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Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made argues that our common conception of emotions is false. (Mark Karlsberg/Studio Eleven)
Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made argues that our common conception of emotions is false. (Mark Karlsberg/Studio Eleven)

REVIEW

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, reviewed: Provocative theory falls flat Add to ...

  • Title How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
  • Author Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • Genre Non-Fiction
  • Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Pages 425
  • Price $40

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made is not a good pop science book. Good pop science books challenge the reader with new ideas that are both convincing and useful, all the while maintaining their interest – a page-turner that makes you smarter. While Barrett’s book does present a provocative theory, much of it is vague and unnecessary, much like its subtitle (The Secret Life of the Brain), and large swaths of the text don’t further the author’s argument.

It is admittedly a bold argument, and Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, puts it forward without hesitation: Our common conception of emotions is false. Happiness, sadness, anger and the rest are not represented by specific circuits within the brain but are rather constructed in each particular instance. Decades of research is predicated on the idea that the brain contains distinct pathways for each emotion, that these emotions are conserved by evolution (and thus seen in our furry friends), and that they manifest as distinct facial expressions that are often labelled “primary” emotions. Barrett effectively and unceremoniously exposes the methodological weaknesses in this research and puts forward an alternative hypothesis; namely, that there is no separating emotion from cognition in the brain, and that there are innumerable neural combinations to generate each instance of emotion.

Her criticisms are valid and, in some respects, her alternative makes sense: anger, after all, can manifest as both lashing out violently or smiling while plotting another’s misfortune. But in getting to her conclusions, she constructs a dubious straw man, which she dubs the “classical view of emotion.” According to Barrett, the establishment’s classical view espouses that each emotion has a distinct physiological state (heart rate, sweating, etc.), that dogs and flies alike can feel terror, that emotions are objectively real in the sense that raindrops or flowers are real, and so on. Even first-year psychology undergraduates would recognize this so-called classical view as farcical and contrary to the best available evidence, and this leaves Barrett looking like she’s fighting an opponent who doesn’t exist.

As for her alternative, she relies on modern neuroscientific evidence to build a theory of how emotions are generated. Barrett demonstrates the powerful effect of “top-down” processes on our perception: if told there is a spider crawling under our clothes, for example, we are suddenly aware of every brush and itch against our skin; or if shown a shape, say “6,” we can quickly read it as a number or a letter given the circumstances (“416” versus “Glo6e and Mail”). In other words, Barrett argues we construct simulations of the world and then compare our perceptions against them, a theory that a variety of brain and mind disciplines agrees with. How this relates to emotions is less clear in her argument, as is why emotions should subjectively feel different than other types of simulations we have.

A third of the book is devoted to breaking down her theories into maddeningly imprecise terms, such as “body budgeting” and “concept cascades,” that are neither superficial enough for the lay reader, nor deep enough for the science reader. It’s slow reading. And in the process she evokes the concept of “affect,” a word often synonymous with “emotion” in research, but here she defines it instead by how arousing and how positively or negatively valenced a situation is.

Which leads us back to our furry friends. Our dogs, Barrett argues, have all the hallmarks of affect, with their wagging tails or bared teeth or yips when injured, but are most likely incapable of emotion because they don’t have language. They demonstrate a variety of behaviours and internal states that appear consistent and appropriate to emotion, but theirs is a lesser form relegated to affect. This of course raises the question: then what exactly does Barrett mean when she says “emotion,” if not the affect or relevant behaviours and physiological states?

Ultimately, How Emotions Are Made is a book about how humans subjectively experience emotion, not about the full repertoire of what makes an emotion. Barrett contends that most experienced emotion requires language, but the proposition that we don’t all experience anger without having the accompanying word “anger” is troublesome. Worse still, it tells us nothing about what emotions are for, their connection to value (in terms of both brain regions and behaviour), and why emotions feel different than other thoughts if they are in fact just another form of cognition. The criticisms Barrett levels may be excellent, and her theory may be a better model than the status quo, but too often the answers in How Emotions Are Made are dissatisfying, vague or entirely absent. Instead you get whole chapters on emotion and the law, or how diet, exercise and sleep are important. It doesn’t make for good pop science.

Jay Hosking has a PhD in neuroscience and is author of the novel Three Years with the Rat.

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