How Emotions are Made

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

Science often tells us that things are not what they seem. Why should feelings be any different?

In the popular view, when a man tells me his dog died, the break in his voice indicates he’s sad. This means, according to the common conception, a circuit in his brain called sadness has been activated. This circuit was wired into him at birth, designed to be stimulated whenever he suffers a loss. The loss of his dog causes his brow to furrow, his shoulders to stoop, tears to form, and his throat to constrict; all signs that tell the world he’s sad.

I hear the break in his voice and the news that his dog had died and feel sad, too. I’ve had dogs, and mine have also died. Following common sense, the same sadness circuit got activated in me in sympathy to his, and there was nothing I could have done about it.

According to the popular belief, this circuit is like many such circuits that take over whenever they are activated: fear, anger, surprise, disgust, among others. When we’re in their throes, we’re unlikely to be able to think straight and do what we think is reasonable. Evolution gave us these circuits to our advantage and they’re now a permanent part of our nature. Consequently, everyone worldwide, except freaks such as psychopaths, have these emotions.

The popular view of feelings can be found everywhere, from Aristotle to Darwin to Freud to Sesame Street. The typical courtroom judge believes that feelings are an inherent vestige of an animal nature, and so will the jury. Teachers put up posters in their classrooms of the universal language of the face to teach their students to recognize emotions as if they’re as standardized as letters of the alphabet. Researchers study the health effects of anger, assuming there’s a single pattern of bodily changes that goes by that name.

And yet, despite this persistent belief that each emotion has a distinct profile and possesses an existence as real as rocks and shrubs, there’s precious little scientific evidence for it. On the contrary, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book, How Emotions are Made, your emotions are not built in, they’re custom crafted. They’re not universal, they vary between cultures. They’re not triggered, you create them. She admits that feelings are real, but not real like rocks and shrubs are real, but real like money is real: a product of consensus.

Using the theory of constructed emotion, I understand my response to the catch in the man’s throat differently. The man didn’t trigger a sadness circuit in me, for no sadness circuit exists. Instead, I made an instant, unconscious prediction that being sad made the most sense for the situation. Certainly, the man wouldn’t want me to crack jokes, start a fight, or run screaming from the room when he’d just told me his dog died. Sadness on my part, or at least something close to it, like being solemn, is what’s socially expected in the presence of grief. Wanting to relate to the man, I remembered what it was like to lose a dog and what my body did to cope with such a tragedy. I started to tear up.

I said to the man, “You must be feeling sad.” I thought I was being empathetic.

Imagine my surprise when he answered. “I hated that dog, but my wife and kids loved it. I accidentally ran it over and they think I did it on purpose. I’m feeling hurt they don’t believe me.”

If Dr Barrett had been there, she would have cried out. “See! That’s exactly what I was saying! You can’t tell what people are feeling just by looking at them!” I expect she would get excited about this kind of thing; but I also expect she would tell me I shouldn’t presume to know her feelings, either.

I tried to size him up. Was he really feeling hurt, like he said? He went on talking about being an oppressed minority within his household. The tears had evaporated from my eyes and my stomach started to churn. Was my gut trying to tell me not to trust this man? There was something phony about him, but I couldn’t say what it was. It was getting close to lunch, so my gut could have been hungry. It was flu season, so I could have been coming down with something. Dr Barrett would say we can’t make too much of a churning stomach. There are so many things it can mean.

Having incomplete knowledge, I started to construct simulations, combining bits and pieces of knowledge from previous interactions with the man, with others, and with psychological theories. One inference said the man really was sad but didn’t want to admit it. He was repressing his feelings. I wouldn’t be the first shrink to believe I knew more about his feelings than he did. Poppycock, Dr Barrett would say. There’s no evidence emotions work that way.

My next theory was that the man killed the dog deliberately. I had a cold-blooded killer on my hands, and he was playing the victim. Certainly, that’s what his wife and kids believed, and they knew him best. Where I once felt sympathy and sadness for this man, now I felt anger and dread.

You see what I was doing? I was running simulations and, in doing so, was constructing emotions. Dr Barrett says, “Scientific evidence shows that what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell are largely simulations of the world, not reactions to it.” To put it another way, when you’re reading what I have written here, you may think you are taking information in and thinking about it, but what you are really doing is predicting what I will say as you go from one word to the     .

(The space at the end of the last sentence was not a misprint. It was a clever demonstration of simulation I stole from Dr Barrett’s Ted Talk.)

Being a cognitive neuroscientist, the author has many examples of experiments to back her theory of constructed emotions. You should read her book it you want to know what they are. Suffice it to say, she’s got enough evidence for me to be intrigued. So, what can we do with this information? What would it mean if it was true?

It means, for one, we can stop being so sure of ourselves when we think we know how people feel. When a convicted criminal reads a statement and fails to show remorse like we think he should, we should know that he might really be feeling remorse, anyway. Not everyone shows their feelings the way we are taught by those feelings charts.

We can’t even be sure of ourselves when we think we know how we feel. Feelings are not as straightforward as people suppose. There is no sadness circuit, or anger circuit, or a circuit of any of the others. Feelings are guesses; predictions of what a situation means.

Secondly, we can stop talking about emotions as if they’re something happening to us, out of our control. I know, it sometimes seems that way; but it’s an illusion, just as a spoon looks as though is bent when it’s in a glass of water. This is both good news and bad. It’s good news because, if you are troubled by your emotions, it means you can tear them down and reconstruct them. It’s bad news because it makes you responsible for having them, as well as what you do with them. No more claiming that so-and-so made you mad. You made yourself mad; so, if you don’t want to be mad, feel differently.

As a therapist, I can tell you that is easier said than done. I’ve met thousands of people who would love to feel differently, if only they could. Once you’ve constructed an emotion, just how do you go about constructing a different one in its place? If your dog dies, for instance, can you be happy about it, even if you loved the pooch and were not the cause of its demise?

Changing a feeling sounds like a better idea than it really is. Oh, you could think about what a pain that dog was, how he barked at squirrels and bit the mailman, shed his dog hair on your sweater and chewed your favorite slippers. You could add up all the money you spent on kennels, doggie day care, dog walkers, dog food, dog toys, and house cleaning and plan a trip to the Bahamas. Then you’d feel better, but you’d have to forget all those ecstatic romps through the park, his goofy face when he hung his head out the car window, and the pleasure he showed every day when you came home. So, yes, you can change a feeling; but do you really want to? Forgetting joy and remembering trouble, just so you don’t feel grief doesn’t seem like a good deal to me. Nor does it seem right.

In summary, I can say that I partly agree with Dr Barrett. You can change your feelings; but, a lot of the time, if you really thought about the ramifications, you wouldn’t. She got something correct in her book, but missed something else important, entirely. Being a cognitive neuroscientist, she can with authority say there are no neural circuits of the emotions; but emotions carry a moral imperative that she doesn’t acknowledge. When someone says they have no choice but to have a particular feeling; they’re not talking about neurology, they’re talking about morality. They are saying that they can’t help but feel the way they do without abandoning their values.

Sometimes the first idea is the best, even if it “makes” you feel uncomfortable. For me, I’ll go back to feeling sad the man’s dog died, if only because dogs are good people and the wife and kids, at least, loved it. This sadness is my tribute to dogs and I’m willing to tolerate temporary discomfort to honor what matters.

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