The Secret History of Emotions

Roundup
tags: emotion



Lisa Feldman Barrett is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) published this month.

On a brisk fall day in 2006, I was sitting on the floor of my former office in the Boston College psychology department, weeding through boxes of old journal articles on the science of emotion. As I perched in the center of a pile, I came across a tattered paper by a psychologist named Elizabeth Duffy, dated 1957, titled "The Psychological Significance of the Concept of Arousal or Activation." I vaguely remembered reading it in graduate school, but the details were foggy. Probably worth rereading, I thought, and spared it from the recycling bin.

I had no idea that this action would lead me to unearth two major errors in psychology and a half-century of lost research.

Before I can tell you that story, you’ll need to understand how the science of emotion came to be. Most scientists who study it would relate a history roughly like this:

Once upon a time, people believed that the human mind was bestowed by gods or God. Emotions, in contrast, were said to live within the body, like an inner beast that needed to be controlled by divine, rational thought. In the 19th century, Charles Darwin replaced God with natural selection, and shortly thereafter, psychology was born. A golden age of emotion research began, as neurologists and physiologists searched for the physical basis of emotions. They discovered that emotions live in ancient parts of the brain that control the body: the mythical "inner beast" made real. These scientists’ triumph was short-lived, however, as the science of emotion soon plunged into a "dark ages." Psychology fell prey to a scourge known as behaviorism, the study of pure behavior, in which intangibles like thoughts and feelings were deemed unmeasurable and therefore irrelevant to science. Nothing worthwhile was published on emotions for half a century.Then the cognitive revolution arrived, in the 1960s, rescuing psychology from the darkness, and the science of emotion experienced a renaissance. Emotions were discovered once and for all to have distinct and universal facial expressions, bodily patterns, and brain circuitry, and we all lived happily ever after.

Pick up any psychology textbook or read Wikipedia, and you’ll see some variation of that story: that emotions are inherited through natural selection and located in specific parts of the brain that trigger distinct reactions — the "fingerprints" of emotion — in the face and body. See a snake slither across your path, for example, and a "fear circuit" is said to cause your heart to race, your eyes to widen, your voice to shriek. If you’ve ever heard that emotions live in a "limbic system" in the brain, that you have a "lizard brain" that triggers your emotions, or that fear lives in a region called the amygdala, those ideas are rooted in the same story. So is the movie Inside Out, a children’s fantasy about emotions as individual characters in the brain, which was described by National Public Radio as "remarkably true to what scientists have learned about the mind, emotion, and memory."...




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