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I recently listened to an amazing audiobook called How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett. It’s one of my new favourite non-fiction books of all time, and it’s easily the best one that I’ve read this year. Everyone who has any interest in psychology and emotions should read it. The book is so fucking awesome because it systematically dismantles widely held scientific assumptions about how emotions are made.
Basically, the classical scientific idea that emotions are expressed universally across cultures is dog shit. Feldman talks about how she originally intended to be a clinical psychologist. She spent years exhaustively replicating her findings from meta-analyses of emotional expressions. These conclusions are that some people express particular emotions with the same physiological pathways as others, but just as many do in completely opposite ways. It’s even the case that some people’s emotional expressions are unpredictable. There are identifiable patterns, but so many different and opposing ones that they are scientifically useless. They cannot be used to represent the majority of ANY population.
There’s just so much variation between individuals and different cultures that there’s no such thing as emotions being universally expressed. The ways that our bodies display our feelings sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies due to pre-existing knowledge of how we think they should be expressed. Also, how we interpret others’ emotions in scientific studies or the real world is influenced by ample factors. It is heavily dependent on the context of our individual experiences within our cultural upbringings.
For example, if you see a picture of someone’s smiling face, you might interpret their feeling as happy until you see them jumping in the air and clenching their fists in anger. A smile is also not identified with happiness in every culture at every point in history. Even in western society, some people sometimes inadvertently smile when they’re sad or mad. Apparently, in ancient Greece, smiling consciously to display happiness did not happen. This only became a widely accepted cultural practice in about the 17th century. So for most of human history, smiling probably occurred, but it was not associated with satisfaction until very recently.
One of the main problems with scientific studies on emotion is that subjects are presented with limited interpretations of someone’s feelings. When you take these out of the equation and let people guess, the answers vary so widely that we don’t understand emotional expressions in anything close to universal ways. If you show a person a picture of someone frowning and present them with 5 interpretations of their feelings, they’ll choose one of those answers. But this prevents us from selecting any of the other hundreds of emotions attached to frowning. When you remove the 5 options, some people don’t choose ANY of those for their answer.
The main argument of the book is described by poking holes in scientific methods and comparing them across different cultures. This leads to the conclusion that emotions are not innate in our brains before they occur. There are nothing that neuroscientists call emotional structures in any neuropsychological studies. Our feelings our psychologically constructed based on our cultural upbringings and individual experiences. When we interact with our environment, our brains create physiological simulations of what we consciously identify as emotions. They do not exist as physical structures in our minds. They are concepts that our lives shape into physiological hallucinations of how we feel. This is why they vary so much between different people and cultures.
…To Be Continued…