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Professor recognized for changing the field of affective neuroscience

“A lot of my career has been spent forging a new path,” said Lisa Feldman Barrett, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. “When you try to be a leader in something, you’re not always liked and your work isn’t always appreciated until later.”

But Barrett doesn’t have to worry about whether her work will be accepted by her peers. That’s because she was recently elected to the Royal Society of Canada, the highest honor bestowed upon Canadian scholars in the arts, sciences and humanities.

“It’s very nice when your work is recognized like this,” said Barrett, who will be formally elected into the Royal Society of Canada in November. “It’s also special to be recognized by my home country.

Barrett recently recounted her journey to the top of the academic mountain.

As a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Waterloo, for example, Barrett found that she could not replicate many of the findings on anxiety and depression that she read in the literature.

“Whenever people reported they felt depressed, they also reported they felt anxious, and vice versa,” she explained. “But anxiety and depression are supposed to be very different disorders from a clinical perspective.”

Knowing this, she decided to tease out the problem, exploring the possibility that people just don’t know the difference between anxiety and depression. It turned out, she said, that  “There is tremendous variability in peoples’ ability to experience distinct emotional states.”

Barrett spent 10 years documenting the fact that some people experience sadness, fear and anger as very distinct feelings, whereas others experienced them as generally unpleasant feelings with very little specificity. When she attempted to find biological measures to objectively assess emotion, she discovered a problem: The body cannot reliably distinguish one emotion from another.

“I figured if there was going to be specificity anywhere in a biological signal, it would be in the brain,” Barrett said. “That was what motivated me to learn cognitive neuroscience.”

She spent the next decade teaching herself neuroanatomy and neuroscience, conducting brain-imaging experiments in an attempt to find the biological basis of each kind of emotion.

Over time, she demonstrated with more and more certainty that “emotions like sadness, fear and anger are not distinct mental faculties with clear biological signatures, localized to specific regions in the brain.”

She added, “You cannot look at activation in a single brain region, like the amygdala, and know whether a person is feeling afraid or angry. Likewise, you cannot look at her face or test her blood pressure for a definitive answer. There is a biological basis to emotion, but it is much more complicated than this.”

Barrett’s findings directly conflict with one century of research, but election to the Royal Society of Canada demonstrates that the field has already recognized the significance and validity of her contributions.

Keith Oatley, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto, where Barrett studied as an under­grad­uate, nom­i­nated her for the award.  Barrett was inspired by Oatley’s work when she was completing her PhD at the University of Waterloo

“One of the best parts about a life in science is that the people who’ve shaped your own thinking and research are often the ones that become your friends and colleagues,” Barrett said. She acknowledged  “a great intellectual debt” to both Oatley and her students, noting that “You never engage in scientific activity by yourself.”

“When you accept an award, you’re really accepting it on behalf of all the people who worked with you — the people who trained you, yes, but also all your students, your postdoctoral fellows and all your collaborators,” she added. “You’re really accepting it for a community of people.”