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Emotions are real

I just read an article that got me so jazzed, I don’t quite know where to begin.

The article, a kind of scientific manifesto by psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, is called Emotions are real and sets up a nearly rock solid argument for that statement.

Apparently the “realness” of emotions has been under debate for over a century. That is, scientists have argued over whether or not emotions can be associated with a distinct set of physiological factors such as blood pressure or facial expressions. Some say, yes it’s possible it’s just that we need “better experiments and better measures, or perhaps more precise definitions,” writes Barrett. Others say no, emotions are simply illusions, because only “affective properties” (pleasure, displeasure, arousal) can be objectively measured.

But Barrett sets up her argument for why they are real with the following game changing statement:

From my perspective, a persistent disconfirmation dilemma — the inability to unequivocally answer a question with the scientific method — might be a big hint that scientists are asking the wrong question to begin with. [I LOVE THIS!!!] What would happen if we replaced the question “are emotions real?” with “how do emotions become real?” Would this dissolve the disconfirmation dilemma before our eyes, leaving a clearer path forward?

And then, of course, things start to get really exciting.

She goes on to first define what it means to be real: To a chemist or a physicist, she said, real might mean that an object can be proven to contain molecules or quarks (even though we can’t see them with our own eyes). Suppose that object were a plant, she goes on. A plant is obviously real because it consists of chemically and physically robust matter. Whether or not humans are around to perceive them, plants are real.

But what about weeds and flowers? Are weeds and flowers real? Yes…but only when humans are around to categorize them as one or the other. “Understanding how the human brain creates a flower or a weed from a mere plant is really the question of how flowers and weeds come into existence (because without the perceiver, there is only a plant),” she explains.

So, what does this mean about emotion? Sensory inputs from the outside world (light, sound, etc) combined with sensations from the body count as an experience or perception of emotion only when “categorized as such during a situated conceptualization.” That sounds kind of jargony, but all she means is that emotions are real when we’re around to categorize them.

But that’s not to say they are illusions (which is what the ’emotions aren’t real’ folk like to say). “Emotions have been essentialized as natural when in fact they are constructed,” writes Barrett.

Since social context qualifies emotion, the science of emotion (and, says Barrett, the science of psychology in general) “should explicitly theorize about how to integrate physical, mental and social levels of construction. This is not esoteric philosophy. It is a necessary tool for doing science.”

This is such an energizing article I definitely recommend you read it. If you’re a dog owner, like me, don’t get too worked up about the fact that dogs can’t really feel emotion because they can’t categorize it that way, I’m sure that whatever they are thinking when they lap your face at the end of the day is somehow equivalent to love in their crazy little brains.


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