This post is the next installment of my reduction of Barrett’s book, continuing on to Chapter 7 (Emotions as Social Reality) from the summary of chapter 6 (How the Brain Makes Emotions).
If you talk to a chemist, “real” is a molecule, an atom, a proton. To a physicist, “real” is a quark, a Higgs boson, or maybe a collection of little strings vibrating in eleven dimensions. They are supposed to exist in the natural world whether or not humans are present—that is, they are thought to be perceiver-independent categories. If all human life left this planet tomorrow, subatomic particles would still be here.
But evolution has provided the human mind with the ability to create another kind of real, one that is completely dependent on human observers. From changes in air pressure, we construct sounds. From wavelengths of light, we construct colors. From baked goods, we construct cupcakes and muffins that are indistinguishable except by name (chapter 2). Just get a couple of people to agree that something is real and give it a name, and they create reality. All humans with a normally functioning brain have the potential for this little bit of magic, and we use it all the time.
Plants exist objectively in nature, but flowers and weeds require a perceiver in order to exist. They are perceiver-dependent categories. Albert Einstein illustrated this point nicely when he wrote, “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.”
Your muscle movements and bodily changes become functional as instances of emotion only when you categorize them that way, giving them new functions as experiences and perceptions. Without emotion concepts, these new functions don’t exist. There are only moving faces, beating hearts, circulating hormones, and so on, just as without color and sound concepts, “red” and the sound of a falling tree would not exist. There’d be only light and vibrations.
The distinction between “real in nature” versus “illusory” is a false dichotomy. Fear and anger are real to a group of people who agree that certain changes in the body, on the face, and so on, are meaningful as emotions. In other words, emotion concepts have social reality. They exist in your human mind that is conjured in your human brain, which is part of nature. The biological processes of categorization, which are rooted in physical reality and are observable in the brain and body, create socially real categories. Folk concepts like “fear” and “anger” are not mere words to be discarded from scientific thought but play a critical role in the story of how the brain creates emotion.
Emotions are social reality. We construct instances of emotion in exactly the same manner as colors, falling trees, and money: using a conceptual system that is realized within the brain’s wiring. We transform sensory inputs from the body and the world, which are perceiver-independent, into an instance of (say) happiness in the context of a concept, “Happiness,” found in many human minds. The concept imposes new functions on these sensations, creating reality where there was none before: an experience or perception of emotion.
Instead of asking, “Are emotions real?” the better question is, “How do emotions become real?” Ideally, the answer lies in building a bridge from the perceiver-independent biology of the brain and body, like interoception, to the everyday folk concepts that we live our lives around, like “Fear” and “Happiness.”
Emotions become real to us through two human capabilities that are prerequisites for social reality. First, you need a group of people to agree that a concept exists, such as “Flower” or “Cash” or “Happiness.” This shared knowledge is called collective intentionality. Most people barely think about collective intentionality, but it nevertheless is a foundation of every society. Even your own name is made real through collective intentionality.
Humans are unique, however, because our collective intentionality involves mental concepts. We can look at a hammer, a chainsaw, and an ice pick and categorize them all as “Tools,” then change our minds and categorize them all as “Murder Weapons.” We can impose functions that would not otherwise exist, thereby inventing reality. We can work this magic because we have the second prerequisite for social reality: language. No other animals have collective intentionality combined with words….
The two abilities build on one another in complex ways, allowing a human infant to bootstrap a conceptual system into her brain, changing its wiring in the process. The combination also allows people to categorize cooperatively, which is the basis of communication and social influence.
Classical view theorists debate endlessly about how many emotions there are. Is love an emotion? How about awe? Curiosity? Hunger? Do synonyms like happy, cheerful, and delighted refer to different emotions? What about lust, desire, and passion: are they distinct? Are they emotions at all? From the standpoint of social reality, these debates are nonissues. Love (or curiosity, hunger, etc.) is an emotion as long as people agree that its instances serve the functions of an emotion.
…a first function of emotion concepts, like all concepts, is to make meaning. Suppose you find yourself breathing rapidly and sweating. Are you excited? Afraid? Physically exhausted?
…a second function is that emotion concepts prescribe action: If you’re breathing rapidly and sweating, what should you do? Should you grin broadly in excitement, run away in fear, or lie down for a nap?
…The third function is related to a concept’s ability to regulate your body budget. Depending how you categorize your sweating, panting state, your body budget may be affected differently. A categorization of excitement might lead to a moderate release of cortisol (say, to raise your arms); a categorization of fear might lead to a greater release of cortisol (as you prepare to run away); whereas napping requires no additional cortisol. Categorization literally gets under your skin. Every instance of emotion involves some body budgeting for the immediate future.
…emotion concepts have two other functions that draw other individuals into your circle of social reality. One function is emotion communication, in which two people categorize with concepts in synchrony. … The other function is social influence. Concepts like “Excitement,” “Fear,” and “Exhaustion” are tools for you to regulate other people’s body budgets, not just your own.
…let me be clear. I am not saying emotions are illusions. They are real, but socially real in the manner of flowers and weeds. I’m not saying that everything is relative. If that were true, civilization would fall apart. I am also not saying that emotions are “just in your head.” That phrase trivializes the power of social reality. Money, reputation, laws, government, friendship, and all of our most fervent beliefs are also “just” in human minds, but people live and die for them. They are real because people agree that they’re real. But they, and emotions, exist only in the presence of human perceivers.
Imagine the feeling of reaching into a bag of potato chips and discovering that the previous chip you ate was the last one. You feel disappointed that the bag is empty, relieved that you won’t be ingesting any more calories, slightly guilty that you ate the entire bag, and yet hungry for another chip. I have just invented an emotion concept, and there is surely no word for it in the English language. And yet, as you read my prolonged description of this complex feeling, you most likely simulated the whole thing, right down to the crinkle of the bag and the cheerless little crumbs at the bottom. You experienced this emotion without a word for it.
Your brain accomplished this feat by combining instances of concepts you already know, such as “Bag,” “Chips,” “Disappointment,” “Relief,” “Guilt,” and “Hunger.” This powerful ability of your brain’s conceptual system, which we called conceptual combination in chapter 5, creates your very first instance of this new chip-related category of emotion, ready for simulation. Now if I name my new creation “Chiplessness” and teach it to our fellow citizens, it becomes every bit as real an emotion concept as “Happiness” and “Sadness.” People can predict with it, categorize with it, regulate their body budgets with it, and construct diverse instances of “Chiplessness” in different situations.
This brings us to one of the most challenging ideas in this book: you need an emotion concept in order to experience or perceive the associated emotion. It’s a requirement. Without a concept for “Fear,” you cannot experience fear. Without a concept for “Sadness,” you cannot perceive sadness in another person. You could learn the necessary concept, or you could construct it in the moment through conceptual combination, but your brain must be able to make that concept and predict with it. Otherwise, you will be experientially blind to that emotion.
I realize I’m saying something provocative: that each of us needs an emotion concept before we can experience or perceive that emotion. This definitely doesn’t match common sense or everyday experience; emotions feel so built-in. But if emotions are constructed by prediction, and you can predict only with the concepts you possess, well ...there you have it.
The emotions that you experience so effortlessly, and which feel built-in, most likely were also known in your parents’ generation, and their parents’ as well. The classical view explains this progression by proposing that emotions—separate from emotion concepts—are built into the nervous system through evolution. I have an evolutionary story to tell as well, but it’s about social reality, and it doesn’t require emotion fingerprints in the nervous system.
The human brain is a cultural artifact. We don’t load culture into a virgin brain like software loading into a computer; rather, culture helps to wire the brain. Brains then become carriers of culture, helping to create and perpetuate it.
All humans who live in groups must solve common problems, so it’s not surprising to find some concepts that are similar across cultures. Most human societies, for example, have myths about supernatural beings…In the same manner, “Fear” exists in many cultures (but not all, such as the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert) by virtue of having important functions. As far as I know, no emotion concept is universal, but even if one were, universality itself does not automatically imply a perceiver-independent reality.
Emotion concepts are also cultural tools. They come with a rich set of rules, all in the service of regulating your body budget or influencing someone else’s. These rules can be specific to a culture, stipulating when it’s acceptable to construct a given emotion in a given situation… “happy,” “sad,” “fearful,” “angry,” “disgusted,” and “surprised” are just words made up by people. Invented words are the very definition of social reality. Would you say that your local currency is real money and the currencies of other cultures are just made up?
…some cherished Western emotion concepts are completely absent in other cultures. Utka Eskimos have no concept of “Anger.” The Tahitians have no concept of “Sadness.” This last item is very difficult for Westerners to accept . . . When Tahitians are in a situation that a Westerner would describe as sad, they feel ill, troubled, fatigued, or unenthusiastic, all of which are covered by their broader term pe’ape’a.
Beyond individual emotion concepts, different cultures don’t even agree on what “emotion” is. Westerners think of emotion as an experience inside an individual, in the body. Many other cultures, however, characterize emotions as interpersonal events that require two or more people.
Most scientific research on emotion is conducted in English, using American concepts and American emotion words (and their translations). According to noted linguist Anna Wierzbicka, English has been a conceptual prison for the science of emotion. “English terms of emotion constitute a folk taxonomy, not an objective, culture-free analytic framework, so obviously we cannot assume that English words such as disgust, fear, or shame are clues to universal human concepts, or to basic psychological realities.” To make matters even more imperialistic, these emotion words are from twentieth-century English, and there’s evidence that some are fairly modern. The concept of “Emotion” itself is an invention of the seventeenth century. Before that, scholars wrote about passions, sentiments, and other concepts that had somewhat different meanings.
In this book, I am trying to acculturate you into a new way of thinking about emotions…Perhaps you began this book with classical view concepts such as “Emotional Reaction” and “Facial Expression” and “Emotion Circuit in the Brain.” If so, I’ve been slowly replacing them with a new set, including “Interoception,” “Prediction,” “Body Budget,” and “Social Reality.” In a sense, I am attempting to draw you into a new culture called the theory of constructed emotion.
The theory of constructed emotion explains how you experience and perceive emotion in the absence of any consistent, biological fingerprints in the face, body, or brain. Your brain continually predicts and simulates all the sensory inputs from inside and outside your body, so it understands what they mean and what to do about them. These predictions travel through your cortex, cascading from the body-budgeting circuitry in your interoceptive network to your primary sensory cortices, to create distributed, brain-wide simulations, each of which is an instance of a concept. The simulation that’s closest to your actual situation is the winner that becomes your experience, and if it’s an instance of an emotion concept, then you experience emotion. This whole process occurs, with the help of your control network, in the service of regulating your body budget to keep you alive and healthy. In the process, you impact the body budgets of those around you, to help you survive to propagate your genes into the next generation. This is how brains and bodies create social reality. This is also how emotions become real.
Yes, that’s a mouthful. And some details are still reasoned speculation, like the exact mechanisms of the concept cascade. But we can say confidently that the theory of constructed emotion is a viable way to think about how emotions are made. The theory accounts for all of the phenomena of the classical view, plus its anomalies such as the huge variability in emotional experiences, in emotion concepts, and in physical changes during emotion. It dissolves useless nature/nurture debates (e.g., what is hardwired versus what is learned) by using a single framework to understand both physical reality and social reality, moving us one step closer to a scientific bridge between the social and natural worlds. And this bridge, like all bridges, will lead us to a new place, as you’ll see in the next chapter: a modern origin story of what it means to be human.
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