Waxing Press

Book Review: How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

book reviewsIan WissmanComment

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions are Made challenged some of my initial understanding of how the brain works, emotions are formed, and how emotion becomes an experience. Basically, Barrett argues that your brain, because it works to construct reality based on predictions from sensory input using a kind of matrix of concepts (that are purely mental), it is actually constructing emotions based on prediction-error history, contextual concepts, and social reality of the concept. Basically, this means that no emotion you experience is the same twice, and fruther my experience of happiness is likely quite different than your happiness as anyone else's happiness. Happiness doesn't "look" the same in the face, the body, nor the brain, and there is no universal, essential human emotion, but sets of cultural, biological contexts forming experiences moment-by-moment.

The second half of the book kind of drops the more nuanced (and, to me, interesting) scientific stuff and instead adopts a kind of prescriptive view of how to improve your "emotional granularity" which was basically just principles from cognitive behavior therapy—eat well, sleep enough, read more, exercise more.

However, Barrett then talks about the power of how humans think about emotions and the impact that our emotion-philosophy has on the shape of the law. This was interesting, but kind of easy to extrapolate from the things she had been saying all along. Probably, and most controversially, she suggests that because human bias is inherent in all cognition and evaluation (reason and emotion are not a battle, but all parts of a functioning brain-system), that a jury of your peers is therefore flawed from the beginning and will not ferret out the truest justice. This is problematic for a lot of reasons since it ignores how juries work as a kind of democratic situation where the jurors deliberate with one another and must come to a quorum to mete out justice. Bias surely intrudes in those individual perspectives, however, in the jury room, the kind of compromises that happen through discussion can hedge some of the individual slant. I get what she's trying to say, it just seems to ignore a lot of key elements of a functioning due process to make a small point about how humans may make mistakes due to our inherent cognitive biases. Even worse, she leans on the idea that DNA will ultimately replace the need for juries, which egregiously ignores the fact that DNA evidence is extremely error prone, and not likely to vastly improve in the near decade.

Barrett closes the book examining the question of human emotion and that of our mammalian friends: do they feel human-like emotions? She spends this chapter focusing on great apes, chimps and dogs. No surprises—they probably do not.

All-in-all, the first half of How Emotions are Made with its deeper focus on the science was much more interesting, especially when Barrett pointed out a severe flaw in how emotion researchers have been testing for emotional "fingerprints" for decades. I like history of the science, and a break down of the science stuff much more than the speculative and ruminative stuff in the last half. Worth a read to understand where the science of emotion, and of our understanding of how the brain works, is going, and trust that the easy stuff in the back will just be fun riffs on what you've just learned.