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'How Emotions Are Made did what all great books do. It took a subject I thought I understood and turned my understanding upside down' - Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point.
When you feel anxious, angry, happy, or surprised, what's really going on inside of you?
Many scientists believe that emotions come from a specific part of the brain, triggered by the world around us. The thrill of seeing an old friend, the fear of losing someone we love – each of these sensations seems to arise automatically and uncontrollably from within us, finding expression on our faces and in our behaviour, carrying us away with the experience.
This understanding of emotion has been around since Plato. But what if it is wrong? In How Emotions Are Made, pioneering psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett draws on the latest scientific evidence to reveal that our common-sense ideas about emotions are dramatically, even dangerously, out of date – and that we have been paying the price. Emotions aren't universally 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 well-being 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.