How Emotions Are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

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What It’s About

A new look at the structure of the brain, the constructs of society, and how those two combine to create the experiences we call “emotion.”

Why I Think You’d Like It

Every page got my mental wheels spinning. I thought her merger of social constructionism and neurology had interesting potential, but I had so many questions about what exactly she meant and how she dealt with some of the research that contradicted her. She dealt with them, in ways that not only answered my questions, but opened up new, exciting implications.

One of the theories she contradicts is Paul Ekman’s famous categorization of emotions and facial expressions. That’s the one that has gotten a lot of attention from the show Lie to Me and the Pixar film Inside Out. She not only provides solid counterevidence, but repeats the experiments he used to develop his theory, and lays out the flaws in his methodology. For people who aren’t already massive geeks on the topic; he claimed to demonstrate that even humans in highly isolated cultures divide cultures into variations on happiness, sadness, anger, disgust and surprise. He also said that people from any culture can readily identify the corresponding expressions. What Lisa Feldman Barrett discovered, in repeating these experiments, was that the researchers framed the studies in such a way that they were teaching their subjects Westernized categories of emotion as the experiments were performed.

That chapter alone is worth reading, because of how well it educates people about not only the interplay of emotions and culture, but the scientific method and the importance of critical thinking. I think that is especially important right now, when so many people are willing to cherry pick the studies they want. When experiments contradict, and they often do on the borders of our understanding, you do sometimes need to choose which ones to believe. But you can’t do that effectively without understanding why scientific studies often disagree, and how to compare methods to see which result is more likely to be correct.

The book also talks about social constructions not as illusions, but as realities. So often, social construct is treated as synonymous with “fake” or “insignificant,” but in truth social constructs are a natural part of how our brains work. They have implications for our lives and our ability to understand the world around us. She discusses them in a way that I think is productive and enlightening, that allows for both criticism and appreciation of how cultures affect our understanding of even our own minds.

All that content is impressive, and what’s more impressive is how Lisa Feldman Barrett fits it all in while still giving us a fun read. She has a tone that is intelligent but warm conversational, and relies more on practical examples than technical jargon. When she has to include more scientific language, she explains it in a way that is highly accessible, without making you feel like you’re being talked down to.

I went ahead and bought a copy because I knew I’d want multiple readings to process all the good stuff that’s in here. I don’t know if she has cracked the puzzle or not, but I know she gave me great ideas to mull over, and important questions to ask. When it comes to these kinds of topics, that’s the best you could possibly ask for.

Content Warnings

You’re good.

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