What are emotions and why are they so difficult to understand? Are they caused by physical states of the body, intuitive reactions based on memory, conceptual interpretations of a situation? Or do they somehow involve all of these?
While we all experience emotions, most of us probably haven’t spent too much time thinking about what they are. Yet as scientists continue to study them, our collective understanding of emotions continues to evolve. The theory of constructed emotion is one of the newer iterations of this understanding. It proposes that our conscious experience of emotion reflects the end product of more elemental patterns of interaction. While different emotions may function as distinct wholes, they are simultaneously the dynamic integration of the same basic parts.
How Emotions are Made
Science has taught us again and again that our experiences are a poor guide to how nature actually works. We see the sun cross the sky each day, but this doesn’t mean that the sun actually revolves around the earth. Scientific revolutions in physics and chemistry over time have revealed a world that defies common sense, and now the same is happening in the science of emotion.
Cartoon Science (How Emotions are Made) | Lisa Feldman Barrett
How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Video Playlist) | Lisa Feldman Barrett
How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Book) | Lisa Feldman Barrett
The Basic Ingredients of Emotion
Our theory of constructed emotion hypothesizes that “anger,” “sadness,” “fear,” … are mental events that result from the dynamic interplay of more basic brain networks that are not themselves specific to emotion. Think how basic ingredients like flour, water, and yeast can combine to make diverse foods that look and taste very different from one another. Our research suggests that emotions — and other mental events — are constructed in much the same way from basic neural ingredients …
We identify core psychological ingredients of emotion — interoception, vision, smell, taste, hearing and touch, a conceptual system, and the other people needed to conjure social reality — as well as the neural ingredients that continually shape one another as they combine to make a variety of mental states… only some of which people call “emotion.”
Research | Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory
The Spectrum of Emotions
As an analogy, consider the experience of color. People experience colors as discrete categories: blue, red, yellow, and so on … The physics of color, however, is actually continuous, with wavelengths measured in nanometers along a scale from ultraviolet to infrared. When a person experiences an object as “blue”, she is (unconsciously) using her color concepts to categorize this wavelength …
Likewise, emotions are commonly thought of as discrete and distinct — fear, anger, happiness — while affect (produced by interoception) is continuous. The theory of constructed emotion suggests that at a given moment, the brain … categorizes the present moment via interoceptive predictions and the emotion concepts from one’s culture, to construct an instance of emotion, just as one perceives discrete colors. This process instantiates the experience of “having an emotion”.
Theory of constructed emotion | Wikipedia