Your Emotions Are a Social Construct
Our feelings aren’t baked-in, research suggests.
Throughout the day, you experience a variety of emotions. Anger, when someone cuts you off on the highway; fear, should you happen across a snake on your morning run; sadness, well, most nights when watching the news. The emotions come and go automatically. It seems like they're triggered by those "things"—the other car, the snake, the tragedy overseas. It turns out, that's not the whole story.
According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, the director of Northeastern University's Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, emotions are not something that happen to you. Instead, she says, we create them. We create our emotions from bodily sensations, past experiences, and from learning emotional concepts from our parents and cultural upbringing. In short, our emotions are not reactions to the world, but an invention of our brain to explain the cause of our sensations and actions.
I went to visit Barrett in Boston with a thought experiment that could help me understand her theory of constructed emotions: If a person was raised in solitary confinement, with enough food and water to survive, but no social interaction at all—would they have emotions? The simple answer? No.
The person would feel things. She could see the objects in her room, get stomachaches, and notice her heartbeat. But without societal input to tell her what her bodily sensations mean, she would feel them only as affect—a term for the raw experience of feeling.
"Emotion requires something more than affect," Barrett says. "It requires making meaning out of that affect. That's not something, if a child was born and grew up in the wild, with no other humans around, that would develop." They would instead feel more vague sensations like pleasantness or unpleasantness; arousal or calmness—similar to the way that infants feel at a young age, or even the type of "emotion" we see in animals (that we often ascribe deeper meaning to).
Barrett's theory of constructed emotions, which she writes about in her new book How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, is a result of decades of her and others' research. It contradicts the classical view of emotion that has persisted for two thousand years. In the classical model, your emotions are baked-in. A person who grew up totally alone would have the same complex emotions as any other, because they were born with them.
For those of us not raised in solitary confinement, this is what emotions "feel" like: that we're born with brain circuits for "sad" and "happy" and "fear," and that they are evolutionarily programmed to allow us to respond in the best way to threats and rewards in our environment. But in graduate school, when Barrett began looking for these universal emotions, she was unable to find them. Not in facial expressions, physiological response, or in brain activation.
For example, in 2007, developmental psychologists Linda A. Camras and Harriet Oster used a gorilla toy to scare babies from different cultures, and held their arms down to make them angry. The researchers found they couldn't distinguish the babies' facial movements during these emotions, though adult test subjects—when watching the videos—perceived the babies as fearful or angry (based largely on context).
Barrett's graduate student, Maria Gendron, traveled to Namibia to see if test subjects from the isolated Himba culture would sort facial expressions and vocalizations into the same emotion categories that we have in the US. There, and on subsequent trips to other groups, including hunter-gatherer communities in Tanzania, she found that people sorted emotions differently than we do, and labelled photos of posed facial expressions differently, often labelling them, instead, as behaviors.
In Barrett's lab in Boston, volunteers viewed photos of famous actors with realistic emotional facial expressions, like fear. Certain volunteers saw only the faces, some got a contextual situation and a face ("He just witnessed a shooting on his quiet, tree-shaded block in Brooklyn"), and some received only the verbal description of the situation. They found that for all emotions, context mattered. For example, only 38 percent of those who saw a fear face alone, posed by Martin Landau, perceived it as "fear" (56 percent perceived the facial expression as surprise), while 66 percent who read the scenario alone or saw the face in the context of the scenario perceived fear. Knowing the situation changed how the face was experienced.
Barrett's lab also did a meta-analysis of 100 neuroimaging studies on anger, disgust, happiness, fear, and sadness. It covered 1300 test subjects over a span of 20 years. What they found supported their hypotheses: there was no brain region that consistently held a "fingerprint" for any emotion. Even the amygdala, which we are told to associate with fear, was shown to increase in fear experience studies, but only in a quarter of them. And they found that the amygdala also showed increases in anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness, pain, learning something new, meeting new people, or making decisions.
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Barrett was finding that the only consistency to emotion is its variability, so how do we know what "anger" is? The answer is through learning, prediction, and self-creation. The difference between our hypothetical person in solitary, and a baby in the real word, is that babies begin statistical learning at very early age. That means they start to learn simple concepts, group objects in categories, and notice patterns. Children learn what emotions are in these ways, like being asked, "Are you angry," in different situations, and associating their bodily sensations in that moment and what they're perceiving, with the word, "anger."
"You see emotions in blinks, furrowed brows, and other muscle twitches; you hear emotions in the pitch and lilt of voices; you feel emotions in your own body, but the emotional information is not in the signal itself," Barrett writes in her book. "Your brain was not programmed by nature to recognize facial expressions and other so-called emotional displays and then to reflexibly act on them. The emotional information is in your perception. Nature provided your brain with the raw materials to wire itself with a conceptual system, with input from a chorus of helpful adults who spoke emotion words to you in a deliberate and intentional way."
In Russia, there are two cultural concepts for anger. In German there are three, and Mandarin there are five. If you were an English speaker learning those languages, you might feel like that person in solitary, as you try to grasp what situations and feelings correlate with that word. When you finally understand, it would still take a while before you could "feel" that emotion automatically, the way you feel "anger."
Our brains feel the sensory changes in our bodies. But we give different meanings to those bodily sensations depending on context. If you went on a run and your heart started pounding, you wouldn't be too alarmed. But as you're reading this article, if your heart began racing and you began sweating, you might be concerned and call your doctor.
In graduate school, Barrett went on a date with a guy she didn't feel that attracted to. But when she felt her face flush, her stomach flutter, and she had trouble concentrating, she experienced a strong attraction to him after all, and agreed to another date. It wasn't until she went home, threw up, and spent the next seven days in bed that she realized she had flu, not love at first sight. Her brain took the beginnings sensations of being sick and constructed a feeling of attraction during the date. The bodily sensations in attraction and the beginnings of illness can feel the same, and her brain had used the context (the date) to make them meaningful as attraction. A 2011 study similarly showed that judges are harsher before their lunch breaks than after. That knot in your stomach that tells you you're anxious, that you don't trust someone—well, it feels an awful lot like hunger too.
"From your brain's perspective, your body is just another source of sensory input," Barrett writes. "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."
Another good way to conceptualize how our hypothetical person would feel, upon emerging into a world of constructed emotions, is to talk to people who regained their eyesight, Barrett says. Our sight is another experience we take for granted: It feels as though an object exists in the world, and we merely see it. The truth is that we learn to see, just like we learn what emotions are. We interpret the light entering our retinas as shapes, dimensions, and objects, based on experience and being told what things are. For those who have cataracts removed, or those who have corneal transplants, the first moments (or years) of sight can be distressing.
In 1993, neuroscientist Oliver Sacks wrote about Virgil, a 50-year-old man who lost his sight as child, and gained it again after cataract surgery. Sacks describes Virgil's first moments of vision: "There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, 'Well?' Then, and only then, he said did he finally realize that this chaos of light and shadow was a face—and indeed, the face of his surgeon." Virgil continued to have difficulties, often not knowing what an object was until he touched it. He commented that his dog looked so different in various positions that he was sure there were multiple dogs in his home.
A professor of vision and computational neuroscience at M.I.T., Pawan Sinha, helped over 200 blind children from India regain their sight. After they could see again, he tested a centuries-old question from philosopher William Molyneux: if a person was blind from birth, could they tell a cube and a sphere apart—without touching it? The answer was, overwhelmingly, no.
It's hard to conceive, if you have been seeing since birth. "When we open our eyes each morning it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see," Sacks wrote. "We are not given the world: we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection. But when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for forty-five years—having had little more than an infant's visual experience, and this long forgotten—there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience, and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had not coherence."
This kind of chaos would happen to a person who hadn't learned any emotion concepts. Our emotion categories would seem random to them: why does anger sometimes involve yelling, and other times quiet rage? Why is it not sadness when you cry at a wedding, even if the bodily response is the same?
We actually don't need to resort to imagination or metaphor to see how this would play out. There are unfortunate cases in which children have been raised with little social interaction, but had adequate food and shelter. After the fall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, hundreds of thousands of children were found to be living in orphanages, and had received little social contact from adults: no talking, no hugging, no eye contact, no emotional learning. These kids were emotionally and intellectually stunted, and Barrett says they seemed to feel things purely affectively—as expected.
Brain studies found that the children had much less white matter, the stuff in your brain that connects all the gray matter together, so that nerves can communicate. But there was more.
"Their brains just don't develop normally, and their bodies don't develop normally either," Barrett says. "It's not just that their brain development is substantially compromised, which it is, it's also that their physical development is impaired. In the Romanian orphans, you would see a 14-year-old kid adolescent who literally looks like an 8-year-old."
So not only would your brain not develop, but your body wouldn't either. How is emotional development tied to physical growth? At the moment, it's unclear. Barrett says that when the brain doesn't get the input it's expecting, one such input being social contact, development goes wrong.
"If somebody was in a white room, fed three times a day, the simple answer is no, they would not develop emotion concepts," she says. "They would not develop abstract concepts of any sort actually. But they also wouldn't develop normally. They wouldn't have a normal body."
Our social experiences are an integral part of normal human growth and development, and also: emotional development. Without these emotion concepts, we would enter a world as confusing and blurry as Virgil's—who eventually re-lost his sight and returned, with relief, to "his own true being, the touch world that has been his home for almost fifty years," Sacks wrote. The moral of the story: be glad your brain can construct emotions, despite how overwhelming they may sometimes be.
Speaking of stories, which are filled with emotions, I later asked Barrett: Could a person raised alone understand a story? What about a Disney movie? An Aesop's fable?
"Probably not," she says.
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