Friday, November 27, 2020

A unified view of reasons and emotions.

As indicated in my Nov. 18 post, I have been taking a mini-sabbitical from grinding out daily MindBlog posts to sort out my understanding of what emotions are. The catalyst for this pause has been my careful reading of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book “How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.” I have dutifully abstracted text clips (and dived into some primary reference sources) to line up core points in each chapter. I will proceed, as I have with books by Metzinger, Harari, Pinker, Sapolsky, Graziano, Gilbert and others, to do a series of posts on the chapters. I have decided to cut to the chase, and present the bottom lines I agree with urging you to read the book to find the sometimes massive amounts of evidence presented. Barretts’ presentation is a bit more folksy, rambling, and disorganized that suits my taste, but her style does make the material more friendly and palatable to a general readership. 

What we are now seeing is a new view of what emotions are, fueled by data from improving brain imaging techniques that started to appear in the 1990’s. Here is my paraphrase and editing of Barrett’s introduction:

The classical view of ancient Greek philosophers up through prominent modern thinkers is that we have many evolved universal emotion circuits in our brains (for fear, sadness, rage, etc), each with a distinctive fingerprint, brute reflexes often at war with our rationality. Embedded in our social institutions and legal systems is the assumption that emotions are part of our inherent animal nature, needing control by rational thoughts.
In fact they are not universal, varying from culture to culture, with a century of effort failing to reveal a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion (for example in facial expressions, heart rate, blood pressure, or brain activity patterns).
The classical view of emotion remains compelling, despite evidence against it, because it’s intuitive. It provides reassuring answers to deep questions like where we come from, evolutionarily speaking, whether we are responsible for our actions when we get emotional.
Barrett’s ‘theory of constructed emotion’ takes the data to show that
…emotions are not built in, but made from more basic parts. They are not triggered but emerge as you create them from a combination of the physical properties of your body and a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever physical and cultural environment it develops in. Emotions are real in same sense that money is real - a product of human agreement.

A core distinction is between: 

-essentialism, which posits evolved hard wired modules of behavior such as a universal set of basic emotions signaled by stereotypes brain, facial and visceral changes, or a layered triune brain generating evolutionarily older and newer behaviors. 


-constructionism, which describes virtually all behaviors as being instances of construction transiently executed on the fly to deal with affect (feelings) registered along axes of valence (pleasant/unpleasant) and intensity (calm vs. arousal) using a basic toolkit of evolved brain hubs. (An analogy would be the many kinds of bakery products that can be made from the same simple set of ingredients such as flour, water, eggs, fat, etc,). 

The ultimate referent is suggested to be interoceptive sensing of allostatic (achieving stability) well being. The interoceptive sensory cortex of the brain’s insula appears to be central to generating our feelings (affect) of comfort/discomfort, pleasant/unpleasant, calm/arousal - the valence and degrees of arousal that inform actions such as the four F’s (fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fornicating), our emotions, and our feelings - all in the service of maintaining general well being. 


Subsequent posts will deal with material in chapters 1-13 of Barrett’s book. Here is the next installment, on Ch. 1.


  1. Isn't this the concept one finds in Damasio's "Self comes to Mind"?

    1. It is indeed, and Barrett does reference him. I should have noted the point.

  2. In classical Indian Buddhist writing there was no separate category "emotions". There were names of individual emotions and these are recognisable two millennia later. Angry people are red-faced for example (I know Barrett has problems with this phenomenology, but it applies in some contexts at least).

    Thoughts and emotions were both included under the heading of "citta" which we have to understand as something like "mental activity". There is no category term for emotions as distinct from other types of mental activity. The distinction may well be Eurocentric as the texts I study are in an Indo-European language.

  3. Fascinating comment...thanks for contributing.