How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
[Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a book summary or book review. This is just stuff in the book that I found personally valuable or interesting at the time of reading. Most of these “notes” are actually highlights, i.e. directly copied lines from the book, but some notes are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]
– The classical view of emotion holds that we have many such emotion circuits in our brains, and each is said to cause a distinct set of changes, that is, a fingerprint.
– Despite the distinguished intellectual pedigree of the classical view of emotion, and despite its immense influence in our culture and society, there is abundant scientific evidence that this view cannot possibly be true.
Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion.
– You can experience anger with or without a spike in blood pressure. You can experience fear with or without an amygdala, the brain region historically tagged as the home of fear.
In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts.
Emotions are not universal but vary from culture to culture.
Emotions are not triggered; you create them.
Emotions emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment.
– The Theory of Constructed Emotion says that emotions are learned concepts.
The theory (which the book argues for) says that emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real — that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.
– According to the classical view, each emotion is displayed on the face as a particular pattern of movements — a “facial expression.” When you’re happy, you’re supposed to smile. When you’re angry, you’re supposed to furrow your brow. These movements are said to be part of the fingerprint of their respective emotions.
– The six so-called emotions that researchers in the 1960s (Tomkins, Izard, Ekman) believed had biological fingerprints: anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, and happiness.
Scientists concluded that emotion recognition is universal: no matter where you are born or grow up, you should be able to recognize American-style facial expressions like those in the (example) photos.
The only way expressions could be universally recognized, the reasoning went, is if they are universally produced: thus, facial expressions must be reliable, diagnostic fingerprints of emotion.
– If facial expressions are universal, then babies should be even more likely than adults to express anger with a scowl and sadness with a pout, because they’re too young to learn rules of social appropriateness. And yet when scientists observe infants in situations that should evoke emotion, the infants do not make the expected expressions.
– Turns out… An emotion like “Fear” does not have a single expression but a diverse population of facial movements that vary from one situation to the next.
“Fear” takes no single physical form. Variation is the norm. Likewise, happiness, sadness, anger, and every other emotion you know is a diverse category, with widely varying facial movements.
– On different occasions, in different contexts, in different studies, within the same individual and across different individuals, the same emotion category involves different bodily responses.
Variation, not uniformity, is the norm.
Different behaviors have different patterns of heart rate, breathing, and so on to support their unique movements.
Despite tremendous time and investment, research has not revealed a consistent bodily fingerprint for even a single emotion.
– The findings [from the identical twin study] undermine the idea that the amygdala contains the circuit for fear. They point instead to the idea that the brain must have multiple ways of creating fear, and therefore the emotion category “Fear” cannot be necessarily localized to a specific region.
Scientists have studied other emotion categories in lesion patients besides fear, and the results have been similarly variable.
Brain regions like the amygdala are routinely important to emotion, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient for emotion.
– One of the most surprising things I learned as I began to study neuroscience: a mental event, such as fear, is not created by only one set of neurons. Instead, combinations of different neurons can create instances of fear.
Neuroscientists call this principle degeneracy. Degeneracy means “many to one”: many combinations of neurons can produce the same outcome.
– Emotions arise from firing neurons, but no neurons are exclusively dedicated to emotion.
For me, these findings have been the final, definitive nail in the coffin for localizing emotions to individual parts of the brain.
– I hope you’ve caught the pattern emerging here: variation is the norm. Emotion fingerprints are a myth.
– What we colloquially call emotions, such as anger, fear, and happiness, are better thought of as emotion categories, because each is a collection of diverse instances.
– Simulation: when your brain changes the firing of its own sensory neurons in the absence of incoming sensory input
(Upon reading the word ‘apple’) Your brain combined bits and pieces of knowledge of previous apples you’ve seen and tasted, and changed the firing of neurons in your sensory and motor regions to construct a mental instance of the concept “Apple.” Your brain simulated a nonexistent apple using sensory and motor neurons.
Your brain uses your past experiences to construct a hypothesis — the simulation — and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses. In this manner, simulation lets your brain impose meaning on the noise, selecting what’s relevant and ignoring the rest.
– Scientific evidence shows that what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell are largely simulations of the world, not reactions to it.
Our common sense might declare that thinking, perceiving, and dreaming are different mental events (at least to those of us in Western cultures), yet one general process describes them all…
Simulation. It’s the default mode for all mental activity. It also holds a key to unlocking the mystery of how the brain creates emotions.
– Construction treats the world like a sheet of pastry, and your concepts are cookie cutters that carve boundaries, not because the boundaries are natural, but because they’re useful or desirable.
Your concepts are a primary tool for your brain to guess the meaning of incoming sensory inputs.
– Every moment that you are alive, your brain uses concepts to simulate the outside world.
Without concepts, you are experientially blind.
With concepts, your brain simulates so invisibly and automatically that vision, hearing, and your other senses seem like reflexes rather than constructions.
– From your brain’s perspective, your body is just another source of sensory input.
Sensations from your heart and lungs, your metabolism, your changing temperature, and so on, are purely physical sensations inside your body have no objective psychological meaning. Once your concepts enter the picture, however, those sensations may take on additional meaning.
– In a given moment, in a given context, your brain uses concepts to give meaning to internal sensations as well as to external sensations from the world, all simultaneously.
From an aching stomach, your brain constructs an instance of hunger, nausea, or mistrust.
– In the cases of disgust, longing, or anxiety during a stomach ache, the concept active in your brain is an emotion concept. Your brain makes meaning from your aching stomach, together with the sensations from the world around you, by constructing an instance of that concept – an instance of emotion. And that just might be how emotions are made.
– An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world.
– The Theory of Constructed Emotion:
(as coined by Feldman-Barrett)
In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion.
– Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions.
From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action.
If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. You wouldn’t know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to behave to deal with them.
With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.
– The theory of constructed emotion belongs to a broader scientific tradition called construction, which holds that your experiences and behaviors are created in the moment by biological processes within your brain and body.
– Even single-celled animals can make sense of changes in their environment. But particular concepts like “Anger” and “Disgust” are not genetically predetermined. Your familiar emotion concepts are built-in only because you grew up in a particular social context where those emotion concepts are meaningful and useful, and your brain applies them outside your awareness to construct your experiences.
– Heart rate changes are inevitable; their emotional meaning is not. Other cultures can and do make other kinds of meaning from the same sensory input.
– Your genes turn on and off in different contexts, including the genes that shape your brain’s wiring. (Scientists call this phenomenon plasticity.)
The macro structure of your brain is largely predetermined, but the microwiring is not. As a consequence, past experience helps determine your future experiences and perceptions.
– You can think about emotion categories like cookies. The members of the category “Cookie” vary tremendously but are deemed equivalent for some purpose: to be a tasty snack or dessert.
Cookies need not look the same or be created with the same recipe to be considered a cookie; they are a population of diverse instances…
Even within a more fine-grained category like “Chocolate Chip Cookie,” there is still diversity created by the type of chocolate, the amount of flour, the ratio of brown sugar to white sugar, the fat content of the butter, and the time spent chilling the dough. Likewise, any category of emotion such as “Happiness” or “Guilt” is filled with variety.
If instances of emotion are like cookies, then the brain is like a kitchen, stocked with common ingredients such as flour, water, sugar, and salt. Beginning with these ingredients, we can create diverse foods such as cookies, bread, cake, muffins, biscuits, and scones. Likewise, your brain has core “ingredients,” which we call core systems.
– Instances of two different emotion categories, such as fear and anger, can be made from similar ingredients, just as cookies and bread both contain flour.
Conversely, two instances of the same emotion category, like fear, will have some variation in their ingredients, just as some cookies have nuts and others do not. This phenomenon is our old friend degeneracy at work: different instances of fear are constructed by different combinations of the core systems throughout the brain.
– The theory of constructed emotion proposes that emotions are not inborn, and if they are universal, it’s due to shared concepts. What’s universal is the ability to form concepts that make our physical sensations meaningful.
– Emotions are social reality.
A physical event like a change in heart rate, blood pressure, or respiration becomes an emotional experience only when we, with emotion concepts that we have learned from our culture, imbue the sensations with additional functions by social agreement.
(But again, this doesn’t mean emotions aren’t real. Social reality is still reality.)
– If I were very strict, I would banish the phrase “an emotion” from our vocabulary so we don’t imply its objective existence in nature, and always speak of instances (experiences of emotion) and categories (general groups such as Happiness, Anger, etc).
– Even when you feel no sense of agency when experiencing emotion, which is most of the time, you are an active participant in that experience.
You actively participate in determining what you see, and most of the time you have no awareness you are doing so.
– After conducting hundreds of experiments in my lab, and reviewing thousands more by other researchers, I’ve come to a profoundly unintuitive conclusion shared by a growing number of scientists:
Emotions do not shine forth from the face nor from the maelstrom of your body’s inner core. They don’t issue from a specific part of the brain. No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built-in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us.
We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems.
Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.
– Your knowledge of concepts is a key ingredient for experiencing other people as emotional, and emotion words invoke this ingredient. And they could be largely responsible for producing what looks like universal emotion perception in the hundreds of studies that use the basic emotion method.
– There is one emotion category that people seem able to perceive without the influence of emotion concepts: happiness. Regardless of the experimental method used, people in numerous cultures agree that smiling faces and laughing voices express happiness. So “Happy” might be the closest thing we have to a universal emotion category with a universal expression. Or it might not.
– Fun fact: The word “smile” doesn’t even exist in Latin. Smiling was an invention of the Middle Ages, and broad, toothy-mouthed smiles (with crinkling at the eyes, named the Duchenne smile by Ekman) became popular only in the 18th century as dentistry became more accessible and affordable.
– If humans actually had an inborn ability to recognize emotional expressions, then removing the emotion words from the method should not matter . . . but it did, every single time.
There is very little doubt that emotion words have a powerful influence in experiments, instantly casting into doubt the conclusions of every study ever performed that used the basic emotion method.
– Simple pleasant and unpleasant feelings come from an ongoing process inside you called interoception.
Interoception: your brain’s representation of all sensations from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system.
Interoception is one of the core ingredients of emotion, just as water or flour is to bread.
Your insides are in motion. Your heart sends blood rushing through your veins and arteries. Your lungs fill and empty. Your stomach digests food. This interoceptive activity produces the spectrum of basic feeling from pleasant to unpleasant, from calm to jittery, and even completely neutral.
– Predictions: the brains attempts to anticipate every fragment of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that you will experience, and every action that you will take.
Predictions (in this sense of the word) are your brain’s best guesses of what’s going on in the world around you, and how to deal with it to keep you alive and well.
(Predictions in this sense are at a microscopic scale as millions of neurons “talk” to one another, i.e. constant inter-brain communications)
[ To better understand prediction, think of anticipation in sports. For instance, anticipating a pass in basketball while on defense. In basketball, you’re always anticipating (“predicting”) what to do, and you act accordingly. Most of the anticipatory actions you make on a basketball court are unconscious, i.e. automatic. That is, you just do whatever it is your brain is predicting is most appropriate in the given moment relative to what it perceives is going on – relative to what your body is communicating and relative to what you’ve previously learned to be the immediate goal of the game, such as stealing a pass. ]
Prediction makes the game possible. Your brain launches predictions well before you consciously see the ball, just like it predicts a red apple in the grocery store, using your past experience.
This is essentially how and why the brain predicts in real life: it is actively anticipating how you should be, or what you should do, based on what it’s sensing and perceiving (within the body and outside of it) AND based on relevant concepts, especially goal-based concepts such as stealing a pass or winning a basketball game, or taking a shower or driving to work.
Your actions (or inactions) are based on constant predictions of the brain, and because the predictive operations are so fast and constant, we don’t feel them or understand them in terms of predictions.
Since prediction is the brain’s default mode, it feels to us like “just being”, rather than actually being in a state of constant anticipation.
– Through prediction, your brain constructs the world you experience.
Predictions not only anticipate sensory input from outside the skull but explain it.
These predictions occur before you have any conscious awareness or intent about moving your body.
– You might think that your perceptions of the world are driven by events in the world, but really, they are anchored in your predictions, which are then tested against those little skipping stones of incoming sensory input.
– Through prediction and correction, your brain continually creates and revises your mental model of the world. It’s a huge, ongoing simulation that constructs everything you perceive while determining how you act.
But predictions aren’t always correct, when compared to actual sensory input, and the brain must make adjustments.
– Consider this sentence:
Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom far beyond the most distant mountains, there lived a beautiful princess who bled to death.
Did you find the last three words unexpected? That’s because your brain predicted incorrectly based on its stored knowledge of fairy tales — it made a prediction error — and then adjusted its prediction in the blink of an eye based on the final words: a few skipping stones of visual information.
– Prediction errors aren’t problems. They’re a normal part of the operating instructions of your brain as it takes in sensory input.
Most of the time, at least when you are an adult, your predictions aren’t too far off-base. If they were, you would go through life feeling constantly startled, uncertain… or hallucinating.
– Predictions are held in check by sensory inputs from the outside world, which your brain may prioritize or ignore.
– When prediction errors occur, the brain can resolve them in two general ways:
1) Change the prediction. In this situation, my motor neurons would adjust my body movements, and my sensory neurons would simulate different sensations, leading to further predictions involving prediction loops.
2) Stick with the original prediction. It filters the sensory input so it’s consistent with the prediction, ie prediction dominates the actual sensory input.
– Your brain is always predicting, and its most important mission is predicting your body’s energy needs, so you can stay alive and well.
– Emotion begins with movement – the inner motion of your body.
Any movement of your body is accompanied by movement in your body.
Your brain represents the sensations that result from this inner-body motion; this representation, you may remember, is called interoception.
– Your brain must explain bodily sensations to make them meaningful, and its major tool for doing so is prediction. So, your brain models the world from the perspective of someone with your body (i.e. subjective experience).
– Usually, you experience interoception only in general terms:
the simple feelings of pleasure, displeasure, arousal, or calmness.
Sometimes, however, you experience moments of intense interoceptive sensations as emotions. That is a key element of the theory of constructed emotion.
In every waking moment, your brain gives your sensations meaning. Some of those sensations are interoceptive sensations, and the resulting meaning can be an instance of emotion.
– Two parts the interoceptive network: body budgeting regions and primary interoceptive cortex, which participate in a prediction loop.
– Your body-budgeting regions play a vital role in keeping you alive. Each time your brain moves any part of your body, inside or out, it spends some of its energy resources: the stuff it uses to run your organs, your metabolism, and your immune system.
You replenish your body’s resources by eating, drinking, and sleeping, and you reduce your body’s spending by relaxing with loved ones, even having sex. To manage all of this spending and replenishing, your brain must constantly predict your body’s energy needs, like a budget for your body.
– Just as a company has a finance department that tracks deposits and withdrawals and moves money between accounts, so its overall budget stays in balance, your brain has circuitry that is largely responsible for your body budget. That circuitry is within your interoceptive network.
Your body-budgeting regions make predictions to estimate the resources to keep you alive and flourishing, using past experience as a guide.
– When your brain predicts that your body will need a quick burst of energy, the body-budgeting regions instruct the adrenal gland in your kidneys to release the hormone cortisol…
People call cortisol a “stress hormone,” but this is a mistake. Cortisol is released whenever you need a surge of energy, which happens to include the times when you are stressed. Its main purpose is to flood the bloodstream with glucose to provide immediate energy to cells, allowing, for example, muscle cells to stretch and contract so you can run.
– So, your interoceptive network controls your body, budgets your energy resources, and represents your internal sensations, all at the same time.
– Withdrawals from your body’s budget don’t require actual physical movement…
Suppose you see your boss, teacher, or coach walking toward you. You believe that she judges everything you say and do. Even though no physical movement seems called for, your brain predicts that your body needs energy and makes a budget withdrawal, releasing cortisol and flooding glucose into your bloodstream. You also have a surge in interoceptive sensations.
Stop and think about this for a minute.
Someone merely walks toward you while you are standing still, and your brain predicts that you need fuel!
In this manner, any event that significantly impacts your body budget becomes personally meaningful to you.
– We now have good evidence that your brain predicts your body’s responses by drawing on prior experiences with similar situations and objects, even when you’re not physically active. And the consequence is interoceptive sensation.
To perturb your body budget, you don’t even require another person or object to be present. You can just imagine your boss, teacher, coach, or anything else relevant to you.
Every simulation, whether it becomes an emotion or not, impacts your body budget.
As it turns out, people spend at least half their waking hours simulating rather than paying attention to the world around them, and this pure simulation strongly drives their feelings.
– Every person you encounter, every prediction you make, every idea you imagine, and every sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell that you fail to anticipate all have budgetary consequences and corresponding interoceptive predictions. Your brain must contend with this continuous, ever-changing flow of interoceptive sensations from the predictions that keep you alive. Sometimes you’re aware of them, and other times you’re not, but they are always part of your brain’s model of the world…
They are, as I’ve said, the scientific basis for simple feelings of pleasure, displeasure, arousal, and calmness that you experience every day.
– Affect is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout each day. It is not emotion but a much simpler feeling with two [components]:
The first component is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel, which scientists call valence. The pleasantness of the sun on your skin, the deliciousness of your favorite food, and the discomfort of a stomachache or a pinch are all examples of affective valence.
The second component of affect is how calm or agitated you feel, which is called arousal. The energized feeling of anticipating good news, the jittery feeling after drinking too much coffee, the fatigue after a long run, and the weariness from lack of sleep are examples of high and low arousal.
– Scientists largely agree that affect is present from birth and that babies can feel and perceive pleasure and displeasure, even as they disagree whether newborns emerge into the world with fully formed emotions.
– Affect depends on interoception.
That means affect is a constant current throughout your life, even when you are completely still or asleep. It does not turn on and off in response to events you experience as emotional.
In this sense, affect is a fundamental aspect of consciousness, like brightness and loudness.
[ So, affect (the basic experiencing of valence and arousal) is sort of pre-set biochemical operation of the normal human brain. It’s a built-in neurophysiological response mechanism that is fundamental to human experience.
Emotion is different from affect as it involves the application of additional meaning (using language and concepts) to categorize sensations and perceptions.
While it’s not quite this simple, we can basically understand affect and emotion as:
Affect is basic mental feeling, i.e. “feeling of the mind”. It’s when the mind becomes noticeably affected by information, which in turn affects our physical and perceptual experiencing for better or worse.
Emotion is complex or patternistic mental feeling, i.e. feeling of the mind consistent with experiential concepts.
Moreover, emotion is the interpretation of a pattern of basic feelings relative to a particular context, i.e. the pleasantness felt upon consistently satisfying a biological need (such as eating) might be interpreted as happiness… and this interpretation would necessarily be a collective interpretation as it takes multiple bodies and minds (if only by history) to establish meaning…
Affect in this case would just be the pleasantness felt (as in the mind acknowledging “I feel pleased” as a basic interpretation of satisfying bodily sensations) whereas an emotion, happiness in this case, would be the result of the meaningful interpretation of the pleasantness felt: since I feel pleasant in the context of eating, and since this is a consistent feeling in this particular context, one that is recognizable and agreed upon by others, it could be called the emotion (concept) of happiness. So instead of the mind somewhat abstractly establishing “I feel pleased”, when concepts are applied to the experience, which they always are, the mind could determine (predict) “I am happy”.
So affect essentially converts perception and sensation into the basic “feelings” of valence and arousal. Emotion essentially converts perception and sensation into meaningfully distinguishable, patternistic feelings that are associated with a particular type of experience (a context).
Or, we might simply say, emotion is the conversion of basic mental feeling (affect) into complex/patternistic feeling by the use of concepts.
Or, emotion is the product of affect + concepts (concepts = mental models learned or acquired from social/cultural experience. ]
– Your affective feelings of pleasure and displeasure, and calmness and agitation, are simple summaries of your budgetary state.
– Your affect is always some combination of valence and arousal, represented by one point on the affective circumplex, pictured below (established by psychologist James A. Russell).
(Photo credit: Feldman-Barrett; Figure 4-5, pg 74)
– When you experience affect without knowing the cause, you are more likely to treat affect as information about the world, rather than your experience of the world.
This phenomenon is called affective realism, because we experience supposed facts about the world that are created in part by our feelings.
– Affect leads us to believe that objects and people in the world are inherently negative or positive.
The phrase “an unpleasant image” is really shorthand for “an image that impacts my body budget, producing sensations that I experience as unpleasant.”
A bad feeling doesn’t always mean something is wrong. It just means you’re taxing your body budget. When people exercise to the point of labored breathing, for example, they feel tired and crappy well before they run out of energy.
– Example: your visual sense alerts you that there is a snake behind the bush, but you determine there is no snake. In this case, your visual predictions of a snake are corrected quickly; however, your interoceptive predictions are not. Your body-budgeting regions keep predicting adjustments to your budget long after the predicted need is over. You therefore may take a long time to calm down, even if you know there is nothing wrong…
The sensations you feel from your body don’t always reflect the actual state of your body. That’s because familiar sensations like your heart beating in your chest, your lungs filling with air, and, most of all, the general pleasant, unpleasant, aroused, and quiescent sensations of affect are not really coming from inside your body. They are driven by simulations in your interoceptive network.
In short, you feel what your brain believes. Affect primarily comes from prediction.
– Scientists with the right equipment can change people’s affect by directly manipulating body-budgeting regions that issue predictions.
– Interoception in the moment is more influential to perception, and how you act, than the outside world is.
– You might believe that you are a rational creature, weighing the pros and cons before deciding how to act, but the structure of your cortex makes this an implausible fiction.
Your brain is wired to listen to your body budget.
Affect is in the driver’s seat and rationality is a passenger.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re choosing between two snacks, two job offers, two investments, or two heart surgeons—your everyday decisions are driven by a loudmouthed, mostly deaf scientist who views the world through affect-colored glasses.
– Interoception and affect are built into every moment. Even when you experience yourself as rational, your body budget and its links to affect are there, lurking beneath the surface.
– The bottom line is this: the human brain is anatomically structured so that no decision or action can be free of interoception and affect, no matter what fiction people tell themselves about how rational they are.
– Every thought, memory, perception, or emotion that you construct includes something about the state of your body: a little piece of interoception.
A visual prediction, for example, doesn’t just answer the question, “What did I see last time I was in this situation?” It answers, “What did I see last time I was in this situation when my body was in this state?”
– Affect is your brain’s best guess about the state of your body budget.
– If you didn’t have interoception, the physical world would be meaningless noise to you.
– You construct your environment – your reality — by virtue of what sensory input from the physical environment your brain selects; it admits some as information and ignores some as noise. And this selection is intimately linked to interoception. Your brain expands its predictive repertoire to include anything that might impact your body budget, in order to meet your body’s metabolic demands.
– Affect alone also doesn’t explain how we construct our own experiences of sadness or happiness, nor how one instance of sadness or happiness differs from another. Nor does affect tell you what sensations mean or what to do about them…
You must make the affect meaningful so your brain can execute a more specific action. One way to make meaning is to construct an instance of emotion.
– You use concepts to categorize the continuous input.
Scientists define a concept as a mental representation of a category.
Concepts are regularities (e.g. a familiar stream of sounds) your brain uses to categorize experience.
– Everything you perceive around you is represented by concepts in your brain.
Without concepts, you’d experience a world of ever-fluctuating noise. Everything you ever encountered would be unlike everything else.
– Categorization is business as usual for your brain, and it explains how emotions are made without needing fingerprints.
– Concepts are not static but remarkably malleable and context-dependent, because your goals can change to fit the situation.
If you’re in a pet shop to replenish your home aquarium and the salesperson asks, “What kind of fish would you like?” you might say “a goldfish”, but probably won’t say “a poached salmon.” Your concept “Fish” in this situation serves a goal to purchase a pet, not to order dinner, so you’ll construct instances of the concept “Fish” that best suit your goal of filling a fish tank.
– We experience a situation (we perceive and interpret) based on some goal(s)…
Emotion concepts are goal-based concepts.
Instances of happiness, for example, are highly variable. You can smile in happiness, sob in happiness, scream in happiness, raise your arms in happiness, clench your fists in happiness, jump up and down doling out high fives in happiness, or even be stunned motionless in happiness…
Your concept of “Happiness” in the moment is centered on such a goal, binding together the diverse instances from your past.
– The human brain, establishes a conceptual system into its wiring (a reliable network of concepts) within the first year of life.
This “conceptual system” becomes responsible for the wealth of emotion concepts that you now employ to experience and perceive emotions.
– The newborn brain has the ability to learn patterns, a process called statistical learning.
Our senses pick up on regularities and establish conceptual structure very early on…
Your little baby brain began computing probabilities of which sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes, and interoceptive sensations go together and which don’t.
– Babies learn speech regularities extremely quickly, even within a few minutes of exposure. This learning process is so powerful that it changes the wiring in a baby’s brain.
Babies are born able to hear the differences between all sounds in all languages, but by the time they reach one year of age, statistical learning has reduced this ability to the sounds contained only in the languages they have heard spoken by live humans.
Babies become wired for their native languages by statistical learning.
Infants are not merely reactive to the world. Even from a very young age, they actively estimate probabilities based on patterns that they observe and learn, to maximize the outcomes they desire.
– Words allow infants to begin growing goal-based concepts, including emotion concepts.
– Human infants understand that objects have some kind of psychological similarity that can’t be immediately perceived through the five senses. This similarity is what we called the goal of the concept.
– From an infant’s perspective, the concept “Wug” did not exist in the world before an adult taught it to her…
This sort of social reality, in which two or more people agree that something purely mental is real, is a foundation of human culture and civilization.
– Words encourage infants to search for similarities beyond the physical, similarities that act like a mental glue for concepts. Babies could reasonably learn emotion concepts in this manner.
– Emotion words hold the key to understanding how children learn emotion concepts in the absence of biological fingerprints and in the presence of tremendous variation. Not the words in isolation, mind you, but words spoken by other humans in the child’s affective niche who use emotion concepts. These words invite a child to form goal-based concepts for “Happiness,” “Sadness,” “Fear,” and every other emotion concept in the child’s culture.
– As parents, we may look at our infants and perceive emotions in their cries, wriggles, and smiles…
Certainly infants feel pleasure and distress from birth, and affect-related concepts (pleasant/ unpleasant) show up by three to four months of age. But there’s a lot of research to indicate that adult-like emotion concepts develop later. Just how much later is an open question.
– As children grow up, they definitely form a whole conceptual system for emotion. This includes all the emotion concepts they’ve learned in their lives, anchored by the words that name those concepts. They categorize different facial and bodily configurations as the same emotion, and a single configuration as many different emotions.
Variation is the norm.
So where is the statistical regularity that holds together a concept like “Happiness” or “Anger”? In the words themselves. The most visible commonality that all instances of “Anger” share is that they’re all called “anger.”
– Nature provided your brain with the raw materials to wire itself with a conceptual system, but “emotional information” is in your perception (which is directly influenced by emotion words you’ve learned throughout life).
– Concept learning does not stop in childhood — it continues throughout life.
– Emotion words are not about emotional facts in the world that are stored like static files in your brain. They reflect the varied emotional meanings you construct from mere physical signals in the world using your emotion knowledge. You acquired that knowledge, in part, from the collective knowledge contained in the brains of those who cared for you, talked to you, and helped you to create your social world…
Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world.
– Once your conceptual system is established in your brain, you need not explicitly recall or speak an emotion word to construct an instance of an emotion. In fact, you can experience and perceive an emotion even if you don’t have a word for it.
This works by conceptual combination, which is the brain’s ability to combine concepts.
Conceptual combination is powerful, but it is far less efficient than having a word…
If you asked me what I had for dinner this evening, I could say “baked dough with tomato sauce and cheese,” but this is much less efficient than saying “pizza.”
Strictly speaking, you don’t need an emotion word to construct an instance of that emotion, but it’s easier when you have a word. If you want the concept to be efficient, and you want to transmit the concept to others, then a word is pretty handy.
Conceptual combination plus words equals the power to create reality.
– Emotional granularity: having many distinct emotion concepts
A person with high emotional granularity has hundreds of emotion concepts. They have distinct concepts for interrelated words like aggravation, irritation, and frustration; for passion, excitement, and exuberance, and so on.
[ Just because someone appears emotionally unresponsive — inconsiderate, aloof, dull, or cold — and seems to have low emotional granularity, does not mean they are dumb and/or slow. It could simply indicate that they have alexithymia (difficulty experiencing emotion due to “impoverished conceptual system”; 10% of world population) or a similar condition that limits conceptual system of emotion. ]
– The stimulus-response brain is a myth, brain activity is prediction and correction, and we construct emotional experiences outside of awareness. This explanation fits the architecture and operation of the brain.
– Your genes gave you a brain that can wire itself to its physical and social environment. The people around you, in your culture, maintain that environment with their concepts and help you live in that environment by transmitting those concepts from their brains to yours. And later, you transmit your concepts to the brains of the next generation.
It takes more than one human brain to create a human mind.
– Categorization means selecting a winning instance that becomes your perception and guides your action.
– A grown-up brain is dominated by prediction, but an infant brain is awash in prediction error. So babies must learn about the world from sensory input before their brains can model the world. This learning is a primary task of the infant brain.
Infants absorb the sensory input around them and learn, learn, learn.
The developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik describes babies as having a “lantern” of attention that is exquisitely bright but diffuse.
In contrast, your adult brain has a network to shut out information that might sidetrack your predictions, allowing you to do things like read this book without distraction.
– Take the concept of sadness:
A child hears the word “sad” spoken in three different situations. These three instances are represented in the child’s brain in bits and pieces. They are not “grouped together” in any concrete way. On a fourth occasion, the child sees a boy in her classroom crying, and a teacher uses the word “sad.” The child’s brain constructs the three prior instances as predictions, along with other predictions that are statistically similar in any way to the current situation. This collection of predictions is a concept created in the moment, by virtue of some purely mental similarity among the instances of “Sadness.” Once again, the prediction that is most similar to the current situation becomes her experience — an instance of emotion.
– Predictions and concepts are actually one and the same.
When your brain “constructs an instance of a concept,” such as an instance of “Happiness,” that is equivalent to saying your brain “issues a prediction” of happiness.
Think of prediction as “applying” a concept, modifying the activity in your primary sensory and motor regions, and correcting or refining as needed.
•You unexpectedly see a close friend from your past and experience sensations that your brain categorizes as happiness.
•If this prediction of happiness matches your incoming sensory inputs better than all the other predictions (such as anxiety, disappointment, etc), then you will experience this instance of “Happiness.”
•If not, then your brain will adjust the prediction, and you might experience an instance of “Disappointment” if your sensory input dictates that your old friend has changed for the worse.
•Or if need be, your brain will make the prediction match the sensory input, and you will mistakenly perceive the old friend as someone they are not, i.e. prediction error.
– Emotions seem to be “happening to” you, when in fact your brain is actively constructing the experience, held in check by the state of the world and your body.
– Preciseness leads to efficiency; this is a biological payoff of higher emotional granularity.
– An instance of a concept, as an entire brain state, is an anticipatory guess about how you should act in the present moment and what your sensations mean.
– Which sensory input is important, and which is just noise? Your brain has a network to help resolve these uncertainties, known as your control network.
Your control network helps select between emotion and non-emotion concepts (is this anxiety or indigestion?), between different emotion concepts (is this excitement or fear?), between different goals for an emotion concept (in fear, should I escape or attack?), and between different instances (when running to escape, should I scream or not?).
– Your brain has a mental model of the world as it will be in the next moment, developed from past experience…
This is the phenomenon of making meaning from the world and the body using concepts.
In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning.
Your brain is constantly and automatically in the process of categorization. Categorization establishes your reality.
– Categorization allows a fast-beating heart to become an emotional experience such as happiness or fear, giving it additional meaning and functions understood within your culture.
Categorization bestows new functions on biological signals, not by virtue of their physical nature but by virtue of your knowledge and the context around you in the world.
– Your prior experiences shape the meaning of momentary sensations. This same miraculous process makes emotion.
– Emotions are meaning.
Emotions explain your interoceptive changes and corresponding affective feelings, in relation to the situation.
Emotions are a prescription for action. The brain systems that implement concepts, such as the interoceptive network and the control network, are the biology of meaning-making.
– Does a tree make a sound when it falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it?
The scientific answer to the riddle is no. A falling tree itself makes no sound. Its descent merely creates vibrations in the air and the ground. These vibrations become “sound” only if something special is present to receive and translate them: an ear connected to a brain. These vibrations move fluid in the inner ear over little hairs that translate the pressure changes into electrical signals that are received by the brain.
Without this special machinery, there is no sound, only air movement…
Without a perceiver there is no sound, only physical reality.
Is an apple red?
The scientific answer is no. “Red” is not a color contained in an object. It is an experience involving reflected light, a human eye, and a human brain. (It is a characteristic assigned to the object by us, the perceivers.)
But even with the right equipment in place (the eye and the brain), the experience of a red apple is not a done deal. For the brain to convert a visual sensation into the experience of red, it must possess the concept “Red.”
This concept of color can come from prior experience with apples, roses, and other objects you perceive as red (by naturally categorizing as such over time, i.e. acquiring the concept), or from learning about red from other people.
– Changes in air pressure and wavelengths of light exist in the world, but to us, they are sounds and colors. We perceive them by going beyond the information given to us (via our senses) making meaning from them using knowledge from past experience, that is, concepts.
– Nothing in the natural world indicates whether a plant is definitively a flower or a weed.
Plants exist objectively in nature, but flowers and weeds require a perceiver in order to exist. They are perceiver-dependent categories.
– Emotions are real, but real in the same manner of the sound of a tree falling, the experience of red, and the distinctions between flowers and weeds. They are all constructed in the brain of a perceiver.
– Your muscle movements and bodily changes become functional as instances of emotion only when you categorize them that way, giving them new functions as experiences and perceptions. Without emotion concepts, these new functions don’t exist.
– The distinction between “real in nature” versus “illusory” is a false dichotomy.
Fear and anger are real to a group of people who agree that certain changes in the body, on the face, and so on, are meaningful as emotions.
In other words, emotion concepts have social reality. They exist in your human mind that is conjured in your human brain, which is part of nature.
The biological processes of categorization, which are rooted in physical reality and are observable in the brain and body, create socially real categories.
Folk concepts like “fear” and “anger” are not mere words to be discarded from scientific thought but play a critical role in the story of how the brain creates emotion.
– Most things in your life are socially constructed: your job, your street address, your government and laws, your social status. Wars are waged and neighbor slaughters neighbor, all for the sake of social reality.
– Make something up, give it a name, and you’ve created a concept. Teach your concept to others, and as long as they agree, you’ve created something real.
How do we work this magic of creation? We categorize. We take things that exist in nature and impose new functions on them that go beyond their physical properties. Then we transmit these concepts to each other, wiring each other’s brains for the social world. This is the core of social reality.
Emotions are social reality.
Instead of asking, “Are emotions real?” the better question is, “How do emotions become real?”
Ideally, the answer lies in building a bridge from the perceiver-independent biology of the brain and body, like interoception, to the everyday concepts that we live our lives around, like “Fear” and “Happiness.”
– Emotions become real to us through two human capabilities that are prerequisites for social reality: collective intentionality (agreement about the existence of concepts from shared information and understanding); and language.
Only human animals have both language and collective intentionality.
The two abilities build on one another in complex ways, allowing a human infant to bootstrap a conceptual system into her brain, changing its wiring in the process. The combination also allows people to categorize cooperatively, which is the basis of communication and social influence.
– Words are not the only way to communicate a concept, of course. Nevertheless, you need a word to teach a concept efficiently.
– [Review]: An instance of emotion, constructed from a prediction, tailors your action (or bodily response) to meet a particular goal (i.e. to suit your needs, or to be as effective or appropriate as possible) in a particular situation, using past experience as a guide.
– Categorization literally gets under your skin. Every instance of emotion involves some body budgeting for the immediate future.
– Emotion concepts have two other functions that draw other individuals into your circle of social reality: emotion communication (two people categorizing with concepts in synchrony); and social influence (applying concepts to regulate other people’s body budgets, not just your own.)
– If I say that my shirt is made of silk and you say no, it’s made of polyester, we can perform a chemical test to discover the answer. With social reality, however, there is no such thing as accuracy.
If I say my shirt is a thing of beauty and you say it’s hideous, neither of us is objectively correct.
Emotions have no fingerprints, so there can be no accuracy. The best you can do is find consensus.
– I am not saying emotions are illusions.
I’m not saying that everything is relative. If that were true, civilization would fall apart.
I am also not saying that emotions are “just in your head.” That phrase trivializes the power of social reality. … But emotions exist only in the presence of human perceivers.
– Emotion concepts like “Fear,” “Anger,” and “Happiness” are passed down from one generation to the next. This occurs not merely because we propagate our genes but because those genes allow each generation to wire the brains of the next one.
– Just because fear appears generation after generation in your culture does not prove that fear is coded into the human genome, nor that it was sculpted by natural selection in our hominin ancestors millions of years ago on the African savanna.
The human brain is a cultural artifact. We don’t load culture into a virgin brain like software loading into a computer; rather, culture helps to wire the brain. Brains then become carriers of culture, helping to create and perpetuate it.
Concepts are not merely a social veneer on top of biology. They are a biological reality that is wired into your brain by culture.
– Emotion concepts are also cultural tools. They come with a rich set of rules, all in the service of regulating your body budget or influencing someone else’s.
– Yes, fago, litost, and the rest are just words made up by people, but so are “happy,” “sad,” “fearful,” “angry,” “disgusted,” and “surprised.” Invented words are the very definition of social reality. … I’m asking you to learn the concept of “Emotion from Another Culture,” so you understand that its instances are just as real to others as your own emotions are to you.
– Utka Eskimos have no concept of “Anger.” The Tahitians have no concept of “Sadness.” This last item is very difficult for Westerners to accept . . . life without sadness? Really? When Tahitians are in a situation that a Westerner would describe as sad, they feel ill, troubled, fatigued, or unenthusiastic, all of which are covered by their broader term pe’ape’a.
– Beyond individual emotion concepts, different cultures don’t even agree on what “emotion” is. Westerners think of emotion as an experience inside an individual, in the body. Many other cultures, however, characterize emotions as interpersonal events that require two or more people.
– The concept of “Emotion” itself is an invention of the 17th century. Before that, scholars wrote about passions, sentiments, and other concepts that had somewhat different meanings.
•The theory of constructed emotion explains how you experience and perceive emotion in the absence of any consistent, biological fingerprints in the face, body, or brain.
•Your brain continually predicts and simulates all the sensory inputs from inside and outside your body, so it understands what they mean and what to do about them.
•These predictions travel through your cortex, cascading from the body-budgeting circuitry in your interoceptive network to your primary sensory cortices, to create distributed, brain-wide simulations, each of which is an instance of a concept. The simulation that’s closest to your actual situation is the winner that becomes your experience, and if it’s an instance of an emotion concept, then you experience emotion.
•This whole process occurs, with the help of your control network, in the service of regulating your body budget to keep you alive and healthy. In the process, you impact the body budgets of those around you, to help you survive to propagate your genes into the next generation.
This is how brains and bodies create social reality. This is also how emotions become real.
– In the theory of constructed emotion, culture is not some gauzy, amorphous vapor that surrounds you. It helped to wire your brain, and you behave in certain ways that wire the brains of the next generation.
– Your constructions aren’t arbitrary—your brain (and the mind it creates) must keep in touch with the bits of reality that count in order to keep your body alive and healthy.
[ Probably most of your constructs/concepts (including your emotions) are not only valid and worth having, they are necessary or effective for you. They are adapted for you to live in the best way possible, even if they are indoctrinated and imperfect, because your brain & body have ultimately determined over time which constructs/concepts have been best available for you to survive and thrive.
Once you’ve gained awareness and understanding of your constructed reality and the concepts it’s built upon, don’t assume you should begin destructing it, as if it’s all illusory and in order to find truth and become real and free you must abandon everything you’ve acquired socially or culturally…
Rather than attempting to deconstruct all or most of your concepts, instead seek to remodel and repurpose ‘some’ or perhaps ‘many’ of your constructs/concepts to better suit yourself and the truths you’ve discovered on your own. ]
– Are you responsible for your concepts?
Not all of them, certainly. When you’re a baby, you can’t choose the concepts that other people put into your head.
But as an adult, you absolutely do have choices about what you expose yourself to and therefore what you learn, which creates the concepts that ultimately drive your actions, whether they feel willful or not.
So “responsibility” means making deliberate choices to change your concepts.
– It is possible for each person to change their concepts and therefore their behavior. … Someone must take responsibility to change these circumstances and concepts. Who’s going to do it, if not the people themselves?
– The human brain evolved to create different kinds of human minds, adapted to different environments.
– Your mind is a grand collaboration that you have no awareness of. Through construction, you perceive the world not in any objectively accurate sense but through the lens of your own needs, goals, and prior experience.
– Modern neuroscience has shown that the so-called limbic system is a fiction, and experts in brain evolution no longer take it seriously, let alone consider it a system. Accordingly, it’s not the home of emotion in the brain, which is unsurprising because no single brain area is dedicated to emotion.
– If your brain operates by prediction and construction and rewires itself through experience, then it’s no overstatement to say that if you change your current experiences today, you can change who you become tomorrow.
– Each time you perform a physical act for your body budget, you’re also doing something mental with concepts.
Every mental activity has a physical effect as well…
You can put this connection to work for you, to master your emotions, enhance your resilience, become a better friend or parent or lover, and even change your conception of who you are.
– The major ingredients in the recipe for living [a good life] are your body budget and your concepts.
If you maintain a balanced body budget, you’ll feel better in general, so that’s where to start.
And if you develop a rich set of concepts, you’ll have a toolbox for a meaningful life.
– If there’s one thing that (I hope) you’ve learned from the past five chapters, it’s that your body and your mind are deeply interconnected.
Interoception drives your actions.
Your culture wires your brain.
– The most basic thing you can do to master your emotions, in fact, is to keep your body budget in good shape.
If you want to feel good, then your brain’s predictions about your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, hormones, metabolism, and so on, must be calibrated to your body’s actual needs. If they aren’t, and your body budget gets out of whack, then you’re going to feel crappy no matter what self-help tips you follow. It’s just a matter of which flavor of crap.
– When people feel crappy on a regular basis, quite a few of them self-medicate…
30% of all medications consumed in the United States are taken to manage some form of distress.
– What can you do, practically speaking, to keep your predictions calibrated and body budget balanced?
I apologize if I suddenly sound like your mother, but the road begins with eating healthfully, exercising, and getting enough sleep.
Sadly there is no substitute, biologically speaking.
– The science is crystal clear on healthful food, regular exercise, and sleep as prerequisites for a balanced body budget and a healthy emotional life.
– After attending to your body budget, the next best thing you can do for emotional health is to beef up your concepts, otherwise known as “becoming more emotionally intelligent.”
Emotional intelligence (EI) is about getting your brain to construct the most useful instance of the most useful emotion concept in a given situation. (And also when not to construct emotions but instances of some other concept.)
– Emotional granularity is central to emotional intelligence.
People who make highly granular experiences are emotion experts: they issue predictions and construct instances of emotion that are finely tailored to fit each specific situation.
– There are many ways to gain new concepts: taking trips, reading books, watching movies, trying unfamiliar foods.
Be a collector of experiences. Try on new perspectives the way you try on new clothing.
These kinds of activities will provoke your brain to combine concepts to form new ones, changing your conceptual system proactively so you’ll predict and behave differently later.
[ Maintain the INTENTION to develop emotional granularity, and remain conscious of emotional granularity’s primary role in emotionally intelligence. ]
– Perhaps the easiest way to gain concepts is to learn new words. You’ve probably never thought about learning words as a path to greater emotional health, but it follows directly from the neuroscience of construction.
Words seed your concepts, concepts drive your predictions, predictions regulate your body budget, and your body budget determines how you feel.
Therefore… the more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your predicting brain can calibrate your budget to your body’s needs.
– In contrast, lower emotional granularity is associated with all sorts of afflictions.
People who have major depressive disorder, social anxiety disorder, eating disorders, autism spectrum disorders, borderline personality disorder, or who just experience more anxiety and depressed feelings all tend to exhibit lower granularity for negative emotion.
– Each time you attend to positive things, you tweak your conceptual system, reinforcing concepts about those positive events and making them salient in your mental model of the world. [Not the basic traditional idea of “positive thinking”, but rather a more thorough, realistic, and accurate approach: positive concept development supported by attention management. ]
In contrast, when you ruminate about something unpleasant, you cause fluctuations in your body budget.
These concepts, as patterns of neural activity, get easier and easier for your brain to re-create, like well-trodden walking paths that grow deeper with each passerby’s footsteps.
– Every experience you construct is an investment, so invest wisely. Cultivate the experiences you want to construct again in the future.
– When you teach emotion concepts to children, you are doing more than communicating. You are creating reality for these kids—social reality. You’re handing them tools to regulate their body budget, to make meaning of their sensations and act on them, to communicate how they feel, and to influence others more effectively. They will use these skills their whole lives.
– By regulating your children’s body budgets effectively, you guide them not only to a richer conceptual system for emotion but also better overall language development, which prepares them for better academic performance in school.
– What can you do to master your feelings in the moment?
The simplest approach, believe it or not, is to move your body.
All animals use motion to regulate their body budgets; if their brain serves up more glucose than their body needs, a quick scamper up a tree will bring their energy level back into balance.
Humans are unique in that we can regulate the budget without moving, using purely mental concepts. But when this skill fails you, remember that you too are an animal. Get up and move around, even if you don’t feel like it.
– Anytime you feel miserable, it’s because you are experiencing unpleasant affect due to interoceptive sensations.
Your brain will dutifully predict causes for those sensations. Perhaps they are a message from your body, like “I have a stomachache.” Or perhaps they’re saying, “Something is seriously wrong with my life.” This is the distinction between discomfort and suffering…
Discomfort is purely physical. Suffering is personal.
– I think drug addiction is often a misguided attempt to relieve the suffering from a body budget that’s chronically out of whack.
– With practice, you can learn to deconstruct an affective feeling into its mere physical sensations, rather than letting those sensations be a filter through which you view the world. You can dissolve anxiety into a fast-beating heart.
Once you can deconstruct into physical sensations, then you can recategorize them in some other way, using your rich set of concepts.
[ ‘Practice’ is key. The practice of deconstructing emotion must be done intently over time.]
– Recategorization is a tool of the emotion expert.
(E.g. “Perhaps that pounding in your chest is not anxiety but anticipation, or even excitement.”)
If you can categorize your discomfort as helpful, say, when you’re exercising hard, you can cultivate greater stamina.
The more concepts that you know and the more instances that you can construct, the more effectively you can recategorize in this manner to master your emotions and regulate your behavior.
[ Recategorizing to some extent involves “cognitive reappraisal” of your situation or condition, which essentially involves examining your perceptions, considering the facts and objectifying the situation, and reassessing value, importance, or relative meaning. This is similar to what I call positive-realistic framing. ]
– The notion of recategorizing suffering as discomfort, or deconstructing the mental into the physical, has ancient origins…
In Buddhism, some forms of meditation help to recategorize sensations as physical symptoms to reduce suffering, a practice Buddhists call deconstructing the self.
– Buddhism considers the self to be a fiction and the primary cause of human suffering.
My scientific definition of the self is inspired by the workings of the brain yet is sympathetic to the Buddhist view.
The self is part of social reality. It’s not exactly a fiction, but neither is it objectively real in nature like a neutron. It depends on other people. In scientific terms, your predictions in the moment, and your actions that derive from them, depend to some extent on the way that others treat you. You can’t be a self by yourself.
– If the self is a concept, then you construct instances of your self by simulation. Each instance fits your goals in the moment.
– How does your brain keep track of all the varied instances of your “Self” as an infant, a young child, an adolescent, a middle-aged adult, and an older adult?
Because one part of you has remained constant: you’ve always had a body.
Every concept you have ever learned includes the state of your body (as interoceptive predictions) at the time of learning.
– The fiction of the self, paralleling the Buddhist idea, is that you have some enduring essence that makes you who you are. You do not.
I speculate that your self is constructed anew in every moment by the same predictive, core systems that construct emotions, including our familiar pair of networks (interoceptive and control), among others, as they categorize the continuous stream of sensation from your body and the world.
– Deconstructing the self offers a new inspiration for how to become the master of your emotions.
By tweaking your conceptual system and changing your predictions, you not only change your future experiences; you can actually change your “Self.”
Suppose you are feeling bad — worried because you’re struggling with your finances, angry that you didn’t receive the promotion you deserved, dejected because your teacher believes you are not as intelligent as other students, or heartbroken because your lover abandoned you…
A Buddhist mindset would describe these feelings as the suffering that results from clinging to material wealth, reputation, power, and security in an effort to reify the self.
In the language of the theory of constructed emotion, wealth, reputation, and the rest are firmly within your affective niche, impacting your body budget, which ultimately leads you to construct instances of unpleasant emotions.
Deconstructing the self for a moment allows you to reduce the size of your affective niche so concepts like “Reputation,” “Power,” and “Wealth” become unnecessary.
– When you are suffering from some ill or insult that has befallen you, ask yourself: Are you really in jeopardy here? Or is this so-called injury merely threatening the social reality of your self?
The answer will help you recategorize your pounding heartbeat, the knot in the pit of your stomach, and your sweaty brow as purely physical sensations.
– I’m not saying this kind of recategorization is easy, but with practice it’s possible, and it’s also healthful.
When you categorize something as “Not About Me,” it exits your affective niche and has less impact on your body budget.
[ Conversely, with positive experience you can consciously lean into it while holding the intention of developing or reinforcing wholesome qualities and realistically reconstructing a better social self. ]
– Meditation has a potent effect on brain structure and function, though scientists have not sorted out the exact details yet. Key regions in the interoceptive and control networks are larger for meditators, and connections between these regions are stronger.
– Recategorization is a critical tool for mastering your emotions in the moment. [Recategorization = redefining or reclassifying your experience (so as to override unconscious predictions and thus consciously manage your responses)
When you feel bad, treat yourself like you have a virus, rather than assuming that your unpleasant feelings mean something personal.
Your feelings might just be noise. You might just need some sleep.
– All members of a social species regulate each other’s body budgets—even bees, ants, and cockroaches. But we are the only species who can do so by teaching each other purely mental concepts, and then using them in synchrony.
Our words allow us to enter each other’s affective niches, even at extremely long distances. You can regulate your friend’s body budget (and he yours) even if you are an ocean apart—by phone or email or even just by thinking about one another.
– If you want someone else to know what you’re feeling, you need to transmit clear cues for the other person to predict effectively and for synchrony to occur.
In the classical view of emotion, the responsibility is all on the perceiver’s end because emotions are supposedly displayed universally. In a construction mindset, you also bear the responsibility to be a good sender.
– Many things that seem unrelated to emotion – like diet and vocabulary – actually have a profound impact on how you feel, because of the porous boundary between the social and the physical.
You are a remarkable animal who can create purely mental concepts that influence the state of your body.
The social and the physical are intimately linked via your body and your brain, and your ability to move effectively between social and physical depends on a set of skills that you can learn.
So grow your emotion concepts.
Cultivate opportunities for your brain to wire itself to the realities of your social world.
– If you feel unpleasant in the moment, then deconstruct or recategorize your experiences. And realize that your perceptions of others are just guesses and not facts.
[ To recategorize in the moment, it can help to reappraise the situation or conditions with greater perspective, perhaps in terms of “This experience is…
– Insignificant (in the grand scheme)
– Meaningless (relative to the real you or your true self – relative to your actual needs, values, & goals)
– Bearable (definitely tolerable and endurable)
– Impermanent (certainly soon-to-be-over)
– Illusory (just a collection of concepts) ]
– When a budget imbalance becomes prolonged, however, your internal dynamics change for the worse. Your brain mispredicts that your body needs energy over and over and over, driving your budget into the red.
The effects of chronic misbudgeting can be devastating to your health and summon your body’s “debt collectors,” which are part of your immune system.
– My view is that some major illnesses considered distinct and “mental” are all rooted in a chronically unbalanced body budget and unbridled inflammation. We categorize and name them as different disorders, based on context, much like we categorize and name the same bodily changes as different emotions.
If I’m correct, then questions like, “Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” are no longer mysteries because, like emotions, these illnesses do not have firm boundaries in nature.
– Stress doesn’t come from the outside world. You construct it.
You construct instances of “Stress” via the same brain mechanisms that construct emotion. In each case, your brain issues predictions about your body budget in relation to the outside world and makes meaning. These predictions issue from your interoceptive network and descend along the same pathways from the brain to the body.
– If your body budget is unbalanced for a long time, you may experience chronic stress. (Chronic misbudgeting is often diagnosed as stress, which is why people think stress causes illness.)
Chronic stress is dangerous to your physical health. It literally eats away at your interoceptive and control networks, causing them to atrophy, as your chronically imbalanced body budget remodels the very brain circuitry that regulates the budget.
– Pain, like emotion and stress, appears to be a whole-brain construction. It involves our familiar pair of networks, the interoceptive and control networks.
– Overall, the body sensations that are categorized as pain, stress, and emotions are fundamentally the same, even at the level of neurons in the brain and spinal cord.
Distinguishing between pain, stress, and emotion is a form of emotional granularity.
– How and why do so many people experience ongoing pain when their bodies appear to have no physical damage?
To answer that question, think about what would happen if your brain issued unnecessary predictions of pain and then ignored prediction error to the contrary. You would genuinely experience pain for no discernable reason.
When your brain ignores sensory input, maintaining that its predictions are reality, the result is a plausible model of chronic pain: errant predictions without correction.
– So “Pain,” like “Stress,” is another concept with which you make meaning of physical sensations. You could characterize pain and stress as emotions, or even emotion and stress as types of pain.
I’m not saying that instances of emotion and pain are indistinguishable in the brain, but neither has a fingerprint.
– If depression is a disorder of affect, and affect is an integrated summary of how your body budget is doing (answer: pretty poorly), then depression may actually be a disorder of misbudgeting and prediction.
The traditional view of depression is that negative thoughts cause negative feelings. I’m suggesting it’s the other way around. Your feelings right now drive your next thought, as well as your perceptions, as predictions.
If depression is a disorder caused by chronic misbudgeting, then it’s not, strictly speaking, exclusively a psychiatric disease. It’s also a neurological, metabolic, and immunologic disease.
Depression is an imbalance of many entwined parts of the nervous system that we can understand only by treating the whole person, not by treating one system in isolation like the parts of a machine.
– The theory of constructed emotion suggests that we can treat depression by breaking the cycle of misbudgeting, that is, by changing interoceptive predictions to be more in line with what’s going on around you. [Perhaps not major depressive disorder, especially not in any short period of time]
– Anxiety is still a puzzle being unraveled, but one thing seems certain: it is yet another disorder of prediction and prediction error across these two networks.
– I speculate that an anxious brain, in a sense, is the opposite of a depressed brain…
In depression, prediction is dialed way up and prediction error way down, so you’re locked into the past.
In anxiety, the metaphorical dial is stuck on allowing too much prediction error from the world, and too many predictions are unsuccessful.
– With insufficient prediction, you don’t know what’s coming around the next corner, and life contains a lot of corners. That’s classic anxiety.
– The brain of an anxious person might predict threats needlessly, or create uncertainty by predicting imprecisely or not at all.
In addition, your interoceptive inputs become even more noisy than usual when your body budget has been in the red for a while; as a consequence, your brain ignores them.
These situations leave you open to a lot of uncertainty and a lot of prediction error that you can’t resolve. And uncertainty is more unpleasant and arousing than assured harm, because if the future is a mystery, you can’t prepare for it.
– The misery you feel in anxiety and depression tells you that something is seriously wrong with your body budget.
Either your brain is trying to secure a deposit, ramping up unpleasant affect, or it’s attempting to reduce your need for the deposit by remaining still, resulting in fatigue.
To be clear, I am not saying that major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders are interchangeable. I’m suggesting that every category of mental illness is a diverse population of instances, and certain collections of symptoms could reasonably be categorized equally well as an anxiety disorder or as depression.
– When prediction error from the world dominates prediction, you can have anxiety.
Suppose you couldn’t predict at all, ever. What would happen?
For starters, your body budget would be screwed up because you couldn’t predict your metabolic needs. You’d have difficulty integrating sensory input from vision, hearing, smell, interoception, nociception (the brain processing a sensation as pain), and your other sensory systems into a cohesive whole.
In the end, you’d exist in a constant stream of ambiguous sensory input with few concepts to help you make sense of it. You’d be anxious all the time because sensations are unpredictable. In effect, you’d have a total breakdown of interoception, concepts, and social reality.
– When you have too much prediction and not enough correction, you feel bad, and the flavor of badness depends on the concepts you use. In small amounts, you might feel angry or shameful. In extreme amounts, you get chronic pain or depression.
In contrast, too much sensory input and ineffective prediction yields anxiety, and in extreme amounts, you might develop an anxiety disorder.
With no prediction at all, you’d have a condition comparable to autism.
All of these disorders appear to be rooted in misbudgeting.
– I’m not saying that body-budget debt is the single cause of all mental illness. Nor am I suggesting that rebalancing the budget is the golden cure. I’m just saying that, thanks to our new view of human nature, we can understand that a body budget is a common factor in diseases that are traditionally considered separable. [perhaps detectable only by their historical origins, as in disease/disorder stemming from long chains of various forms of misbudgeting]
– Now imagine with me, for a moment, the myriad ways that a young person can develop a budget that’s chronically in overdraft. There’s overt abuse and neglect, of course, but also an avalanche of smaller events (e.g. social pressures and difficulties of all sorts, harsh or unnatural impacts that result from constantly engaging various technologies, limited functional resources, and so on, all in addition to consistently insuffcient diet, sleep, and exercise).
– We all walk a tightrope between the world and the mind, and between the natural and the social.
Many phenomena that were once considered purely mental — depression, anxiety, stress, and chronic pain — can, in fact, be explained in biological terms. Other phenomena that were believed to be purely physical, like pain, are also mental concepts.
To be an effective architect of your experience, you need to distinguish physical reality from social reality, and never mistake one for the other, while still understanding that the two are irrevocably entwined.
– The distinction between emotion and cognition hinges on their alleged separation in the brain, with one regulating the other…
But as you’ve learned by now, thinking and feeling are not distinct in the brain.
Whenever you carry out an action your brain is always a whirlwind of parallel predictions that compete with one another to determine your actions and your experience.
– Moments of emotion are not synonymous with moments that you’re out of control.
Anger is a population of diverse instances, not a single automatic reaction in the true sense of the phrase. The same holds for every other category of emotion, cognition, perception, and other type of mental event.
It might seem like your brain has a quick, intuitive process and a slower, deliberative one, and that the former is more emotional and the latter more rational, but this idea is not defensible on neuroscience or behavioral grounds.
Sometimes your control network plays a large role in the construction process, and other times its role is less, but it is always involved, and the latter times are not necessarily emotional.
– The illusion of a two-system brain is a byproduct of a century-old, flawed experimental design, and our laws maintain the illusion.
Here’s where the law is out of sync with science, thanks to the classical view of human nature:
The law defines deliberate choice – free will — as whether you feel in control of your thoughts and actions. It fails to distinguish between your ability to choose — the workings of your control network — and your subjective experience of choice. The two are not the same in the brain.
– Emotions are not temporary deviations from rationality. They are not alien forces that invade you without your consent. They are not tsunamis that leave destruction in their wake. They are not even your reactions to the world. They are your constructions of the world.
Instances of emotion are no more out of control than thoughts or perceptions or beliefs or memories.
The fact is, you construct many perceptions and experiences and you perform many actions, some that you control a lot and some that you don’t.
– Some men and women are very emotional, and some are not. Likewise, the female brain is not hardwired for emotion or empathy, and the male brain is not hardwired for stoicism or rationality.
– Overall, there is no scientific justification for the law’s view of men’s and women’s emotions. They are merely beliefs that come from an outdated view of human nature.
– It is just not possible to localize a complex, psychological category like “Aggression” to one set of neurons, because of degeneracy; “Aggression,” like any other concept, may be implemented differently in the brain each time it’s constructed.
– No two brains are exactly alike. They generally have the same parts, roughly in the same place, connected together in pretty much the same way, but at a fine-grained level, in their microcircuitry, they have vast differences.
– All behavior stems from the brain. No human actions, thoughts, or feelings exist apart from firing neurons.
But behavior in real life is anything but simple. It’s a culmination of multiple factors, including predictions from your brain, prediction error from your five senses plus interoceptive sensation, and a complex cascade involving billions of prediction loops.
– A whole culture collectively plays a role in the concepts you build and the predictions you make, and therefore in your behavior. People can argue over how large a role culture plays, but the fact of its role is not debatable.
– Jurors are instructed to make decisions based only on the evidence presented. In a predicting brain, however, this is an impossible task. The jurors perceive every defendant, plaintiff, witness, judge, attorney, courtroom, and iota of evidence through the lens of their own conceptual system, which makes the idea of the impartial juror an implausible fiction.
In effect, a jury is a dozen subjective perceptions that are supposed to yield one fair and objective truth.
– Mental inference, you’ll remember, is how your brain gives meaning to other people’s actions through a cascade of predictions.
Mental inference is so pervasive and automatic, at least in cultures of the West, that we’re usually unaware of doing it.
We believe that our senses provide an accurate and objective representation of the world, as if we had X-ray vision for deciphering another person’s behavior to discover his intent.
In these moments, we experience our perceptions of other people as an obvious property of them — a phenomenon we’ve called affective realism — rather than a combination of their actions and the concepts in our own brain.
– If there is one thing you can take away from this book, it is that the boundaries between mental and physical are porous.
– Neuroscience and the legal system are seriously out of sync on fundamental issues of human nature. These discrepancies must be addressed if the legal system is to remain one of our most impressive achievements of social reality and continue protecting people’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Emotions are not expressed, displayed, or otherwise revealed in the face, body, and voice in any objective way, and anyone who determines innocence, guilt, or punishment needs to know this.
Your sight, hearing, and other senses are always colored by your feelings. Even the most objective-sounding evidence is colored by affective realism.
Jurors and judges should be skeptical of claims that certain brain regions directly cause bad behavior. That is junk science. Every brain is unique; variation is normal (think degeneracy) and not necessarily meaningful. Unlawful behavior has never been definitively localized to any brain region.
– To employ emotions wisely, I suggest that judges learn to experience emotion with high granularity.
Judges can cultivate higher granularity using the exercises I previously recommended: collecting experiences, learning more emotion words, using conceptual combination to invent and explore new emotion concepts, and deconstructing and recategorizing their emotional experiences in the moment.
– A brain does not compute a mind in a vacuum.
Every human being is the sum of his or her concepts, which become the predictions that drive behavior.
The concepts in your head are not purely a matter of personal choice. Your predictions come from the cultural influences you were pickled in.
All of your predictions are shaped not just by direct experience but also indirectly by television, movies, friends, and the symbols of your culture.
Your mind is not only a function of your brain but also of the other brains in your culture.
Sometimes this is trivialized as “society is to blame,” a phrase lampooned as bleeding-heart liberal sentiment. I am saying something more nuanced…
If you commit a crime, you are indeed to blame, but your actions are rooted in your conceptual system, and those concepts don’t just appear in a puff of magic. They are forged by the social reality you live in, which gets under your skin to turn genes on and off and wire your neurons.
So at the level of neurons, you and your society jointly cause certain predictions to become more likely in your brain. (Yet you are still technically responsible… individuals still must be held legally responsible for the actions that result from their brain predictions.)
– People don’t have a rational side and an emotional side, with the former regulating the latter.
– In short, every perception and experience within the courtroom — or anywhere else — is a culturally infused, highly personalized belief, corrected by sensory inputs from the world, rather than the result of an unbiased process.
– All animals regulate their body budget to stay alive, so they all must have an interoceptive network of some sort.
I think it’s best to assume all animals can experience affect.
– Macaques do have an important difference from humans where affect is concerned.
Many, many objects and events in your world, from the tiniest insect to the largest mountain, cause fluctuations in your body budget and change your affective feelings. That is, you have a large affective niche.
Macaques, however, don’t care about as many things as you and I do. Their affective niche is much smaller than ours; the sight of a majestic mountain rising in the distance doesn’t impact their body budget in the least. Simply put, more things matter to us.
A human brain is almost five times as large as a macaque brain. We have much greater connectivity in our control network and in parts of our interoceptive network. The human brain employs this heavy-duty machinery to compress and summarize prediction error. This allows us to integrate and process more sensory information from more sources more efficiently than a macaque can, to learn purely mental concepts.
An interoceptive network, along with the affective niche it helps create, is not sufficient for feeling and perceiving emotions. For that, a brain must also be equipped to build a conceptual system, to construct emotion concepts, and to make sensations meaningful as emotions in themselves and others.
– You might not think of smell as conceptual knowledge, but each time you smell the same aroma, such as popcorn in a movie theater, you’re categorizing.
– Humans construct goal-based concepts, and a macaque brain simply lacks the necessary wiring to do so. It’s the same lack of wiring that accounts for their smaller affective niche.
At present, we have no firm evidence that chimps can form goal-based concepts. They cannot imagine something completely novel, like a flying leopard, even though they and macaques have a network that’s analogous to the human default mode network (part of the interoceptive network)…
They cannot consider the same situation from different points of view. They can’t imagine a future that is different from the present. They also do not realize that goal-based information resides inside the heads of other creatures. That’s why chimps and other great apes most likely cannot create goal-based concepts.
– The human capacity for social reality appears unique in the animal kingdom.
Only we can create and share purely mental concepts using words. Only we can use these concepts to more effectively regulate our own body budgets and each other’s, while we cooperate and compete with one another. Only we have concepts for mental states, such as emotion concepts, for predicting and making sense of sensations. Social reality is a human superpower.
Chimps and other primates don’t appear to have emotion concepts or social reality.
– Dogs, like other mammals, feel affect. No big surprise here.
But scientists have no indication yet that dogs have emotion concepts. In fact, there’s pretty good evidence that they don’t, though many dog behaviors look emotional.
My view, from evaluating the evidence, is that dogs don’t have human emotion concepts like anger, guilt, and jealousy. It’s conceivable that one individual dog could develop some emotion-like concept of its own, different from any human emotion concept, in relation to its owner. Without language, however, the dog’s emotion concept would necessarily be narrower than a human’s, and it couldn’t teach the concept to other dogs.
Dogs might not feel fear, anger, and other human emotions, but they do experience pleasure, distress, attachment, and other affective feelings. But for dogs to be successful as a species, living cooperatively with their human companions, affect may be enough.
– Human infants can comfort another infant who is in distress. You don’t need emotion concepts for this ability, just a nervous system with interoception that produces affect.
– Can animals learn concepts and can they categorize predictively with those concepts? Definitely.
But can animals use words to go beyond the statistical regularities in the world, to create goal-based similarities that unite actions or objects that look, sound, or feel different? Can they use words as invitations to form mental concepts? Do they realize that part of the information they need about the world resides in the minds of other creatures around them? Can they categorize actions and make them meaningful as mental events? Probably not. At least not in the way that we humans do.
– From the perspective of the theory of constructed emotion, the question “Is a growling dog angry?” is the wrong question to ask in the first place, or at least incomplete. It assumes that a dog is measurably angry or not angry in some objective sense.
But as you’ve learned, emotion categories have no consistent, biological fingerprints. Emotions are always constructed from some perceiver’s point of view.
So the question “Was Rowdy (the dog) angry?” is actually two separate scientific questions: “Was Rowdy angry from the boy’s perspective?” “Was Rowdy angry from his own perspective?” These questions have substantially different answers.
– Dogs do not have the human emotion concepts necessary to construct an instance of anger. Lacking a Western concept of “Anger,” dogs cannot categorize their interoceptive and other sensory information to create an instance of emotion. Nor can they perceive emotion in other dogs or in humans.
Dogs do perceive distress and pleasure and a handful of other states, a feat that requires only affect.
I’ll admit, the distinctions I’m making here are subtle. Construction views of emotion are frequently misinterpreted as saying “dogs don’t have emotions” (and sometimes even “people don’t have emotions”). Such simplistic statements are meaningless because they assume emotions have essences so that they can exist, or not, independent of any perceiver…
But emotions are perceptions, and every perception requires a perceiver. And therefore every question about an instance of emotion must be asked from a particular point of view.
– Distinctions are imperative for clarity. For example, fear and freezing (as an assumed indication of fear):
Freezing (as in “freezing up”) is a behavior because it involves multiple, coordinated muscle movements. The feeling of fear is an experience that may or may not occur together with behaviors like freezing.
Circuitry that controls freezing is not circuitry for fear…
This egregious scientific misunderstanding, along with the phrase “fear learning,” has sown confusion for decades and turned what’s effectively an experiment on classical conditioning into an industry of fear.
In a nutshell, you can’t study fear by shocking rats unless at the outset you have defined “fear” circularly as “the freezing response of a shocked rat.”
From now on, any time that you read an article about animal emotion, watch for this pattern. If a scientist labels a behavior like freezing using a mental state word like “fear,” you should think, “Aha, the mental inference fallacy!”
– Mental inference toward animals is not a bad thing in itself — it’s completely normal.
Our challenge is to understand animal minds for their own sake, not as inferior human minds. The latter idea comes from the classical view of human nature, which implies that chimps and other primates are less evolved, diminished versions of ourselves. They’re not. They’re adapted to the ecological niche that they live in.
– Animals are emotional creatures, at least as far as human perceivers are concerned. This is part of the social reality that we create.
We grant emotions to our cars, our houseplants, and even little circles and triangles in a movie…
We also grant emotions to animals.
However, this does not mean that animals experience emotion.
A lion cannot hate a zebra when she hunts and kills it as prey. That is why we don’t find the lion’s actions immoral.
– You do have survival circuits for behaviors like the famous “four F’s” (fighting, fleeing, feeding, and mating); they’re controlled by body-budgeting regions in your interoceptive network, and they cause bodily changes that you experience as affect, but they are not dedicated to emotion. For emotion, you also need emotion concepts for categorization.
– In these pages, you’ve learned that emotions are part of the biological makeup of the human brain and body, but not because you have dedicated circuits for each one.
Emotions are a result of evolution, but not as essences passed down from ancestral animals.
You experience emotions without conscious effort, but that does not mean you’re a passive recipient of these experiences. You perceive emotions without formal instruction, but that does not mean that emotions are innate or independent of learning…
What’s innate is that humans use concepts to build social reality, and social reality, in turn, wires the brain. Emotions are very real creations of social reality, made possible by human brains in concert with other human brains.
– Your mind is definitely a product of evolution, but it is not sculpted by genes alone.
Sure, your brain is made of networked neurons, but that’s just one factor in growing a human mind.
Your brain also developed inside of a body, nestled among other human brains in bodies, who balanced your body budget and expanded your affective niche through actions and words.
– Your brain predicts with its concepts, and while scientists debate whether certain concepts are innate or learned, it’s unquestionable that you learned a slew of them as your brain wired itself to its physical and social surroundings.
Those concepts come from your culture and help negotiate the quintessential dilemma of living in groups — getting ahead versus getting along — a tug-of-war that has more than one solution. On balance, some cultures favor getting along, while others favor getting ahead.
All these discoveries reveal a crucial insight: The human brain evolved, in the context of human cultures, to create more than one kind of mind.
– Brains vary significantly from person to person: in the placement of every cortical groove and ridge, in the number of neurons within particular layers of the cortex or in subcortical regions, in the microwiring between neurons, and in the strength of connectivity within brain networks. When you take into account these fine details, no two brains from the same species are structured completely alike.
Also, within a single brain such as your own, the wiring is not static. Just as the arbor of a tree grows in the spring and shrinks in the fall, interconnections between your axons and dendrites increase and decrease as you age…
You even grow new neurons in certain brain regions. This kind of anatomical change, called plasticity, also occurs with experience. Your experiences become encoded in your brain’s wiring and can eventually change the wiring, increasing the chances that you’ll have the same experience again, or use a previous experience to create a new one.
– The human brain is a high-complexity system because, within one physical structure, it can reconfigure its billions of neurons to construct a huge repertoire of experiences, perceptions, and behaviors.
Complexity implies that the wiring diagram of a brain is not a set of instructions for a single kind of mind with universal mental organs. But the human brain has few preset mental concepts, such as perhaps pleasantness and unpleasantness (valence), agitation and calmness (arousal), loudness and softness, brightness and darkness, and other properties of consciousness. Instead, variation is the norm.
– The human brain is structured to learn many different concepts and to invent many social realities, depending on the contingencies it is exposed to. This variability is not infinite or arbitrary; it is constrained by the brain’s need for efficiency and speed, by the outside world, and by the human dilemma of getting along versus getting ahead. Your culture handed you one particular system of concepts, values, and practices to address that dilemma.
– A human brain can create many kinds of minds, yet all human minds do have some common ingredients. For millennia, scholars believed that the inevitable bits of the mind were essences, but they are not.
The ingredients are three aspects of the mind that we’ve encountered in this book: affective realism, concepts, and social reality. They (and perhaps others) are inevitable and therefore universal, barring illness, based on the anatomy and function of the brain.
Affective realism, the phenomenon that you experience what you believe, is inevitable because of your wiring. The body-budgeting regions in your interoceptive network — your inner loudmouthed, mostly deaf scientist with a megaphone — are the most powerful predictors in your brain, and your primary sensory regions are eager listeners.
Body-budget predictions laden with affect, not logic and reason, are the main drivers of your experience and behavior.
Nobody can completely escape affective realism. But you can recognize affective realism by its effects. Anytime you have a gut feeling that you know something to be true, that’s affective realism. When you hear some news or read a story that you immediately believe, that’s affective realism too…
Affective realism keeps you believing something even when the evidence puts it highly in doubt. It’s not because of ignorance or malevolence — it is simply a matter of how the brain is wired and operates. Everything you believe, and everything you see, is colored by your brain’s budget-balancing act.
– The dividing line between biology and culture is porous. Culture arose from natural selection, and as culture gets under the skin and into the brain, it helps to shape the next generation of humans.
– Affective realism is an inevitability, and yet you are not helpless against it. The best defense against affective realism is curiosity.
– The 2nd inevitability of the mind is that you have concepts, because the human brain is wired to construct a conceptual system.
Your brain’s concepts are a model of the world that keeps you alive, serves to meet your body’s energy needs, and ultimately determines how well you propagate your genes.
– Concepts are not [necessarily] just “in your head.”
Suppose you and I are chatting over coffee, and when I make some witty remark, you smile and nod. If my brain predicted your smile and your nod, and the visual input to my brain confirms these movements, then my own prediction — say, to nod back at you — becomes my behavior.
In other words, our neurons influence one another not only through direct connections but indirectly through the outside environment.
Your personal experience, therefore, is actively constructed by your actions. You tweak the world, and the world tweaks you back. You are, in a very real sense, an architect (and electrician) of your environment as well as your experience.
– The 3rd inevitability of the mind that we’ve discussed is social reality.
When you are born, you can’t regulate your body budget by yourself — somebody else has to do it. In the process, your brain learns statistically, creates concepts, and wires itself to its environment, which is filled with other people who have structured their social world in particular ways.
Social reality is the human superpower; we’re the only animal that can communicate purely mental concepts among ourselves. No particular social reality is inevitable, just one that works for the group (and is constrained by physical reality).
– When you create social reality but fail to realize it, the result is a mess…
Many psychologists, for example, do not realize that every psychological concept is social reality.
We debate the differences between “will power” and “tenacity” and “grit” as if they were each distinct in nature, rather than constructions shared through collective intentionality. We separate “emotion,” “emotion regulation,” “self-regulation,” “memory,” “imagination,” “perception,” and scores of other mental categories, all of which can be explained as emerging from interoception and sensory input from the world, made meaningful by categorization, with assistance from the control network.
These concepts are clearly social reality because not all cultures have them, whereas the brain is the brain is the brain.
So, as a field, psychology keeps rediscovering the same phenomena and giving them new names and searching for them in new places in the brain. That’s why we have a hundred concepts for “the self.” Even brain networks themselves go by multiple names.
– When we misconstrue the social as the physical, we misunderstand our world and ourselves. In this regard, social reality is a superpower only if we know that we have it.
– Your experiences are not a window into reality. Rather, your brain is wired to model your world, driven by what is relevant for your body budget, and then you experience that model as reality.
– What we experience as “certainty” – the feeling of knowing what is true about ourselves, each other, and the world around us – is an illusion that the brain manufactures to help us make it through each day.
I’m not saying that we are dumb or ill-equipped to grasp reality. I’m saying there is no single reality to grasp. Your brain can create more than one explanation for the sensory input around you — not an infinite number of realities, but definitely more than one.
– The American Dream traditionally says, “If you work hard, anything is possible.” The Theory of Construction agrees that you are indeed the agent of your own destiny, but you are bounded by your surroundings. Your wiring, determined in part by your culture, influences your later options.
– It’s refreshing to question the concepts that have been given to us, and to be curious about which are physical and which are social.
There is a kind of freedom in realizing that we categorize to create meaning, and therefore it is possible to change meaning by recategorizing. Uncertainty means that things can be other than they appear. This realization brings hope in difficult times and can prompt gratitude in good times.
[ Again, don’t mistake uncertainty for doubt. Uncertainty is not knowing for sure, especially due to not having enough evidence or information; doubt is expecting something not to be or go a particular way. Ongoing uncertainty is not at all bad if you’re aware of its inevitability and benignness. Ongoing doubt, especially when there’s insufficient or unclear evidence or reasoning to support it, is not healthy or wise. Distinguishing between uncertainty and doubt, and generally embracing uncertainty while disengaging unsubstantiated doubt, is healthy and wise.
There is comfort to be had in genuine uncertainty as it implies that things aren’t guaranteed to go one way or another, and within this implication lies the fact that nothing is guaranteed (or even likely) to go badly. That’s a nice saving grace in the face of mere uncertainty. ]
– Now it’s time for me to drink my own Kool-Aid…
Prediction, interoception, categorization, and the roles I’ve described for your various brain networks are not objective facts. They are concepts invented by scientists to describe the physical activity within a brain. I claim these concepts are the best way to understand certain computations being performed by neurons.
Again and again in science, our new sets of concepts have led us away from essentialism toward variation, and from naive realism to construction.
– In the coming years, I hope we’ll all see fewer and fewer news stories about brain blobs for emotion in people or rats or fruit flies, and more about how brains and bodies construct emotion.
In the meantime, whenever you see an essentialism-steeped news story about emotion, if you even feel a twinge of doubt, then you’re playing a role in this scientific revolution.
– Like most important paradigm shifts in science, this one has the potential to transform our health, our laws, and who we are. To forge a new reality. If you’ve learned within these pages that you are an architect of your experience—and the experiences of those around you—then we’re building that new reality together.
Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.