Science Friday: The classic view of emotions is wrong

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Emotions are simple, right?  Photo by Pixabay /    Pexels.com

Emotions are simple, right? Photo by Pixabay / Pexels.com

Emotions are simple, right? Humans are wired with emotions; they’re a part of us; they’re uncontrollable, they just happen, right? Well, this has almost universally been the perception of emotions for thousands of years. Since the time of Greek philosophers like Plato, we have been telling ourselves that emotions are unmanipulable facets of our humanity present since birth. But recent psychological and anthropological research has begun to question this perception of happiness, sadness, anger, etc. A deeper dive reveals that these timeless views have next to no basis in fact. Instead, for nearly a century, in their quest to understand the human psyche, psychoanalysts and neuroscientists have been completely unable to underpin “a consistent, physical fingerprint to even a single emotion.” (“How Emotions are Made” by Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D) Even with intensive study of the facial expressions, body language, neural signals, blood pressure and so on that represent emotions, no patterns have emerged that suggest the intrinsic nature of any of it. Surely this can’t be true. Surely there’s been some kind of mistake, for, after all, when you see someone who is “angry,” you are able to clearly identify their emotional state: the yelling, the red face, the whole nine. Unfortunately for you, it just so happens that researchers have managed to explain this phenomenon, and you may not like the answer. 

Lisa Feldman Barrett, a leader in the study of this new reality, calls this reconceptualization of a timeless classic the “Theory of Constructed Emotion.” Mind you, in science, a theory is not just conjecture, but rather a conclusion drawn from the consistent and repeatable results of countless experiments confirming a claim. The research explains that emotional behavior is constructed, not inherent, and is rooted in cultural influences. It implies that there is no “sadness circuit” in the brain that is triggered by incoming information, but rather, the brain has learned that becoming red in the face, feeling a knot in your stomach and weeping is the appropriate response to a “sad” scenario based on our observations of others. These actions calm the nervous system and convince you that what you are doing is meaningful as an instance of sadness because that is what the rest of society does, or at least, some variation of it. In essence, the brain has contextually constructed this display of “emotion” for you based on the countless, inescapable, pathological influences that surround us all from birth. After all, in some cultures, specifically those disconnected from the (more or less) current trend of globalization, certain impulses that we see as critical do not even exist, and conversely, they are hosts to certain feelings that we haven’t even a concept of.

What does this mean? Why should you care? Well, there’s a lot to draw from these revelations. In her book, “How Emotions are Made” (2017) Prof. Barrett takes an extended look at the mechanics and implications of this knowledge, implications covering everything from relationships to law to the treatment of long-term emotional disorders like depression and PTSD and so on. Regardless, she explains that our feelings should not be something we view as rigid and uncontrollable, even if the thought is somewhat unsettling. There is a degree of comfort in the certainty of being angry, upset, or happy about something, but if your emotions can be manipulated, and your mind controls your actions, then you can be controlled as well. By changing the conceptual lens through which you view the world and your experiences, the “automatic” response that overtakes you can become something else entirely. You are pathologically at the mercy of the concepts that you have subconsciously developed and inherited. But that is not the end. You may not be able to change how you feel, but you can change how you process emotion by systematically overhauling your concepts of reality. Your grief over a car accident that you did not cause but were nonetheless a part of could be traumatic if you believe that you are “always in control of the situation,” but another individual who accepts that “there was nothing you could have done” will experience far less pain. 

It’s not easy to view yourself in such an objective manner and force changes to the paradigms that you have possessed over the course of a lifetime, but if you don’t have a handle on the views that shape your emotions, then society will shape them for you. 


Connor Rickermann is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at connor.rickermann@uconn.edu.

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