When neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett was in graduate school, she spent three years attempting to replicate long-heralded findings on self-esteem that suggested people compared themselves to an idealized version; when they came up short, they were depressed. Barrett found, however, that this wasn’t a universal fact: Sometimes, people felt anxious, other times depressed, and many times, people couldn’t distinguish between anxiety and depression.
Barrett was fascinated by our individual experiences of emotion, and years later it became the basis of her most recent book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Barrett argues that emotions aren’t rigid and hardwired, but instead constructed concepts.
Barrett spoke with Inverse about her book, how it contradicts classical scientific thought, and what it means for the future.
How did you come to decide to turn your research into a book?
In 2013, I was interviewed for a feature article in Boston Magazine. The editor [of the piece] kept asking why it matters if people assume the wrong theory of emotions. I was tempted to say, “It’s important to understand how the brain works.” We don’t ask people why it’s important to understand whether the Higgs-Boson exists. We get that science is the process of trying to understand the world around [us], the world inside you.
But when I really started to think about it, I realized that, actually, getting the theory of emotion wrong matters a lot. It matters because of how the government spends its money, it matters to the health and wellbeing of people, it matters how we raise our kids, how we treat mental illness. There’s one example in my book where a psychologist explains how misreading emotion across cultural boundaries was the tipping point that started a war.
There appears to be a social pressure to know exactly what you’re feeling and why you feel it. Does that perpetuate the misunderstanding of how emotions work?
We have a particular theory of human nature, the idea that each of us has an inner beast that is wrapped in rationality. The theory that humans are animals who need rational abilities to keep our animal nature in check has been with us since ancient Greeks and Egyptians starting writing about the brain, the body, and the nature of the human mind. In Plato’s time, our animal nature was thought to be given to us, literally, by nature. In the Middle Ages, it was God. After Darwin it became evolution. But there has always been a theory that some kind of omnipotence made us animals and also gave us the means to control that inner beast.
The fact is, though, that your brain isn’t really structured in a way that fits this theory of human nature. Evolutionary biologists and developmental neurobiologists have known that for a century. This classical theory of human nature, where bad behavior is caused by animalistic emotions, leaves us less responsible for those actions. The classical view of what it means to be human gives you an out — there are moments where you are not considered fully responsible for your actions because your emotions took over you.
What do we know now that is different from the classical explanation of how emotion develops?
When you look at the structure and function of the human brain it’s really clear that brains don’t develop in sedimentary layers. We don’t have a lizard brain for appetites, surrounded by a limbic system for emotion, which in turn is surrounded by a neocortex for cognition.
We also know now that infant brains are not miniature adult brains. An infant brain wires itself to the physical and social surroundings that it finds itself in. Humans don’t have a neocortex; we have an isocortex. We don’t have the same parts [as other mammals]. It’s just that humans have some parts that are bigger than, say, rodents. What evolution gave humanity is not cognition, but a brain that can create many different kinds of minds because brains have plasticity and can wire themselves differently, depending on the cultural context.
How does society affect emotion?
We know that an infant brain will not develop normally if it is deprived of responsive caregivers: It’s not enough just to feed a baby and just to clothe a baby. When infants are born, they are completely helpless. They can’t regulate their nervous systems. They must be fed and clothed, of course, but these things must be done in a responsive social context, meaning that infants need a caregiver who will hold them, cuddle them, make eye contact with them, talk to them, and so on. We know this because there are these unfortunate natural experiments in Romania, for example, where many many kids were warehoused in institutions. They were fed and clothed but not given the eye contact, social warmth, and caring physical contact. As a consequence, those children didn’t develop normally physically and mentally.
Humans are a social species and we subconsciously regulate each other’s nervous systems without any awareness that we do so. Other species regulate each other as well. Social insects, like termites, regulate each other’s nervous systems with chemicals. Rats, too, do it with smell, but they also use touch and hearing. Primates add vision. We humans use all of these senses to regulate each other, but we also use words. When I speak certain words to you, it has an effect on your brain. The parts of your brain that process the meaning of my words also happen to be regulating your body — your circulatory system, your respiratory system, your immune system, and your metabolism. Some of the brain regions that are responsible for speaking and understanding language are also controlling the systems of your body. If I speak certain words, your heart rate might go up and you might breathe more quickly, even though we are on the phone and we can’t even see each other. We can affect each other’s nervous system even though we are miles apart. This is the magic of human interaction.
Is there a societal pressure to always be happy?
Oh yes, the desire for happiness is still very much with us in the United States. In Russia, there’s this belief that no sensible person would ever be happy — there’s too much [hardship] in life. I think there is some truth to the idea: We know, for example, that when you push yourself hard and you extend a lot of effort, you will feel unpleasant, but this kind of effort usually brings benefits down the board, like a better memory or a more youthful brain. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be happy, but I do think a life well-lived is not a life organized around optimizing happiness.
In psychology, we make a distinction between happiness and meaningfulness — a happy life is not necessarily a meaningful life. A meaningful life is probably what you want and I think that requires a lot of granularity in your emotional experience. I think it requires the ability to experience and perceive emotions in a highly diverse way, both those that are pleasant and those that are unpleasant.