I’m reading a pretty mind-blowing book at the moment – How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. It has profound implications for how we understand the interplay of human emotions and human behaviour – and how we can better deal with conflict.
Barrett argues that while human feelings – the sensations we experience in our body – are hardwired in us, human emotions are not. Rather, our emotions are socially-constructed interpretations of those sensations (called affects) and heavily influenced by the culture in which we’re brought up.
It follows from this, says Barrett, that there is no universal ‘palette’ of human emotions, since different cultures interpret affects in different ways. The Romans didn’t have a word for ‘smile’, for example, while the Ifaluk people of Micronesia 'consider emotions as transactions between people. To them, anger is not a feeling of rage, a scowl, a pounding fist, or a loud yelling voice, all within the skin of one person, but a situation in which two people are engaged in a script – a dance, if you will – around a common goal. In the Ifaluk view, anger does not "live" inside either participant.'
According to Barrett, the ‘classical’ model – the story – of how our emotions work, which most of us take as a matter of fact, is simply not borne out by close scientific observation.
One implication of this is that as culture changes so do our emotions. Where the feelings prompted by the public torturing of animals – bear-baiting, bullfighting – might once have been generally interpreted as excitement, they’re more likely now to be interpreted as revulsion. In other words, the affect is the same but the emotion is different.
The brain as story-maker
Barrett also explains that how emotions are made is consistent with how the brain works generally.
It creates what are called simulations – ‘best guesses’ about the various sensory inputs that it receives – and tries to make them into a coherent whole, consistent with everything else that it’s experienced to date.
In short, the brain keeps telling us stories – simulations – about the world, including our feelings and emotions, and keeps trying to make them fit with what we already ‘know’.
Now, this is an argument that resonates strongly with an idea I've had for some time; namely that for each of us life consists of a series of ‘nested’ stories that we struggle to make consistent with each other.
It’s a bit like one of those Russian dolls.