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How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  5,489 ratings  ·  710 reviews
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,
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published March 7th 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published January 5th 2016)
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David Clarke As I understand it, her constructivist approach and research is highly respected in the literature (Although in the book she presents her constructivi…moreAs I understand it, her constructivist approach and research is highly respected in the literature (Although in the book she presents her constructivist approach as a novel discovery, there are a number of other researchers that put forward similar arguments). The fact that she was the editor of the last edition of the "handbook of emotions", I find very encouraging and suggests that we're in the midst of a paradigm shift.

As a social psychologist, I am excited that we are finally starting to see the influence of social constructionism in psychology, and in some of its sub-fields - as it has already transformed many of the other social scientists, and is in my opinion a step in the right direction.

I think her work (her popular science book maybe less so) is seen as a promising start in our attempts to develop a more multi-disciplinary approach to emotions —and mental life in general— as it acknowledges the complex interplay between biology and culture. Psychology has always struggled with being both a natural and social science, which helps explain why a number of scientists may be hesitant to abandon what has been the status quo in the study of emotions, and why so much divisions still remain.

Modern biological theories, based on evolutionary theory, remain blinded by the search of universals. Modern anthropological theories, on the other hand, continue to emphasise cultural relativity. The emerging field of cultural neuroscience is promising; it can potentially help us transcend narrow disciplinary focus and the reductionisms that plague many fields, allowing us to develop a conceptual understanding of the mind that acknowledges both biology and culture as dynamic mutual influences.

The book is not without its flaws though; here is my review where I mention a few of these :)


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Anders Brabaek
Apr 20, 2017 rated it it was ok
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;
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
Mar 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Morgan Blackledge
May 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 curre
Oct 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 pers
Bob Nichols
Nov 29, 2017 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Jun 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jun 17, 2017 rated it did not like it
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
Amir Tesla
Jun 22, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: neuroscience
Such a delicate and painful book!
Mar 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: neuroscience
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
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 in
Michael Shore
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was ok
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 spe
''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 neuroscie
Apr 11, 2017 rated it liked it
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 concept
Dan Graser
May 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Terry O'Connor
Oct 03, 2017 rated it it was ok
This review also appears on 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 bes ...more
David Clarke
Jan 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a great popular science book. Over its 400 or so pages, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett powerfully critiques the dominant approaches to the study of emotions, accusing them of biological determinism. As an alternative, she puts forward her own theoretical model which, 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 physiol
Salam Ch
May 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobooks
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.

Madison Mary
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
Nelson Zagalo
Dec 07, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: academic
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:
Aug 07, 2017 rated it it was ok
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 f ...more
Joe Flynn
Oct 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I made more extensive notes for this book than any since my university days. So often did i need to get something straight in my mind, so often was i blown away, so often was i dazzled on topics far outside the scientific understanding of emotion.

This is a book that sets itself a big target - to revolutionise the understanding of emotion. I feel it hits the bulls-eye. Not only that, we also have an illuminating view of how science, history, politics, and society work in real life.

We are presen
Farha Crystal
Dec 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
"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 magici
Jun 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
How Emotions Are Made was a breakthrough book for me. I have not read neuroscience and so her ideas were all new to my naïve self. In High School, I was strongly interested in Taoism. And one of the concepts that had the most impact upon me was the idea of the integrated life, the idea that one should not cut one’s life into pieces but instead should strive for a single authentic identity. Perhaps the strangest example of the inauthentic life was Freudian theory with its emphasis on the conflict ...more
Mar 27, 2017 rated it liked it
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 an ...more
Abderrahmane Nadir
Jul 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
In this book Dr. Barrett gave as new theory of constructed emotion in a brave way to eradicate the classical view of emotions it argues that :

Emotions are not hardwired in our brains but are a reflection of our cultural environment,
Emotions are concepts made by our brain and it rely on past memories to make those concepts, the brain analyses the data from the eye, ear... and tries to do an interpretation and compares it to past memories to save time and energy (so according to Lisa fear, happine
Razan Jambi
Jan 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Cassandra Carico
Feb 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book and the theories proposed by the author. This book presents an alternative idea that disputes the Essentialist view of emotions and how they are processed and presented. I enjoy the viewpoint and definitely recommend this book.
May 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: neuroscience
Five stars are not enough to describe how excellent this book is and how appreciated I am to have the chance to read this book. I believe this book should be on every modern reader's bookshelf or essential reading list.

When I picked up this book one month ago, I saw Daniel Gilbert the author of "Stumbling on Happiness" wrote the punch line introduction on the book cover that said, "A brilliant and original book by the deepest thinking about this topic since Darwin". I have to admit there was a s
Aug 28, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett is a book that explores recent advances in neuroscience as they relate to the formation, experience and reaction to emotions. Barrett’s primary thesis is that emotions are not rigid constructs emitted by dedicated circuits within the brain, but rather emergent entities formed by three separate elements: affective realism, concepts, and social reality. This is a powerful concept; the idea that emotions are malleable and c ...more
A Young Philosopher
Oct 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: hall-of-fame
What I most remember out of this book was that Barrett showed that our emotions do not just come out of the blue, but are contingent upon the state of our body. If we treat our body terribly (no exercise, sugary food, not enough sleep), we are nearly guaranteed to feel like crap. I.e. our mind's feelings are derived from keeping up what Barrett calls "our body balance". If we do not "budget our body balance", then the balance will get out of sorts and we will suffer. This is a book to pair with ...more
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