Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett


A subversive triumph masked by wonky charm

In How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, author Lisa Feldman Barrett cheerfully, brutally overthrows hundreds of years of false assumptions related to our understanding of the human brain, the notion of self and the study of human emotion, doing away with the idea that brains are pre-loaded with shared concepts and ideals (emotion, truth, language, etc.). Instead, she posits, of entering the world with an instruction manual or user’s guide already in place, our brains are gloriously complex prediction engines—highly attuned to (and also influenced by) our bodily systems, which require constant regulation, and able to make increasingly well-informed guesses about what we need to survive and thrive in the world around us.

Her point is that these brains of ours create the reality we see, and then move us through it accordingly. It’s an interesting point—“Changes in air pressure and wavelengths of light exist in the world, but to us, they are sounds and colors. We perceive them by going beyond the information given to us, making meaning from them using knowledge from past experience, that is, concepts.”

And so, our brains are constantly guessing about what’s around us and creating a navigable, experience-able “reality” of conceptual shortcuts, educated guesses, to optimize our survival chances. Those odds are further increased by our unique ability to use language to pass along concepts and information we find useful to future generations, and to shape the experiences of those surrounding us. “Words give us our own special form of telepathy.”

Emotions are one of the most useful concepts the brain relies upon to make predictions about, and sense of, social interactions, arguably our greatest strength as a species. There’s no one Platonic ideal of “anger,” rather it’s a fluid landscape of data points we weave together into one useful concept—the anger of an employer at a missed deadline is different from the anger of a disappointed parent is different from the anger of someone shouting on the street corner. All examples of anger, and all requiring different strategies but all benefiting from the mental short cut of “anger.”

Further, she lays out, in what is incrementally accumulating into a theory, how our brains are shaped by the social reality we create between similarly cognitively equipped humans. Especially in the realm of emotions, which are social constructs, that is, ultimately defined by the actors rather than objective conditions, the mental and emotional states of others clearly affect our own mental, emotional and biological states.

This is a great book that, beyond the achievement of providing and explaining strong scientific evidence of a nascent theory of emotions, moves strongly, if somewhat incompletely, into its applications—what does this created reality mean for our legal system, the pursuit of science, political and social issues, the mental states of animals and more?

It’s fascinating, liberating and a little dizzying to realize that we are each the product of a frenetic and continuous series of cognitive predictions that mostly occur without our direct knowledge or input, and are constantly shaped by our past, our health and nutrition and the culture we are embedded in:

“Every human being is the sum of his or her concepts, which become the predictions that drive behavior. The concepts in your head are not purely a matter of personal choice. Your predictions come from the cultural influences you were pickled in ... you still bear responsibility to overcome harmful ideology. The difficult truth is that each of us, ultimately, is responsible for our own predictions.”

Luckily, she gives some practical advice (though not enough; I hope a second book is forthcoming) for mitigating the negative concepts and filters that can affect lifestyle (Spoiler alert: eat healthfully, exercise, sleep well and embrace curiosity and skepticism and deepen emotional granularity.)

Highly recommend.