Just How Real is Emotion?

Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

Emotion: the universal human experience that connects us all, transcending time, culture, and place. When a loved one passes, we feel sadness. When a friend wrongs us, we feel anger. It is commonly thought that these discrete, experience-specific emotions (like anger, fear or sadness) are innate, produced by dedicated circuits in the brain in response to the environment — one circuit for each emotion.

This is the popular view of emotion held by most people and supported by most scientific theories: emotions are universal, built into us from the beginning.

But what if this isn’t true at all? What if aren’t emotions innate, instead learned over the life-course through concepts taught to us by our culture? And what if emotions don’t exist as discrete entities — if there is no such thing as anger, fear, or joy — and instead each emotion we feel is a cultural interpretation of mental sensations?

The Theory of Constructed Emotion

Professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett’s Theory of Constructed Emotion argues just this, challenging most other theories of emotion which assume emotion is genetically bestowed. Her theory suggests that emotion isn’t fundamentally “real” but is instead constructed from the concepts created by our experiences. We bundle sensations into distinct emotions based on emotional categories — like happiness, fear and joy — that our culture gives us.

Barrett describes her theory in this way:

“In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion.”

Here’s a rough example I developed to conceptualize this theory. Imagine you are 3 years old on the playground, digging in the sand with a shovel. A little girl comes up and pushes you out of the way, grabbing the shovel for herself. You experience many sensations — heart beating more quickly, chest tightening, thoughts speeding up, tears gathering at the corners of your eyes. You run to your mother and tell her what happened. She explains that you are feeling anger. Later that night, she reads you a story about a little girl whose sister steals her favorite toy. In the book, the little girl feels anger. From then on, you package feelings similar to the one you experienced on the playground (which was really constructed of many different sensations) as anger.

Evidence in the Literature

The idea that emotion isn’t inherently “real” may seem implausible, but there is data to support it. Let’s start with the llongot, an isolated rainforest tribe in the Philippines. This tribe recognizes an emotion unknown to Westerners called liget. Liget is central to the Ilongot experience, much like love is to the Western experience. American anthropologist Renato Rosaldo lived with the Ilongot for many years but could never quite understand liget — attempting to define this unknown emotion was like trying to describe a song without ever hearing it. Liget seemed to have positive connotations, associated with things like energy and productivity. But liget was also experienced during times of sadness and anger.

It wasn’t until Renato’s wife unexpectedly died that he felt liget for the first time and truly understood the alien emotion in a non-academic sense. He said it was foreign feeling that grew and grew, like “high voltage through my body.” No english emotional concept could describe what he was feeling; “high voltage” is Renato’s best attempt at an English approximation of his emotional experience.

Anthropologist Jean Briggs also found cultural differences in emotional expression across cultures. In her book Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, she recounts her time living amongst the Utku, and Inuit tribe in Northern Canada. Surprisingly, she noted that the Utku people almost never expressed anger. Since anger was seen as harmful to the community, the Utku people were discouraged from conveying this emotion at an early age. Because of this, anger seemed to be altogether absent from their culture.

The Ilongot and Utuku are extreme examples of culturally constructed emotion, as they are both exceptionally isolated social groups. Still, even globalized cultures have differences in emotional expression and perception. Studies show that Americans perceive emotion more intensely than Japanese, rating facial expressions of sadness, happiness and surprise as more extreme. Further, Tsai et. al 2007 found that European American children preferred exciting activities more than Taiwanese Chinese preschoolers did and rated excited smiles as being more “happy”. Tsai believes that this is because early socialization through media, like storybooks, influences emotional expression and perception — the fact that bestselling American storybooks tend to be more lively and exciting than Taiwanese storybooks may explain the emotional differences between the two groups.

The fact that recognized emotions differ cross-culturally is one key piece of evidence to support the theory of constructed emotion. These differences imply that emotion isn’t biologically ingrained but instead created by culture. Neuroimaging studies are another important piece of the puzzle. Barrett’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory conducted an analysis on a large group of emotion studies from 1990–2011 to see if emotions have dedicated brain areas. The results? Specific emotions actually aren’t produced in specific areas of the brain — there are no dedicated circuits for happiness, sadness, or surprise. Even the amygdala, widely thought to be the “fear” center in the brain, didn’t reliably activate during fear experiences!

Constructing Emotion to Make Sense of Our World

Interesting right? To me, this data suggests that emotions like anger don’t really exist, at least not in a biological sense. Each emotion we feel is a unique combination of many different brain networks working together in tandem. We categorize this distinct combination of mental sensations into a neat little emotional concept so that we can more easily understand our experiences.

So, biologically, there could be billions of “emotions” — each emotion we feel is likely an idiosyncratic combination of many sensations. But, as humans, we need to categorize emotion in order to comprehend our experiences; humans need concepts to understand the world and live in a perceptually fluent manner.

To help explain my point, I’ll give an analogous example: categorization of color. As with emotion, we classify color according to basic conceptual groups — red, yellow, blue, green, etc. Yet, in reality the number of visible colors is infinite (much like the number of emotions). Colors don’t exist as discrete entities, but instead span a spectrum. However, in order to easily navigate and understand the world, we must simplify our stimuli.

And so with emotion, we must catalog many different and diverse feelings under broad categories designated by our culture. Whether it be liget or joy or fear, it is likely these feelings are not fundamental to human experience — they aren’t objectively real. Instead, they are constructed concepts made up of a myriad of sensations.

Documenting insights about humanity, culture, and design. // Self-experimenter, UX Designer @ Google.

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