Believing is feeling

Review by Gunnel Minett

Normally we would probably say ‘feeling is believing’ but there is no mistake in the headline. This book presents a new understanding of emotions that turns our most common ‘classical’ understanding of emotions on its head. The classical view on emotions is, in the words of the author: “The time-honored story of emotions goes something like this: We all have emotions built in from birth. They are distinct, recognizable phenomena inside us. When something happens in the world, whether it’s a gunshot or a flirtatious glance, our emotions come on quickly and automatically as if someone has flipped a switch. We broadcast emotions on our faces by way of smiles, frowns, scowls, and other characteristic expressions that anyone can easily recognize.“ (P X)

But, rather than searching for inbuilt areas in the brain where our different emotions are based, the author argues that we need to see emotions as constructed in the moment, by a number of core systems interacting across the whole brain.

She writes: “Emotions are not actions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. You wouldn’t know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to behave to deal with them. With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.” (p 31)

Even if it feels counter-intuitive to see emotions as our constructions, science is gradually proving to us that the classical view of emotions is not correct. One reason why we may struggle to accept that this is wrong, is that from Plato onwards, the most common view has been that emotions are automatic reactions triggered by areas in the brain that are hardwired. The most common view in science is still that emotions happen to us because we have inbuilt neural systems that get triggered and cause stereotypical expression. At best we can control our emotions with rational thoughts and/or willpower. Much in our culture and society is based on this view. It wasn’t until technical development made it possible to study the brain in ‘real time’ that the classical theories were challenged.

One type of studies that brought the classical view into question was surveys of different tribal groups living in isolated areas of the world. The aim of the research was to see if they reacted the same way to emotional expressions as human beings in other parts of the world, given that they only had been in touch with their own groups. The conclusion was that there are regional emotional expression that are unique to a particular area or culture. There are no universal expressions of emotions. But if emotions were triggered by specific brain areas the reaction and emotional expression should be the same for all human beings.

By scanning the brain the theory of different brain areas being triggered was equally refuted. On the contrary, the findings were that even if our brains are similar, on a more detailed level each brain is different. It was also found that even if the expressed emotions were similar, they could be caused in different ways in the brain.

Feldman Barrett writes: “Scientists have known for some time that knowledge from the past, wired into brain connections, creates simulated experiences of the future, such as imagination.… An instance of a concept, as an entire brain state is an anticipatory guess about how you should act in the present moment and what your sensations mean.” (p 122)

To be more precise she describes it as: “Simple pleasant and unpleasant feelings come from an ongoing process inside you called interoception. Interoception is your brain’s representation of all sensations from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system.” (p 56)

So rather than being a split between body and emotion, or thought and emotion, or different areas of the brain triggering different emotions, it is a process that involves all parts; “Interoception is actually a whole-brain process, but several regions work together in a special way that is critical for interoception….The interoceptive network issues predictions about your body, tests the resulting simulations against sensory input from your body, and updates your brain’s model of your body in the world.” (p 67)

The conclusion drawn from this is that emotions have more in common with other bodily functions designed to establish homeostasis in the body. And far from being direct reactions to external stimuli that we have little control over, emotions are there to assist and help us in our daily lives. “..your brain has a mental model of the world as it will be in the next moment, developed from past experience. This is the phenomenon of making meaning from the world and the body using concepts. In every moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concept, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning.” (p 125)

The fact that our brain uses past experiences to give us meaning and to guide our actions brings a whole new meaning to the need to create the best possible environment for ourselves. The book highlights two areas in society in particular; emotions and illness and emotions and the Law. In both cases this new understanding of emotions changes the picture drastically. If we focus on emotions aiming to create homeostasis it will be obvious that we should make sure hospitals are an overall positive experience for the patient since this may influence the healing potential. As regards the legal framework it is heavily biased towards the classical view of emotions. The author lists a number of examples, such as judges and juries being more lenient after lunch than if they are hungry; or if and how we can tell if a person ‘shows remorse’ (important aspect for parole boards) if there is no fixed way of showing emotions.

The book also deals with the fact that emotion concepts have social reality. We may not see it as such but our how we perceive our everyday reality is closely linked with our emotions. Not just that we tend to feel happier when the sun is shining. Our emotions influences our thoughts and perception of the world. Feldman Barrett describes this as:“…you have genes that let our brain develop in the context of the other brains around you, through culture.” (p 156). That means that we influence each other and co-create a world that is far less objective and independent than we tend to see it. Something to pay attention to, in particular when it comes to children growing up. Rather than growing up in a world that is independent of us, they learn from us how to perceive and react to the world they see as reality.

We have no real way of measuring the influence of internet and other media on our brains and emotions and how this changes culture. But if we start seeing that our emotions are learnt from culture and society to a large extent it is high time we start investigating the real effects. To have constant exposure to news and social media, often with a bias towards negative events (not to mention the increasing stream violence as entertainment in films) may have a bigger impact on our bodies and minds than we think. Or as the author points out: “It takes more than one brain to create a mind”. (p 154)