Tuesday, February 13, 2018

How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

I have finally finished this book, which was recommended to me by my counsellor. It was a pretty heavy read, so I read it in bits and pieces. Also, I just saw the subtitle and I realised that I’m reading about a lot of secret lives lately, starting with cows.

Anyway, How Emotions are Made basically does what the title says. It tries to explain what emotions are. According to the author, her new theory goes against classical thinking and is completely revolutionary and true. I don’t have any knowledge of neuroscience, and even though about 100 of the 400 page (on my iPad) book consists of citations, I am not even remotely qualified (and didn’t put in the time and effort needed) to talk about whether her idea stands up to scientific scrutiny. Instead, I want to talk about the ideas in the book, which I found thought-provoking.

Ok, so the book says is that there is a classical view of emotions, which says that emotions are in-built from birth and are universal. But, the book asserts that this view is false and that emotions are concepts that we interpret. These concepts are created by our experiences and our environment. In other words:
"Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world."
This means that emotions aren’t universal. The way you experience stress, for instance, may be different from the way I experience stress. And because emotions are basically concepts that we build from experiences, it’s possible to modify and/or widen them. The book says that

New emotion concepts from a second language can modify those of your primary language

This makes a lot of sense to me. How do I explain the emotion “natsukashii”, which is something like “nostalgia” but not really? It’s something I learnt while learning Japanese, and if you can learn new emotion concepts via new languages, it makes sense that I added this ‘emotion’ through my Japanese study.

Moving on to more practical things, the book says that emotions have three functions:

1. They make meaning. For example, if I’m breathing heavily, am I scared or tired or what?

2. They prescribe action. If I’m panting, what is the appropriate response? That depends on what emotion I’m feeling (constructed based on past response)

3. They help regulate the body budget, which in turn affects health.

The body budget concept and link with emotions is interesting because it says that when your body budget is thrown out of balance, your brain mispredicts the amount of energy you need over and over and that eventually affects your physical health and can trap you in a vicious cycle.

Is that true? I don’t know but from personal experience, following on the tendency to not want to go out makes me feel lonelier and decreases motivation and further reduces my want to go out and there’s the cycle.

The book holds the view that depression “may be a disorder of misbudgeting and prediction” and that autism may be related to an inability to predict emotion concepts. These sound pretty revolutionary to me and I have no idea how I feel about them (the book also says that animals probably don’t experience emotions the way humans do which is a sad thing to hear after The Secret Lives of Cows).

Another thing the book talks about is that it emotions are concepts, and concepts are tools of culture, then emotions can be “specific to a culture”, creating rules that about “when it’s acceptable to construct a given emotion in a given situation.” This is another thing I find intriguing, because it would explain cross-cultural difficulties. If we perceive the world and hence reaction to situations differently, of course, there’ll be times we don’t understand one another.

In that case, persistent cross-cultural communication difficulties might be because the person in question has not managed to learn the emotion concepts of a particular culture. Oh, and in the book, the process of adjusting your emotions to a new cultural context is called “emotion acculturation”, so if anyone/I want to research this more in the future, here’s a possible keyword.

And to end, I’ll just talk about the two suggestions the book has for mastering your emotions.

The first is to move your body and/or change your location and situation.

The second is to try recategorising how you feel. This requires you to be able to differentiate between similar emotion concepts (like grief and despair) and “perhaps the easiest way to gain concepts is to learn new words.”

Which, I suppose, is one good thing that can come out of all my reading (assuming I don’t just read and forge). The book continues the previous quote by saying that:
Words seed your concepts, concepts drive your predictions, predictions regulate your body budget, and your body budget determines how you feel. Therefore, the more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your predicting brain can calibrate your budget to your body’s needs.
The advice in the book is basically what my counsellor advised: do more exercise, drink more water, and go out with positive people (ok the last one isn’t in the book). And I suppose that through the counselling sessions, I’m learning to recast my emotions.

This was an extremely heavy but interesting book. Like I mentioned before, I don’t know how much of it will hold up to further scientific scrutiny since it purports to be revolutionary, but it definitely gave me a lot of think about. If you’re interested in neuroscience and your emotions, you may want to read this.

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