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.


  1. Berkeley Scientists claim that a joint research with Google using AI should proofe that emotion-based facial expression is universal.
    I wonder if and where still might be some underlying differences in how those same facial expressions could be "felt" emotionalwise differently.

    1. Note the caveat in the abstract that observations were 70% preserved across 12 regions of the "modern world". That does not make the results 'universal'. Barrett's text does a detailed description of how non-modern groups, as well as people during previous periods of history showed different and fewer facial types.