I recently read How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett. It explains the theory of constructed emotion and its implications. This is the best book of nonfiction I have ever read. Repeatedly throughout the book, I had to put it down because I was so blown away that I needed a moment to think through the implications. And since I’m a blogger, my thoughts would often drift towards how I might write about these ideas and share them. This post will be a bit of an introduction explaining the basic concepts as I understand them, and I hope to write more in the future.
Regular readers know that I believe in nominalism–I think there is a meaningful sense in which everything is socially constructed. I understand that a lot of readers disagree with this, and we may never persuade one another. But fortunately this is irrelevant. When we speak of the theory of constructed emotions, it isn’t a broad philosophical claim, it’s an empirical claim that is specific to human emotions.
When psychologists study emotions, they can record a number of objective measurements, such as facial configurations, positive/negative valence, high/low arousal, and activity in different parts of the brain. However, these objective measurements do not match up to emotional categories. A single emotional category could correspond to many different facial configurations, while a single facial configuration could correspond to any number of different emotions. Yes, there are many qualitatively distinct feelings we can feel. However, when we give a name to those feelings, and place those feelings in an emotional category, this categorization process is not purely based on the feelings themselves. It’s based on the emotional concepts that are available to us, it’s based on the context in which we have those feelings, and it’s based on what we think the purpose of those feelings are.
The theory of constructed emotion can be contrasted with the classical theory of emotion. In the classical theory, there are six basic emotions that are biologically hardwired, and every human brain has a special happiness circuit, anger circuit, and so on. Some work on the classical theory of emotion is based on facial expressions that are claimed to be recognizable across all cultures.
The way they focus on just 6 emotions to the exclusion of others strikes me as cherry picking. There’s an analogy to cross-cultural studies of color (video), which find certain universal patterns in the “basic” color categories. Color categories are still socially constructed, it’s just that there are some universal facts that inform which categories get constructed first. IMHO, if some emotional categories are more universal than others, that is entirely consistent with the theory that they are socially constructed. In any case, even when sticking to the “basic” emotions, Dr. Barrett was unable to replicate these studies. In cultures with little contact with western cultures, there are significant differences in emotional concepts. For example, in the Himba culture in Namibia, people would distinguish the “happy” faces from the others, but would not separate out the other 5 basic emotions, and even the “happy” faces would be labeled as “laughing” rather than “happy”.
But Dr. Barrett is not saying that emotions are purely social constructs. She makes a distinction between emotions and feelings. Feelings arise from your brain’s sensation, representation, and control of your bodily functions (e.g. blood circulation, immune system, digestive system, etc.). This is called interoception. Feelings are not just about how your body is functioning right now, but also how your brain simulates your body, and makes predictions about how it should budget your body’s resources under different conditions. One commonly studied part of your feelings is your affect, which is commonly described with two dimensions: positive/negative valence, and low/high arousal.
But when we categorize these feelings into emotions, it is often based not just on the feeling itself, but on circumstantial evidence. For example, “anger” describes people who get red in the face and shake their fists, people who go cold and silently plot revenge, and people who just shift around in agitation. “Anger” corresponds to feelings that are all over the map. What all these instances of anger have in common is not so much people’s affect or bodily functions, but rather the circumstances and presumed purpose of these feelings. When you have been visited by injustice, and you want somebody to pay for it, we might call it an instance of anger, regardless of what precisely you are feeling. Anger may be associated with certain typical feelings, but those feelings aren’t all that the concept is getting at.
And not only do feelings inform our emotions, it goes the other way too. When we construct an instance of an emotion, that informs our brain’s interoceptive simulations. Dr. Barrett suggests that it might be good for our health to use of a wider array of emotional categories for more specific situations, because this allows our bodies to respond in a more situation-appropriate way, instead of having a one-size-fits-all response. The ability to distinguish many different emotion categories is called emotional granularity. People with higher emotional granularity have been found to be healthier by many measures (although I think there’s no proof of a causal link).
I want to end here with a personal note on why I liked the book so much. To be frank, it’s because of my orientation. I grew up with the presumption that everyone had the same emotions and feelings as me, only to find out later on that there were key differences that functionally changed how I relate to romance. I asked people to describe their own experiences only to realize that even straight people had huge variations which they would rarely acknowledge or talk about. And I reflected on other hidden variations in experience which have nothing to do with orientation, and which are never even named. Although the book never discussed orientation, it provided a conceptual toolset that I will treasure.