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  • Writer's picturehayneslamottepsych

A Deeper Science of Emotions

Where do our emotions really come from? This question has a complicated, counterintuitive, and fascinating answer that I will be exploring in this post. This neuroscience background on emotions helps explain why people’s emotional experiences are different from one another, and hold implications for how you can more effectively approach both your emotions and mental health as a whole.

Information in this post builds on a background that is explained in a previous post, A Look at Your Mind Under the Hood, and I encourage you to check that one out first.

A Flawed Assumption

As she describes in her book How Emotions Are Made, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett spent the early part of her career, like many neuroscientists of the time, searching for emotions’ unique “fingerprints” in the brain. That is, based on the idea of a reactive brain, looking for where in the brain different emotions happen.

However, over the last 100 or so years of neuroscientists searching for this, they have not been able to locate a clear pattern of neural activity that consistently distinguishes a single emotional experience from any other. That is, there is no known way to distinguish what emotion someone is feeling by looking at a picture (or video) of their brain activity.

The flawed assumption in this approach to studying emotions is that it views them as primarily reactive in nature, when it is more accurate to think of them as constructed by your brain, alongside other aspects of our conscious experience. When we think of them in this way, it unlocks a new sense of agency that we have over our lives and experiences.

Affect: The Ancient Origin of Emotions

Although other animals do not share our exact human experience of emotion, all animals do share a basic ingredient of our emotions called affect. Affect can be described as the summaries our brains predict/receive about the state and needs of our bodies. We experience this consciously as a sense of valence (pleasantness/unpleasantness) and a sense of arousal (calm/excitement).

Below you can see this as described in the Affective Circumplex. You can pick any emotion you can identify and place it somewhere here on this chart.

What does affect do for animals including humans? The answer to this question lies in understanding an early problem that evolution had to solve. The very first animals were passive recipients of the nutrients they ingested through filter feeding. Around a period 500 million years ago called the Cambrian Explosion, the dynamic of hunting began.

Imagine for a moment, you’re an Ancient Trilobite. In order to hunt and not be hunted most effectively, you have to make sense of the environment around you as it relates to your current needs. Does that splotch of color over there remind you more of things you’ve eaten or things that have tried to eat you? The hungrier and more desperate you are, should you take more risk?

Every motion that occurs inside your body requires resources to continually maintain, as well as any movement you make with your entire body. Your brain’s primary job, as honed over hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution, is to anticipate and provide the resources that your body needs strategically at the right time in order to accomplish your goals.

We commonly think about our five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, but affect really operates in the same way as those other senses – just about information coming from inside rather than outside our body. It is the meaning our brain is making out of the state and needs of our body and the changes it is anticipating that our body will need given the context we are in.

As part of keeping our body constantly running, our brain’s budgeting of the body’s resources (e.g., heart rate, metabolism) best matched to the situation is a continual process called allostasis, and the feedback that your brain receives about this process shows up in your conscious experience as affect alongside your other senses. Why it shows up in consciousness this way is one of the great mysteries of science.

All of the events and moments throughout our day that impact our mood (seeing a friend for lunch, getting a flat tire, drinking coffee) are doing so by triggering our brain into predicting that the body will need to use more or less energy in that moment. When you have an argument with a loved one, their words are impacting your body’s use of its resources, even if your body in total is not physically moving anywhere! How does this happen?

Concepts and Words

If Affect, what we share with all animals, is one piece of our emotional experience, then the other big piece is the ways in which our concepts and words shape our emotional experience.

Recall that, as demonstrated in the prior post, the ways that our brains produce our conscious experience of our senses is primarily through prediction with some correction from your sensory input. Without this prediction, you have experiential blindness, such as when looking at that picture in the prior post that your brain could not process, or when listening to people speak a language that you do not speak – you just experience the sounds as noises without meaning.

The way that this prediction is organized in your brain is by your learning history, i.e., everything that has ever happened to you. When we are born, we come into the world with no ability to care for ourselves and meet our own bodily needs. We also have no ability to determine what stimuli from the outside world are meaningful and which are not. Psychologist Allison Gopnik describes babies as having a diffuse “lantern of attention” that is honed over time into adulthood as a “spotlight of attention.” The way that babies learn how and what to pay attention to and what concepts to form is primarily from their caregivers at first, and then this branches out into more varied sources as they go to day-care, school, and as they go out into the world more generally.

I should note that the terms concepts and predictions are both two different ways of describing the same exact processes in the brain. That is, concepts are just organized predictions. An example of what I mean:

When you go to a restaurant your brain has been trained by the many times you have done this in the past to expect the following: you wait for someone on the wait staff to seat you at a table, you sit down, they hand you a menu, you look at what you want to order, you order it when they come by, you eat the food, get the check, pay your bill, and leave.

This is a concept/prediction that can then be quickly modulated by other concepts: maybe there’s a sign up that says “seat yourself,” maybe the waiter that knows your order isn’t there today so you need to say the whole thing to the new person.

Or maybe you’re in an eatery you’ve never been in before and you have to determine if it’s the type of place they serve you at the table or you have to go up to the counter to order. Your brain looks to any clues this may be the case, like the way the cash register is positioned, whether there appear to be any wait staff at any tables at the moment. Your brain has a built-in desire to resolve uncertainties because this helps it regulate your body’s resources more efficiently. Concepts/predictions offer an efficient way to process new information in terms of what you do know from the past.

Just as other animals experience affect, they also utilize concepts/predictions. As shown in the prior post, predictions occur preconsciously and seem to be a necessary component of generating your conscious experience.

This can be seen clearly when my cats come running when they hear the cupboard door open. This is based on the prediction of me opening the door in the past and this meaning most of the time that they were about to get food, unless I was just doing it to get them out of a room I didn’t want them in. Maybe they get wise to what I’m doing and start to recognize that when I open the cupboard when they’re in certain rooms, I am just faking them out, and they stop falling for it. Then I have to start giving treats sometimes in these situations so that it will still work, but perhaps this causes them to go into rooms they shouldn’t more often based on the prediction of this generating more treats. This all happens through the process of predictions in their brains (and mine) that are influenced by their learning history (and mine).

What humans do have the unique ability to do compared to other animals is to combine different concepts to create new ones. Additionally, humans uniquely tie language to these concepts in order to make this process even more efficient. That is, language is not needed for the development of a concept, but it is helpful at being able to quickly reference and combine concepts, and transfer them to other people. That is, as you introduce a new concept to a loved one, you are literally helping reshape their brain.

Putting It All Together

Putting all of these ideas together, you get a sense of what emotions truly are:

They are the meaning that your brain is making out of the sensations happening inside of you in relation to what’s happening outside of you. Just like your other senses, your experience of them is guided both by the sensations themselves as well as the concepts/predictions your brain makes about them that give them meaning in your consciousness.

This understanding is called The Theory of Constructed Emotion. It suggests that experiences of emotion are constructed in our brains via the exact same processes that construct other aspects of consciousness.

This theory explains why scientists have been unable to find any “fingerprints” in the brain for the last century of trying: because that’s simply not how emotions are created. Emotions don’t exist as natural phenomena in the brain that are activated by the world, they are actively constructed in your conscious experience using the concepts and words you have been taught through your learning history.

Each instance of emotion and its expression is highly situational. That is, giving a wrong answer in class and forgetting a friend’s birthday might both be categorized by someone as an instance of embarrassment, even if the contexts are different (one is public, the other is private), sensations in the body are different, and neural activity in the brain is different. This tracks with the way you actually experience emotions in your everyday life:

Think about different times you have been angry before and the different ways that you experienced and expressed it: maybe at times you have yelled, slammed doors, or maybe the opposite – you instead got quiet and still, or maybe you had to smile through it because you were at a work event, or you cried to release from the feeling of complete overwhelm because you knew you were next to someone who you know would not judge you negatively.

The experience and expression of emotion happens completely contextually, as your brain tries to predict how to understand the moment and what to do based on the other times very similar situations have happened. The use of emotion words to describe consistent emotions across these instances speak to the similarities that we perceive in different events and the meaning that we make of them.

Implications of This View on Emotions

The Theory of Constructed Emotion is the conceptualization that, to me, makes the best sense out of all of the findings of neuropsychology of the last 100 years, as well as the theory that seems to best explain our everyday experiences in our minds. Here are some of the biggest implications that I see of this theory as it relates to mental health:

1) The distinction we make between rationality and emotionality is an artificial one. What we think of as rationality is how you are able to apply your mind when your bodily needs are being met, whereas emotions are our interpretations of what the sudden changes in our bodies mean in relation to what’s happening around us. Affect, as a basis for our emotions, is a part of our consciousness that plays a role in how we perceive things, so there is no separating rationality from emotionality. Consider this: if you find yourself in a dangerous situation, is it rational or emotional to try and run away? This theory of emotions can change the way you conceptualize your mind, and therefore can change how you respond to it in a given moment.

2) Your brain learns from its experiences by placing things into categories and creating new categories – because these experiences become a part of how you process your emotions, this means that you can actually cultivate different emotional experiences for yourself over time through the process of recategorization. If you’ve ever been angry with someone else, and then that feeling dissolved when you learned why they did what they did, this occurred via recategorization.

3) Alongside recategorization more generally, you can improve your abilities at emotional granularity, which refers to how specifically you can describe emotions and their differences from one another. Distinguishing the subtle differences between feeling irritated, annoyed, aggrieved, and enraged would be a good example of emotional granularity in the arena of anger. Over time, these become concepts that help shape how you experience emotions and communicate them to others.

4) It is impossible to observe someone else’s emotion, because it is inherently an experience that occurs within them. While we might have cultural expectations for how emotions look, each and every instance of emotion is constructed contextually based on the situation. You can make guesses or predictions about how someone else may be feeling based on whether they are displaying signs we stereotypically link to that emotion, but you can’t observe that emotion directly. That does not mean that we shouldn’t try to understand one another’s emotions, but that some humility can be helpful in the process.

As you work to develop a better understanding of your brain and your mind, it can be helpful to have the assistance of a licensed therapist. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.


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