This post now available in German.
The Theory of Constructed Emotion offers a radical new take on what emotions are, where they come from, and how they shape our lives.
Presented by psychology professor and neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett in her best-selling book How Emotions Are Made (affiliate link), it also contradicts many of our most firmly held ideas about how human emotions work.
For example, it argues that:
- Emotions are not hard-wired in an ancient, “reptilian” part of the brain
- Emotions cannot be detected through facial expressions or any other physiological measurement
- There are no “universal” emotions across people, nations, or cultures
- There are no distinct parts of the brain dedicated to specific emotions (such as the amygdala for fear)
- Emotions are not “reactions” to external events
Over the last 25 years, Dr. Barrett and her team at the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University have poked and prodded the faces, bodies, and brains of thousands of subjects, trying to unlock the secrets of the emotional brain.
In this article, I’ll summarize the main ideas from the book to help them spread as far and wide as possible. Assume everything below is directly taken or paraphrased from the book, although I’ve tried to explain it in my own words. Any mistakes or misinterpretations are mine.
Emotions are concepts
The Theory of Constructed Emotion takes its name from its central premise: that emotions are concepts that are constructed by the brain.
Consider your brain for a moment. It’s sitting there in your skull, receiving all sorts of data from your eyes, ears, nose, skin, and mouth. This data is informative, but also ambiguous. It has to be interpreted.
For example, it might think:
- What is that rectangular source of light with changing patterns of color? A window!
- What is this intermittent pattern of small, cold spots sweeping across my body? Rain!
- What is that rhythmic pattern of air pressure changes? A song
In this way, the brain is constantly trying to make sense of the data it is receiving. One of the easiest ways for it to do that is to use past experience as a guide. If it can match the current experience with a past memory, it can save a lot of time and energy.
But it would take too long for it to consider thousands of old memories, one at a time.
Instead, the brain uses concepts. A concept is like a compressed version of hundreds or thousands of past experiences. Instead of having to remember every encounter you’ve ever had with a “chair,” for example, your brain stores a concept of a chair. The next time you encounter a chair, your brain only has to match it with this concept for it to understand what it’s seeing.
Concepts are like labels or categories that your brain has created to make sense of the world around you. When you see something new, your brain doesn’t ask “What is this?”; it asks “What is this like?”. In other words, your brain is constantly trying to put everything you perceive into an existing category. This is much easier than trying to figure out what it is from scratch.
The idea that we use concepts to make sense of our experience isn’t new. But Dr. Barrett’s work makes the leap to applying this idea to the messy, subjective world of emotions. Emotions like “fear,” “sadness,” and “disappointment” are concepts just like any other. Just as your brain interprets a pattern of light as a “window,” it might interpret a pattern of bodily sensations as “fear” or “disappointment.” These emotions don’t feel like concepts because we experience them so intensely. But they are.
As an example of how this works, Dr. Barrett tells the story of watching the news about a recent school shooting. It felt in the moment like she was reacting directly to the news. She felt terrible grief and sadness, and tears seemed to come spontaneously to her eyes.
But it would be more accurate to describe what happened like this:
“I learned long ago that “sadness” is something that may occur when certain bodily feelings coincide with terrible loss. Using bits and pieces of past experience, such as my knowledge of shootings and my previous sadness about them, my brain rapidly predicted what my body should do to cope with such tragedy. Its predictions caused my thumping heart, my flushed face, and the knots in my stomach. They directed me to cry, an action that would calm my nervous system. And they made the resulting sensations meaningful as an instance of sadness.”
In other words, her experience of sadness was a “simulation” or prediction of the appropriate way for her body to react to the news. The sadness wasn’t a pure reaction to something happening on the outside. It emerged from a complex interplay of systems making a self-fulfilling prediction about what was needed for her body to cope.
Emotions are predictions
Why does Dr. Barrett use the word “simulation” and not just “interpretation”? Because the brain is not passively observing incoming data from the outside world. That would make its decisions very slow, potentially threatening our survival.
In order to act more quickly, the brain starts reacting even before it has received all the data – it creates a “simulation” or prediction of what it thinks might happen next. Basically, the brain is constantly making its best guess of what it thinks is about to occur, and then preparing to act on that guess.
If your brain guesses that you are playing soccer, for example, it might start predicting all sorts of likely scenarios based on past experience: opportunities to sprint for the goal, fast-moving balls flying toward your head, or incoming attackers from any direction. The brain might start preparing the body for these scenarios ahead of time, by redirecting blood flow to certain muscles or becoming more vigilant for flying soccer balls.
The same thing happens with purely mental activities. As you read this text right now, your brain is predicting which word or idea is likely to come next, based on a lifetime of reading experience. These predictions save energy and help you read faster than would otherwise be possible. As the largest and most energy hungry organ in the body, the brain greatly prioritizes this efficiency.
And the very same process happens with our emotions. On your way to the airport to pick up a friend you haven’t seen for years, your brain is busy predicting the feelings of joy and happiness you will soon be feeling. Which means you are already feeling happy before the event has occurred, and feel even happier when you actually see her.
Prediction is such a fundamental activity of the human brain that some scientists consider it the brain’s default mode of operation. Your brain cannot help but constantly build predictive models of every experience you have, or any experience it thinks you might have.
This leads to a profound conclusion: that the simulations we create in our heads are more real to us than the physical world. What we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell are simulations of the world, not reactions to it. We might think that our perceptions of the world are driven by events in the world, but really, most of what we see is based on our internal predictions. The data coming in from our senses merely influences our perceptions, like a small stone skipping across a rolling ocean wave.
This startling conclusion is reinforced by research on how humans see. The part of the brain responsible for sight, the visual cortex, receives only 10% of its connections from the retina. The other 90% are connections from other parts of the brain, making predictions about what they think we might be seeing.
What does the brain do when its predictions are wrong? It can change its prediction to match what the senses are telling it. But it is just as likely to do the opposite: stick with the original prediction, and filter the incoming data so that it matches the prediction.
In a sense, your brain is wired for delusion: you experience an elaborate world of your own creation, which is held in check by bits of sensory input. Once your predictions are correct enough, they filter your perception and determine what you’re able to see in the first place. This can become a closed loop where the brain only sees what it believes, and then believes what it sees.
Interoception and body budgets
How do emotions fit into this picture?
From the brain’s point of view, the body is just another part of the external world that it must explain. And it uses the very same mechanism we just examined to interpret sensations coming from inside the body – the changing rhythms of your heartbeat, the feeling of breathing, the rumbling of your stomach, and the contraction and dilation of your veins.
It’s important to understand that these purely physical sensations from inside the body have no objective meaning. They feel so intense because they’re coming from inside you. But an ache in your stomach, for example, could just as easily be “explained” as:
- Hunger (if you’re sitting at the dinner table)
- Impending sickness (if it’s flu season)
- Heartbreak (if you are going through a breakup)
- Certainty that a defendant is untrustworthy (if you’re a judge in a courtroom and haven’t had lunch)
The process of interpreting these bodily sensations is called interoception. It is managed by an “interoceptive network” in the brain that takes in information from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system, among many others, and labels this information with a concept such as “hunger” or “heartbreak.” These emotions may feel like they are coming directly from your body. But in fact they are being constructed by the interoceptive network in your brain, based largely on your predictions.
What is the purpose of interoception?
Everything your body does, inside or out, requires energy. To manage its “body budget” across hundreds of body parts and billions of cells, the brain has to constantly predict the body’s energy needs. Just as a finance department needs a budget to forecast where money will be needed, the brain makes predictions and issues corrections about when and where it thinks energy will be needed.
Many of these “budgetary changes” we experience as emotional experiences. Your muscles running low on energy might feel like “exhaustion.” Too little sleep might be interpreted as “overwhelm.” A lack of positive social interaction might be experienced as “loneliness.” But these emotions are not objective facts. They are concepts built by the mind out of pieces of sensory data, cultural knowledge, and a history of social interactions. Interoception evolved to balance our body budgets. Experiencing emotions is a fortunate (and sometimes unfortunate) side effect.
What this means is that a “bad feeling” is not evidence that there is something wrong. It just means you are taxing your body budget. Emotions are real, but what they seem to be telling you is not necessarily real. Knowing that “negative” emotions are simply our brain’s way of telling us that reserves are running low, we can make intentional decisions to refill those reserves, instead of reaching for less healthy coping mechanisms.
Even with all the scientific evidence in the world, it can be very difficult to believe that emotions are internally generated concepts driven by mental simulations. They feel so intense and overwhelming in the moment, like a wave sweeping us away against our will.
The reason emotions feel like reactions to things happening in the outside world has to do with how concepts are used by the brain. Concepts are not just labels for the things we passively observe. They are necessary for us to perceive things in the first place. A concept serves as a lens (or sometimes, a filter) for what we are able to see in the first place.
Imagine you are sitting in a Parisian cafe on vacation, sipping fine wine and eating cheese. You may overhear a French couple at the next table over immersed in conversation. The conversation contains all the information you would need to understand what they’re saying. But if your mind is missing a set of concepts known as “the French language,” it will sound meaningless to you.
This is known as “experiential blindness” – the inability to perceive what you don’t already have a concept for. Remember that we are not experiencing the world directly; we are experiencing our mental simulation of it. And without a concept for something, we can’t incorporate it into our simulation.
In her excellent TED talk, Dr. Barrett shares this example:
As you examine the photo, your neurons are firing like mad trying to perceive something besides black and white blobs. Your brain is sifting through its library of concepts, making thousands of guesses and weighing the probabilities, to find a category to put the picture in.
Now look at the following picture:
Going back to the first one, you can probably now see a snake:
But what changed? The image is the same as before, but now you have a new concept in your brain. You’ve gained a “conceptual lens” that allows your brain to fill in the information that is missing. This process is so automatic, that you probably can’t go back to how you saw it before, even if you tried.
Our concepts allow us to perceive things in a world that always provides only incomplete, ambiguous information. They help us recognize things quickly and (usually) accurately, while saving time and energy. But the process of using concepts to perceive things happens so invisibly and automatically, our senses can feel like reflexes rather than constructions. We do not feel any sense of agency for the simulations we are running.
This explains why an emotion like “happiness” can feel like it’s a reaction to external events, rather than generated from within the brain. Even before your brain has finished categorizing a situation as “happiness,” it is also simulating happiness in advance. External perception meets internal construction before you know what’s happening, so it seems like happiness is happening to you when in fact your brain is actively constructing the experience.
This can also become a self-fulfilling prediction: the more you expect happiness to arrive, the more preparations you make for its arrival, and the more likely you are to experience it. Even on a neurological level, you create your own reality.
The importance of emotional granularity
One of the most challenging implications of the Theory of Constructed Emotions is that, if someone doesn’t have a concept to describe an emotion, they won’t be able to perceive it. They’ll still feel the bodily sensations, but won’t be able to label them precisely.
In other words, the range of emotions a person can experience is limited by their emotional granularity – the ability to construct and identify more precise emotional experiences.
Imagine an extreme example: someone who only has the ability to distinguish between “good” and “bad” feelings. They exhibit low emotional granularity. Because they have only imprecise information about what is happening inside their bodies, it will be difficult for such a person to handle many of life’s challenges. They will be experientially blind to even their own feelings.
This illustrates the critical importance of high emotional granularity. Making sense of bodily sensations requires energy, and trying to sort a huge amount of sensory data into a broad feeling like “happiness” takes a lot of energy. Now imagine if you had a more precise concept for the feeling of attachment to a close friend, such as the Korean word jeong (정). Your brain would require less effort to construct this more narrow concept. Preciseness leads to efficiency; this is the biological payoff of higher emotional granularity.
When you experience an emotion without knowing the precise cause, you are more likely to treat that emotion as information about the world, rather than your experience of the world. This is known as affective realism. Affective realism causes us to experience supposed “facts” about the world that are in fact created by our feelings. It can leave us trapped in an emotional world of our own making, without realizing that we are the ones who imprisoned ourselves.
Luckily, emotional granularity can be improved. If you can learn to distinguish more precise meanings for “Feeling great” (happy, content, thrilled, relaxed, joyful, hopeful, inspired, prideful, adoring, grateful, blissful . . .) or “Feeling crappy” (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy . . .), your brain will have many more options for predicting, categorizing, and perceiving emotions.
High emotional granularity gives us a much greater range of tools, allowing more flexible responses to our challenges. It allows us to tailor our actions to the underlying causes of our emotions, rather than their immediate appearance.
Constructing social reality
Although emotions are generated from within, they don’t stop there. We use emotions to construct our social reality.
When you interact with people you know and like – your spouse, friends, lovers, children, teammates, or close companions – you synchronize your heart rates, breathing, and other physical signals, leading to measurable benefits. Something as simple as holding hands with a loved one or keeping their picture on your desk can improve body budgeting and reduce pain. In other words, we also use other people to regulate our body budgets.
But this goes far beyond managing our own body budgets. Concepts like “fear,” “anticipation,” and “contempt” are concepts your brain uses to regulate others’ bodies as well. As soon as we construct an emotion concept and label it with a word, we can share it with others, allowing them to see what we see and thus rewiring how their brains work. Once you and I share a concept, I can merely utter a word to start launching predictions in your brain, a kind of linguistic telepathy.
Instead of a limited set of emotions built in from birth, nature provided us with the raw materials to bootstrap a conceptual system, including emotion concepts. With input from the adults who spoke emotion words to us in an intentional and deliberate way, we gained the ability to perceive not just physical objects, but ideas that reside only in the minds of people: goals, intentions, preferences, and their own emotions.
Over time, this intergenerational transfer of emotion knowledge – in the form of stories, traditions, myths, fables, or really anything that we can communicate – allows each generation to shape the brain wiring of the next. This body of knowledge constitutes the essence of our civilization just as much as the books in our libraries.
Modern culture and body budgets
Once you understand body budgets and how they impact our emotions, it becomes apparent how much of modern culture seems engineered to disrupt them.
Much of the food we eat is full of refined sugar that warps our body budgets. School and jobs have us waking early and going to sleep late, leaving over 40 percent of Americans between 13 and 64 regularly sleep-deprived, which leads to chronic misbudgeting. Advertisers play on our insecurities, suggesting we’ll be judged badly by our friends if we don’t look or buy a certain way (and social rejection is toxic for our body budgets). Social media offers even more opportunities for social comparison, while constant mobile device usage means we never truly relax.
Remember that the entire experience of emotions relies on our brain’s predictions about what it thinks our body needs. If those predictions become chronically out of sync with our body’s actual needs, it can be hard to bring them back into balance. Your body budgets don’t respond easily to warning signals from your body as it is. Once our predictions have been off-base for long enough, you will feel chronically miserable without knowing why.
What do we do when we feel miserable? We self-medicate. Thirty percent of all medications consumed in the United States are taken to manage some form of distress. We use alcohol, drugs, TV, and sugar to achieve a semblance of budget balance, but at a terrible cost in addiction and obesity. It has become clear in recent decades that the immune system has an impact on far more illnesses and harmful conditions than we imagined, including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, depression, insomnia, cancer, reduced memory, and other cognitive functions related to premature aging and dementia. And the immune system suffers when our body budgets go out of balance.
Looking more closely at depression provides a window into how chronically imbalanced body budgets can have compounding negative effects.
Depression can be thought of as a relentless feedback loop of negative thoughts and feelings. Each feeling drives the next thought, and vice versa. The brain dwells on negative past experiences, and thus keeps making withdrawals on an already taxed budget. Alarm signals from the body are turned down or ignored. In effect, the body and mind are locked into a cycle of uncorrected predictions, trapped in an adverse past when metabolic needs were high.
Since the body budget is chronically in debt, the body tries to cut spending. The easiest way to do that is to stop moving around and stop paying attention to the world. If a depressed person then starts avoiding people, others cannot help balance their body budget either. This is the unrelenting fatigue of depression.
This cycle also applies, of course, to people who grow up in adversity, lacking basic necessities like safety, food, and sleep. These conditions change the interoceptive network, reducing the brain’s ability to accurately regulate its budget throughout life. This translates into a higher lifetime risk of heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases.
A new take on personal responsibility
In light of the possibility that we construct our emotions based on concepts, the next question is, are we responsible for our concepts?
Not all of them, certainly. You can’t choose the concepts you learned as a child. But as an adult, you absolutely do have choices about what experiences you expose yourself to, which shapes the concepts that ultimately drive your actions. Responsibility, in this view, is about making deliberate choices to change your concepts.
The Theory of Constructed Emotion argues that every aspect of our emotions is malleable and flexible. You are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep inside some ancient part of your brain. You have more control over your emotions than you think.
You can’t just snap your fingers and instantaneously change what you’re feeling, of course, but here are six practical steps you can take to improve your emotional granularity over time, based on the most recent findings from scientific research.
1. Try on new perspectives
According to the Theory of Constructed Emotion, the concepts we hold directly impact our body budgets, and therefore our experience of emotions. Concepts don’t exist in an abstract, rarified realm separate from biology. Learning or changing concepts (also known as mental models) directly impacts how our body functions minute to minute.
By trying on new perspectives the way we try on new clothes, we can “try out” different body-budgeting regimes. The same way we might allocate more financial resources to one budget category or another, we can do the same with our body budgets.
This can include anything from travel in foreign countries, to spending time with different kinds of people, to reading literature, to trying new experiences. These experiences expose us to different ways of meeting human needs that we may want to borrow for ourselves.
2. Recategorize what you’re feeling
Anytime you’re feeling bad, recognize what is actually happening: you are experiencing unpleasant affect based on interoceptive sensations. With practice, you can learn to deconstruct the emotion into its constituent parts, instead of letting it become a lens through which you view the world.
For example, the broad, ambiguous feeling of “anxiety” can be broken down and recategorized into “tension across the upper back,” “rapidly beating heart,” and “clenched jaw.” This deconstruction robs the sensations of some of their emotional power.
Try labeling what you are feeling more precisely, meditating on different parts of the body, or looking for more immediate, physical causes such as hunger, dehydration, or lack of sleep.
3. Talk about what you’re feeling
One of the most effective ways of questioning the mind’s often overly dramatic interpretations is to talk about them with others. Getting feelings out into the open lends us a degree of objectivity, and allows others to show empathy and understanding.
In studies, men who expressed a lot of emotion that they didn’t label were found to have the highest levels of cytokines, proteins that over the long term cause inflammation. Female breast cancer survivors who explicitly label and express their emotions have better health and fewer medical visits after surgery.
This isn’t fluffy self-help advice: talking about your feelings measurably improves your health and happiness.
4. Move your body
Sometimes the predictive loops between body and mind are so strong that it is difficult to consciously interrupt them. Luckily, we have a backdoor: the body. Whether through walking, yoga, stretching, weight-lifting, or other forms of exercise, we can re-synchronize the signals flowing between our body and mind, putting our body budgets back into balance.
All animals use movement to regulate their body budgets. If a dog has too much glucose in its system, it can run around or spin in circles to burn it off. Humans are unique in that we can use purely mental concepts to shift our budgets. But when that fails, a quick run or aerobic routine can correct the runaway feedback loop keeping us down.
5. Improve your vocabulary
This might seem implausible, but there is substantial evidence that emotional granularity is closely linked to linguistic granularity. The more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your brain can identify what’s happening in the body and calibrate its budget accordingly.
In a study, it was found that people who exhibit higher emotional granularity go to the doctor less frequently, use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness. In contrast, lower emotional granularity is associated with major depressive disorder, social anxiety disorder, eating disorders, autism spectrum disorders, borderline personality disorder, and general feelings of anxiety and depression.
Whether it is reading sophisticated and nuanced works of literature, watching movies with complex characters, or looking up words you don’t know, expanding your vocabulary can directly impact your body function.
6. Write about your experiences
One of the clear conclusions from How Emotions Are Made is that the world of concepts and the world of biology are not separate. Our brain relies on models of what is happening or likely to happen in the outside world to make budgeting decisions. We are able to consciously influence and enrich these models by what we expose ourselves to.
Writing is one of the most effective ways to directly shape the concepts our brain is constructing. Writing allows us to make our thinking more concrete, outside our heads, where it can be more objectively evaluated, analyzed, and changed. The words we put on the page can be reflected back to us, forming a different predictive loop in which we have much more agency.
A final word
All six of these approaches can turn a negative spiral of suffering into mere physical discomfort. Pain is unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to mean there is something wrong with your life. No technique is guaranteed to work every time, but they open up the possibility of working toward a healthier body, more fulfilling relationships, and a more flexible and potent emotional life.
The promise of constructed emotions is not that we will somehow gain complete control over how we feel. Emotions are inherently uncertain, and that uncertainty is exactly what makes a vibrant emotional life possible. Life can be unexpectedly joyful, unexpectedly meaningful, unexpectedly profound. The promise is not that we can control the emotional waves that sweep over us as we move through life. The promise is that we can learn to surf those waves with skill and with pleasure.
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