3Qs: How we feel what we feel

Lisa Feldman BarrettA recent New York Times SundayReview piece by Lisa Feldman Barrett, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology, dismantles the age-old misconception that individual emotions—anger, disgust, fear, sadness, joy—arise from specific “blobs of brain circuitry” anchored in discrete regions of the human brain. Barrett’s own groundbreaking research, conducted in the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, gives the lie to this “blob-ology” model. In a comprehensive analysis of neuroimaging studies over a 15-year span, she and her colleagues showed that, in reality, a set of interacting brain regions are active during a whole slew of emotional states. None of these brain regions is specific to emotion, or to any other mental state. Instead, the brain is filled with general-purpose ingredients—or networks—that interact to produce our feelings, thoughts, and actions.

The SundayReview piece followed her oped in WBUR’s CommonHealth about Pixar’s movie Inside Out, which explores how emotions operate in a young girl’s mind. “It’s a great movie,” she told us, “but it’s completely inaccurate as far as the neuroscience goes.” We asked Barrett to provide some insight on the real science.

What is wrong with the “blob-ology” model and why do you think it persists?

Since the time of Plato, Western philosophy has conceived of the human mind as being made up of “faculties,” or separate abilities—to think, to feel, to perceive, and so on. This view has persisted through millennia. Psychology became a science in the mid-19th century, as researchers started using the methods of physiology and neurology to find the physical bases of these mental faculties. They looked for specific areas, or “blobs,” in the brain: Where does fear live? Where does language live? Where does intelligence live? Through the ages, some people have argued against this “faculty” view, but it’s never had center stage.

Blob-ology persists because of psychological “essentialism.” People tend to believe that instances of a biological or psychological category—say, all instances of the category “cocker spaniel” or all instances of an emotion category such as “anger”—share an “essence” that makes them what they are, even if that essence isn’t known or hasn’t yet been identified. Darwin vanquished essentialism when he realized that any species is a conceptual category filled with instances that vary from one another. Yet essentialism still exists and is well known to interfere with people’s understanding of science, particularly natural selection, evolution, and emotion.

Different parts of our brains mature at different rates as we move from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. How does the brain construct emotional experiences—and do those mechanisms change as we grow? 

There are networks—circuits of connected neurons—that are intrinsic to everyone’s brain unless you have certain illnesses. Some of these networks are there at birth, some of them develop, at different rates, as we age. The networks overlap because the brain regions have to talk to one another. These networks interact to perform functions that are important for a whole host of psychological phenomena.

Very young infants don’t have emotions, really. They can feel pleasant or unpleasant, they can smile with pleasure or cry in discomfort, they can be fussy or calm. This is what scientists call “affect.” We might see young infants as emotional, but that’s our interpretation of their actions. Eventually they learn “concepts” to interpret their own sensations. This allows them to go from using the word “sad” to refer to any “bad” feeling to specifically using this word to mean sadness but not anger, fear, or disgust. As children grow older, they can distinguish more concepts, such as awe, gratitude, and compassion. They learn to control their behavior by using these emotion concepts.

College students have even more complex emotion concepts, for example, distinguishing irritation from frustration. Research shows that the more emotion concepts you know, the better off you’ll be—socially and academically—because the more distinctions you can make, the better you can regulate yourself and communicate with others.

What role does “context”—our prior experiences, our own biological makeup—play in how our bodies respond when we experience different emotions?

Every thought, feeling, or perception that you have is context-based even if you don’t realize it. For example, all instances of anger are not the same. Sometimes you’re seething, sometimes you’re calm but boiling inside. Sometimes you scowl, sometimes you chuckle, sometimes you show nothing on your face at all. Your heart, lungs, and other body systems react differently based on your response. The point is that you have a wide variety of ways of being angry or sad or happy.

A whole set of networks across the brain—for memory, concepts, language, vision, etc.—are cooperating and constructing each experience for you, and out of them emerges a mental state that you experience as a feeling or a thought or a perception.