Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Universal emotions no more?

Lisa Barrett just published a book, How Emotions Are made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Tyler Cowen just published his reactions to to it, including:
2. According to Barrett, the expressions of human emotions are better understood as being socially constructed and filtered through cultural influences: “”Are you saying that in a frustrating, humiliating situation, not everyone will get angry so that their blood boils and their palms sweat and their cheeks flush?” And my answer is yes, that is exactly what I am saying.” (p.15) In reality, you are as an individual an active constructor of your emotions. Imagine winning a big sporting event, and not being sure whether to laugh, cry, scream, jump for joy, pump your fist, or all of the above. No one of these is the “natural response.”

3. Immigrants eventually acculturate emotionally into their new societies, or at least one hopes: “Our colleague Yulia Chentsova Dutton from Russia says that her cheeks ached for an entire year after moving to the United States because she never smiled so much.” (p.149)

3d. From her NYT piece: “My lab analyzed over 200 published studies, covering nearly 22,000 test subjects, and found no consistent and specific fingerprints in the body for any emotion. Instead, the body acts in diverse ways that are tied to the situation.”
So I'm publishing these remarks atop this old post from June 2013.

Here's a link to a website of supplemental information that accompanies Barrett's book.

* * * * *

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 that 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.


  1. I got the urge to expand my limited understanding of pragmatic truth concpets like dydic truth after reading this.

    I wonder if it suggests a Charles Sanders Pierce influence at work in a section of the psychological community at the moment?

  2. Barrett's work is actually not social constructionist. It's closer to neuroconstruction, i.e. culture changes the wiring of the brain. (She's a neuroscientist.) Quick notes: https://how-emotions-are-made.com/notes/Plasticity

  3. "Barrett's work is actually not social constructionist. It's closer to neuroconstruction"

    Made me laugh. I wondered if it suggested a Charles Saunders Peirce influnce as while reading this, I was glancing at the back page of Burce Wexlers Brain and Culture "early adulthood, the indivdual attempts to make the enviroment conform to the established internal stucture of the brain and mind."

    i.e its neuroplasticity is greatly reduced. Then wondered if a counter argument could exist based on older understanding within psychology rather than neurbiology.

    I did not get the urge to read anymore on neuroplasticity as I had just put the book down. I should have framed it better but it's so obvious were it comes from I thought.