Sunday, June 30, 2013

Universal emotions no more?

Paul Ekman became famous for studies showing that humans experience a relatively small number of emotions that are the same across cultures. Psychologist Lisa Barrett thinks he's wrong. From an article about her work in The Boston Magazine:
... my emotions aren’t actually emotions until I’ve taught myself to think of them that way. Without that, I have only a meaningless mishmash of information about what I’m feeling. In other words, as Barrett put it to me, emotion isn’t a simple reflex or a bodily state that’s hard-wired into our DNA, and it’s certainly not universally expressed. It’s a contingent act of perception that makes sense of the information coming in from the world around you, how your body is feeling in the moment, and everything you’ve ever been taught to understand as emotion. Culture to culture, person to person even, it’s never quite the same. What’s felt as sadness in one person might as easily be felt as weariness in another, or frustration in someone else.
H/t Daniel Lende, who also published these links:

Lisa Barrett (2006), Are Emotions Natural Kinds? Perspectives in Psychological Science.

Lisa Barrett (2006), Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review.

Kristen A. Lindquist, Tor D. Wager, Hedy Kober, Eliza Bliss-Moreau and Lisa Feldman Barrett (2012), The brain basis of emotion: A meta-analytic reviewBehavioral and Brain Sciences.
Abstract: Researchers have wondered how the brain creates emotions since the early days of psychological science. With a surge of studies in affective neuroscience in recent decades, scientists are poised to answer this question. In this target article, we present a meta-analytic summary of the neuroimaging literature on human emotion. We compare the locationist approach (i.e., the hypothesis that discrete emotion categories consistently and specifically correspond to distinct brain regions) with the psychological constructionist approach (i.e., the hypothesis that discrete emotion categories are constructed of more general brain networks not specific to those categories) to better understand the brain basis of emotion. We review both locationist and psychological constructionist hypotheses of brain–emotion correspondence and report meta-analytic findings bearing on these hypotheses. Overall, we found little evidence that discrete emotion categories can be consistently and specifically localized to distinct brain regions. Instead, we found evidence that is consistent with a psychological constructionist approach to the mind: A set of interacting brain regions commonly involved in basic psychological operations of both an emotional and non-emotional nature are active during emotion experience and perception across a range of discrete emotion categories.
Paul Ekman and Daniel Cordaro (2010), What Is Meant by Calling Emotions Basic. Emotion Review.
Abstract: are discrete, automatic responses to universally shared, culture-specific and individual-specific events. The emotion terms, such as anger, fear, etcetera, denote a family of related states sharing at least 12 characteristics, which distinguish one emotion family from another, as well as from other affective states. These affective responses are preprogrammed and involuntary, but are also shaped by life experiences.
Full articles are behind a pay wall.

Comment: I've known of Ekman's work for some time, and liked it But I have no deep investment in it; that is, I'm not committed to any ideas the depend on the existence of a small number of universal emotions (though my advocacy of Manfred Clynes might suggest otherwise). Barrett's work sounds plausible on the face of it, but I've not read her technical papers.

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