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How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

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A new theory of how the brain constructs emotions that could revolutionize psychology, health care, law enforcement, and our understanding of the human mind.

Emotions feel automatic, like uncontrollable reactions to things we think and experience. Scientists have long supported this assumption by claiming that emotions are hardwired in the body or the brain. Today, however, the science of emotion is in the midst of a revolution on par with the discovery of relativity in physics and natural selection in biology—ans this paradigm shift has far-reaching implications for us all.

Leading the charge is psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, whose theory of emotion is driving a deeper understanding of the mind and brain, and shedding new light on what it means to be human. Her research overturns the widely held belief that emotions are housed in different parts of the brain and are universally expressed and recognized. Instead, she has shown that emotion is constructed in the moment, by core systems that interact across the whole brain, aided by a lifetime of learning. This new theory means that you play a much greater role in your emotional life than you ever thought. Its repercussions are already shaking the foundations not only of psychology but also of medicine, the legal system, child-rearing, meditation, and even airport security.

Why do emotions feel automatic? Does rational thought really control emotion? How does emotion affect disease? How can you make your children more emotionally intelligent? How Emotions Are Made answers these questions and many more, revealing the latest research and intriguing practical applications of the new science of emotion, mind, and brain. 

425 pages, Hardcover

First published March 7, 2017

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Lisa Feldman Barrett

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,053 reviews
Profile Image for Anders Brabaek.
74 reviews143 followers
March 12, 2018
The basic message of this book is that emotions are subjective and constructed, and that neuro science proves it so. This message is in line with the frequently quoted Shakespeares' (Hamlet) "...there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so".
(Barrett do not make use of this quote).

I will suggest instead reading the article "The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization" by the author; http://www.affective-science.org/pubs...

The article is more consise than the book, while avoiding some of the 'misdirections' the book delivers.

The book is not deep enough for those who has prior knowledge in cognitive psychology/neuro biology. Those who do not will likely to be misled as Barrett is anoyingly imprecise.
Fx Barrett put her perspective in contrast to what she calls "the classical view of emotions". However, there isn't as such a clear classical view of emotions. There are certain theories which over the years has gradually evolved - it is not like you either have a classical view of emotions or a non classical view (she doesn't term the alternative to what she calls classical).

Barrett emphasize the importance of "her" theory; "the Theory of Constructed Emotions" by pointing to how this will lead to different approaches for handling various challenges (depression etc.), but all the solutions she provides, are solutions which has existed for a very long time, and has been developed by people who believed in fx "basic emotions" which belongs to her category "the classical view of emotions".

In that vein she spend chapters on methods and techniques which owe 100% to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
Likevise she explains the impact of her theory with an abundance of examples. However anyone who has studied social psychology in genreal, and attribution theory and appraisal theory in particular will know they thoroughly predates her theory, and that they are in no way is reliant up on it.
Barrett does this without ever mentioning eg. DBT, attribution theory nor appraisal theory. (If I remember correctly she only once mentions CBT).

For the moment I will chose to assume I have overlooked the references because I would otherwise find it borderlining to dishonesty not to make the references to these ideas which she is so clearly, and substantially leveraging.
Even so; as the theories and practices she is borrowing so heavily from, predates her theory by decades, and has for all these years not been seen as being in contrast to the theories she coins "the classical view of emotions" it substantially subtracts from the impact of her theory, and hence she is overemphasizing the conflict.

It is sad because in all the noise, she has an interesting addition to the existing theories, and message which hide potentially deeper understanding.
It is also sad as her message, that in non academic settings (including legal and cultural) the nature of emotions are misunderstood, and these misunderstandings can lead to problematic outcomes, is an important message.

Paul Ekman has responded earlier to a couple of the claims which Barrett repeats in this book surrounding both his own theory and Barrett's understanding of Darwins' perspective on emotions: http://www.paulekman.com/tag/lisa-fel...

Related Books :
"Not Passion's Slave" by Robert Solomon, a philosopher, delivers a much better view on the history of emotions.
"The Feeling Brain" by Johnston and Olson, is, while a scholorary book, more consise. Unfortunately, while referencing Barrett, it doesn't really cover Barrets ideas.
"Handbook of Emotion Regulation, 2nd Edt" is for the real curious, real academic - before headning to the article databases.
"Emotion Measurement" Herbert L. Meiselman edt. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-100... (Chap 2 is by Barrett and is much more concise than this book as well
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
1,007 reviews601 followers
March 14, 2017
Most new pop science books irritate me since they give me nothing I didn't already know. This book is definitely an exception to that rule. I started liking this book from the very beginning, because I have previously read in over 20 books the experiment where they show photos of actors posed with an emotional expression of some kind and showed it to various people from different cultures and then claiming that each group shown the pictures knew what emotion was being invoked by the actor posing in the picture. I always suspected there was something wrong with the results which claimed that there is a universal set of emotions based on unique emotional 'fingerprints'. This author demolishes that finding, and I really hope I never see anyone else site that experiment again without at least first mentioning this author's analysis.

There is a classical view of emotions. It's been wrongly floating around since Plato hypothesized that we were like the charioteer (reason) being led by the horse being pulled apart by our passion and our appetites. Similarly Freud gave us a super ego, ego, or id, and Kahneman has his 'S1' and 'S2' (quick thinking vs thoughtful mind). The author not only tears down the classical emotional models of the mind, but she builds one up in its place that seems to make sense.

The author calls it the constructive emotional model. What she's saying is that emotions are not things. They are instances of previous experiences. They do not have essences or fingerprints. Darwin knocked it out of the park with his "Origins of Species", but his book "Expression of Emotions in Man in Animals" brought back essentialism (the author will say). That is a belief that there are real categories in the world and they exist beyond the concepts within our own mind. Our emotions are always of a particular instance and never from the general because they are always about something particular.

The author's theory takes the best from the Social, Neurological and Psychological constructive theories from the past. In the past, the social theory would have agreed with Beauvoir that girls are not born girls but made into girls, neurological would have said that there are basically unique areas in the brain for different emotions or patters of neurons, and the Psychological would have been William James' reaction to the bear that we would meet in the woods. The author does not accept any of those premises but does construct her constructive emotional model from those three areas. She builds her system from holism, emergent properties, and multiple different neuron formations leading to various emotional states.

The author really focuses on our body budget as to how we construct our emotional makeup. Also, she speaks about how our mind is constantly predicting, and when we create our 'now' we are also predicting it since we don't always understand everything and we are constantly making our best guess about our world and our current emotional states. We are statisticians from an early age (she'll say) and we often must take all of our previous best guesses of the world (an average) and interpolate (or even extrapolate) what we think we know and use that as our guide even though we know there is an error because we're forcing averages on to a particular. Since she's a scientist in the field she will provide some experiments and data to back up her beliefs.

A lot of the book I didn't like in particular the last third. That's just me. She did a little bit of self help type book and that always bores me, but basically her advice was along the lines of do more exercise and eat broccoli (okay, she doesn't say 'broccoli' but she does say eat healthier). She mentioned Spinoza and that he falls in to the classical school of emotional theory and he does, but within his book "Ethics" he too gave advice for living a healthy emotional live and I think he did a better job then this book did.

Though, I don't recommend skipping the last third. She did a really good job on speculating on the nature of autism. She theorized that the autistic person under predicts their body budget needs since they are not always attuned to the local environment correctly and therefore are often out of sync with what is really going around in their local environment. It seemed reasonable to me. I just never seem to come across any good books on autism, and her section seemed to be better than most that I have seen.

There is a real Phenomenological bent to her theory (think Husserl, some Heidegger, the Existentialist and in particular Gadamer in his book "Truth and Method", a book that no one reads today, but I would rate it as one of my all time favorites). Gadamer did say all "understanding is interpretation, being that can be understood is language". The author makes the point that if we don't have the word for the emotion we can't fully understand the emotion. Not everyone has a rich vocabulary to understand all of their perceived emotional states, and so therefore might not always be fully aware of their emotional state (she'll say). In addition, Gadamer ends his book by emphasizing that it's not the pieces that matter, and it's not the whole it's how they fit together. Similarly, the author is saying that's how we experience our emotions.

I really enjoyed this book. The author has a theory that goes against common wisdom, and builds a system that can explain a better way to understand our emotional world. I don't always agree with everything she says, but I always like to see the world differently and am open to new ways of thinking about old problems.
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
619 reviews2,030 followers
November 30, 2018
I have to give this book 5 stars based on its audacity and ambition alone.

The author fearlessly challenges some of the fields (affective psychology/neuroscience) most revered and respected theorists and researchers, including Jack Panksap, Antonio Damassio, Joseph LeDoux, Paul Ekman and even Charles Darwin.

That's mad ballsy.

The book is a virtual slaughterhouse of sacred cows.

I have reservations about much of the authors assertions. It's hard not to, because she challenges so much of the current gospel.

That being said, I have the strong intuition that the this work represents a legitimate challenge to the old paradigm.

It will be interesting to read the inevitable pushback..
Profile Image for Bob Nichols.
912 reviews301 followers
July 11, 2021
Barrett believes that past theories of emotions are wrong. In that classical view, emotions are “essences,” with mental circuity in place, waiting to be triggered. Based on brain science, this view is no longer tenable, she says. Rather, we construct emotions. From culture, we form a concept of emotion; without a concept, we have no emotion. Culture lays down new wiring to reflect “social realities,” including how each culture defines what it means to be happy, sad, angry, etc. This explains the wide cultural differences in how an emotion is defined. The author says that her “theory of constructed emotions” also transforms our understanding of human nature itself. In the old view, we are filled with biological essence. In her view, we reflect culture’s content and draw from it to create who we are and who we want to be.

Barrett states that her theory is neither biological nor cultural determinism. It’s a third way. It combines biology and culture, yet moves beyond, based on neuroscience. We’re obviously biological, she says, in the sense that we are wired to form concepts. Then it’s the concepts from culture that take it from there. But this, it seems, is only the latest edition of the blank slate version of human nature that goes back to Lewontin-Gould, the behaviorists, Sartre, Marx, and the empiricists before. The only difference I could detect is that Barrett brings in brain science. Other than maintenance functions, certain affects and the basic biological wiring, biology is not relevant to who we are. We’re born with minimal biological direction, ready to receive culture’s imprint and, later, our reasoned response to it so that we can be fully autonomous, undetermined beings. The author also refers to Buddhist thought to say, in effect, that there’s no true self. We are architects of our own being in what now might be called her theory of the constructed self.

Where to go with this? Her main argument I suppose is that if we don’t have the concept, we can’t feel the emotion. As an example, Barrett uses schadenfreude (“pleasure from someone else’s misfortune”) and a few other foreign-culture emotion concepts. She says we do not have these emotions because we have no word (concept) for it. But, regarding schadenfreude, who has not hoped that someone might fall flat on their face and fail, even if, as in our culture, there’s no word for it? Barrett doesn’t buy that counter argument.

Barrett states that emotions have no connection with biology and survival, which bolsters her claim that emotions are not biological in origin. To make that statement Barrett has to take on Darwin. She states that in “The Origin of Species,” Darwin denies the very idea of biological essences with his theory of variability. In that book, a species does not exist per se. Rather, it is a population-wide concept (a statistical average). Then she writes that, in “The Expression of the Emotions,” Darwin does an about face and reinstates several basic emotions as inborn essences that are universal across humankind. (1) In “Expressions,” Darwin was not only wrong, she says, but he was “profoundly” wrong. Really? Darwin’s point is that variability is always in relation to a fixed structure. (2) It’s a variation from the mean, from an essence. That’s why we are humans, not dogs. That’s why we don’t have sex with dogs.

Then Barrett states that emotions cannot be biological because they are “fixed.” To be built-in that way is instinctual determinism, but that can’t be because in our case we obviously have free choice. We can even choose suicide and override evolution’s central imperative. But, to counter, we still have emotional tendencies or dispositions that serve our needs. With a few exceptions, “fixity” in Barrett’s sense in our emotional life is non-existent. Even Freud, Mr. Id himself, said that, except for hunger and thirst, most of our emotional-instinctual being is essentially plastic (i.e., flexible. Hence, transference and projection).

Barrett opens one of her chapters with a story about a friend’s dog, Rowdy. She notes that when a stranger or a dog comes near, Rowdy growls. “In other words,” she says, “he’s a dog.” With that essentialist classification (all dogs do X), she misses an important point: dogs vary by biological disposition and temperament (see Darwin’s opening arguments on domestic breeding in “Origins”). A dog is not only a dog, but a particular dog (even individuals within a breed), a point that is reflected, for example, in breeding practices for certain (non-cultural) traits. For that matter, crows have personality. But Barrett suggests that “emotions in animals” are an illusion. Rowdy and animals can’t have emotions because by definition emotions are mental constructs, and that’s something animals don’t have, despite pet owners seeing their “dogs growl in anger, droop in sadness, and hide their heads in shame.” Barrett, not a dog owner herself, passes animal responses off by saying that they “might experience pleasure, pain, arousal, or other varieties of affect, but he [Rowdy in this case] does not have the mental machinery to experience more than that.” (3) Barrett is operating within a paradigm that can’t allow her to see otherwise.

Barrett writes that “Particular concepts like ‘anger’ and ‘disgust’ are not genetically predetermined (fixed impulse tied to a fixed object?) and that fear is not coded in “the human genome.” Rather, we construct what is meant by these concepts. It’s the same for other emotion concepts like happiness, sadness, etc. Clearly, Barrett is right, to a point. We fear guns today because of what we know about them, and the source of fear in the hunger-gather day (no guns) was different. In other words, there’s still fear, in both time frames and cultural settings, though the content is different. The source of happiness for a NASCAR fan is different than the source of happiness for an urbanized artist and the source of beauty varies by culture, per Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. But what Barrett leaves unstated is the motive force – why we fear (to protect our self, regardless of the specific threat), why we get happy or sad (because our underlying needs are met or not met – more on this below) and why we seem to have an appreciation for beauty (musical rhythm, poetic cadence, and bodily adornment – needs, but without an obvious evolutionary benefit). Underlying specific content (experience, reason, culture) is some form of built-in biological capacity, essences in effect, that Barrett sees instead as her emotion concepts. She opts for the latter without dealing with the former. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that she conflates underlying form with cultural content.

In eliminating emotion as an essence, Barrett overlooks what might be emotion’s central component – the motivation source which is internal, not external; it is “pain” in Schopenhauer’s sense. We seek from the world what we need and we resist what we don’t need. Many of our emotions are built in (surprise); others are more long-term (love); and still others are about self-interest, generally and specifically. Whether all of this is emotion depends for sure on the definition used, but certainly, there’s a value-filled, emotion-like core at the center of all we do (akin to Hume’s comment that reason is a slave to passion).

The absence of motive force in Barrett is striking, and perhaps can be illustrated in Appendix A (Brain Basics) where she says that a neuron “fires” and that the “neurotransmitters excite or inhibit each neuron on the other end of a synapse.” It’s a basic and standard description, yet while Barrett describes the what and how, she leaves the motive force hanging -- the “why” behind “exciting” or “inhibiting,” or “firing in general.” I suppose that in her “interoception” concept, she has a generalized motive force -- we do what is pleasant and avoid the unpleasant (and she may have an intensity range to such feelings, ranging from “calmness to agitation”). But an argument can be made that far more specific motive forces are involved. We are driven by in-born, core needs within the categories of nurture, security, sex and defense, with a full-suite of specific emotions (seen more as value-laden tendencies) that are designed to get what we need from the world and to protect against what we don’t need. Experience builds upon and reinforces these dispositions, which collectively constitutes more general character traits. (4)

For most of our evolutionary history (pre-hominid, animal-mammal time), we probably were quite fully instinctual beings whose integrated emotional structures supplied the internal motivation (the need for nurture, protection, sex; and fear of threats to these needs); an appraisal mechanism for determining object assessment, and behavior (more or less “fixed”) that tied need and relevant object together. With humans, though, object relevance and behavior separated out, giving us new tools for adaptation. This is what Barrett focuses on. Choices about relevant objects and behavior became unfixed, enabling them to be extensively molded by culture. But, importantly, the motive for why we act remains fixed, embedded within our emotional core. This is the motive force that existed way back when and exists now. It’s the reason we act.

There’s ample room for neuroscience to inform the age-old debate between biology-emotion and culture-mind without, as Barrett does, relegating biology to a minimalist structural (bones, fluids, organs and wiring) role. The relationship between nature and nurture is hierarchical. The biological part is foundational, constitutional, particularly in regard to the bottom-line motivation sources supplied by our emotional life. The culture part acts within this framework to operate, in effect, legislatively. It covers the “what” (object) and the “how” (behavior), and Barrett’s work is certainly relevant to laying out the “new wiring” in the brain that has been prompted by culture. That this is a rich and attractive area of research is not a surprise. It’s like muscle memory, but more. We adapt to our environment by incorporating new information and beliefs. (5) But the “why” part, the motive force, the reason we act or react vis-à-vis a particular object, stays home. Though its presence and intensity varies among individuals, this is the true self. And because of the variability, we can and do make poor choices.

There is also a need to parse out the differential roles that emotion plays in our interactions with the world. Happiness and sadness are not just part of a long list of emotions. They are states of being, not actions or reactions per se, that are the end result of successful or unsuccessful interaction with the world (possibly related to Barrett’s interoception notion of pleasant-like, unpleasant-don’t like, combined with gradations of intensity). Per Schopenhauer, we act from pain (in general) and when successful (in seeking, in resisting) there is pleasure (in general). Fear is also not just another emotion. It is the mirror of a seeking emotion. It is the primary resisting emotion. It’s the first line of defense.

The mystery that also surrounds life as a need-driven being (again, “pain” in Schopenhauer’s sense), requires more general attention as it is this, life’s motive force in general and in its specific, manifestations, that not only unites us with the rest of life but distinguishes us from non-life. We know it’s “survival” but is there a central brain core that pulls these all together (current research suggests not)? Bergson gets a lot of flack for his “elan vital” and of course we no longer believe in homunculi, but if the life force as embodied in the emotions is not this, what is it?

As a final note there are problems with the definition of emotion. Barrett is correct about that. But she pins it down and doesn’t let it get up. There could be value in tossing out all preconceptions and beginning anew, with a fresh definition of emotion that has a valence and motive force as the foundation and that is expressed in a range of ways, from automatic, built-in actions and reactions, all the way to rational decision-making that is based, ultimately, on a value source that is biological in nature. (6)

(1) For other reasons, there are problems with “Expressions.” Darwin emphasizes the visible facial and bodily expressions of certain emotions, but he does not get into the fuller suite of our emotional life that he covers in “The Descent of Man,” a book that Barrett does not discuss.

(2) “Fixed” is a tricky word in evolutionary theory. Fix has an essence, but that essence has a range within which variability is expressed (see Piaget’s “Biology and Knowledge”). Also, there’s more variability with traits that are less crucial for survival.

(3) In this quoted Barrett sentence, why does she use the term “might”? And her use of “affect” comes across as an emotion-like term that means “not emotion.”

(4) "Essentialism,” Barrett writes, “lays out not just a view of human nature but a worldview….a belief in a genetically just world, backed by a scientific-sounding ideology.” Barrett characterizes that worldview as “affective realism,” which leads people to “an extreme version of ‘getting ahead” in a survival of the fittest way over ‘getting along,’ with the latter being a product of cultural construction. She states that our capacity for culture arises from natural selection, and that’s biology’s only role. But, just as animals have personalities and temperaments (individual/breed), isn’t it possible that humans can be seen in a similar way at their foundation, which culture then builds upon? Might the two poles (getting ahead vs. getting along) that Barrett highlights be biological in origin because they have both been valid survival strategies that have withstood the rigors of natural selection?

(5) Barrett states that racial stereotypes are a social reality that changes the brain’s wiring illustrate her point. But to classify it only as a social reality misses the underlying “tribal” motivation that push us into “we-they” categorizations, and why racism, a powerful form of tribalism, (it’s an interesting question whether Barrett’s argument that we are wired to form concepts feeds right into the "we-they" stereotypes) is so intractable. With many, self-correction is possible once it’s learned that the “other” is really OK (not a threat). But for many others, reflecting human variability, that motivation is not there.

(6) Many of the laudatory statements on the book covers refer to emotions as essences, seem to miss Barrett’s central point that emotions are “concepts of emotion,” not essences. Even LeDoux, who has been good on the topic of emotions, says that Barrett “writes with great clarity on how your emotions are not merely about what you’re born with…,” suggesting that at least some emotions have essences of some sort.
Profile Image for Bharath.
641 reviews471 followers
October 11, 2020
I am fascinated by the advances in neuroscience and what it tells us about our brains, behaviours and who we are. It is even more interesting to combine that with the wisdom of mindfulness theory & practice. This is a book with a lot of very interesting material which we do not often come across, and is intellectually very stimulating.

In what Lisa describes as the most prevalent classical view, we think we are all very similar in how we display our emotions. If shown a picture, based on the person’s expression, we believe we can recognise the emotion he/she is going through. This has in fact led to a number of technology companies making investments in this area, juries basing judgements on how defendants conduct themselves etc. Lisa forcefully argues, and very successfully, that there are no specific standards for emotion & variation is the norm. There is no specific common brain pathway for emotions and attempts to decipher emotions such as anger from body measurements & brain scans have shown no patterns and have failed. She goes on to discuss that the concept of the 'truine brain' where parts of our human brain were inherited from other species and govern rudimentary survival behaviours has been largely discredited by neuroscience.

Our brain is constantly anticipating and preparing our body for what is to come (balancing the body budget) and dealing with prediction errors (deviation between the expected & actual). Right since our birth, our brain is building concepts for us based on what we are told and what we experience. Our emotions have roots in these concepts, and are hence very individualised. Similarities are more explained by the fact that we go through many similar experiences in similar environments, and hence build adjacent concepts. This makes perfect sense and also explains the growing inability of people to change their world views in later stages in life.

The parallels with mindfulness theory can provide great insights. Lisa does discuss eastern philosophy (largely around Buddhist thought) and the alignment with the latest of what neuroscience is telling us.

There is only one mistake you are making: you take the inner for the outer and the outer for the inner. What is in you, you take to be outside you and what is outside, you take to be in you. The mind and feelings are external, but you take them to be intimate. You believe the world to be objective, while it is entirely a projection of your psyche. That is the basic confusion and no new explosion will set it right! You have to think yourself out of it. There is no other way.”
― Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

In quite a few cases though she just skims the surface and the treatment lacks depth. The impact of words & language is written about in great detail and yet misses some obvious negative implications. When concepts are fortified, egos grow bigger, resistance to change becomes greater and de-sensitization develops, largely robbing us of the newness of the experience.

“Do you know that even when you look at a tree and say, `That is an oak tree', or `that is a banyan tree', the naming of the tree, which is botanical knowledge, has so conditioned your mind that the word comes between you and actually seeing the tree? To come in contact with the tree you have to put your hand on it and the word will not help you to touch it.”
― J Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known

“The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.”
― J Krishnamurti

The implications of all this knowledge for the law is important and there is a fairly detailed discussion on that (eg: there is almost no basis for segregating ‘crimes of passion’ vs ‘conscious crimes’). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky was another fascinating book based on neuroscience and there are quite a few common themes (such as the impact of past experiences, implications for law etc). This book is also as interesting but is far more speculative & less organized in parts. The chapter on animal emotions is in fact very poorly written, makes lots of assumptions and comes across as rambling. While the broad contours of the book are very logical, a number of the similarities across species cannot be explained by only the theories in this book, which considerably downplays the impact of genes.

If this subject interests you, I would also urge you to read ‘Behave’ and The Ape that Understood the Universe.
Profile Image for Mike.
49 reviews9 followers
February 5, 2019
This book starts out really strong. The core thesis put forward by the author about the constructed nature of emotions is fascinating and thought provoking. It challenges some of our deepest held assumptions and intuitions about emotions.

However, she then goes on to repeat her central ideas 900 times throughout the book. I’d be a rich man if I got a penny for every time she mentions “interoceptive network”, “body budget”, “emotional granularity”, and “affective niche.” It’s truly tiring. She spends entire chapters on animals, criminal justice, self-help, pop philosophy etc, many of which are only loosely connected to the ideas at hand. The book is easily three times as long as it needs to be. And her ideological biases shine forth consistently and unmistakably.

She uses concepts haphazardly as well. For example, she uses the word “concept/s” frequently throughout the book, but never actually takes the time to precisely clarify what she means. It initially seems as though she means a concept requires language, but later in the book she appears to be referring to a ‘category of distinct instances’ which can exist without having words for it. This lack of conceptual rigor is confusing to say the least.

Her pet peeve with what she dubs the “classical view of emotion” quickly gets annoying. She jumps on every opportunity she can to take cheap shots at a caricatured, outdated view of emotion which I had never heard seriously pedaled before. She consistently provides what seems like the least charitable interpretation of the “opposition” - straw manning at its best.

Perhaps most obnoxious of all, the book is written with a grandiose ‘I’m single handily changing the scientific paradigm forever’ tone. Notwithstanding her valuable contributions to the field, a bit more modesty would be welcome, especially since many of the ideas put forward in this book have been in circulation long before she entered the scene.

Reading this book caused an imbalance in my body budget which was detected by my interoceptive networks and experienced as a constructed instance of frustration. My affective niche has grown to include a ‘really annoyed by the book I’m reading’ category, thus expanding my emotional granularity. Lesson learned.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,650 followers
December 15, 2017
This book kind of blew my mind. Barrett is pushing a pretty revolutionary theory of emotion--that it is context-driven and culturally bound. She rejects the idea that all humans share emotions. Rather, she says emotions are learned through our culture and our language. I imagine that other academics in this area will push back on her bold theories, but it was fascinating to read this.
Profile Image for Sarah.
735 reviews25 followers
June 17, 2017
Quite irritating...primarily because it purports to be a book about how the brain creates emotions, but it contains remarkably little neuroscience or detail about the brain. She makes lots of sweeping statements without showing sufficient evidence for them. It's not even really a book about emotions, but about categorization and prediction. So this book annoyed me a fair bit and I don't recommend it.

Finally...I'm sorry, but there IS a difference between a muffin and a cupcake beyond the time of day during which you eat it. (I was saying this to my boyfriend on a train while reading the book, and a stranger came over and exclaimed "Cake flour!!!")
Profile Image for عبدالرحمن عقاب.
690 reviews801 followers
February 14, 2018
‏ يعرض هذا الكتاب لـ"نطريةٍ" مختلفة تتبنّاها مؤلفته، حول مفهوم "المشاعر" وكيف "تُصنع" في ‏دواخلنا.
تطرح الدكتورة "ليزا باريت" تصوّرها القائم على مشاعر "تُصنع" ابتداءً من مكونات فسيولوجية و ‏اجتماعية، ثمّ تُعلّم للإنسان –على امتداد عمره وإن كان أغلبها في طفولته- الذي يبدأ بـ"توقعها" ‏ومعايشتها وتعزيزها لاحقًا ثمّ نقلها لغيره. وترفض بهذا وجود صورة موحدة أو مناطق دماغية محدّدة ‏تكون مسئولةً عن هذه "المشاعر".‏
تقف هذه النظرة ضدّ التصوّر الذي يرى في المشاعر "ردود أفعال" ذات ملامح متقاربة ومتشابهة جدًا، ‏وتحت تأثير دوائر دماغية محدّدة. ‏
تطرح عالمة النفس نظريتها بأسلوبٍ سلس وممتع جدًا. فهي تعبر بالقارئ من الأسئلة إلى الأجوبة التي ‏تقترحها، وتنطلق به من الأسس النظرية (الفلسفية والعصبية والنفسية) إلى النتائج التي تشكّل أسس ‏نظريتها الجديدة، وتحترم عقل قارئها بطرح الرأي الآخر وأدلته طرحًا ناقدًا وإن لم يكن نقدًا وافيًا.‏
وقعت الكاتبة في ثلث كتابها الأخير في سيئة التنظير والحشو، وذلك بسبب طرحها لما رأته تطبيقات ‏عملية لنظريتها. ‏
كما أنّ الكتاب أظهر ضعفاً عامًّا في عرض شواهده العصبية ، وكذلك في عرض ونقد الأسس العصبية ‏‏(من علم الأعصاب) للنظرية الأولى (الأقدم). وإن أمكن ردّ السبب إلى جدّة الطرح، وحداثة النظرية ‏ولربّما قلة الأبحاث العصبية في الموضوع (حسب هذه النظرة) إلا أنّه لا يمكن التغاضي عن ضعف ‏بضاعته في الجانب النقدي للدراسات الداعمة للنظرية القديمة.

ختامًا، فالرأي الذي تطرحه جيّد وقوّي، يمزج الفسلفة بالنفس بالاجتماع، وهو بالتالي موضوع شيّق ‏ومثال عملي لهذا الخليط الذي طالما أثّر فينا وصنع واقعنا وشخصياتنا. ‏

Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews524 followers
March 10, 2018
There is so much to like in this book but even more to dislike.

- Universal emotions - Barrett carried out a savage and satisfying attack on the assumption that emotions are universal. When trying to replicate findings from Ekman and other universal emotion researchers, Barrett uncovered severe flaws in the studies. When it comes to ripping apart the work of other scientists, Barrett's critical thinking skills are sharp and useful. This is not necessarily the case when understanding findings from her own work. She should take a lesson from pop-sci writers like Sapolsky or Damasio and use phrases such as, "We found that (finding inserted here) but the effects were small," or "It *might* be the case that," (fill in her finding). Instead, she is extremely preachy, over confident, and has essentially written a self-help book.

- Emotions affect the physical body - Barrett wrote about one of my favorite studies in which the authors looked at the effects of emotions on cytokine production. She also went into detail about how emotions can account for various illnesses. Who knows, she might end up being right. The evidence does suggest emotions play a role. I would even agree to the characterization that they play a key role. However, there is zero balance in her discussion of emotions and illness. She is far too over confident with far too little data to back what amounts to not much more than hunches. You might get the impression that all illness is emotion gone awry. So much of this book is a severe overshoot.

- This author LOVES to brag about her parenting. Nothing is more satisfying to her than bragging about her daughter. Yet, you get the distinct impression that she merely uses her daughter to demonstrate that she is the best parent in the world. If you take her advice (the book is filled to the absolute brim with parenting advice), you too can be the superior parent she is.

When I reached the end of the book, I was so happy to never again have to experience one more word from this author. From now on, if I want to find out about her work, I will stick to scientific articles.
Profile Image for Amirography.
198 reviews113 followers
January 15, 2019
It was a weird book. I honestly don't know how to feel about this book. On one side it has a good theory on the architecture of emotion. A very interesting and a radical one of them. However, other contents of the book, contained horrible arguements in order to apply the theory to the everyday life.
For example the chapter on law and criminal justice system was simply horrible. Applying "affective realism" to everything, starting from racial bias to will depletion.
Also there were alternative interpretations about phenomena that from a mainstream point of view were interpreted differently, which is not bad (and even it is impressive) on itsown, but they diserved much more explanation and justification than dr. Feldman Barrett gave.
The theory itself was interesting, it certainly deserves a high consideration, however her reliance on "language" and her use of "concept" and "word" interchangably was questionable.
I appreciated the chapter on animal emotions. For two reasons:
1. Animal cognition is often ignored. It is nice to see that she covered it.
2. It is essential for a theory of architecture of emotion to get applied to non-human animals.
However she fell to the same mistake she tried to avoid. Namely she inferred human condition to other animals. How? She considered that just because humans are reliant on socially learned concepts using language, animals that have not have linguistic capabilities of humans, doesn't have socially shared emotional concepts. However she should have considered that though humans show more reliance and flexibility towards learning from society, animals may share similar tendencies to make much more similar concepts than chance, and end up with similar concepts in the end. But her logic at that point was heavily reductive.

In all, I have a highly mixed feelings about this book. If some parts of the book was reduced, and some parts were explained and justified more, I would have given this book five stars and putted it into my favorite shelf and recommended it like crazy. However it is not the case. I just hope this theory attracts serious attention.
October 6, 2017
This review also appears on Amazon.com A few caveats before I begin the review proper - I take writing a negative review very seriously and understand full well that online actions have consequences. I also understand that the author is a far more accomplished, successful, intelligent, well-read and many other positive things, person that I will ever be. However, even brilliant people can be misguided. I know personally people have PhDs in the most rigorous scientific fields from the world's best universities who are nonetheless misguided, I believe, on various issues. I especially see this on what I'll characterize as the nature vs. nurture issue of the human mind.

I read this book back in March of 2017, and refrained from writing this review because generally I'm uncomfortable with writing them. However, about an hour before writing this, I listened science writer Robert Wright's podcast of the author discussing her book and was so bothered by it that I felt compelled to write the review you're reading now.

Dr. Barrett discusses this book, and I personally found the discussion disingenuous at best, and intellectually dodgy at worst. Dr. Barrett, to me, sounded more like an attorney than she did a scientist. She nitpicked the meaning of Mr. Wright's choice of words, and if you nitpick enough, you can find a flaw in anything, then focus on it ad nauseam. She absolutely dominated the discourse with what I perceived to be a veritable flood of verbiage, while avoiding a truly honest debate on the issues with Mr. Wright, as he clearly disagreed with her.

Let's take for instance the point that Mr. Wright brought up about schadenfreude, which Dr. Barrett discusses in her book. Wright implied this is an instinctive emotion, Dr. Barrett claims this is a culturally constructed emotion, as are all emotions. Schadenfreude is a German word denoting the pleasure that someone feels at the misfortune of others. Can a three year old experience this, Mr. Wright asked. Dr. Barrett made a somewhat snarky remark to Mr. Wright saying that maybe YOU feel schadenfreude a lot, but most of us don't. Then went on to discuss that the three year old would not feel this because they haven't been taught, or learned the concept of it. Ultimately, this is as most questions in psychology, an academic question because we can't prove anything about subjective experience. However, can any of us honestly say that we've never seen a three year old who has no idea what shadenfreude is, experience it anyway? Haven't YOU felt it at some time, even though you many have never heard the word?

Here's another thing I didn't like in the book - Dr. Barrett joking referred to "brain blobs", as she pokes fun at the notion that the brain has specified locations for various functions. If I understand her point correctly, this would directly contradict eminent scientists Dr. Robert Sapolsky's view of the brain, which is greatly divided by function, and has much experimental evidence to back up his claims in his book "Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst", which I personally find a far superior book to this one. Here's a statement from "Behave" which directly contradicts the fundamental premise of Dr. Barrett's book - "by the time you finish this book, you'll see that it actually makes no sense to distinguish between aspects of a behavior that are "Biological" and those that would be described as, say, "psychological" or "cultural." Utterly intertwined. I think Dr. Sopolsky would agree that you could replace the word "behvaior" with "emotion" and still agree with him.

The author had the temerity to take a veiled swipe at fellow psychologist, Daniel Kahneman. Not directly, mind you, but it was an unmistakable negative remark towards him. Dr. Kahneman is the only psychologist to win a Nobel Prize; he won it with his contribution to economics on the psychology of decision making in uncertain circumstances. In his masterwork of psychology "Thinking Fast and Slow" he summarizes his decades of research on human psychology by postulating that we have two different thinking systems, one rapid and intuitive, the other slow and deliberate. Dr. Barrett completely denied the existence of this distinction, in language I found similar to poking fun at "brain blobs." I admire a writer who has grand ambitions, however, taking a shot at perhaps the most accomplished living psychologist, and missing the mark entirely, further solidified my inability to construct much positive emotion of this book.

Ultimately, Dr. Barrett is trying to convince the reader that there are no universal emotions, as say psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman and others would have us believe, and that they are all dependent upon learning and culture. Now this view may auger well with our current intellectual zeitgeist, which is averse to the notion of human nature, and believes that most human ills can be mended by being educated in the right ideas. While I believe this in part, I do not believe this entirely. Why can't it be that there are emotions engraved on our DNA and our experience from birth to death interacts with our nature?

Wright and Barrett also discussed indigenous cultures, who are very often discussed in psychological texts because they don't have any of the influence of modern western cultures, and live in a way that humans are more evolved to live in. Dr. Barrett says that for instance, the !Kung simply do not feel fear in the way that you or I would because of their culture. So, if a !Kung saw within stepping on distance of themselves a coiled, ready to strike deadly snake, they wouldn't feel what any other human would feel? I highly doubt that.

Dr. Barrett resides in academia's ivory tower - me, I'm a mud-spattered grunt in the trenches of trying to heal people's painful emotions. I was hoping for cutting edge insights from the Ivory Tower to help us emotional hygienists in the world below. I found woefully little, unfortunately. I see countless people ruled, tormented and sometimes ruined by their painful, negative emotions. If I summarized this book to your clients - "well, those emotions are just constructs that you learned and you create, so just change them!", I think I'd be out of a job. Our emotions are just not that simple. Not even close.

Perhaps I misunderstood the book. I was hoping that the podcast would convince me of Dr. Barrett's way of thinking. It didn't. It actually secured my own existing beliefs, partly because I found her so overbearingly loquacious, without really saying much of anything with substance. Mostly a big disappointing word salad.

On a more positive note, I really liked her discussion about the concept of emotion differentiation and emotional granularity, and found them extremely helpful to my job as a mental health therapist. I now have lists of words for emotions that I have clients read through to help them better identify feelings that cause them trouble, or feelings of things that they find pleasurable. It's been very helpful, so I'm thankful for that.

In closing, I'm a grizzled old veteran of the internet, and anticipate this review may provoke some reader's ire. I won't respond to anything argumentative, snarky, or hostile. I may not respond at all, it depends upon my mood. If there is something I'm misunderstanding, I really would like some enlightening. In short, I simply don't believe the premise of this book, that emotions are cultural constructs. They are a product of both our natures and our experience. Thank you for reading.
Profile Image for David Clarke.
1 review23 followers
November 1, 2022
In this great popular science book, Lisa Feldman Barrett powerfully critiques the dominant approaches in the study of emotions, accusing them of biological determinism. As an alternative, she puts forward her own model that, she argues, better acknowledges the complex interplay of biology and culture in producing emotional experiences.

In her view, these 'biological deterministic' theories see emotions as entailing a distinct pattern of physiological changes that are often inborn and universal, and are thought to be a kind of primitive reflex - very often at odds with our rationality. However, Barrett presents an impressive range of research findings showing the immense variability in how emotions are experienced across different cultures. For Barrett, we are not passive receivers of sensory input; rather, from sensory input and past experience, our brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. A physical event, for example a change in heart rate, becomes an emotional experience only when we, with emotion concepts that we have learned from our culture, imbue the sensations with additional functions by social agreement. With these concepts, she argues, our brain makes meaning of sensation – and sometimes that meaning is an emotion. Therefore, emotions are not inborn, and are only common across cultures due to shared concepts and the fact that, throughout history, humans have faced similar pressures as social beings with capacity for culture.

Although she draws on an extensive range of research studies to back up her arguments, she is compromised by its format as a popular science book. This does means that, despite the complexity of the issues she discusses, she writes in a clear and accessible way, appealing to anyone interested in the topic. Her use of every-day examples, which on occasions are silly and unhelpful, make such complex ideas easier to grasp.

However, it also means that (in some sections more than others) she prioritises presenting a persuasive story over nuanced debate. As you read, you get the sense that consensus around her theory is close; yet, in more scholarly publications, Barrett recognises that her model is relatively new and that many hypotheses are yet to be fully tested.
Profile Image for Mehtap exotiquetv.
410 reviews252 followers
January 9, 2022
Emotionen. In der klassischen Betrachtung sind Emotionen objektive Gefühle, die durch körperliche Empfindungen hervorgerufen werden.

Neue Forschungen zeigen aber, dass wir sehr wohl Emotionen haben können, die keiner körperlichen Empfindung zugrunde liegen sondern einer gesellschaftlich kulturellen. Die Granularität der Emotionen ist abhängig von Sprache und von kulturellen Übereinkommen. Wie trauern wir, wann empfinden wir Eifersucht und was ist moralisch in Ordnung und was nicht.

Ein flaues Gefühl im Magen ist nur dann einer Emotion zuzuordnen, wenn wir den Kontext haben. Steht eine Klausur an, sind wir verliebt oder haben wir einfach etwas schlechtes gegessen. Erst im Kontext ordnen wir Emotionen zu.

Da stellt sich die Frage, ob dann Tiere Emotionen empfinden können, da ihnen in vielerlei Hinsicht nicht nur die Introperspektive fehlt, sondern auch Sprachverständnis. Tierische Emotionen sind gekoppelt an den Überlebensinstikt & erst die menschliche Perspektive macht es emotional.

Das Buch ist sehr spannend und regt einem zum Umdenken an.
Profile Image for Jurgen Appelo.
Author 8 books899 followers
March 28, 2023
The neuroscience behind complexity thinking. Incredible work.
Profile Image for Laura.
33 reviews16 followers
July 12, 2017
''A new theory of how the brain constructs emotions...'' Wait, new?

The writer is amazing (and very persuasive), she carries her theory all the way until the end, in an engaging and amusing way. The idea is that emotions don't have biological fingerprints, they are socially constructed. Therefore, people all over the world, experience different type of emotions (some of them unknown for others). She calls this ''the theory of constructed emotion.'' Though she doesn't talk much about the neuroscience behind it, this is supposed to be a neuroscientific theory.

I have to be honest, I was forewarned that I wouldn't like this book so much, so I read it thinking about critiquing it. I do have objections, but I prefer to keep them for myself (I am just an ordinary student). Moreover, this type of books aren't very much focused on the data, so it wouldn't be correct to criticize it according to the little information that's in here, and though she talked about some of her findings as facts, that depends on the characteristics and the amount of research that has been done, so I'll better read articles about the topic. I just hope there is more research about this in the future, it's undeniably interesting.
12 reviews5 followers
April 11, 2017
Disclaimer: As of yet, I have not entirely finished the book. In principle, if I do decide to write a review, it is after I finished the entire book. However, Dr. Barrett's way of arguing for the theory of constructed emotions feels more promotional and she does not quite prove her theory as the only valid option, and as such I am not as inclined to finish the book to the end, though I will try.

In summary, the book argues against the idea that there is an innate sense of emotion; all our concepts surrounding emotion are constructed. What we think we feel, what we see in others, etc. is ultimately based upon inference based upon previous experience. Barrett rejects the idea of an "emotional fingerprint" in facial expression or physiology by which we can definitively know what emotion a person is feeling. The antithesis to constructed emotional is the classical theory of emotion that treats the different emotions such as happiness, anger, fear, etc. as universal and innate; emotions are concepts that we form and use. To make this point, there are references to multiple studies that suggest emotions are not as universal as other psychologists (such as Ekman) supposed their own research showed. At this level, the book presents an interesting alternative that does a good job explaining much of the variability that is seen in emotional expression and interpretation.

However, the way the author argues suggests she is more than simply trying to argue for her theory, but for her own brilliance. She indirectly compares her own research to high profile paradigm shifts in scientific history, such as Newton or Albert Einstein to explain how her theory relates to the previous consensus regarding emotions. At times, I feel like I am being told more about how brilliant the theory and the research is rather than a solid exposition on the scientific findings.

To which I move to my most serious criticism of the book. Her argument focuses on arguing against the classical theory of emotions. But she does a poor job addressing other possible explanations for the scientific findings. At one point, she raises the idea of prototypes based upon Eleanor Rosch's alternative to classical conceptions. Prototypes are essentially images we create of the best example of any category we have; based upon the prototype, we evaluate our experiences in comparison to these prototypes, but there can be divergence and variability between the prototype and what we actually perceive in a way that classical definitions do not allow for. A prototype theory of emotion would explain much of the evidence that Barrett references. However, her rejection of prototypes being stored in the brain is based upon two premises:
1) The prototypical facial expressions are rarely found in life
2) Laboratory studies have shown that prototypes can be constructed on the fly without previous experience.
The problem with Barret's argument for rejection of emotional prototypes is, firstly, the argument doesn't understand how prototypes work. Good examples of prototypes rarely are seen themselves. The lack of observation of the prototypes does not mean the prototypes do not exist in the brain. IF anything, the fact that the prototypes of emotional expression is rarely found while we have these intuitions about what emotions look like argues against past experience being the sole contributor to how we conceptualize emotion; there seems to be some framework we intuitively have and makes unconscious adjustments to as we use. Secondly, the fact that prototypes can be constructed spontaneously does mean that prototypes only occur spontaneously. In the end, I feel her reasoning leaves much to be desired.

While this is a popular level book and not intended to be a thorough presentation, the rather short and problematic dismissal of emotional prototypes being stored in the brain demonstrates my ultimate criticism of this book: it is higher on self-promotion and lower on sound arguments. To be clear, I think there is a lot to be said in favor of the constructed emotions if one qualifies the extent that we construct our sense of emotions. After considering some of the findings that were presented, I favor a blend of genetically-formed prototypes and construction to explain emotions. However, this book frustrates me as much as it makes me think, as it seems like Barrett has fallen victim to confirmation bias and inadequately understanding other potential theories.
Profile Image for Dan Graser.
Author 4 books105 followers
June 1, 2017
This has been a great year for books on the workings of the brain with the release of Robert Sapolsky's latest work and now this groundbreaking contribution from Lisa Feldman Barrett. What Barrett has achieved here is a wonderful introduction, thorough description, and cogent examination of an alternative theory to the classical theory of emotion: "The Theory of Constructed Emotion." While some may already be familiar with the concept, this is the finest it has ever been posited. She deftly sums up the theory early on:

"In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment."

After the best explanation and discussion of interoception I've ever heard, she continues to describe in great detail why several of the experimental data that supports classical theories of emotion are fundamentally flawed and what the future study of constructivist theories of emotion might sound like:

"Now you know how emotions are made in the brain. We predict and categorize. We regulate our body budgets, as any animal does, but wrap this regulation in purely mental concepts like Happiness and Fear that we construct in the moment. We share these purely mental concepts with other adults, and we teach them to our children. We make a new kind of reality and live in it every day, mostly unaware that we are doing so."

While her later discussion of Emotion and the Law is somewhat superficial regarding actual implementation of theory into legal practice, her concluding chapter, "From Brain to Mind: The New Frontier," is a tour de force of revolutionary thinking and crystal clear description.

This is a landmark work and will function as a fantastic introduction to an important theory of our development of emotions. Highly Recommended!
Profile Image for John Devlin.
Author 22 books79 followers
August 17, 2023
So Barrett’s book is somewhat pedantic and tedious.

Philosophy disguised under the soft patina of speculative brain science. Long histories of essentialism and behaviorism and how the theories were wrong but got shoehorned into the world of Darwin and James.


Barrett’s points are that behavior is a societal relic, transferred down. These affects are used by the brain to predict. The brain is essentially a learning algorithm that’s trying to guess what’s next.

This is presented somewhat wondrously when it seems fairly obvious.

Haven’t we all had the experience when driving and seen a plastic bag fluttering at the side of the road. As we approach one can feel the mind trying to match the shape to potentials.

Small pieces of interest: smiles were not signs of happiness til folks got better teeth. Giving words to feelings can be healthy and specific to certain cultures: ennui, malaise, schadenfreude come to mind.

There’s chapters on animals, who Barrett concludes aren’t smart enough to have real emotions but simply have the affect.

Of course, the seeming de rigeur comments of racism and gun control that seem to have seeped in everywhere.

Barrett references racist police trained by their brain to see guns that aren’t there, but the scientist in her doesn’t know that only about a dozen unarmed black men are killed each year by police.

However, stats have shown that Leftists think the number is far higher. When asked, a third of Liberal and very liberal respondents thought the number of unarmed black men shot and killed by police was 10,000 or higher. Barrett seems to reside in this uninformed category.
Profile Image for Nelson Zagalo.
Author 10 books332 followers
December 8, 2018
Felt sad reading this. So many holes in one theory. Of course we must always be open minded, and be prepared to accept other views of the world, however in this case I can't really see any novelty, any argument never heard before.
I must say Barrett is able to tell some stories, and mostly to promote herself and her work, but it takes a bit more to convince us.

Para a análise extensa em português, e os argumentos do meu ceticismo para com a obra, ver no blog: https://virtual-illusion.blogspot.com...
Profile Image for Madison.
424 reviews5,114 followers
March 5, 2020
Read this book for a neuroscience literacy class.

It was amazing and I feel like I gained a lot of new insights. We are taught so many “classical views” in the classroom, but when you get down the the base facts, they don’t have much support. I never knew the background of Broca’s Area and how the amygdala isn’t really the fear centre. Furthermore, “fear conditioning” in rats is actually nothing more than just using Pavlovian techniques.

I love that there was a chapter spent on how neuroscience and psychology is used in the media and law. How we use concepts to excuse behaviour rather than just explain. How the judicial system is biased and we cannot expect jurors not to impose their own emotion concepts onto the defendant.

The best part is that the last 60-ish pages contains the bibliography, which shows a lot of research. Too many “science” books nowadays allude to studies but don’t actually cite them.
Profile Image for Jay Green.
Author 4 books237 followers
August 10, 2021
Three and half stars. A really strong and convincing account of the constructionist theory of the emotions, but the author overreaches when she tries to explain emotions in terms of the brain's "predictions," as if any material or physical entity, whether it be a door, a teacup, or a brain, can have a conception of temporality. All physical entities are objects and thus temporality (rather than time itself) does not exist for them: unless we ascribe subjective consciousness to them, Pavlov's dogs do not salivate in expectation of food but because the present causal stimulus of food has been successfully replaced by the causal stimulus of a bell. By failing to adequately address the issue of temporality, the author fails to deal with the central issue of emotions and sidesteps the hard problem of consciousness; that is, how is any kind of subjective experience, not just subjective experience of the emotions, possible at all?

I find it extraordinary that a work on the emotions can be written today without any reference to the phenomenologists. Jean-Paul Sartre even devoted a book to the topic, Sketch for a Theory of Emotions, which highlighted the point made by Barrett that emotions are made by the individual, but which provides a much better explanation, based on the premise that all consciousness is founded on intentionality, that is, on the adoption of attitudes toward the objects we encounter, and that emotions can be explained by the choice of attitude we make according to our understanding of the world. Barrett tries to make the same argument but by drawing on an outdated psychological model that cannot escape an implicit behaviorism. I recommend reading her book for the fine opening chapters but recommend looking elsewhere for a more sophisticated understanding of the emotions.
Profile Image for Salam Ch.
116 reviews45 followers
May 31, 2020
Actual rating is 3.5 stars rounded to 4 stars

This book present a new way of thinking about emotions "this was totally new for me " , Barrett criticized the "classical view" of brain and emotions , pointing that our common conception of emotions are not represented by specific circuit in the brain but are constructed in each particular instance depending on our concepts , perceptions, goals and words...therefore emotions are not universal, emotions are flexible and vary from culture to culture.

"There are no centers for things in the brain . No "brain blobs" of neurons or neural circuits that can identify with activation of certain emotions "

Barrett relies on modern neuroscientific evidence to build a theory of how emotions are generated, she argues that we construct simulations of the world and then compare our perceptions against them.

" your brain is processing internal and external sensations all the time and it s making meaning out of them that's what an emotion is "
"You might think that in everyday life the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it s mostly the other way around "

In the process she evokes the concept "affect" a word almost synonymous with "emotion" : the tendency of our feelings to influence what we see .

"Perceptions of emotion are guesses, and they’re “correct” only when they match the other person’s experience; that is, both people agree on which concept to apply. Anytime you think you know how someone else feels, your confidence has nothing to do with actual knowledge. You’re just having a moment of affective realism."

How emotions are made is a book about how human subjectively experience emotions .

"We dont feel like we're in control at all , we dont feel like we're the architects of our own experience "

*What I didnt like about the book that some of her theories are vague( will read her published article" the theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization " this might help me to understand more , so much unnecessary details and repetitions , the chapter about mastering your emotions was weak and unnecessary.
Profile Image for Max.
67 reviews11 followers
October 26, 2021
Easy to read and thought provoking. Some provoked thoughts:

The main thesis: Emotions like anger, fear or jealousy are concepts that we constructed ourselves to a) predict our own bodily reactions and behaviours, b) communicate to others how we evaluate a given situation. Through the book, Barrett puts emphasis on the social aspects of emotion, that humans are told from early on what kind of emotions exist and which emotions we and others are feeling, given their behaviour and the context. She thinks there is great flexibility in which emotion concepts humans learn and use, so that emotions can be said to be socially constructed. Here the arguments and evidences she covers (and that I remember):

A) some cultures lack emotion concepts that seem fundamental, e.g. anger
B) huh, no other crips argument comes up at the top of my head... she spend a lot of space about how the idea of "basic emotions" that are identifiable by facial patterns doesn't seem true

I think the book significantly improved my understanding. I was always interested in emotion but never spend time thinking or reading much about it. That said, I'm not convinced that emotions are as socially constructed as she makes them out to be.

I.) „Love is an emotion if people agree that it serves the function of an emotion.“ I mentioned in the beginning that her thesis also says that emotions are concepts to a) predict our own bodily reactions and behaviours. I think quotes like this represent well that she puts much more weight on the other function, the communicative and social aspects of emotions.

II.) the piece of evidence I found most convincing, that other cultures have different sets of emotions, received disappointingly little attention in the book, I think she essentially just stated that this is so...

So just to look into one example: The !Kung people from the Kalahari Desert are supposed to have no concept of fear.
I did some reading, the !Kung people apparently are the ones who use those famous clicking noises to communicate while hunting. Anyway, about the !Kung and fear on Wikipedia: There is no particular connection to person ancestors but the ǃKung fear the llgauwasi, pray to them for sympathy and mercy as well as call on them in anger. , and "Most of the apprentices have the intentions of becoming a healer but then become frightened or have a lack of ambition and discontinue." . And no mention of the lack of fear.
There is Wiki for the book with a stub article on cultures without fear, stating The !Kung [...] use the word, kua, to refer to a blend of awe, respect, and fear . According to Barrett's thesis, we build emotion concepts by combining already learned ones. They seem to at least know fear as a supcomponent, right?

III.) the example she gives for a socially constructed emotion almost read like she is doing a reduction ad absurdum on her own thesis... chipslessness: a combination of relief that one won‘t sin anymore, guilt over sinning, disappointment over no more chips. Maybe this clicks for other people? I surely have been in something one would call this combination of emotions, but... I think I would need to see data that people agree that they have a new type of emotion after some people in white coats tell them about how chipsless they are after chugging down a bag of nachos.

IV.) she lists emotions that exist in other cultures but not in our own, and I feel like I experienced most of those emotions, even without having an explicit handle for them?
- feeling of looking worse after a haircut
- gesellig ➔ communal, comfortable, close and bonding with others
- grief over
- intense feeling of falling in love
- spiritual anguish
- spiritual longing
- sadness due to another persons loss
- feeling embarrassed on the behalf of somebody else
- urge to hug something that is unbearably adorable
- pleasure about an event that is felt before it takes place
- torment over one's own misery + desire for revenge
- feeling when somebody gave you a gift that you didn't wanted but you have to be grateful
- Maybe Barret would think that I created that handle for this emotion on the spot while reading the list and used this handle to structure/scan my memory? She argues in the book that emotions are mostly constructed by combining existing emotion concepts. Kind of like you can relatively easy construct the unicorn concept out of horse and horn. That kinda makes sense to me, for example romantic jealousy might be build from envy, anger and fear, or something like that.

V.) A related point, I think I have a much more continuous emotional landscape than the emotions as learned concepts would make one think? I wonder if others can relate, but I think I often find it hard to describe what feeling state I'm in, what caused it and what I want to do with it. In the beginning of the book, Barrett tells a similar anecdote where people struggled to distinguish whether they were feeling anxious or depressed. So currently I think that we experience diverse complex emotional states whether we develop concepts for them or not. Learning concepts probably increases the prominence of certain emotional states, and even reshape our inner emotional landscape.

VI.) A related point to the related point, I wonder what Barrett thinks about situations where people seem to have an emotion and not be aware of it, for example the stereotypical person yelling that THEY AREN'T ANGRY!!!! I have been there before.

VII.) Emotions like anger or sadness seem so... built-in to me. Even after the book, I find it really hard to believe that we are not strongly predisposed to enter states of something like high arousal + negative valence + aggression, with associated aggressive behavioural patterns, and that most humans would enter this part of the emotional landscape on their own regularly, and we develop the concept because this pattern is there, not the other way around.

Some other points:

1) I thought her criticism of the rational actor models seemed not quite on the mark, but can't quite remember how... something something because the rational actors model is not grounded in reality or neuroscience, we have economic crises.

2) Also her analysis of emotion stereotypes didn't convince me. She finds data that women who murder their husbands are punished more harshly than husbands who murder their wives, and relates this to the stereotype that women don't get angry so much. Because of this, juries think women must have acted deliberately. But this stereotype is wrong! When we do experience sampling, we find that women experience anger just as much as men. Therefore, stereotypes about emotions harm women. My immediate thought was that women clearly seem less violent than men, something something women tend to express their aggression more passively through social condemnations and scheming, while men are more actively aggressive. Barrett didn't mention this, but I think this has at least some truth to it.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,383 followers
November 25, 2017
A Lisa Feldman Barrett introduz um conceito bem radical de emoção neste livro, a emoção construída. Ela questiona muita, muita pesquisa na área, dizendo que emoções inatas como o reconhecimento de medo, raiva e alegria que muitos alegam ser universal é mais artifício do tipo de teste que fazem (que educa os povos isolados antes de perguntar) do que o que realmente acham. Ela dá uma perspectiva de emoção culturalmente construída que nunca tinha lido antes.

O que faz deste livro no mínimo um livro controverso em relação a muito do que já li, incluindo Damásio e afins. Pelo menos são novas ideias e novas hipóteses para testar. Sem dúvida é um campo que quero acompanhar para ver como o que ela questiona se desenrola.
Profile Image for Razan Jambi.
44 reviews9 followers
January 27, 2018
What can I say! I wouldn’t think of a better book to start the year with!

This book can help you understand how we creat our own realities and our own emotions and master them

If science is telling you that you can be the architect of your own experience then you need not to listen to anything else

This book is highly recommended it’s so very interesting even though it’s all science:p
Profile Image for Farha Crystal.
45 reviews59 followers
December 26, 2018
"Variation is the norm"

We categorize things to communicate with our physical body and the outside environment. Language is a medium. It's more diverse in categories/samples than so-called "emotions". In fact, sometimes we use the single word "happy", 'sad", "angry" to maintain our body budget economically. (Of course, the brain will take the shortest route for prediction thanks to the second law of thermodynamics. )

Now, think of poets, writers, novelists of ages... the puppet masters and magicians of languages. Aren't they more diverse in describing things than us? Don't they have more divisions/points in their single scale of the words like Happy/Sad/Angry/Love ... Consider for a moment, we're average( in the context of using language) than them.
Don't we often notice that our favorite author/poet is just describing the state of mind/brain we often experience but the only difference is we didn't have those words to describe ours.?

Words are like currency so as emotions. Its value depends on the user's value/perspective. Poets and novelists are richer in currencies where the person with alexithymia is poor.

The feelings we experience is an active inference account of interoception and categorization. It's another way of saying that the emotions are your bodies way of predicting how to act when a certain situation occurs. It's all about the concepts and making connections.

It doesn't matter if you are actually on the scene or not when you are delving into the book's or films character or the film/book itself or the friend who is sitting beside while talking about her life's story... your brain is actually trying to simulate those words/pictures in those forms to experience a similar feeling.

I almost enjoyed the book till I entered into the last third part.

I couldn't synchronize with her in the question of controlling emotions. How much control do we have in our interoceptions to regulate our body budget? The question of free will lies in the feedback loop between genetic on/off switch and the environmental stimuli.
There is research that shows the importance of early learning on how your reactions to different stimuli are built, and how the repeated exposure to those stimuli with the same outcome reinforces the pattern of reaction in what is called "long-term potentiation"
Of course! The brain is plastic and it is modified through experience throughout the lifespan of the individual but this process has limits!

Going back to her, yes our brain works like a scientist, always taking information, evaluating that information and predicting for the future use and verifying the information based on prediction errors. But, what if the scientist is not a complete scientist ( of course in her term, variation is the norm :) ), what if the scientist secretly wants to write fictions/fantasy, what if the scientist is sometimes absent-minded to do the job properly? who will decide what should he do? himself or the medicine or the therapy or the therapist or the social surrounding? Who is himself? Does he understand that thing? How much?

Profile Image for William.
137 reviews
April 9, 2017
Lisa Feldman Barrett has written an ambitious book on the construction of emotions by presenting an old theory that she claims is new. She postulates in her theory that emotions are not a simple reaction to external stimulation that provokes a response from modules in the brain that are dedicated to mediating an appropriate emotive behavior. She calls this the classical theory that has been the standard for our understanding brain function for numerous years. She points out that her research and that of others do not support the classical theory and that theory is completely wrong. She instead promotes a constructivist theory that postulates that emotions are generated by each of us through concepts we develop as a result of our unique experiences and the culture we live in. She bases this position on her own research which is concerned with the mistaken notion that there are common facial expressions that reflect the different emotions among all people regardless of the circumstances. I actually support her approach but must point out that the constructivist approach to brain function is not new and won't likely change how we understand human behavior, Frederick Bartlett wrote a book on remembering that was based on a constructivist point of view in 1932. John Branford in 1972 wrote in the journal "Cognitive Psychology" regarding the memory of sentences that,"The constructivist approach argues against the tacit assumption that sentences 'carry meaning'. People carry meanings, and linguistic inputs merely act as cues which people can use to recreate and modify their previous knowledge of the world." Barrett, I feel, is right to argue for the constructivist approach to brain function but you won't be learning something new and revolutionary by reading her book. In her concluding chapters she gives advice on how to master your emotions. The advice is good but certainly not new and unique.

Profile Image for Celine.
379 reviews16 followers
August 7, 2017
Fascinating topic but felt too repetitive and over-simplistic in its explanations. Specifically the way Barett seemed to hover above the surface in her descriptions and deconstructions the mind. She offered useful metaphors to illustrate her arguments, but never really delved into the deeper neuroscience of how our brains actually craft emotions. I get that you never want to assume your readers will always know fundamental principles, but Barrett swung too much the other way for me; at times I felt like she was explaining to children as opposed to adults. The latter portion was the most interesting, particularly the discussions about how this research applies socially, legally, and from a policy perspective. Overall I give this book a solid OK.

Full disclosure: You can listen to a condensed version of Barrett's whole theory on this podcast here: http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibil.... The book doesn't really delve much deeper into what she says in her interview, which is why I think I was disappointed. After listening I wanted more.
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