Emotions are like Perceptions: How our Mind Constructs our Emotional World

The latest science of the brain and emotions is rather disconcerting until you sit and think about it. In fact, what Lisa Feldman Barrett says about the working of our emotions is almost exactly the same story that I tell about perception in Brand esSense. 

The central idea is that emotions are not preset but are constructions of the brain, as it tries to interpret the outside world. The author argues that emotions are like perceptions in the way that they are formed. Out perceptual systems not only include the senses, but also introception (the monitoring of our internal systems) and nociception (the body’s system for evaluating pain). Emotions are just another facet of our interpretation and experience of the world around us.

In How Emotions Are Made: The secret life of the brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett first deconstructs the existing view of emotions that we all have certain emotions “built in” from birth and they are specific and distinct phenomena that we share with all humans. Something happens around us and these emotions are instantly triggered, and appear for all to see on our faces, voices and bodies.

She calls this the “classical” view of emotion (and one that I have often written about).  When something triggers a “sad” feeling. Our brows furrow, we frown, our shoulders stoop and often we cry (and at the same time our heart rate and breathing speeds up, sweat glands activate and blood vessels constrict). Many would claim this a “fingerprint” that gives a unique identity to sadness, and many other universal emotions.

This view goes back especially to Darwin, who wrote about the common emotions experienced by humans (and animals as he pointed out) and some of the characteristics that they exhibit in all humans (or at least the humans that Darwin was exposed to). However, we know that Darwin believed that our bodies evolve and adapt to local environments, so why wouldn’t this be the case for emotions too?

As the author points out, although many experiments show commonalities between the emotions we describe, such as anger, fear and happiness, many more experiments show differences, and specifically a wide variety of physical and psychological events that are associated even with the same emotion. She argues that emotions are not universal, but “emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment”.

Her theory is that emotions are constructed, where our brain interprets the sensory signals from the environment, using past experiences to predict what our body should do in this moment to best cope with the changes in the environment and adapt to the experience we are having in that moment. This is exactly the same process the brain goes through to make sense of any experience, constructing our perceptions using a top-down prediction system that starts with our best guess as to what is really happening ‘out there’. 

Facial coding studies are most frequently cited to “prove” that certain emotions are universal. She points out that the approach used by Paul Ekman, where subjects are given a choice of labels to identify an emotion displayed by an actress/actor are open to challenge. When alternative approaches are used, for example by giving subjects open response options, then different answers can be obtained, showing differences across cultures. Studies using EMG and monitoring the muscle movements in the faces of people showing different emotions, show more variation than consistency and are unable to predict the emotion being displayed. 

For example, does this picture show someone terrified? It certainly could do, and it’s easy to interpret the picture that way if you zoom in on the face, although in reality it’s Serena Williams beating her sister to win the 2008 U.S. Open. In experiments where people are given faces to compare or faces without verbal labels, the accuracy of their identification of emotions drops drastically compared with those tests where they are given a “cheat sheet” (Lisa Feldman Barrett’s term).

As mentioned, this doesn’t mean that Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that these emotions have nothing in common, but what she argues clearly and with the weight of evidence strongly on her side, is that “on different occasions, in different contexts, in different studies, within the same individual and across different individuals, the same emotion category involves different bodily responses”. Variation is the norm in emotions (and life), and it’s difficult to find any uniformity in the actual patterns of physical and brain activity associated with emotional concepts.

The term ‘concept’ is important here. The brain constructs meaning and attaches them to experiences, including emotional experiences. The way that these meanings are labelled and communicated is as concepts, in the same way that perception constructs general instances of ‘dogs’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘friends’ that allow the brain to find similarities and differences across different instances of an experience which help it to predict for a particularinstance, what is likely to happen next.

For example, when we look at a rainbow we see a pattern of colours, and in most cultures this pattern would consist of six stripes of colour (Newton was desperate to make it seven, but the reality of perception doesn’t back him up). We see the stripes because we have concepts for different colours such as red, orange and yellow. Such concepts encourage our mind to group different colours into the categories we know, and in this example into six stripes, maximizing the similarities between the colours within each category and at the same time maximizing the differences between the categories. The reality is that a rainbow consists of a continuous spectrum of colour without stripes.

We categorise emotions too. Emotions are a core part of the meaning of any experience (Antonio Damasio argues that emotions are the markers that give meaning). These meanings are constructed from both our external (social) worlds and our internal worlds, and the author argues that the classical senses (vision, touch, taste, smell, hearing) combine with interoception (our sense of our internal body mechanisms), as well as pain, temperature and emotions and feelings. That’s why emotions are so strongly linked to bodily feelings.

And emotions are used to predict, as is all the other sensory and experiential information that floods into the brain every second of every day. These predictions are based on matching the current situation to previous experiences and extracting the relevant ‘concepts’ from our memory to then predict what happens next. Once the prediction is made, the brain moves on, unless incoming data strongly contradicts what has already been constructed so that the brain changes the prediction. Our experience is mostly a prediction of reality, and not reality itself (you can read more on this in Brand esSense).

The implications of her findings are huge for those who want to leverage emotions in branding and marketing. Emotions are not universal as commonly understood but they are our personal constructions. That doesn’t mean that we don’t or can’t share some aspects of emotion, but most certainly means that, for example, culture plays a large part in shaping the role and interpretation of emotions in local cultures.

Her ideas link well to some of the work TapestryWorks has recently undertaken into using local adaptations of visual cards to explore and measure the nuances of local differences in emotion and motivation (read more soon). As she says in How Emotions Are Made, emotion concepts are cultural tools, with rules that link specific emotions to specific situations. The language of emotions is often highly specific to culture: read The Book of Human Emotions (or our blog) for more on this.

In conclusion, it’s clear that although there are universal aspects to emotions, and some commonalities in their experience, anger is never quite the same in different places, times and contexts. If you really want to understand the emotions that people feel, and what motivates their behavior, it should always start with an understanding of their culture and the way that different feelings are expressed within that culture. Emotions are personal, cultural and sensorial.


How Emotions Are Made: The secret life of the brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin

The Book of Human Emotions: An encyclopedia of feeling from anger to wanderlust by Tiffany Watt Smith

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