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Sweet Emotion

Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett is researching the nature of emotion, and how it functions in the mind. Incorporating both psychological and neuroscience perspectives, Prof. Barrett takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics.

For her revolutionary research on the nature of emotion, Prof. Barrett received an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, which is awarded to scientists who take transformative approaches to solving challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.

Here, Prof. Barrett discusses her research, addresses common misconceptions about emotions, and shares insight about the human mind as a “recipe book.”

  • Do people see the world differently based on their emotional state?
  • Are there any popular or scientific misconceptions about the way we view emotions?
  • You’ve observed that the mind is not a machine, but rather a recipe book. What do you mean by this?
  • How could your research on basic psychological process behind emotion positively impact our society?

Do people see the world differently based on their emotional state?
Yes, they do. Now if I asked people, “do you see the world differently when you are angry?” most would probably answer “yes.”  But our research suggests something more profound – your brain literally selects different things to see when you feel emotional.  In the lab, if I show you different images in each eye (say, a face to one eye and a house to the other), both images are represented early in your visual system, but consciously you see only the face or the house.  By measuring how long each image is seen, we can tell something about what the brain is selecting for visual consciousness. If you are feeling unpleasant, you will see the face for longer – no matter if it is scowling or smiling or neutral looking. If you are feeling pleasant, you will see a smiling face for longer. This selection is not something that you are aware of.  It is something your brain is doing based on how you feel.  Your emotional state alters what you are conscious of seeing.

There are at least two important implications to this research.  First, we don’t come to know the world through only our external senses- our feelings influence the processing of sensory information from world as our eyes take it in.  Exposure to visual sensations alone is not sufficient for conscious visual experiences. Second, different people might be wired to see the world differently.  If you are often in a good mood, and therefore more likely to see a smiling world around you, then you live in a very different world from those who are more likely to see the scowls and frowns instead.

In our more recent research, we have observed that people use their feelings to understand what they see.  So for example, if  you look at a neutral face and I ask, “would you trust this person?”, your answer will vary based on your feelings.  When you feel unpleasant, you will see the person as untrustworthy.  When you feel pleasant, you will see the person as trustworthy.  The fact that you use your own feelings as a source of information, or even validity, for what you see has obvious implications for anything that involves seeing people accurately (e.g., national security, police work, interacting with your spouse, and so on).

Are there any popular or scientific misconceptions about the way we view emotions?
Definitely. Suppose you are walking through the woods and see a huge snake in your path.  Suddenly, you’re afraid.  Fear just comes on, uncontrollably, like a little bomb going off in your head and body.  At least this is how it seems to you.  But based on the research from our lab, we know this is not what is happening in your brain. Even before you saw the snake, you were feeling something: perhaps pleasant and alert, or unpleasantly sleepy, or wound up.  In fact, in every moment of your waking life you are feeling something, but you are not always paying attention to it. Here is what really happens when you see the snake:  your brain takes the physical feelings from your body (like your heart racing, muscles tensing), combines it with your knowledge of snakes in the woods, and constructs a feeling of fear.  My model of emotion, called the Conceptual Act Model, says that emotions are constructed in the blink of an eye by combining your constant stream of feeling with your knowledge about the world that is most applicable in that instant.

Every human brain contains some “basic ingredients” for making emotions and other mental states like thoughts, memories, beliefs, and perceptions.  One ingredient is that constant stream of feeling, which scientists call “core affect” (pronounced AF-ekt).  Another ingredient is knowledge about the world that, over time, your brain has organized into categories.  (And there are other ingredients as well).  When your heart is racing and you see a snake in the woods, that instance falls into the category of “fear.”  But if your heart were racing as you saw a snake in a pet shop, it might fall into the category “excitement” if you are an 10-year-old girl hoping for a pet, or “irritation” if you are the parent who does not want a snake in the house!

You’ve observed that the mind is not a machine, but rather a recipe book.  What do you mean by this?
For centuries, philosophers and scientists have visualized the mind as a machine: a printing press, a switchboard, a computer, with discrete pieces that work together.  But this is not really how the mind works at all.  The mind is more like a recipe book together with a well-stocked pantry. From flour, salt, and butter, for example, you can make diverse foods like breads, sauces, and desserts.  These foods look different.  They taste different.  But they all come from a common set of core ingredients, and importantly, you can’t necessarily tell which ingredients they came from, unless you are very skilled.  This is an  analogy of how the brain works.  From a few basic ingredients like core affect and category knowledge, that are combined using a host of different recipes, the brain produces the myriad of mental events that people call fear, excitement, and so on. Depending on the focus of attention and proclivities of the perceiver, the constructed mental event will be categorized as a memory, a perception, or an emotion.  At this moment in science, we are just discovering the mind’s basic ingredients.

The recipe metaphor has implications for whether or not all people in the world experience the same kinds of emotions.  We know the products of the various recipes might not be universal, but they are not infinitely variable or arbitrary either (e.g., bread can be baked with or without eggs, but it requires some kind of grain).  Likewise, the recipe for “anger” will differ from instance to instance (with a context) even within one person.

And as with all recipes, the amount of each ingredient is only one contributor to the end product. The process itself – of combining ingredients – is also important (are the dry ingredients added to the wet or vice versa?  Are they whipped in, stirred in, cut in?). As a result, it is not enough just to identify the ingredients in emotion, but also how they coordinate and shape one another during construction.

The recipe metaphor also helps us see psychology and neuroscience as two sides of the same coin.  If psychology is a description of the recipes (the ingredients and how to combine them), then neuroscience is an explanation of how the recipes work.  Psychologists are like chefs: they don’t need to know that flour and water interact to produce an interconnected network of coiled proteins (gluten) that trap and hold the gases made by the yeast when bread is baking. They need to know only that yeast makes bread rise. Neuroscientists are like the food chemists; they explain the mechanisms that make the recipes work.

Anyone can be a food critic. You don’t need to know the recipe for two different breads to say which one is more enjoyable, or has the preferred flavor and texture.  But it helps to be a bit of a chef. If you want to know which bread will taste best with a particular meal, it helps to know the recipe, or at least some of the key ingredients. If you want to change the taste of bread, it is much more efficient (and less costly in both the economic and caloric sense) to modify the recipe rather than slather it in butter and jam. And as all chefs know, it helps to have some knowledge of chemistry, otherwise experimenting with changing the recipe can feel like shots in the dark.  The same is true about emotion. You don’t need to be a scientist to experience emotions.  But knowing something about the recipes, and the mechanisms involved, can be helpful.

How could your research on basic psychological processes behind emotion positively impact our society?
Basic research – whether it’s about the depths of the brain, the bottom of the ocean, or the outer reaches of the galaxy – provides the building blocks for understanding our world and ourselves. My lab’s research on emotion benefits society in the same way as knowing about atoms that make up matter. There is value in asking basic questions, ones that have no immediate applied value but could be translated into applied solutions.  It is important to remember that science is like a food chain with basic research at the base, feeding translational research, which feeds applied research, which can then be used by the government, industry, and service providers. Without a healthy base, the entire ecosystem becomes weak and cannot survive. Without this basic research today, there will be no critical health, security, and business solutions for tomorrow.

Basic science is about exploration, risk, and discovery. You cannot run scientific discovery like a business, where you set one tangible goal and try to meet it on a strict timeline. A seemingly trivial, everyday occurrence or a very abstract idea can, upon closer inspection, open up a new scientific vista.  The neuroscientist who discovered that canary brains grow new cells after birth wasn’t trying to solve the puzzle of human mental illness.  The physicists who discovered quantum mechanics weren’t trying to build a better computer.  Social scientists who studied the evils of conformity after World War II weren’t trying to keep people from using drugs. These are all real examples of applications that came later. And my own research on emotion wasn’t originally targeted at helping children do better in school, but ironically, this is one direction it has led. Scientists who focus on basic research questions have different goals from those who focus on applied solutions, and their work is necessary to achieve the critical, often surprising results that help people live healthier and more productive lives.

Here’s another example of how understanding emotion positively impacts society.  Suppose you arrive at work in the morning feeling irritable and fatigued. Is it because you had a fight with your partner last night?  Or because you stayed up too late watching TV?  Or because you hate your job?  Or perhaps you just need coffee?  Sometimes physical sensations tell you something about the world or your place in it.  Other times, however, they are merely physical sensations with no additional meaning.  The trick in emotional life is knowing how to distinguish the first case from the second.  We’re unaware most of the time that we’re constructing meaning from our physical states, but we do, and this fact has tremendous implications for quality of life.

When learning to cook, first you learn the recipes.  Then, once you have some knowledge of recipes, you can take control of them, start modifying them, and even make new recipes.  It’s similar with emotion. The more you know about them, the more you can do. Someday, it might even be possible to train people not only to make new mental recipes, but also to modify the basic ingredients. But first we have to know what the ingredients are, and what recipes the book holds.  These are areas of ongoing research.

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