If the word “sad” did not exist in English and had never existed, would we still have the capacity to be sad or see sadness in others? In her book How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett suggests not. Sadness would not exist because we would have no concept of it, there would be no state of mind our brains could label as “sad” and consequently we would have no capacity to be sad or perceive sadness in others.
An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world.
Emotions are not reactions 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.
A physical event like a change in heart rate, blood pressure, or respiration becomes an emotional experience only when we, with emotion concepts that we have learned from our culture, imbue the sensations with additional functions by social agreement.
Lisa Feldman Barrett - How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
To my mind the book is certainly not beyond criticism but is engaging, well presented and the core message of the book is a particularly powerful one.
For example – moving on from the word “sad”. A similar question arises if the word “offence” did not exist in English and had never existed. Would we still have the capacity to take offence or be offended? Although she does not use this particular example, in her book, Professor Barrett’s neurological work suggests not. As with sadness, offence in this emotional sense would not exist because we would have no concept of it. Again there would be no state of mind our brains could label as “offended” and we would have no ability to perceive it in other people.
In Professor Barrett’s interpretation of modern neuroscience, emotions are concepts and not forced responses to a range of situations and circumstances. An emotion is a fluid and diffuse conceptual framework within which we make sense of social situations and our own bodily reactions to those situations, but any emotion could be different. It depends on our goals.
When you walk into an entirely new situation, you don’t experience it based solely on how things look, sound, or smell. Your experience it based on your goal. So, what’s happening in your brain when you categorize? You are not finding similarities in the world but creating them. When your brain needs a concept, it constructs one on the fly, mixing and matching from a population of instances from your past experience, to best fit your goals in a particular situation. And herein lies a key to understanding how emotions are made.
Emotion concepts are goal-based concepts.
In other words, the neuroscience of emotion seems to support something we probably already know or suspect about people who claim to be offended by the politically incorrect. It tells us that their emotional reaction to what they perceive as offensive is a learned, goal-based reaction. It is a genuine emotional reaction but it is still learned, still goal-based and could be different or even unlearned.
In general the offended are responsible for their own emotional concepts, they are responsible for feeling offended. It suits them to be offended so they are.
Professor Barrett has written an intriguing book and it is well worth reading. Depending upon your goals of course.