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How Emotions Are Made

The Secret Life of the Brain

By Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD
  • Read in 13 minutes
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How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD

How Emotions Are Made (2017) challenges everything you think you know about emotions. From learning how our brain registers anger, fear and joy to how we think about these emotions culturally, you’ll come away with a new understanding of the ways in which emotions are created and how their scope is determined by society at large.

Key idea 1 of 8

The prevailing, classical view of emotions envisages them as hardwired into our brains.

How hard is it to control your emotions? The consensus is that you may try to, but you simply can’t.

The notion of emotions as reflexes – sometimes artifacts of evolution existing in a realm beyond the rational – has been around for millennia. It’s called the classical view, and it’s been espoused by everyone from Aristotle, Buddha, Darwin, Descartes and Freud, right through to modern-day thinkers such as Steven Pinker, Paul Ekman, and the Dalai Lama.

This passive take on emotions is taught in psychology textbooks, and it’s reflected in the way the media discuss them. The classical view also sees emotions as universal. It’s assumed that emotions are hardwired and are automatically triggered in distinct regions of the brain.

It’s thought that there’s a set of emotions that can be found across all humanity, and that each of these has an underlying property or “essence.” This concept is called essentialism. It assumes that each one of us is not only equally emotionally expressive but also capable of automatically recognizing the same emotions in others.

It’s as if the brain were pre-wired with neurons for specific emotions. Once neurons are triggered, they produce physical responses. These characteristics are known as fingerprints, and it’s through these that emotions are identified.

Imagine you have an annoying colleague. He will trigger “anger neurons,” which will consequently cause your blood to boil and your mouth to form a scowl.

Or maybe a friend dies. In this case “sadness neurons” send off signals which might start you crying.

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