Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: How Emotions are Made - The Secret Life of the Brain

How Emotions Are Made describes a new theory of how emotions are provoked, evoked, and created in the brain. The classical view, which is that emotions are spontaneously evoked by external stimuli and then provokes uncontrollable muscle twitches and reactions in the face and body language is wrong, writes Lisa Feldman Barrett. This is the approach espoused by Paul Ekman's work on finding out who's lying. Basically, she's saying that all the current work on emotional intelligence, etc. is simply outright incorrect.

Because this is such a big claim, Barrett lays out all the laboratory and field work carefully: she goes through previous studies on the universality of human emotions, and points out how the field workers inadvertently corrupted their results by effectively teaching people of other cultures about western style emotional expression, rather than figuring out whether human facial musculature is involuntarily linked to human emotions. This is ground-breaking work and I find it convincing. In particular, Barrett provides us with a picture and tricks us into thinking what the facial expression is before granting us the context and showing that our perception is completely wrong. She also demonstrates that even when conducting emotion recognition in Western settings, if you eliminate cue words (i.e., disallow multiple choice questionnaires), the ability of most people to recognize emotion correctly drops by a huge amount.
Emotions are not expressed, displayed, or otherwise revealed in the face, body, and voice in any objective way, and anyone who determines innocence, guilt, or punishment needs to know this. You cannot recognize or detect anger, sadness, remorse, or any other emotion in another person—you can only guess, and some guesses are more informed than others. (pg. 244)
As a male of supposedly low emotional intelligence, I've always wondered how other people could so easily guess what others are feeling (there have been times when I've wondered whether I have autism because I was so bad at it). I'm gratified to know that Barrett's work proves that this is purely an illusion: juries are wrong about guilt so often that DNA evidence has exonerated many convicted "criminals." This is huge. It means that when you think someone's angry, they might not be. This is especially true when they come from a different culture with a different set of emotional expressions. Barrett provides evidence that this is even true of professional psychologists, who would guess wrong about their patients' emotional condition!
 To improve at emotion perception, we must all give up the fiction that we know how other people feel. When you and a friend disagree about feelings, don’t assume that your friend is wrong like Dan’s ex-therapist did. Instead think, “We have a disagreement,” and engage your curiosity to learn your friend’s perspective. Being curious about your friend’s experience is more important than being right. (pg. 195)
What new theory should substitute for the classical view, then?  Barrett here agrees with Jeff Hawkins' theory of the mind: that the brain is basically a statistical learning prediction machine. She further elaborates on that theory thus: you grow up with caregivers who teach you what emotional responses are appropriate, and the greater culture around you guide you into reacting the way you do by reflex through practice. Then when you become an adult, you shape the culture and teach your children to behave like you do. This is so built into human culture that we don't question it and think that emotions are a primary aspect of our biology, rather than a construct of our minds:
No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built-in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us. We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems. Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience. (pg. 40)
This has huge implications for society and its general broken-ness and myths. For instance, the myth that women are more emotional than men (not true, they're not).  It even affects the "science" of psychology:
Many psychologists, for example, do not realize that every psychological concept is social reality. We debate the differences between “will power” and “tenacity” and “grit” as if they were each distinct in nature, rather than constructions shared through collective intentionality. We separate “emotion,” “emotion regulation,” “self-regulation,” “memory,” “imagination,” “perception,” and scores of other mental categories, all of which can be explained as emerging from interoception and sensory input from the world, made meaningful by categorization, with assistance from the control network. These concepts are clearly social reality because not all cultures have them, whereas the brain is the brain is the brain. (pg. 287)
Barrett also points out in an entire chapter that the legal system which distinguishes between crimes of passion and crimes of pre-meditation is just a fiction, with case after case showing that juries can't tell the difference. In one case, a woman identified a man who raped her with utmost certainty, only to discover that he happened to be on TV being interviewed (about the unreliability of human memory --- ironically) while the event took place! Basically, human beings live in a socially-constructed fantasy world without a single resemblance to reality:
 Nobody can completely escape affective realism. Your own perceptions are not like a photograph of the world. They are not even a painting of photographic quality, like a Vermeer. They are more like a Van Gogh or Monet. (Or on a very bad day, perhaps a Jackson Pollock.) (pg. 283)
Whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with this book, I consider it ground-breaking and well worth the read. As y ou can see from this review, I found myself compelled to highlight quote after quote in the book. It's quite possibly the best book I've read this year. Highly recommended!
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