions in Chapter 12 of her book "How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain." The previous installment covered chapter 11, on emotion and the law.

I skip over Barrett’s discussion of the behaviors of monkeys, chimpanzees, dogs, and other animals to:
Let’s recap where we are. Do animals regulate their body budgets by interoception? I cannot speak for the entire animal kingdom here but for mammals—rats, monkeys, apes, dogs—I think we are on pretty safe ground answering yes. Do animals experience affect? Again, I think we can give a pretty confident yes, based on some biological and behavioral clues. Can animals learn concepts and can they categorize predictively with those concepts? Definitely. Can they learn action-based concepts? Unquestionably yes. Can they learn the meaning of words? Under some circumstances, some animals can learn words or other symbol systems, in the sense that the symbols become part of the statistical patterns that a brain can capture and store for later use.
But can animals use words to go beyond the statistical regularities in the world, to create goal-based similarities that unite actions or objects that look, sound, or feel different? Can they use words as invitations to form mental concepts? Do they realize that part of the information they need about the world resides in the minds of other creatures around them? Can they categorize actions and make them meaningful as mental events?
Probably not. At least not in the way that we humans do. Apes can construct categorizations that are more similar to our own than we might have imagined. But right now, there is no clear evidence that any non-human animals on the planet have the sorts of emotion concepts that humans do. We alone have all the ingredients necessary to create and transmit social reality, including emotion concepts. This holds true even for Man’s Best Friend.
If apes, dogs, and other animals don't have the capacity to experience human emotions, why are there so many news stories about emotions being discovered in animals, even in insects? It all somes down to a subtle mistake that's repeated over and over in science, and which is very difficult to detect and overcome.
Scientists who adhere to the classical view say that the rat has learned to be afraid of the tone, calling this phenomenon “fear learning.” …All over the world, for decades, scientists have been shocking rats, flies, and other animals to map how neurons in the amygdala allow them to learn to freeze. Having identified this freezing circuit, scientists then infer that the amygdala contains a fear circuit—the essence of fear—and the increased heart rate, blood pressure, and freezing is said to represent a consistent, biological fingerprint for fear. (I’ve never been sure why they decided it’s fear. Couldn’t the rat be learning surprise, or vigilance, or maybe just pain? If I were the rat, I’d be pretty pissed off about the shocks, so why isn’t it “anger learning”?)
Anyway, these scientists go on to say that their fear learning analysis extends from rats to humans, because the relevant fear circuitry in the amygdala has been passed to us through mammalian evolution à la the “triune brain.” These fear learning studies helped to establish the amygdala as the supposed brain location of fear.
In psychology and neuroscience, so-called fear learning has become an industry. Scientists use it to explain anxiety disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s employed to aid with drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry and to understand sleep disturbance. With over 100,000 hits on Google, “fear learning” is one of the most commonly used phrases in psychology and neuroscience. And yet, under the hood, fear learning is just a fancy name for another well-known phenomenon: classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning,
Scientists unknowingly apply their own emotion concepts, construct perceptions of fear, and attribute fear to the freezing rat. I call this general scientific mistake the mental inference fallacy. This fallacy has been demonstrated in many experiment in which children and adults assign agency and storyline lines to moving triangles and lines.
The fear learning phenomenon is the most dramatic example of the mental inference fallacy in the science of emotion. Its practitioners blur the important distinction among movement, behavior, and experience. Contracting a muscle is a movement. Freezing is a behavior because it involves multiple, coordinated muscle movements. The feeling of fear is an experience that may or may not occur together with behaviors like freezing. Circuitry that controls freezing is not circuitry for fear. This egregious scientific misunderstanding, along with the phrase “fear learning,” has sown confusion for decades and turned what’s effectively an experiment on classical conditioning into an industry of fear.
Some scientists still presume that all vertebrates share preserved, core emotion circuits to justify the claim that animals feel as humans do. One prominent neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, routinely invites his audiences to see evidence of such circuits in his photos of growling dogs and hissing cats, and in videos of baby birds “crying for their mothers.” It is doubtful, however, that these proposed emotion circuits exist in any animal brain. You do have survival circuits for behaviors like the famous “four F’s” (fighting, fleeing, feeding, and mating); they’re controlled by body-budgeting regions in your interoceptive network, and they cause bodily changes that you experience as affect, but they are not dedicated to emotion. For emotion, you also need emotion concepts for categorization.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Emotion and the Law

This post continues Barrett's discussion of the implications of our new understanding of how emotions work, passing on just a few chunks from Chapter 11 "Emotion and the Law" of her book "How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain." The previous installment covered chapters 9 and 10, on emotional well-being.
Societies have different rules for which emotions are acceptable, and when…Laws are shaped by classical view of emotions, steeped in essentialist view of human nature: Emotions vs. reason, hijacking by emotions, rational worse than irrational (heat of passion) killing,…emotion considered to be the primitive part of human nature, to be controlled by the more advanced and uniquely human rational parts…the “triune brain” myth
…the law is out of sync with science, thanks to the classical view of human nature. The law defines deliberate choice—free will—as whether you feel in control of your thoughts and actions. It fails to distinguish between your ability to choose—the workings of your control network—and your subjective experience of choice. The two are not the same in the brain.
Scientists are still trying to figure out how the brain creates the experience of having control. But one thing is certain: there is no scientific justification for labeling a “moment without awareness of control” as emotion.
What does all this mean for the law? Remember that the legal system decides guilt or innocence based on intent—whether someone meant to commit harm. The law should continue to punish based on how intentional harm is, not on whether emotion is involved or whether a person experiences himself as an agent with volition.
Overall, there is no scientific justification for the law’s view of men’s and women’s emotions…or of emotion stereotypes of ethnic groups, for example, who face similar struggles in and out of court. As long as the law codifies emotion stereotypes, people will continue to be the target of inconsistent rulings.
Mental inference is so pervasive and automatic, at least in cultures of the West, that we’re usually unaware of doing it. We believe that our senses provide an accurate and objective representation of the world, as if we had X-ray vision for deciphering another person’s behavior to discover his intent (“I can see right through you”). In these moments, we experience our perceptions of other people as an obvious property of them—a phenomenon I’ve called affective realism—rather than a combination of their actions and the concepts in our own brain….
Affective realism decimates the ideal of the impartial juror…The very history of stand your ground laws is, ironically, potent evidence against their value. It’s impossible to determine reasonable fear for one’s life in a society where racist stereotypes abound and affective realism literally transforms how people see each other. The whole line of reasoning for stand your ground is gutted by affective realism.
The science of emotion is a convenient flashlight for illuminating some of the law’s long-held assumptions about human nature—assumptions that we now know are not respected by the architecture of the human brain. People don’t have a rational side and an emotional side, with the former regulating the latter. Judges can’t set aside affect to issue rulings by pure reason. Jurors can’t detect emotion in defendants. The most objective-looking evidence is tainted by affective realism. Criminal behavior can’t be isolated to a blob in the brain. Emotional harm is not mere discomfort but can shorten a life. In short, every perception and experience within the courtroom—or anywhere else—is a culturally infused, highly personalized belief, corrected by sensory inputs from the world, rather than the result of an unbiased process.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Implications of the new understanding of how our emotions really work - emotional well being

The previous post in this series, 'A New View of Human Nature,' covering Chapter 8 of Barrett's book brought to a close her account of our brains operate by prediction and construction, rewiring themselves through experience. The remaining chapters of the book consider some implications of shifting to this constructionist view of how emotions are formed, away from the essentialist (classical) view. In the last fews posts of this series on Barrett's book, I'm offering only a very truncated sampling of these chapters dealing with emotional well-being, the law, and non human animals. 

Chapter 9 Mastering Your Emotions 

This chapter begins with a long list of self-help nostrums on taking care of your body, becoming more emotionally intelligent, increasing emotional granularity, exercising, etc. I pass on just a few bits:

The fiction of the self, paralleling the Buddhist idea, is that you have some enduring essence that makes you who you are. You do not. I speculate that your self is constructed anew in every moment by the same predictive, core systems that construct emotions, including our familiar pair of networks (interoceptive and control), among others, as they categorize the continuous stream of sensation from your body and the world. As a matter of fact, a portion of the interoceptive network, called the default mode network, has been called the “self system.” It consistently increases in activity during self-reflection. If you have atrophy in your default mode network, as happens in Alzheimer’s disease, you eventually lose your sense of self.
Deconstructing the self offers a new inspiration for how to become the master of your emotions. By tweaking your conceptual system and changing your predictions, you not only change your future experiences; you can actually change your “Self.”
Mindfulness meditation, just one type of many, teaches you to stay alert and present in the moment but to observe sensations as they come and go, non-judgmentally.* This state (which requires tremendous practice) reminds me of the quiet, alert state of newborn babies when they observe the world, their brains comfortably awash in prediction error, with no anxiety in sight. They experience sensations and release them.
Meditation has a potent effect on brain structure and function, though scientists have not sorted out the exact details yet. Key regions in the interoceptive and control networks are larger for meditators, and connections between these regions are stronger. This matches what we might expect, since the interoceptive network is critical to constructing mental concepts and representing physical sensations from the body, and the control network is critical to regulating categorization. In some studies, we see stronger connections even after only a few hours of training. Other studies find that meditation reduces stress, improves the detection and processing of prediction error, facilitates recategorization (termed “emotion regulation”), and reduces unpleasant affect, although the findings are often inconsistent from one study to the next because not all the experiments have been well-controlled.
Whether you cultivate awe, meditate, or find other ways to deconstruct your experience into physical sensations, recategorization is a critical tool for mastering your emotions in the moment. When you feel bad, treat yourself like you have a virus, rather than assuming that your unpleasant feelings mean something personal. Your feelings might just be noise. You might just need some sleep.
You are a remarkable animal who can create purely mental concepts that influence the state of your body. The social and the physical are intimately linked via your body and your brain, and your ability to move effectively between social and physical depends on a set of skills that you can learn. So grow your emotion concepts. Cultivate opportunities for your brain to wire itself to the realities of your social world. If you feel unpleasant in the moment, then deconstruct or recategorize your experiences. And realize that your perceptions of others are just guesses and not facts.

Chapter 10 Emotion and Illness

…researchers are moving away from a classical view of different illnesses with distinct essences. They instead focus on a set of common ingredients that leave people vulnerable to these various disorders, such as genetic factors, insomnia, and damage to the interoceptive network or key hubs in the brain (chapter 6). If these areas become damaged, the brain is in big trouble: depression, panic disorder, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, chronic pain, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are all associated with hub damage.
My view is that some major illnesses considered distinct and “mental” are all rooted in a chronically unbalanced body budget and unbridled inflammation. We categorize and name them as different disorders, based on context, much like we categorize and name the same bodily changes as different emotions. If I’m correct, then questions like, “Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” are no longer mysteries because, like emotions, these illnesses do not have firm boundaries in nature.
Stress - stress doesn’t come from the outside world. You construct it…stress is a population of diverse instances. It is a concept, just like “Happiness” or “Fear,” that you apply to construct experiences from an imbalanced body budget. You construct instances of “Stress” via the same brain mechanisms that construct emotion. In each case, your brain issues predictions about your body budget in relation to the outside world and makes meaning. These predictions issue from your interoceptive network and descend along the same pathways from the brain to the body. In the opposite direction, the ascending pathways that carry sensory inputs from the body to the brain are also the same for stress and emotion. And the same pair of networks, interoceptive and control, play their same roles. (Emotion and stress researchers rarely recognize these similarities, and tend to ask how stress influences emotion and vice versa, as if stress and emotion are independent.)
Pain is an experience that occurs not only from physical damage but also when your brain predicts damage is imminent. If nociception works by prediction, as does every other sensory system in the brain, then you construct instances of pain out of more basic parts using your concept of “Pain.”….How and why do so many people experience ongoing pain when their bodies appear to have no physical damage? To answer that question, think about what would happen if your brain issued unnecessary predictions of pain and then ignored prediction error to the contrary. You would genuinely experience pain for no discernable reason. This is much like your experience when the blobby picture in chapter 2 became a bee, as you genuinely perceived lines that didn’t exist. Your brain ignored sensory input, maintaining that its predictions are reality. Apply this example to pain and the result is a plausible model of chronic pain: errant predictions without correction..It’s similar to phantom limb syndrome, when an amputee can still feel his missing arm or leg because his brain keeps issuing predictions about it.
Emotion, acute pain, chronic pain, and stress are constructed in the same networks, the same neural pathways to and from the body, and most likely the same primary sensory region of cortex, so it is completely plausible that we distinguish emotion and pain by concept—that is, via the concepts the brain applies to make sense of bodily sensations. Chronic pain is likely a misapplication of the concept “Pain” by your brain, as it constructs the experience of pain without injury or threat to your tissue. Chronic pain seems to be a tragic case of predicting poorly and receiving misleading data from your body.
To many scientists and physicians, depression remains a disease of the mind. It’s classified as a disorder of affect and often blamed on negative thinking: You’re too hard on yourself, or have too many self-defeating, catastrophic thoughts. Or perhaps traumatic events trigger depression, particularly if your genes make you vulnerable. Or maybe you don’t regulate your emotions well, making you too responsive to negative events and too unresponsive to positive ones. All of these explanations assume that thinking controls feeling—the old “triune brain” idea….The traditional view of depression is that negative thoughts cause negative feelings. I’m suggesting it’s the other way around. Your feelings right now drive your next thought, as well as your perceptions, as predictions. So a depressed brain relentlessly keeps making withdrawals from the is restored. These changes are consistent with the idea of reducing the excessive predictions. We might also treat depression by letting in more prediction error, say, by asking people to keep a diary of their positive experiences, which can ease the drain on the body budget. The problem, of course, is that no treatment works for everyone, and there are some people for whom no treatments work.
Anxiety is still a puzzle being unraveled,* but one thing seems certain: it is yet another disorder of prediction and prediction error across these two networks. The neural pathways studied in anxiety for prediction and prediction error are also the same ones as for emotion, pain, stress, and depression.
Traditional research on anxiety disorders is founded on the old “triune brain” model, that cognition controls emotion. Your allegedly emotional amygdala is overactive, they say, and your so-called rational prefrontal cortex is failing to regulate it. This approach is still influential, even though the amygdala is not the home of any emotion, the prefrontal cortex does not house cognition, and emotion and cognition are whole-brain constructions that cannot regulate each other.
….I speculate that an anxious brain, in a sense, is the opposite of a depressed brain. In depression, prediction is dialed way up and prediction error way down, so you’re locked into the past. In anxiety, the metaphorical dial is stuck on allowing too much prediction error from the world, and too many predictions are unsuccessful. With insufficient prediction, you don’t know what’s coming around the next corner, and life contains a lot of corners. That’s classic anxiety.
Anxiety sufferers, for whatever reason, have weakened connections between several key hubs in the interoceptive network, including the amygdala. Some of these hubs also happen to sit in the control network. These weakened connections likely translate into an anxious brain that is clumsy at crafting predictions to match the immediate circumstances, and that fails to learn effectively from experience. You might predict threats needlessly, or create uncertainty by predicting imprecisely or not at all. In addition, your interoceptive inputs become even more noisy than usual when your body budget has been in the red for a while; as a consequence, your brain ignores them. These situations leave you open to a lot of uncertainty and a lot of prediction error that you can’t resolve. And uncertainty is more unpleasant and arousing than assured harm, because if the future is a mystery, you can’t prepare for it. For example, when people are seriously ill but have an excellent chance of recovery, they are less satisfied with life than people who know their disease is permanent.
We all walk a tightrope between the world and the mind, and between the natural and the social. Many phenomena that were once considered purely mental—depression, anxiety, stress, and chronic pain—can, in fact, be explained in biological terms. Other phenomena that were believed to be purely physical, like pain, are also mental concepts. To be an effective architect of your experience, you need to distinguish physical reality from social reality, and never mistake one for the other, while still understanding that the two are irrevocably entwined.

Monday, December 14, 2020

A New View of Human Nature

This post continues on from the abstracting of Chapter 7 ‘Emotions as Social Reality’ with Chapter 8 ‘A New View of Human Nature’ from Barrett’s book on emotions. The hugely condensed account below does not do justice to and lacks the historical perspectives of the original text, which I urge you to read. The next installment covers chapters 9 and 10 on how emotions really work, and emotional well-being.
The theory of constructed emotion is an ambassador for a radically different view of what it means to be a human being. Modern neuroscience has provided overwhelming evidence that the classical view of emotion - thousands of years old and embedded in law, medicine, and other critical elements of society - is wrong.
On the whole, the theory of constructed emotion is a biologically informed, psychological explanation of who you are as a human being. It takes into account both evolution and culture. You are born with some brain wiring as determined by your genes, but the environment can turn some genes on and off, allowing your brain to wire itself to your experiences. Your brain is shaped by the realities of the world that you find yourself in, including the social world made by agreement among people. Your mind is a grand collaboration that you have no awareness of. Through construction, you perceive the world not in any objectively accurate sense but through the lens of your own needs, goals, and prior experience. And you are not the pinnacle of evolution, just a very interesting sort of animal with some unique abilities.
…all varieties of the classical view of emotion consider emotions like sadness and fear to have distinct essences. The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, for example, writes that an emotion’s essence is a circuit in the subcortical regions of your brain. The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker writes that emotions are like mental organs, analogous to body organs for specialized functions, and that an emotion’s essence is a set of genes. The evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides and the psychologist Paul Ekman assume that each emotion has an innate, unobservable essence, which they refer to as a metaphorical “program.” Ekman’s version of the classical view, called basic emotion theory, assumes that essences for happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger, and disgust are triggered automatically by objects and events in the world.
So why is essentialism so powerful that it can twist the words of great scientists and misdirect the path of scientific discovery? The simplest reason is that essentialism is intuitive. We experience our own emotions as automatic reactions, so it’s easy to believe that they spring forth from ancient, dedicated parts of the brain. We also see emotions in blinks, furrowed brows, and other muscle twitches, and we hear emotions in the pitch and lilt of voices, without any sense of effort or agency. Therefore, it’s also easy to believe that we’ve been engineered by nature to recognize emotional displays and programmed to act on them. That’s a dubious conclusion, however. Millions of people around the world can instantly, effortlessly recognize Kermit the Frog, but that doesn’t mean the human brain is wired for Muppet recognition.
Essentialism may also be a natural consequence of how your brain is wired. The same circuitry that allows you to form concepts and predict with them also makes essentializing easy. Your cortex learns concepts by separating similarities from differences, as you saw in chapter 6. It integrates information across vision, hearing, interoception, and the other sensory domains, compressing them into efficient summaries. Each summary is like a little imaginary essence, invented by your brain to represent that a bunch of instances from your past are similar.
So, essentialism is intuitive, logically impossible to disprove, part of our psychological and neural makeup, and a self-perpetuating scourge in science. It is also the basis for the classical view’s most fundamental idea, that emotions have universal fingerprints. No wonder the classical view has such stamina—it’s powered by a virtually unkillable belief.
It’s hard to give up the classical view when it represents deeply held beliefs about what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the facts remain that no one has found even a single reliable, broadly replicable, objectively measurable essence of emotion. When mountains of contrary data don’t force people to give up their ideas, then they are no longer following the scientific method. They are following an ideology. And as an ideology, the classical view has wasted billions of research dollars and misdirected the course of scientific inquiry for over a hundred years.
Today, powerful tools have yielded a more evidence-based explanation that’s almost impossible to ignore . . . yet some people still manage. The good news is that we’re in a golden age of mind and brain research. Many scientists are now on a path forged by the data, rather than ideology, to understand emotion and ourselves. This new, data-driven understanding leads to innovative ideas about how to live a fulfilling and healthful life. If your brain operates by prediction and construction and rewires itself through experience, then it’s no overstatement to say that if you change your current experiences today, you can change who you become tomorrow. The next few chapters delve into these implications in the areas of emotional intelligence, health, law, and our relationships with other animals.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Emotions as Social Reality

This post is the next installment of my reduction of Barrett’s book, continuing on to Chapter 7 (Emotions as Social Reality) from the summary of chapter 6 (How the Brain Makes Emotions).
If you talk to a chemist, “real” is a molecule, an atom, a proton. To a physicist, “real” is a quark, a Higgs boson, or maybe a collection of little strings vibrating in eleven dimensions. They are supposed to exist in the natural world whether or not humans are present—that is, they are thought to be perceiver-independent categories. If all human life left this planet tomorrow, subatomic particles would still be here.
But evolution has provided the human mind with the ability to create another kind of real, one that is completely dependent on human observers. From changes in air pressure, we construct sounds. From wavelengths of light, we construct colors. From baked goods, we construct cupcakes and muffins that are indistinguishable except by name (chapter 2). Just get a couple of people to agree that something is real and give it a name, and they create reality. All humans with a normally functioning brain have the potential for this little bit of magic, and we use it all the time.
Plants exist objectively in nature, but flowers and weeds require a perceiver in order to exist. They are perceiver-dependent categories. Albert Einstein illustrated this point nicely when he wrote, “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.”
Your muscle movements and bodily changes become functional as instances of emotion only when you categorize them that way, giving them new functions as experiences and perceptions. Without emotion concepts, these new functions don’t exist. There are only moving faces, beating hearts, circulating hormones, and so on, just as without color and sound concepts, “red” and the sound of a falling tree would not exist. There’d be only light and vibrations.
The distinction between “real in nature” versus “illusory” is a false dichotomy. Fear and anger are real to a group of people who agree that certain changes in the body, on the face, and so on, are meaningful as emotions. In other words, emotion concepts have social reality. They exist in your human mind that is conjured in your human brain, which is part of nature. The biological processes of categorization, which are rooted in physical reality and are observable in the brain and body, create socially real categories. Folk concepts like “fear” and “anger” are not mere words to be discarded from scientific thought but play a critical role in the story of how the brain creates emotion.
Emotions are social reality. We construct instances of emotion in exactly the same manner as colors, falling trees, and money: using a conceptual system that is realized within the brain’s wiring. We transform sensory inputs from the body and the world, which are perceiver-independent, into an instance of (say) happiness in the context of a concept, “Happiness,” found in many human minds. The concept imposes new functions on these sensations, creating reality where there was none before: an experience or perception of emotion.
Instead of asking, “Are emotions real?” the better question is, “How do emotions become real?” Ideally, the answer lies in building a bridge from the perceiver-independent biology of the brain and body, like interoception, to the everyday folk concepts that we live our lives around, like “Fear” and “Happiness.”
Emotions become real to us through two human capabilities that are prerequisites for social reality. First, you need a group of people to agree that a concept exists, such as “Flower” or “Cash” or “Happiness.” This shared knowledge is called collective intentionality. Most people barely think about collective intentionality, but it nevertheless is a foundation of every society. Even your own name is made real through collective intentionality.
Humans are unique, however, because our collective intentionality involves mental concepts. We can look at a hammer, a chainsaw, and an ice pick and categorize them all as “Tools,” then change our minds and categorize them all as “Murder Weapons.” We can impose functions that would not otherwise exist, thereby inventing reality. We can work this magic because we have the second prerequisite for social reality: language. No other animals have collective intentionality combined with words….
The two abilities build on one another in complex ways, allowing a human infant to bootstrap a conceptual system into her brain, changing its wiring in the process. The combination also allows people to categorize cooperatively, which is the basis of communication and social influence.
Classical view theorists debate endlessly about how many emotions there are. Is love an emotion? How about awe? Curiosity? Hunger? Do synonyms like happy, cheerful, and delighted refer to different emotions? What about lust, desire, and passion: are they distinct? Are they emotions at all? From the standpoint of social reality, these debates are nonissues. Love (or curiosity, hunger, etc.) is an emotion as long as people agree that its instances serve the functions of an emotion.
…a first function of emotion concepts, like all concepts, is to make meaning. Suppose you find yourself breathing rapidly and sweating. Are you excited? Afraid? Physically exhausted?
…a second function is that emotion concepts prescribe action: If you’re breathing rapidly and sweating, what should you do? Should you grin broadly in excitement, run away in fear, or lie down for a nap?
…The third function is related to a concept’s ability to regulate your body budget. Depending how you categorize your sweating, panting state, your body budget may be affected differently. A categorization of excitement might lead to a moderate release of cortisol (say, to raise your arms); a categorization of fear might lead to a greater release of cortisol (as you prepare to run away); whereas napping requires no additional cortisol. Categorization literally gets under your skin. Every instance of emotion involves some body budgeting for the immediate future.
…emotion concepts have two other functions that draw other individuals into your circle of social reality. One function is emotion communication, in which two people categorize with concepts in synchrony. … The other function is social influence. Concepts like “Excitement,” “Fear,” and “Exhaustion” are tools for you to regulate other people’s body budgets, not just your own.
…let me be clear. I am not saying emotions are illusions. They are real, but socially real in the manner of flowers and weeds. I’m not saying that everything is relative. If that were true, civilization would fall apart. I am also not saying that emotions are “just in your head.” That phrase trivializes the power of social reality. Money, reputation, laws, government, friendship, and all of our most fervent beliefs are also “just” in human minds, but people live and die for them. They are real because people agree that they’re real. But they, and emotions, exist only in the presence of human perceivers.
Imagine the feeling of reaching into a bag of potato chips and discovering that the previous chip you ate was the last one. You feel disappointed that the bag is empty, relieved that you won’t be ingesting any more calories, slightly guilty that you ate the entire bag, and yet hungry for another chip. I have just invented an emotion concept, and there is surely no word for it in the English language. And yet, as you read my prolonged description of this complex feeling, you most likely simulated the whole thing, right down to the crinkle of the bag and the cheerless little crumbs at the bottom. You experienced this emotion without a word for it.
Your brain accomplished this feat by combining instances of concepts you already know, such as “Bag,” “Chips,” “Disappointment,” “Relief,” “Guilt,” and “Hunger.” This powerful ability of your brain’s conceptual system, which we called conceptual combination in chapter 5, creates your very first instance of this new chip-related category of emotion, ready for simulation. Now if I name my new creation “Chiplessness” and teach it to our fellow citizens, it becomes every bit as real an emotion concept as “Happiness” and “Sadness.” People can predict with it, categorize with it, regulate their body budgets with it, and construct diverse instances of “Chiplessness” in different situations.
This brings us to one of the most challenging ideas in this book: you need an emotion concept in order to experience or perceive the associated emotion. It’s a requirement. Without a concept for “Fear,” you cannot experience fear. Without a concept for “Sadness,” you cannot perceive sadness in another person. You could learn the necessary concept, or you could construct it in the moment through conceptual combination, but your brain must be able to make that concept and predict with it. Otherwise, you will be experientially blind to that emotion.
I realize I’m saying something provocative: that each of us needs an emotion concept before we can experience or perceive that emotion. This definitely doesn’t match common sense or everyday experience; emotions feel so built-in. But if emotions are constructed by prediction, and you can predict only with the concepts you possess, well ...there you have it.
The emotions that you experience so effortlessly, and which feel built-in, most likely were also known in your parents’ generation, and their parents’ as well. The classical view explains this progression by proposing that emotions—separate from emotion concepts—are built into the nervous system through evolution. I have an evolutionary story to tell as well, but it’s about social reality, and it doesn’t require emotion fingerprints in the nervous system.
The human brain is a cultural artifact. We don’t load culture into a virgin brain like software loading into a computer; rather, culture helps to wire the brain. Brains then become carriers of culture, helping to create and perpetuate it.
All humans who live in groups must solve common problems, so it’s not surprising to find some concepts that are similar across cultures. Most human societies, for example, have myths about supernatural beings…In the same manner, “Fear” exists in many cultures (but not all, such as the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert) by virtue of having important functions. As far as I know, no emotion concept is universal, but even if one were, universality itself does not automatically imply a perceiver-independent reality.
Emotion concepts are also cultural tools. They come with a rich set of rules, all in the service of regulating your body budget or influencing someone else’s. These rules can be specific to a culture, stipulating when it’s acceptable to construct a given emotion in a given situation… “happy,” “sad,” “fearful,” “angry,” “disgusted,” and “surprised” are just words made up by people. Invented words are the very definition of social reality. Would you say that your local currency is real money and the currencies of other cultures are just made up?
…some cherished Western emotion concepts are completely absent in other cultures. Utka Eskimos have no concept of “Anger.” The Tahitians have no concept of “Sadness.” This last item is very difficult for Westerners to accept . . . When Tahitians are in a situation that a Westerner would describe as sad, they feel ill, troubled, fatigued, or unenthusiastic, all of which are covered by their broader term pe’ape’a.
Beyond individual emotion concepts, different cultures don’t even agree on what “emotion” is. Westerners think of emotion as an experience inside an individual, in the body. Many other cultures, however, characterize emotions as interpersonal events that require two or more people.
Most scientific research on emotion is conducted in English, using American concepts and American emotion words (and their translations). According to noted linguist Anna Wierzbicka, English has been a conceptual prison for the science of emotion. “English terms of emotion constitute a folk taxonomy, not an objective, culture-free analytic framework, so obviously we cannot assume that English words such as disgust, fear, or shame are clues to universal human concepts, or to basic psychological realities.” To make matters even more imperialistic, these emotion words are from twentieth-century English, and there’s evidence that some are fairly modern. The concept of “Emotion” itself is an invention of the seventeenth century. Before that, scholars wrote about passions, sentiments, and other concepts that had somewhat different meanings.
In this book, I am trying to acculturate you into a new way of thinking about emotions…Perhaps you began this book with classical view concepts such as “Emotional Reaction” and “Facial Expression” and “Emotion Circuit in the Brain.” If so, I’ve been slowly replacing them with a new set, including “Interoception,” “Prediction,” “Body Budget,” and “Social Reality.” In a sense, I am attempting to draw you into a new culture called the theory of constructed emotion.
The theory of constructed emotion explains how you experience and perceive emotion in the absence of any consistent, biological fingerprints in the face, body, or brain. Your brain continually predicts and simulates all the sensory inputs from inside and outside your body, so it understands what they mean and what to do about them. These predictions travel through your cortex, cascading from the body-budgeting circuitry in your interoceptive network to your primary sensory cortices, to create distributed, brain-wide simulations, each of which is an instance of a concept. The simulation that’s closest to your actual situation is the winner that becomes your experience, and if it’s an instance of an emotion concept, then you experience emotion. This whole process occurs, with the help of your control network, in the service of regulating your body budget to keep you alive and healthy. In the process, you impact the body budgets of those around you, to help you survive to propagate your genes into the next generation. This is how brains and bodies create social reality. This is also how emotions become real.
Yes, that’s a mouthful. And some details are still reasoned speculation, like the exact mechanisms of the concept cascade. But we can say confidently that the theory of constructed emotion is a viable way to think about how emotions are made. The theory accounts for all of the phenomena of the classical view, plus its anomalies such as the huge variability in emotional experiences, in emotion concepts, and in physical changes during emotion. It dissolves useless nature/nurture debates (e.g., what is hardwired versus what is learned) by using a single framework to understand both physical reality and social reality, moving us one step closer to a scientific bridge between the social and natural worlds. And this bridge, like all bridges, will lead us to a new place, as you’ll see in the next chapter: a modern origin story of what it means to be human.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

How the Brain Makes Emotions

This post continues on from the summary of chapter 5 (Concepts, Goals, and Words) in Barrett’s book "How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain" to chapter 6 (How the Brain Makes Emotions). The next installment of this series continues on to chapter 7, "Emotions as Social Reality":
When your brain “constructs an instance of a concept,” such as an instance of “Happiness,” that is equivalent to saying your brain “issues a prediction” of happiness...I separated the ideas of predictions and concepts earlier to simplify some explanations. I could have used the word “prediction” throughout the book and never mentioned the word “concept,” or vice versa, but information transmission is easier to understand in terms of predictions flying across the brain, whereas knowledge is more readily understood in terms of concepts. Now that we’re discussing how concepts work in the brain, we must acknowledge that concepts are predictions.
Early in life, you build up concepts from detailed sensory input (as prediction error) from your body and the world. Your brain efficiently compresses the sensory input it receives, just like YouTube compresses video, extracting similarities out of differences, eventually creating an efficient, multisensory summary. Once your brain has learned a concept in this manner, it can run this process in reverse, expanding the similarities into differences to construct an instance of the concept, much as your computer or phone expands the incoming YouTube video for display. This is a prediction. Think of prediction as “applying” a concept, modifying the activity in your primary sensory and motor regions, and correcting or refining as needed.
Each time you categorize with concepts, your brain creates many competing predictions while being bombarded by sensory input. Which predictions should be the winners? Which sensory input is important, and which is just noise? Your brain has a network to help resolve these uncertainties, known as your control network. This is the same network that transforms an infant’s “lantern” of attention into the adult “spotlight” you have now.
Your control network assists in efficiently constructing and selecting among the candidate instances so your brain can pick a winner. It helps neurons to participate in certain constructions rather than others, and keeps some concept instances alive while suppressing others. The result is akin to natural selection, in which the instances most suitable to the current environment survive to shape your perception and action.
The name “control network” is unfortunate because it implies a central position of authority, as if the network were making decisions and conducting the process. This is not the case. Your control network is more of an optimizer. It constantly tinkers with the information flow among neurons, ramping up the firing rate of some neurons and slowing down others, which moves sensory input in and out of your attentional spotlight, making some predictions fit while others become irrelevant. It’s like a car-racing team that constantly optimizes the engine and body to make a car slightly faster and safer. This tinkering ultimately helps your brain simultaneously to regulate your body budget, produce a stable perception, and launch an action.
Your control network helps select between emotion and non-emotion concepts (is this anxiety or indigestion?), between different emotion concepts (is this excitement or fear?), between different goals for an emotion concept (in fear, should I escape or attack?), and between different instances (when running to escape, should I scream or not?). When you’re watching a movie, your control network might favor your visual and auditory systems, transporting you into the story. At other times it might background the traditional five senses in favor of more intense affect, resulting in an experience of emotion. Much of this tinkering happens outside your awareness.
Some scientists refer to the control network as an “emotion regulation” network. They assume that emotion regulation is a cognitive process that exists separately from emotion itself, say, when you’re pissed off at your boss but refrain from punching him. From the brain’s perspective, however, regulation is just categorization. When you have an experience that feels like your so-called rational side is tempering your emotional side—a mythical arrangement that you’ve learned is not respected by brain wiring—you are constructing an instance of the concept “Emotion Regulation.”
Your control network and interoceptive network are critical for constructing emotion. Moreover, these two core networks together contain most of the major hubs for communication throughout the entire brain. Think about the world’s largest airports that serve multiple airlines. A traveler in JFK International Airport in New York can switch between American Airlines and British Airways because the two airlines overlap there. Likewise, information can pass efficiently between different networks in your brain via the major hubs in the interoceptive and control networks.
These major hubs help to synchronize so much of your brain’s information flow that they might even be a prerequisite for consciousness. If any of these hubs become damaged, your brain is in big trouble: depression, panic disorder, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, chronic pain, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are all associated with hub damage.
The major hubs in your interoceptive and control networks make possible what I describe in chapter 4, that your everyday decisions are driven by your body-budgeting regions—your inner, loudmouthed, mostly deaf scientist who views the world through affect-colored glasses. You see, your brain’s body-budgeting regions are major hubs. Through their massive connections, they broadcast predictions that alter what you see, hear, and otherwise perceive and do. That’s why, at the level of brain circuitry, no decision can be free of affect.
Emotions are meaning. They explain your interoceptive changes and corresponding affective feelings, in relation to the situation. They are a prescription for action. The brain systems that implement concepts, such as the interoceptive network and the control network, are the biology of meaning-making.
So, now you know how emotions are made in the brain. We predict and categorize. We regulate our body budgets, as any animal does, but wrap this regulation in purely mental concepts like “Happiness” and “Fear,” that we construct in the moment. We share these purely mental concepts with other adults, and we teach them to our children. We make a new kind of reality and live in it every day, mostly unaware that we are doing so.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Concepts, Goals, and Words

I now proceed on from a previous post on ‘The Origin of Feeling’ , chapter 4 of Barrett’s book on emotions, to an idiosyncratic selection of edited chunks from Chapter 5 titled ‘Concepts, Goals, and Words.’ It does not begin to do justice to the material presented and leaves out supporting arguments, but I hope does communicate a few of the bottom lines. There is no substitute for reading the original text. The next installment in this series is on Chapter 6 "How the Brain Makes Emotions."
When we look at a rainbow, we see discrete stripes of color, although in nature a rainbow is a continuous spectrum of light with wavelengths ranging from about 400 to 750 nanometers. We see stripes because we have mental concepts for “Red”, “Orange,” and “Yellow,” grouping together certain ranges of the spectrum and categorizing them as the same color. (Concepts of color are influenced by culture and language. Russian has words for seven rather than six colors, blue is divided into light blue and dark blue.)
Human speech is continuous—a stream of sound—yet when you listen to your native language, you hear discrete words. How does that happen? …you use concepts to categorize the continuous input. Beginning in infancy, you learn regularities in the stream of speech that reveal the boundaries between phonemes.
A category is a collection of objects, events, or actions that are grouped together as equivalent for some purpose. A concept is a mental representation of a category. Traditionally, categories are supposed to exist in the world, while concepts exist in your head. (The concept of the color red can be applied to a rose, a bird, an automobile, etc.)
Categorization with concepts constructs every perception, thought, memory, and other mental event that you experience, so of course you construct instances of emotion in the same manner.
…concepts aren’t fixed definitions in your brain, and they’re not prototypes of the most typical or frequent instances. Instead, your brain has many instances—of cars, of dot patterns, of sadness, or anything else—and it imposes similarities between them, in the moment, according to your goal in a given situation. For example, your usual goal for a vehicle is to use it for transportation, so if an object meets that goal for you, then it’s a vehicle, whether it’s a car, a helicopter, or a sheet of plywood with four wheels nailed on.
Emotion concepts are goal-based concepts. Instances of happiness, for example, are highly variable. You can smile in happiness, sob in happiness, scream in happiness, raise your arms in happiness, clench your fists in happiness, jump up and down doling out high fives in happiness, or even be stunned motionless in happiness. Your eyes might be wide or narrowed; your breathing rapid or slow. You can have the heart-pounding, exciting happiness of winning the lottery or the calm, relaxed happiness of lying on a picnic blanket with your lover.
The human brain bootstraps a conceptual system into its wiring with the first year of life…The newborn brain has the ability to learn patterns, a process called statistical learning. The moment that you burst into this strange new world as a baby, you were bombarded with noisy, ambiguous signals from the world and from your body.
Statistical learning in humans was first discovered in studies of language development. Babies have a natural interest in listening to speech, perhaps because the sounds occurred alongside body budgeting from birth, and even in utero. As they hear the sounds streaming along, they gradually infer the boundaries between phonemes, syllables, and words.
…this learning begins very early in life and goes well beyond language. Studies show that babies easily learn statistical regularities in sound and vision, and it’s reasonable to assume the same for the rest of the senses plus interoceptive sensations. What’s more, babies can learn complex regularities that span multiple senses. If you fill a box with blue and yellow balls, and the yellow balls make a squeaking sound while the blue ones are silent, infants can generalize the association between color and sound.
My guiding hypothesis is that emotion words hold the key to understanding how children learn emotion concepts in the absence of biological fingerprints and in the presence of tremendous variation. Not the words in isolation, mind you, but words spoken by other humans in the child’s affective niche who use emotion concepts. These words invite a child to form goal-based concepts for “Happiness,” “Sadness,” “Fear,” and every other emotion concept in the child’s culture.
Concept learning … continues throughout life. Sometimes a new emotion word appears in your primary language, engendering a new concept. For example, schadenfreude, a German emotion word meaning “pleasure from someone else’s misfortune,” has now been incorporated into English. .. Other languages commonly have emotion words whose associated concepts have no equivalent in English. For example, Russian has two distinct concepts for what Americans call “Anger.” German has three distinct “Angers” and Mandarin has five.
In many cultures, you will find people who have hundreds, perhaps thousands of emotion concepts, that is, they exhibit high emotional granularity. …People who exhibit moderate emotional granularity might have dozens of emotion concepts rather than hundreds. …Nothing fancy, but they get the job done.
…as you read these words, your brain is wired with a powerful conceptual system for emotion. It began purely as an information-gaining system, acquiring knowledge about your world through statistical learning. But words allowed your brain to go beyond the physical regularities that you learned, to invent part of your world, in a collective with other brains. You created powerful, purely mental regularities that helped you control your body budget in order to survive. Some of these mental regularities are emotion concepts, and they function as mental explanations for why your heart thumps in your chest, why your face flushes, and why you feel and act the way you do in certain circumstances. When we share those abstractions with each other, by synchronizing our concepts during categorization, we can perceive each other’s emotions and communicate.
That, in a nutshell, is the theory of constructed emotion—an explanation for how you experience and perceive emotion effortlessly without the need for emotion fingerprints. The seeds of emotion are planted in infancy, as you hear an emotion word (say, “annoyed”) over and over in highly varied situations. The word “annoyed” holds this population of diverse instances together as a concept, “Annoyance.” The word invites you to search for the features that the instances have in common, even if those similarities exist only in other people’s minds. Once you have this concept established in your conceptual system, you can construct instances of “Annoyance” in the presence of highly variable sensory input. If the focus of your attention is on yourself during categorization, then you construct an experience of annoyance. If your attention is on another person, you construct a perception of annoyance. And in each case, your concepts regulate your body budget.
Your genes gave you a brain that can wire itself to its physical and social environment. The people around you, in your culture, maintain that environment with their concepts and help you live in that environment by transmitting those concepts from their brains to yours. And later, you transmit your concepts to the brains of the next generation. It takes more than one human brain to create a human mind.

Friday, December 04, 2020

The Origin of Feeling

This post continues my cooking down, rewriting, paraphrasing, and excerpting of Barrett’s book on emotions with Chapter 4, “The Origin of Feeling.” A previous post covered Chapters 2 and 3 (Emotions are constructed and are not universal). The next installment covers Chapter 5 "Concepts, Goals, and Words."
The classical view of a quiet brain that is simply ‘reactive’ to input, and on being stimulated makes a response, is misguided. The brain’s billions of neurons are always stimulating each other, millions at a time. These huge cascades of stimulation, known as intrinsic brain activity, continue from birth until death. It’s like breathing, a process that requires no external catalyst...intrinsic brain activity is the origin of the dreams, daydreams, imagination, mind wandering, and reveries collectively called simulations in chapter 2. It also ultimately produces every sensation you experience, including your interoceptive sensations, which are the origins of your most basic pleasant, unpleasant, calm, and jittery feelings.
With past experiences as a guide, your brain makes predictions. Predictions not only anticipate sensory input from outside the skull but explain it…Your brain also uses prediction to initiate your body’s movements, like reaching your arm out to pick up an apple or dashing away from a snake. These predictions occur before you have any conscious awareness or intent about moving your body… Your brain issues motor predictions to move your body well before you become aware of your intent to move.
Right now, as you read these words and understand what they mean, each word barely perturbs your massive intrinsic activity, like a small stone skipping on a rolling ocean wave...You might think that your perceptions of the world are driven by events in the world, but really they are anchored in your predictions, which are then tested against those little skipping stones of incoming sensory input.
In a sense, your brain is wired for delusion: through continual prediction, you experience a world of your own creation that is held in check by the sensory world. Once your predictions are correct enough, they not only create your perception and action but also explain the meaning of your sensations.
Simple pleasant and unpleasant feelings come from ‘interoception’ - an ongoing internal process that is your brain’s representation of all sensations from internal organs and tissues, hormones in the blood, and the immune system. Interoception is one of the core ingredients of emotion, but feelings coming from interoception are much simpler than full-blown emotional experiences like joy and sadness.
From your brain’s point of view, locked inside the skull, your body is just another part of the world that it must explain. Your pumping heart, your expanding lungs, and your changing temperature and metabolism send sensory input to your brain that is noisy and ambiguous. A single interoceptive cue, such as a dull ache in your abdomen, could mean a stomachache, hunger, tension, an overly tight belt, or a hundred other causes. Your brain must explain bodily sensations to make them meaningful, and its major tool for doing so is prediction. So, your brain models the world from the perspective of someone with your body. Just as your brain predicts the sights, smells, sounds, touches, and tastes from the world in relation to the movements of your head and limbs, it also predicts the sensory consequences of movements inside your body.
My lab has discovered that these regions form an interoceptive network that is intrinsic in your brain, analogous to your networks for vision, hearing, and other senses. The interoceptive network issues predictions about your body, tests the resulting simulations against sensory input from your body, and updates your brain’s model of your body in the world. To simplify our discussion drastically, I’ll describe this network as having two general parts with distinct roles. One part is a set of brain regions that send predictions to the body to control its internal environment: speed up the heart, slow down breathing, release more cortisol, metabolize more glucose, and so on. We’ll call them your body-budgeting regions. The second part is a region that represents sensations inside your body, called your primary interoceptive cortex.
Your body-budgeting regions make predictions to estimate the resources to keep you alive and flourishing, using past experience as a guide. Why is this relevant to emotion? Because every brain region that’s claimed to be a home of emotion in humans is a body-budgeting region within the interoceptive network. These regions, however, don’t react in emotion. They don’t react at all. They predict, intrinsically, to regulate your body budget. They issue predictions for sights, sounds, thoughts, memories, imagination, and, yes, emotions. The idea of an emotional brain region is an illusion caused by the outdated belief in a reactive brain. Neuroscientists understand this today, but the message hasn’t trickled down to many psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, economists, and others who study emotion.
Affect, which depends on interoception, is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout each day. It is not emotion but a much simpler feeling with two features. The first is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel, which scientists call valence…The second feature of affect is how calm or agitated you feel, which is called arousal.
When you experience affect without knowing the cause, you are more likely to treat affect as information about the world, rather than your experience of the world. Experiencing supposed facts about the world that are created in part by our feelings is called affective realism. For example, people report more happiness and life satisfaction on sunny days, but only when they are not explicitly asked about the weather.
Take a moment and consider what this means for your day-to-day life. You’ve just learned that the sensations you feel from your body don’t always reflect the actual state of your body. That’s because familiar sensations like your heart beating in your chest, your lungs filling with air, and, most of all, the general pleasant, unpleasant, aroused, and quiescent sensations of affect are not really coming from inside your body. They are driven by simulations in your interoceptive network… In short, you feel what your brain believes. Affect primarily comes from prediction. see what your brain believes—that’s affective realism. The same is true for most feelings you’ve experienced in your life. Even the feeling of the pulse in your wrist is a simulation, constructed in sensory regions of your brain and corrected by sensory input (your actual pulse). Everything you feel is based on prediction from your knowledge and past experience. You are truly an architect of your experience. Believing is feeling.
Let me show you what this means. You might think that in everyday life, the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it’s mostly the other way around: that what you feel alters your sight and hearing. Interoception in the moment is more influential to perception, and how you act, than the outside world is.
You might believe that you are a rational creature, weighing the pros and cons before deciding how to act, but the structure of your cortex makes this an implausible fiction. Your brain is wired to listen to your body budget. Affect is in the driver’s seat and rationality is a passenger. It doesn’t matter whether you’re choosing between two snacks, two job offers, two investments, or two heart surgeons—your everyday decisions are driven by a loudmouthed, mostly deaf scientist who views the world through affect-colored glasses.
The human brain is anatomically structured so that no decision or action can be free of interoception and affect, no matter what fiction people tell themselves about how rational they are. Your bodily feeling right now will project forward to influence what you will feel and do in the future. It is an elegantly orchestrated, self-fulfilling prophecy, embodied within the architecture of your brain.
If the idea of the rational human mind is so toxic to the economy, and it’s not backed up by neuroscience, why does it persist? Because we humans have long believed that rationality makes us special in the animal kingdom. This origin myth reflects one of the most cherished narratives in Western thought, that the human mind is a battlefield where cognition and emotion struggle for control of behavior. Even the adjective we use to describe ourselves as insensitive or stupid in the heat of the moment—“thoughtless”—connotes a lack of cognitive control, of failing to channel our inner Mr. Spock. This origin myth is so strongly held that scientists even created a model of the brain based on it. The model begins with ancient subcortical circuits for basic survival, which we allegedly inherited from reptiles. Sitting atop those circuits is an alleged emotion system, known as the “limbic system,” that we supposedly inherited from early mammals. And wrapped around the so-called limbic system, like icing on an already-baked cake, is our allegedly rational and uniquely human cortex. This illusory arrangement of layers, which is sometimes called the “triune brain,” remains one of the most successful misconceptions in human biology.
The bottom line is this: the human brain is anatomically structured so that no decision or action can be free of interoception and affect, no matter what fiction people tell themselves about how rational they are. Your bodily feeling right now will project forward to influence what you will feel and do in the future. It is an elegantly orchestrated, self-fulfilling prophecy, embodied within the architecture of your brain.
Your interceptive predictions, which produce your feelings of affect, determine what you care about in the moment—your affective niche. From the perspective of your brain, anything in your affective niche could potentially influence your body budget, and nothing else in the universe matters. That means, in effect, that you construct the environment in which you live. You might think about your environment as existing in the outside world, separate from yourself, but that’s a myth. You (and other creatures) do not simply find yourself in an environment and either adapt or die. You construct your environment—your reality—by virtue of what sensory input from the physical environment your brain selects; it admits some as information and ignores some as noise. And this selection is intimately linked to interoception. Your brain expands its predictive repertoire to include anything that might impact your body budget, in order to meet your body’s metabolic demands. This is why affect is a property of consciousness.
Interoception, as a fundamental part of the predictive process, is a key ingredient of emotion. However, interoception alone cannot explain emotion. An emotion category like anger or sadness is far more complex than a simple feeling of unpleasantness and arousal.
Affect alone also doesn’t explain how we construct our own experiences of sadness, nor how one instance of sadness differs from another. Nor does affect tell you what sensations mean or what to do about them. That’s why people eat when they are tired or find a defendant guilty when they are hungry. You must make the affect meaningful so your brain can execute a more specific action. One way to make meaning is to construct an instance of emotion.
So, how do interoceptive sensations become emotions? And why do we experience these sensations (really predictions) in such diverse ways: as physical symptoms, as perceptions of the world, as simple affective feeling, and sometimes as emotion? That is the subject of the next chapter, chapter 5, “Concepts, Goals, and Words”

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Emotions are constructed, and are not universal.

This post continues with clips, paraphrase, and editing of Barrett’s book "How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain" - material from chapter 2, and very briefly noted, Chapter 3.  The summary of chapter 1 is here.  The next installment, on Chapter 4 "The Origin of Feeling", is here.

Chapter 2 - Emotions are Constructed

The discovery of simulation in the late 1990s ushered in a new era in psychology and neuroscience. What we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell are largely simulations of the world, not reactions to it. .. Simulation is the default mode for all mental activity. It also holds a key to unlocking the mystery of how the brain creates emotions. Simulations are your brain’s guesses of what’s happening in the world. In every waking moment, you’re faced with ambiguous, noisy information from your eyes, ears, nose, and other sensory organs. Your brain uses your past experiences to construct a hypothesis—the simulation—and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses. In this manner, simulation lets your brain impose meaning on the noise, selecting what’s relevant and ignoring the rest. (Chapter 2 starts with a demonstration of this, by showing the cure for a case of experiential blindness. A pattern of meaningless blobs is transformed into a bee on a flower once the photograph from which the blobs were taken - and stored as a prediction by the brain - is seen.)
Every moment that you are alive, your brain uses concepts to simulate the outside world. Without concepts, you are experientially blind. With concepts, your brain simulates so invisibly and automatically that vision, hearing, and your other senses seem like reflexes rather than constructions.
…your brain uses this same process to make meaning of the sensations from inside your body—the commotion arising from your heartbeat, breathing, and other internal movements? From your brain’s perspective, your body is just another source of sensory input - sensations from your heart and lungs, your metabolism, your changing temperature, and so on. These purely physical sensations inside your body have no objective psychological meaning. Once your concepts enter the picture, however, those sensations may take on additional meaning… From an aching stomach, your brain can construct an instance of hunger, nausea, or mistrust…an instance of emotion.
..the theory of constructed emotion: In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion…With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.
The theory of constructed emotion and the classical view of emotion tell vastly different stories of how we experience the world. The classical view is intuitive—events in the world trigger emotional reactions inside of us. Its story features familiar characters like thoughts and feelings that live in distinct brain areas. The theory of constructed emotion, in contrast, tells a story that doesn’t match your daily life—your brain invisibly constructs everything you experience, including emotions. Its story features unfamiliar characters like simulation and concepts and degeneracy, and it takes place throughout the whole brain at once.
Construction is based on a very old set of ideas that date back to Ancient Greece, when the philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” because only a mind perceives an ever-changing river as a distinct body of water. Today, constructionism spans many topics including memory, perception, mental illness, and, of course, emotion.
A constructionist approach to emotion has a couple of core ideas. One idea is that an emotion category such as anger or disgust does not have a fingerprint. One instance of anger need not look or feel like another, nor will it be caused by the same neurons. Variation is the norm.
Another core idea is that the emotions you experience and perceive are not an inevitable consequence of your genes. What’s inevitable is that you’ll have some kinds of concepts for making sense of sensory input from your body in the world because…your brain has wiring for this purpose. ..particular concepts like “Anger” and “Disgust” are not genetically predetermined. Your familiar emotion concepts are built-in only because you grew up in a particular social context where those emotion concepts are meaningful and useful, and your brain applies them outside your awareness to construct your experiences. Heart rate changes are inevitable; their emotional meaning is not. Other cultures can and do make other kinds of meaning from the same sensory input.
Social constructionist theories…are primarily concerned with social circumstances in the world outside you, without considering how those circumstances affect the brain’s wiring.
Another flavor of construction, known as psychological construction, turns this focus inward. It proposes that your perceptions, thoughts, and feelings are themselves constructed from more basic parts. … In the 1960s, the psychologists Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer famously injected test subjects with adrenaline—without the subjects’ knowledge—and saw them experience this mysterious arousal as anger or euphoria, depending on the context surrounding them. In all these views, an instance of anger or elation does not reveal its causal mechanisms—a marked contrast to the classical view, where each emotion has a dedicated mechanism in the brain, and the same word (e.g., “sadness”) names the mechanism and its product. In recent years, a new generation of scientists has been crafting psychological construction-based theories for understanding emotions and how they work.
Neuroconstruction and plasticity - Your genes turn on and off in different contexts, including the genes that shape your brain’s wiring. That means some of your synapses literally come into existence because other people talked to you or treated you in a certain way. In other words, construction extends all the way down to the cellular level. The macro structure of your brain is largely predetermined, but the microwiring is not. As a consequence, past experience helps determine your future experiences and perceptions. Neuroconstruction explains how human infants are born without the ability to recognize a face but can develop that capacity within the first few days after birth.
The theory of constructed emotion incorporates elements of all three flavors of construction. From social construction, it acknowledges the importance of culture and concepts. From psychological construction, it considers emotions to be constructed by core systems in the brain and body. And from neuroconstruction, it adopts the idea that experience wires the brain.
The theory of constructed emotion tosses away the most basic assumptions of the classical view. For instance, the classical view assumes that happiness, anger, and other emotion categories each have a distinctive bodily fingerprint. In the theory of constructed emotion, variation is the norm.
The theory of constructed emotion dispenses with fingerprints not only in the body but also in the brain. It avoids questions that imply a neural fingerprint exists, like “Where are the neurons that trigger fear?” The word “where” has a built-in assumption that a particular set of neurons activates every time you and everyone else on the planet feel afraid. …The more neutral question, “How does the brain create an instance of fear?” does not presume a neural fingerprint behind the scenes, only that experiences and perceptions of fear are real and worthy of study. Instances of two different emotion categories, such as fear and anger, can be made from similar ingredients, just as cookies and bread both contain flour. This phenomenon is degeneracy at work: different instances of fear are constructed by different combinations of the core systems throughout the brain. We can describe the instances of fear together by a pattern of brain activity, but this pattern is a statistical summary and need not describe any actual instance of fear.
Construction incorporates the latest scientific findings about Darwinian natural selection and population thinking. For example, the many-to-one principle of degeneracy—many different sets of neurons can produce the same outcome—brings about greater robustness for survival. The one-to-many principle—any single neuron can contribute to more than one outcome—is metabolically efficient and increases the computational power of the brain. This kind of brain creates a flexible mind without fingerprints.
The final major assumption of the classical view is that certain emotions are inborn and universal: all healthy people around the world are supposed to display and recognize them. The theory of constructed emotion, in contrast, proposes that emotions are not inborn, and if they are universal, it’s due to shared concepts. What’s universal is the ability to form concepts that make our physical sensations meaningful, from the Western concept “Sadness” to the Dutch concept Gezellig (a specific experience of comfort with friends), which has no exact English translation.
Emotions do not shine forth from the face nor from the maelstrom of your body’s inner core. They don’t issue from a specific part of the brain. No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built-in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us. We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems. Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.

Ch 3 The Myth of Universal Emotions

Barrett does a critique of Ekman’s basic facial emotions categories, showing that data on foreign cultures is tainted: priming by the experimenters expectations, forced choices from an unintentional cheat sheet, etc.….. The Himba tribe in Namibia shows no evidence of universal emotion perception…Romans did not smile spontaneously when they were happy. The word “smile” doesn’t even exist in Latin…Smiling was an invention of the Middle Ages, and broad, toothy-mouthed smiles (with crinkling at the eyes, named the Duchenne smile by Ekman) became popular only in the eighteenth century as dentistry became more accessible and affordable.
Emotion concepts are the secret ingredient behind the success of the basic emotion method. These concepts make certain facial configurations appear universally recognizable as emotional expressions when, in fact, they’re not. Instead, we all construct perceptions of each other’s emotions. We perceive others as happy, sad, or angry by applying our own emotion concepts to their moving faces and bodies. We likewise apply emotion concepts to voices and construct the experience of hearing emotional sounds. We simulate with such speed that emotion concepts work in stealth, and it seems to us as if emotions are broadcast from the face, voice, or any other body part, and we merely detect them.