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.

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