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.


  1. thank you, thank you, thank you Deric. I've got the book on order. I am so intrigued. I've spent my life as a professional mariner, in command of people and ships for decades, but the most helpful knowledge I have learned, is how people operate and think and see themselves. Human Factors has made inroads into our safety culture, thankfully, and peaked my curiosity. I'm a longtime fan of your work (I recently received your book the biology of mind) and your blog is the one I find most interesting.

    Thanks again. Never stop thinking about thinking.


    1. Michael, I don't get very much feedback on my efforts, so I am very grateful for your comment. It motivates me to keep doing what I am doing with MindBlog.

  2. Oh and we have a smooth brain as an embryo, the wrinkles to make more surface area are formed from memories and that at death we loose a very small amount of weight. That consciousness produces memories that have a physical weight, ok, but then these few grams leave us with our “soul?” Idk if you spoke of these topics previously, this is just what I thought of quickly after the typo.