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.