When you feel anxious, angry, happy, or surprised, what's really going on inside you? Most scientists would agree that emotions come from specific parts of the brain, and that we feel them whenever they're triggered by the world around us. The thrill of seeing an old friend, the sadness of a tear-jerker movie, the fear of losing someone you love - each of these sensations arises automatically and uncontrollably within us, finding expression on our faces and in our behaviour, and carrying us away with the experience.
This understanding of emotion has been around since Aristotle. But what if it's wrong? In How Your Emotions Are Made, pioneering psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett draws on the latest scientific evidence to reveal that our ideas about emotion are dramatically, even dangerously, out of date - and that we have been paying the price. Emotions don't exist objectively in nature, Barrett explains, and they aren't pre-programmed in our brains and bodies; rather, they are psychological experiences that each of us constructs based on our unique personal history, physiology and environment.
This new view of emotions has serious implications: when judges issue lesser sentences for crimes of passion, when police officers fire at threatening suspects, or when doctors choose between one diagnosis and another, they're all, in some way, relying on the ancient assumption that emotions are hardwired into our brains and bodies. Revising that conception of emotion isn't just good science, Barrett shows; it's vital to our wellbeing and the health of society itself.
Psychologist and neuroscientist Barrett painstakingly attempts to refute traditional thinking about human emotions as portrayed in the popular media, such as the TV show Lie To Me and Oscar-winning movie Inside Out. She argues that emotions aren't a "fixed component of our biological nature," but rather are constructed in our minds based on predictions. Emotions take form from how they are perceived, Barrett writes, and moreover, they take different forms in different cultures. Her ideas make intuitive sense and are convincing, though her presentation is often slow going as she painstakingly dissects every conceivable counterargument. Some of her ideas are, as she admits, speculative, though "informed by data." The book includes possible implications of constructed emotions, Barrett's prescriptions for emotional health "eating healthfully, exercising, and getting enough sleep," among others and an investigation into whether animals experience emotions. Most startling is Barrett's suggestion that chronic pain, stress, anxiety, and autism might be caused by errors in predicted, constructed emotions. The book is a challenging read and will offer the most rewards to researchers already familiar with the longstanding and apparently still unresolved arguments about what emotions are.