How Emotions Are Made

Emotions feel uncontrollable, like automatic – oftentimes overwhelming – reactions of our brains and bodies to the happenings in our worlds and the thoughts whizzing around in our heads. Science has long supported the view that emotions are innate and hardwired.

That may not be true.

The Classical View of Emotions

The classical view of emotions has been around since the days of Plato and Buddha. Darwin and Freud propagated this origin of emotion in their time, and many scholarly voices of today offer explanations rooted in this line of thought. In the classical view, a person is born with certain rudimentary emotions. When something takes place in their environment, whether it’s seeing a snake or another person smile, emotions happen quickly and automatically, like a brute reflex.

The classical view proposes that you have emotional circuits in your brain that when activated cause distinct changes in your brain and body in predictable sequences. For example, you see an emergency alert about severe weather headed your way very soon. According to the classical view, your fear neurons become triggered, cortisol is released, your heart rate speeds up, your breathing becomes shallow, and you feel alarmed.

In the classical theory, emotions are leftover artifacts of evolution which were necessary for our survival. This would make them universal, fixed components of biology that look pretty much the same in everyone.

But they aren’t.

There’s a wealth of research supporting the classical view. However, there’s also an overwhelming amount of evidence countering this explanation.

The Theory of Constructed Emotion

In the book How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett offers an alternate understanding of emotions:

When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. 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. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real — that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.”

In this theory, your brain constructs your experience of emotion based on how you have come to understand that emotion as being expressed and appropriate. For example, upon hearing a news story about a school shooting, you know from being raised in a certain culture that “sad” would be a likely response to such an event. Using past experiences and learned reactions, a person’s brain predicts how their body should respond to such news and sets about causing the changes.

In this case, specific bodily reactions, sensations, and behaviors are not “fingerprints” for certain emotions. A thumping heart, flushed face, sweaty palms, and tears could mean sadness, anger, or happiness depending on the circumstances and cultural norms.

We experience emotions in the way the classical view proposes they are made- which makes it seem intuitive. It just “feels” right. However, the author writes:

The theory of constructed emotion might not fit the way you typically experience emotion, and in fact, may well violate your deepest beliefs about how the mind works, where humans come from, and why we act and feel as we do.  But the theory consistently predicts and explains the scientific evidence, on emotion, including plenty of evidence that the classical view stuggles to make sense of.”

Why Does It Matter Where Emotions Come From?

Belief in the origins of emotions affects your life in ways you probably don’t even realize. Barret cites the following examples:

  • Transportation Security Agents (TSA) at airports were not just trained to X-ray your shoes and search your bags. They were taught to SPOT (screening passengers by observation techniques) deception and assess potential threat and risk based on facial expressions and bodily movements – assuming that these display your true emotions. Ultimately, the program didn’t work, cost the taxpayers $900 million, and detained countless passengers while bypassing many who did pose a real threat.
  • Many women who go to their doctor complaining of chest pressure and shortness of breath are diagnosed with anxiety and sent home. However, a man with the same symptoms is more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease and receive lifesaving treatment. The classical view of emotions shapes the perceptions of medical workers and the women themselves with fatal consequences. Women over the age of 65 die more frequently of heart attacks than men do.
  • The classical view of emotion may even be responsible in part for starting the Gulf War. Suddam Hussein’s half-brother thought he could correctly read the emotions of the American negotiators and told Hussein that the United States wasn’t serious about attacking. He was wrong and the resulting war is history.
  • The legal system is built on the premise of the classical view of emotions. Judges and jurors are given the impossible task of being lie detectors. Here’s the fallacy: each person interprets facial expressions and body language and infers intent based on their own beliefs, stereotypes, current body states, and learned emotions. Seventy years of psychological research shows that these subjective judgments are merely mental inferences – guesses.  All information taken in is perception, – not factual reality – because our brains are wired to see what we believe. This is known as affective realism.

The Difference Between Emotions and Feelings

To complicate things, there isn’t even one agreed-upon, basic definition of an emotion.  Barret writes:

People believe that they know an emotion when they see it, and as a consequence assume that emotions are discrete events that can be recognized with some degree of accuracy, but scientists have yet to produce a set of clear and consistent criteria for indicating when an emotion is present and when it is not … Our everyday experiences of anger, sadness, fear, and several other emotions are compelling, but they are scientifically elusive and defy clear definition.

The paradox of emotions is that, on the one hand, they seem self-evident and obvious when examined introspectively; on the other hand, they have been extremely difficult to define in objective scientific terms. Attempts to achieve a consensus definition that is accepted across fields from neuroscience to psychology to philosophy have repeatedly failed.”

To complicate things even further, emotions and feelings are two different things, but there’s also some disagreement as to what each is.  In What’s the Difference Between Feelings and Emotions, I quote Antonio D’Amasio, professor of neuroscience at The University of California and author of several books on the subject, explaining it as:

Feelings are mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli. (The order of such events is: I am threatened, experience fear, and feel horror.)

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