Are emotions constructed rather than innate?

Everything you thought you knew about emotions might be wrong.

© Dave DuBay. Flagstaff, AZ.

In On Anger, ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca says you’re angry because you think you’re angry. But a lot of people disagree with Stoics, instead claiming that emotions are innate.

Seneca claims you can train yourself to notice the first physical stirrings and automatic thoughts, and choose not to assent to the thought that you’re angry. Another Stoic called Epictetus suggests the phrase, “You are an impression and not at all what you seem to be.”

Modern science weighs in

In her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett claims that the latest science doesn’t support what most of us think emotions are. If you don’t have time to read her book you can watch her TED talk.

But what about the famous study where they showed photos of facial expressions to people from all over the world, and everyone agreed on the emotions they expressed?

Many well known psychological studies turn to mush when researchers try to recreate them. The facial expression study included a word list for people to choose from. That is, researchers were priming the pump. But agreement on which facial expression corresponds to which emotion plummets when people are allowed to free associate rather than choose from a list.

Barrett illustrates part of the problem with a picture of a woman whose eyes are shut tight while her mouth is open wide like she’s screaming. Most people identify fear as the emotion.

But a zoomed out version of the picture shows Serena Williams after winning a tennis match. It’s not just facial expressions that matter: body language and social situations are just as important.

Further, the same emotion can be expressed with quite different physical reactions. Some people yell when they’re angry while others silently seethe.

Besides, many cultures have emotion concepts English doesn’t have. We borrowed schadenfreude from German because we had no word for the feeling of taking pleasure in someone’s misfortune. And we’d do well to borrow the Dutch word gezellig, a cozy feeling of emotional togetherness.

Finally, Barrett cites neurological science to rebut the simplistic and misleading claim that certain emotions are located in certain parts of the brain, such as the amygdala housing anger. The brain is far more complicated.

Emotions as constructions

Emotions are concepts that are culturally shared rather than being hardwired in the brain from birth, Barrett contends. Barrett is clear, however, that this doesn’t mean emotions have no biological connection. Rather, biology, culture, and specific situations interact in complex ways.

She begins by noting that our eyes, ears, and skin take in way more information than we can process. So the brain filters static out and looks for patterns with sensory data it thinks are important.

In other words, the brain makes predictions based on past experience — it runs a simulation of what it thinks is happening or will happen. Then the brain compares sensory input to this simulation and makes corrections.

Our bodies react to these simulations, which Barrett calls interoceptive sensations. A quickening heart rate brings more oxygen to the brain when the brain thinks it may need to react quickly. Or the body relaxes when the brain thinks action is no longer needed.

She calls intense interoceptive sensations “affects.” But these are not full fledged emotions. Affects have two parts: valence, or a sense of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations; and arousal, or level of calmness or agitation.

A key point in her theory is that affect is the result of your brain’s predictions — you feel what you believe. The emotion you feel is an interpretation of your situation: is your heart beating fast because someone’s pointing a gun at you, or because you just kissed someone you have a crush on?

Emotion concepts

Just like “dog” is a category, but there’s a lot of variation from St. Bernards to chihuahuas, emotions like anger or happiness are categories with many different types of anger or happiness within those categories. Your goal — what result you want from the situation — creates the emotion category, such as fear to get you to hide from the gunman.

Further, shared cultural beliefs play a role in the interpretation of emotions. To communicate anger all parties must have a shared concept. Without an emotion concept there’s no way to communicate how you’re feeling.

Managing emotions

What should we do, then, to become more emotionally aware? Barrett recommends a healthy lifestyle to keep your body’s rhythms running smoothly, learning to recognize the first physical rumblings you experience so you’re better prepared to act effectively, learning new words (particularly from other languages) to increase your emotion concept repertoire, learning to reframe emotion concepts (such as reframing test anxiety as feeling jazzed about the challenge), and meditation and self-reflection.