Are emotions a biological reality or a social construction?

Emotions seem primal. We all release them from within us in a similar way. They accompany us from birth. They are peculiar and recognizable phenomena of our interior world. When something happens in the world, be it a gunshot or a seductive look, our emotions engage automatically, as if someone had flipped a switch.

We express them on our faces through smiles, long sullen faces and other characteristic manifestations that anyone can easily recognize, such as laughter, shouts or tears. The face is the objective mirror of our emotions. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin declared that emotions and their expressions constituted an ancient component of universal human nature.

Modern science has an explanation that fits that story: the classical conception of innate emotion. According to this thesis, the external stimulus unleashes a chain reaction that begins in the brain. Imagine that it produces sadness. With the stimulus, the “brain circuit of sadness” is triggered. My brow furrows, my shoulders slump, and I burst into tears. That circuit also triggers physical changes in my body: my heart rate and breathing speed up, my sweat glands activate, and my vessels constrict.

That activation both inside and outside my body is said to be the fingerprints that identify sadness, just as fingerprints identify an individual. In this framework, our emotions would be artifacts of evolution, which long ago had advantages for survival and have become fixed components of our biological nature. As such, they are universal: people of all ages, cultures and contexts.  But scientific research into emotions is showing that things are not always as they seem. You are not born with emotion; you construct them. This is the groundbreaking thesis of Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern and Harvard universities and a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, which she lays out in her book “How emotions are Made. The Secret life of the brain” . According to her theory, emotions, which are felt automatically, just like uncontrollable reactions to things we think and experience, are not universal nor do they have a biological origin based in certain brain regions.

They vary from culture to culture and are a result of dynamic neural networks. Networks that perform simulations, make predictions, and correct them according to stimuli from the environment. When scientists set aside the classical view and stick to bare data, Feldman Barrett claims that emotions emerge as a combination of physical properties of a flexible brain that establishes its connections in any environment.

She replaces the classical conception of emotions with what she calls the theory of constructed emotion. Going back to the external stimulus that caused the sadness, the stimulus did not trigger a brain circuit of sadness inside me, causing a set of bodily changes. Rather, I feel sadness at that moment because, having been raised in a certain culture, I learned that sadness is something that can happen when certain feelings coincide with a terrible loss. Using bits and pieces of past experiences, my brain quickly predicts what my body should do to deal with that tragedy.

That prediction would cause my heartbeat to race, my face to darken, and my stomach to knot. It may drive me to tears, an action that helps to calm my nervous system. Combined, they create the resulting sensations that would materialize in an episode of sadness

Barrett bluntly declares that our common conception of emotions is false. Happiness, sadness, anguish and others are not inscribed in specific brain circuits but are constructed in each particular case. There is no separation in the brain between emotion and cognition, and there are innumerable neural combinations that come together to generate each emotional expression. It is a theory on the construction of emotions that shines the spotlight on the powerful effect of top-down processes on our perception: if we’re told there’s a spider under our shirt, we’re instantly aware of any friction we feel on our skin.

Barrett argues that we build simulations of the world and then compare our perceptions with them. Over time, our brains have been laying down circuits in response to accumulated experiences. Some have seen in Barrett’s thesis a revolution, similar even to the discovery of relativity in physics and natural selection in biology. What is certain is that it is a counterintuitive theory, typical of the brain, master of deception. It creates experiences and directs actions with skill, without us ever really being aware. Joy, sadness, surprise, fear and other emotions seem so different and anchored in specific places, that we assume that they have different causes within them.

The Jury is still out on the innate nature of emotions vs the constructed nature of them, and as is often the case the “truth” maybe somewhere in between. But one thing is for sure and that is that emotional dysregulation is common in many psychopathologies and the ability to effectively regulate emotions and the capacity to flexibly apply different regulatory strategies has been shown to reduce emotional stress and increase adaptive functioning (Gross & John 2003).

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How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Lisa Feldman Barrett Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2017

Gross JJ, John OP. Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003;85:348–362.

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