That is the new book by Lisa Feldman Barrett, and the subtitle is The Secret Life of the Brain. I am not well-informed in this area, but here were some of my takeaways:
1. The previous dominant view of emotions, sometimes associated with Paul Ekman, suggests that emotions are a natural and pre-programmed response to changes in the environmental. Imagine a wolf snarling if a potentially hostile animal crosses its path.
2. According to Barrett, the expressions of human emotions are better understood as being socially constructed and filtered through cultural influences: “”Are you saying that in a frustrating, humiliating situation, not everyone will get angry so that their blood boils and their palms sweat and their cheeks flush?” And my answer is yes, that is exactly what I am saying.” (p.15) In reality, you are as an individual an active constructor of your emotions. Imagine winning a big sporting event, and not being sure whether to laugh, cry, scream, jump for joy, pump your fist, or all of the above. No one of these is the “natural response.”
3. Immigrants eventually acculturate emotionally into their new societies, or at least one hopes: “Our colleague Yulia Chentsova Dutton from Russia says that her cheeks ached for an entire year after moving to the United States because she never smiled so much.” (p.149)
3b. There is also this: “My neighbor Paul Harris, a transplanted emotion researcher from England, has observed how American academics are always excited by scientific puzzles — a high arousal, pleasant feeling — but never curious, perplexed, or confused, which are low arousal and fairly neutral experiences that are more familiar to him.” (p.149)
3c. It can be very hard to read the emotions on faces across cultures, and Barrett is opposed to what she calls “emotional essentialism.”
3d. From her NYT piece: “My lab analyzed over 200 published studies, covering nearly 22,000 test subjects, and found no consistent and specific fingerprints in the body for any emotion. Instead, the body acts in diverse ways that are tied to the situation.”
4. One reason for my interest in this work is that it potentially provides microfoundations for thinking about how “culture” matters for economic and other social outcomes. It also helps explain the importance of peers for education, and for that matter for religious experience, in the same outlined by William James. It may help explain Jonathan Haidt-related research results about disgust. It also provides potential microfoundations for explaining how individuals with different cognitive profiles (autism, Williams and Rett, Down syndrome, etc.), will, for related reasons, process some emotions differently too, although Barrett does not explore this route.
5. The concepts of a “control network” and an “introceptive network” are explained and presented as critical for controlling emotions, and in terms of the broader theory the mind is fundamentally about prediction. From my outsider point of view, the emphasis on prediction seems a little too strong. For instance, there may also be a need to make ourselves predictable to others, even if that lowers out own ability to predict.
6. “Affect is not just necessary for wisdom; it’s also irrevocably woven into the fabric of every decision.” And she refers repeatedly to: “…your inner, loudmouthed, mostly deaf scientist who views the world through affect-colored glasses.”
7. I found the chapter on animals the most problematic for the broader thesis. It seems to me that the Ekman view really does handle the snarling wolf pretty well and that is a case of emotional essentialism. Barrett tries to outline how humans are different from other mammals in this regard, but I came away thinking the truth might be a mix of her view and the Ekman view. It seems to me that some version of emotional essentialism provides an overarching constraint on the social construction of emotions, and furthermore there might be some regulating process at a higher level, mixing in varying proportions of essentialist and social construction features of emotional responses.
My apologies for any errors or misunderstandings in this presentation!
I can say this book is very well-written, it covers material not found in other popular science books, and it comes strongly recommended by Daniel Gilbert. I asked a friend of mine who researches directly in this area, and she reports that Barrett’s view is in fact taken seriously by other researchers, it has been very influential, and it is has been gaining in popularity. Make of that what you will.
Here is a very useful interview with the author. Here is her Northeastern home page. I recall reading somewhere that she is a big fan of chocolate, but can no longer find that link. Should I laugh, cry, or shrug my shoulders in response to that failure?
I thank Benjamin Lyons for the pointer to this work.