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This is part two of a book review that I recently wrote on the amazing book called How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett. Part one covers the basics of the argument, and this blog gets a little more into the details. Here’s the link for part 1:
A few concepts are introduced in How Emotions Are Made, including interoception and affect. Interoception is the conscious awareness of our physiological processes. We experience it when we notice that we’re hungry, itchy, or sore from a workout. It is one of the main reasons that emotions feel so real. We experience them physically because they happen physiologically. When our metabolism drops, we feel hungry. Similarly, our dopamine levels might be low due to many factors, including breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, or losing a job. This makes us feel unhappy because interoception lets us notice our physiology. It is affected by our cultural upbringings and interactions with our environments.
That second concept that I mentioned, called affect, is basically the range of emotions that you experience. Your affect is influenced by interoception because it has an impact on your variety of feelings. Our physiological processes vary widely throughout every day, and are different for each person and culture. So since everyone’s interoception changes, so does our affect, and they both fluctuate a lot. Affect relies on interoception, but it is not designed for it. The range of emotions that we experience is coincidentally constructed by interoception. The way that it was designed conveniently works well for expressing affect. But scientists have not found structures in the brain that were made to display affect through interoception.
This is an Einstein quote from the book that helps to explain the nature of concepts and how we apply them to emotions and science: “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.” Pragmatically speaking, emotions are real. We act as if they are, and whether they exist doesn’t matter much because we experience them as physical things. However, they do not actually exist. They are concepts that are constructed by the brain of the perceiver. Categories and concepts are double-edged swords. We need them to experience emotions, but no concepts of feeling are universal. They are different for each person and culture. Apparently, they didn’t even emerge until the 17th century. Yes, for the vast majority of human history, categories for emotion were not really a thing. It makes sense if you think about it. Before the foundation of psychology, why would people have classified their emotions? This strange way that we behave is a product of the human invention of psychology. We probably still simulated emotions and expressed them physically before it began, but they were not identified by common concepts.
This pokes holes in 2 more foundations of the classical scientific worldview. One is that the brain is reactive. This is related to a now widely debunked notion that the mind is a blank slate. Supporters of this claimed that nothing is happening in our minds until something occurs in the physical world. This causes complex biological chain reactions.
Ample scientific studies have now shown that the human brain is always performing actions, even when we’re sleeping. This is why sleep is so important. It is when the brain repairs some of the damage done to it as part of basic biological processes like breathing and eating. Most scientists now seem to agree that our brains are actually predictive. Neurological actions are going on, and we subconsciously predict what is about to happen based on past experiences. This is an evolutionarily adaptive feature because it lets us operate more efficiently in the physical world. When we hear approaching footsteps, we predict that someone will walk toward us. When we see clouds in the sky, we predict that it will rain. When we smell fire, we predict that danger is coming and we need to get the hell out of there. When we taste spoiled food, we predict that eating it will make us sick. When we touch a hot burner on a stove, our brains subconsciously predict that not moving our hands away will burn us.
The second flawed aspect of the classical scientific worldview is essentialism. This goes all the way back to Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher. It is the notion that everything has specific characteristics that are required for it to function. It is the idea that every individual object and concept has a particular essence that doesn’t change.
This is scientifically no longer true. Countless studies in various fields show that the attributes we identify with physical objects vary widely across cultures and individuals. Even the collectively agreed-upon characteristics change as time passes. This is the nature of the scientific method. We think that something is one way, find out that we’re wrong, and change our views accordingly. Also, since every concept is invented in the first place, it makes sense that they change just as much as the way we identify physical objects.
When I think about a table, I’ll probably picture something similar to most people in my culture, but there will be slight variations. Someone in a different society will likely picture something completely different from me. The same sentiment applies to concepts, including emotions. If I feel depressed or angry, most people know what I mean. But I associate these emotions with mildly different characteristics than others. People in different cultures now, or in the past or future, think about these emotional categories in different ways than me.
An excellent example used in How Emotions Are Made to demonstrate how our feelings are subjective and constructed is a cliche question: When a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It turns out that the scientific answer is “No.” Can you believe that shit? It’s fucking dumbfounding! This is how Lisa Feldman Barrett explains it: We think that we hear noise when a tree falls because our ears detect changes in air pressure. Our brains interpret it as sound. We identify that particular noise as a tree falling based on pre-constructed concepts in our minds. These concepts are shaped by past experiences of what a tree falling sounds like. Our brains trick our ears into hallucinating noises that don’t actually exist or happen!
Vibrations and pressure waves construct the concept called sound that we invented. We think that there is a particular noise that a tree makes when it falls, and that it occurs even if a human is not around to hear it. But that isn’t true. The changes in air pressure do not form a specific thing that we define as sound. This, along with the particular noise of the tree falling, are constructed by our brains detecting the changes in air pressure. We interpret them as the specific sound of a tree falling. What we think happens when a tree falls is incorrect. Due to beneficial evolutionary adaptations of the human brain, we trick ourselves into believing that our subjective experiences are objective. But we actually witness very little of what happens in reality. Why? It would be inefficient and tedious to notice everything that occurs.
How Emotions Are Made is a fucking mind-blowing book! It literally changed the way I look at the world. This book systematically shattered a lot of my old notions about how emotions work. It’s a hell of a lot of information to process, but it’s phenomenally fascinating and exciting. I love books like this. They teach me far more than almost anything else. I almost think that How Emotions Are Made should be required reading in high school and universities, at least for students pursuing neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and/or sociology. But since I’m not an authority, I hope that I did a decent job of outlining the amazing and engrossing arguments in the book. I’m barely scratching the surface of it in this review. I hope that I ignited the excitement to learn in the same way that I experienced when I began that knowledge excursion. Learning is amazing. It’s one of the main ways that we can improve the world, and potentially save it.