How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain


What is the book “How Emotions Are Made” about?

What are emotions? They are our inner reaction to the external stimuli. We react to a sharp sound, a flirty look, a rough or a kind word. We experience certain emotions in response which can be expressed by facial expressions, an intonation, a timbre or typical gestures. Our voice shows emotions which we experience with help of a shouting or a whisper, a laughter or a crying. We can show feelings with help of our body. For example, we become tense or shrivel when see something frightening or stoop because of fatigue etc.

Emotions can be contagious. Thus, after tragic events in the school of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut on 14 December 2012, when 20 students were killed by a lone gunman, the governor Dannel Malloy delivered an annual speech on TV. It was related to the work of his team, but after that, he mentioned the tragedy and how teachers tried to protect their students. His voice flinched slightly and this sign caused tears in the audience and the author of the book. All of them experienced the same feelings. The flinched voice of the governor launched a chain reaction, which Lisa Feldman-Barrett calls classical type of emotions. A certain set of neurons made people react in a certain way: wrinkle their foreheads, stoop shoulders and cry. The body reacted too: the heart rate and breathing increased, the blood vessels narrowed. These reactions, according to the modern views on emotions, identify sorrow in the same way as fingerprints identify for sure a certain man.

A classical scientific point of view on emotions assumes that there are a lot of emotional chains in our brain, which arouse a certain set of changes. The blood pressure increases, you want to be sarcastic, you want to shout at someone and you are furious. All of these symptoms appear at the sight of a man you don’t like. A disturbing news launches the neurons of fear which make us feel a chill and a shiver. We feel anger, happiness, wonder and other emotions while we are in certain states. This feature creates an assumption that every emotion has its basic model of reactions in brain and body.

Our emotions, according to the classical concepts of neurology, have always been helping us to survive and in process of evolution, they became a part of our biological nature step by step. They are universal: people of all ages, in every culture and in every part of the world should experience a feeling of sorrow nearly in the same way as our primitive ancestors million years ago. Thus, emotions are considered as a primitive impulse which contradicts our rationality. The primitive part of our brain motivates us to tell our boss everything we think about him, but our rational part keeps us from doing this because this act will obviously lead to a dismissal. This kind of confrontation between emotions and intelligence has been accompanying the whole world since its beginning as the classical science claims.

The classical point of view has taken root in our culture. The TV shows and TV series such as “Lie to me” are based on a suggestion that our inner feelings lead to a certain heart rate or to particular facial movements. There are some special companies like Affectiva and Realeyes, which offer to entrepreneurs to get to know the feelings of their clients with help of emotion analysis. FBI resort to the classical method of the connection between emotions and external manifestations. The American legal system takes into account the results of this method during sentencing (not only the American one). Medicine studies the influence of anger on health suggesting that it causes the same changes in different organisms.

How accurate can this classical point of view on emotions be? Nobody could get a consistent reaction of organism on at least one emotion, despite thousand experiments during the last decades.

The attached to the facial muscles electrodes that measure every movement of a face during different emotions, record a great variety of variants. The same amount of reactions can be seen inside of the organism, its body, and brain. Apparently, we even may get angry without increasing of arterial pressure and be afraid without the amygdala that is responsible for a sense of fear.

If we forget about a classical point of view on emotions and just start investigating the data, we will find another way that can explain in other words the process how emotions work. Emotions are not built-in in our bodies, but they consist a lot of other parts. They are not universal but differ from culture to culture. They don’t launch just with the pushing of a button like cars do, but we create them by ourselves.

Emotions appear in a combination of physical features of our body, the uniqueness of our brain that connects us with every part of an environment, with the level of our development and education. Emotions are real but not as real as molecule or neurons but as a result of a human’s contact with the environment.

That is why the common emotions that people experienced during the speech of the governor Dannel Malloy can be interpreted from this point of view. It did not arouse the same feelings and physical reactions of the organism of the audience when his voice trembled. However, all of them felt sorrow, because their physical experience coincided with the horrible tragedy. Using some facts of the previous experience (the information about similar incidents and reaction during these incidents) our brain tells us what the emotions should we experience in such situation and what our organism should do to overcome it.

That is how it signals that our heart should start beating faster and tears should calm down the nervous system. Precisely our brain uses the incoming information to transform feelings into sadness, happiness or pride – in other words, it creates emotions. The feelings themselves don’t correspond only to a certain emotion: we may cry over happiness or appreciation on the wedding of our friend or relative and the next attack of sadness or sorrow won’t be accompanied by heart beating or heaviness in stomach.

There is one question that can disturb our readers: what is the difference which theory is right? Lisa Feldman Barrett thinks that it can change everything. For example, the airport security personal was recently taught by a special program that helps them in estimating risk and finding out the lie which is based on our facial and body movements. That’s how they were supposed to read our hidden feelings. Unfortunately, the program wasn’t right and 900 million from the pockets of taxpayers went for nothing.

One more situation: a patient complains of pain in chest and shortness of breath which very looks like a heart attack. The doctor may probably prescribe a sedative for a woman and send her home, but he will probably hospitalize the man. As a result, the women under 65 died of heart attack more often than men. Everyone, especially doctors get used to considering women as emotional creatures which worries about nothing. They can’t distinguish whether a woman worries about nothing or it has a real reason. That leads to a tragic tendency of early women death.

Understanding of emotions and processes of brain require other types of scientific approaches. In Feldman-Barrett’s opinion, we should rethink the way of treating psychological and physical diseases, our vision of personal relations, ways of raising our children and our view of ourselves.

Summary and Ideas of “How Emotions Are Made”:

Idea № 1. People differ very much in the way they understand their emotional distress.

Idea № 2. You gather a lot of information from the context that surrounds you and subconsciously connect emotions with this context.

Idea № 3. Different facial expressions can correspond to any emotion. Variation is good.

Idea № 4. Your past experience puts some sense into your present feelings.

Idea №5. People can determine emotions by face in case they have a certain conception.

Idea № 6. Pleasant and unpleasant feelings arouse because of inner process, which is called interoception.

Idea № 7. Our brain forecasts constantly.

Idea № 8. Emotions are the recipe for actions.

Idea № 9. The rules of acceptable emotions establish in every society by a legal system.

Idea № 10. The human brain evolved in a context of human’s cultures in 3 directions.

Review “How Emotions Are Made”

Despite seriousness and difficulty of the topic, the book was written in clear and understandable language. There are a lot of statements which may seem controversial enough, but they are original, interesting and change our imagination of how our brain works which mean that it relates to us too.

Communication of our minds shouldn’t end as superficial communication. People are not a bunch of billiard balls that hit against each other – Lisa Feldman Barrett says. We are a consolidation of minds which together build concepts and social reality that helps to develop each other. That is why we have got a potential to transform our laws and our essence itself in order to create a new better reality together in nearest future.

Pros and Cons

  • The original emergence concept of emotions and new ideas; interesting examples; simplicity of presentation.
  • Periodically repetition of ideas.

About Author Lisa Feldman Barrett

Writer Lisa Feldman Barrett How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the BrainShe got Ph.D., at the University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Psychiatry and Radiology. She received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for her groundbreaking research on emotion in the brain and is an elected member of the Royal Society of Canada.

Watch her speech at TED – You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions — your brain creates them


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