Illustration by Fanny Luor

The Mind at Work

The Mind at Work: Lisa Feldman Barrett on the metabolism of emotion

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Published on February 10, 2021

Illustration by Fanny Luor

I’m so mad at my boss! Even just reading these words might get your blood pressure pumping and set your head wagging in honest indignation.

But how angry are you really? Are you vexed, perturbed, irate, annoyed, or just plain pissed? The point is that anger isn’t a singular event, and in any given situation, your anger might not feel or look the same. (I actually love my boss.)

Instead, as psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has demonstrated in her research, emotions are constructions that our brains create to guide our actions and explain how we’re feeling in a specific situation. They are also, she’s careful to point out, as real as anything we see, hear, or taste. And it is indeed because they are so real that they serve their evolutionary function—and sometimes get us into trouble.

Barrett is University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University and author of How Emotions are Made and the recently published Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. She thinks understanding the neuroscience of emotion is a key to building better relationships with other people, and ultimately creating a fairer, more just world. If emotions are constructed, then each of us bear some responsibility for how our own brains construct emotions, and how our actions contribute to the construction process in other people’s brains. But the larger story is about how emotion concepts have evolved through human history and why changing ingrained attitudes about emotion is so hard, even for the willing.

From all directions in science, not just those Barrett touches directly, there is an emerging consensus that in nature and modern society, variation is more the rule than the exception. To go out on a limb, what this new paradigm suggests is that the strict categorizations that allowed for modernity (subject/object, mind/body, thought/emotion—thank you, Descartes) are now getting in the way. As businesses often find, what got us here (initial success) won’t get us there (sustained growth and innovation).

Variety and adaptation powered emotion’s central role in human evolution. Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion concludes that emotions are social reality, they are constructed with abstract concepts, and these concepts are made possible by the brain’s capacity to compress information. Skipping to the end first, Barrett’s seventh lesson in the new book is, “Our Brains Can Create Reality.” She writes, “As far as we know, humans are the only animal whose brains have enough capacity for compression and abstraction to create social reality.” Social reality is the human superpower, but she explains, “A superpower works best when you know you have it.”

What’s your brain for?

The brain, as we can now conceive through the work of pioneers like Barrett, neuroscientist Karl Friston, and philosopher Andy Clark, is an organ of prediction driving a vulnerable body through an uncertain world. The brain, Barrett emphasizes, is not so much a singular “organ” as a metabolic process. 

Her most recent book starts with a short chapter (the “half lesson”) provocatively titled, “Your Brain Is Not for Thinking.” Rodin’s Le Penseur and most of Western civilization beg to differ, but biology is on Barrett’s side. Brains first evolved during the Cambrian explosion when creatures began to hunt one another. “If they burned up energy fleeing from a potential threat that never arrived, they wasted resources that they might have needed later,” she writes. “Energy efficiency was a key to survival.”

The brain is not so much a singular ‘organ’ as a metabolic process. 

Fast forward 500 million years and those primordial brains have become almost unimaginably complex, yet they still serve bodies and are constrained by energy efficiency. Serving the body means keeping it alive and healthy, keeping systems coordinated, and metabolism efficient. The scientific term for this is allostasis, but Barrett often uses the term “body budgeting,” with its personal finance association of bank deposits and withdrawals, to make her point more accessible. Prediction emerged—in pursuit of balancing the body’s budget—as an energy-saving strategy. “When it came to body budgeting, prediction beat reaction,” she explains. “A creature that prepared its movement before the predator struck was more likely to be around tomorrow than a creature that awaited a predator’s pounce.”

Thinking, seen through this evolutionary lens, is not the Cartesian raison d'être, but actually a side effect. I am—whether I think or not—unless my brain stops doing its primary job (keeping my body regulated). To be fair to philosophers through the millennia, a lot of what we think of as thinking is involved in the machinery of prediction that makes all this possible. But thinking of thinking as the main attraction has led humanity into a persistent error that we periodically attempt to correct. Heraclitus couldn’t convince Plato, but maybe Barrett can convince you.

The essential problem

“Essentialism is really at the heart of many ills in our society,” Barrett tells me, looking Vermeer-esque against a dramatic velvet curtain on our Zoom call. “Essentialism is the belief that a category of things share a particular nature because they share a deep, immutable core, an unchanging essence.” Racism, sexism, and snobbery are all forms of essentialist bias that hinge on this fixed mindset. They also assume, Barrett says, “that a visible feature (like skin tone, or a vagina, or a certain type of car) is symbolic for something else, the deeper essence, that makes a person the type of person they are.”

Essentialism is also behind the classical view of emotion that Barrett encountered as a psychology student. At the time, researchers were obsessed with finding the physiological “fingerprints” of common emotions (fear, anger, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust) and with trying to locate the clusters of neurons responsible for these feelings in the brain. Barrett went to graduate school intending to become a psychotherapist, as she puts it, “a consumer of science, not a producer.” Putting a contemporary theory about the origins of anxiety and depression to the test using a standard set of questionnaires to distinguish the two, she hit a roadblock. What seemed in the literature to be a clear clinical distinction between symptoms didn’t show itself in her data. 

Research has shown that when it comes to emotion, it’s very easy to lead the witness.

So she tried to replicate a different experiment, and then another. After eight consecutive failures she thought, maybe she wasn’t cut out for science. But she tried eight times, so maybe she was! When she went back and looked at the common features of her failures, a pattern emerged, just not the one she was expecting. “My first ‘botched’ experiment actually revealed a genuine discovery—that people often did not distinguish between feeling anxious and feeling depressed. My next seven experiments hadn’t failed either; they’d replicated the first one.”

Barrett began to suspect that the classical view of emotion was too essentialist for its own good. Indeed, a lot of cross-cultural research from the past decade, some of it from Barrett’s own lab, has shown that many emotions Westerners consider hard-wired in the brain don’t even exist in other cultures. At the same time, other research has shown that when it comes to emotion, it’s very easy to lead the witness: If you ask someone how depressed they feel, they are more likely to feel depressed.

Recategorizing how you feel

The big takeaway from Barrett’s new view of emotion is the way each of us maintains our own, and each others,’ body budgets is through our concepts, including emotion. We construct instances of emotion to make sense of our body’s pleasant and unpleasant moods and different levels of stimulation. Valence and arousal are properties of consciousness that are always with you, whether you are emotional or not. These basic elements of affect are the feelings that we make sense of with our emotion concepts. You might have a vaguely unpleasant feeling, but through emotion you experience something much more specific: that emotion prepares you to act in a way tailored to the present situation.  

Barrett used this example in a NY Times op-ed to explain how affect is interpreted by emotion:

A bad stomach ache that follows an indulgent meal may send us to the gastroenterologist, but if we experience that same ache during a messy divorce, we may head to a psychotherapist instead. At the gastroenterologist’s office, we experience our discomfort as an underlying physical problem; at the therapist’s office, we experience the same discomfort as anxiety — a psychological disturbance, physically manifested.

Barrett’s point is that in both cases the initial cause of discomfort is physical, but based on context we may experience it as emotional. “There is no such thing as a purely mental cause,” she continued, “because every mental experience has roots in the physical budgeting of your body. This is one reason physical actions like taking a deep breath, or getting more sleep, can be surprisingly helpful in addressing problems we traditionally view as psychological.” So much for the mind-body problem.

Our emotions incorporate many inputs and can have many bodily effects. The theory of constructed emotion, Barrett believes, can enable us to tame this complexity by observing our actual bodily feelings with more care. You can never escape your concepts completely, but you can apply them, she says, with more “emotional granularity.” 

“Meaning isn’t an evaluation in any kind of deliberate propositional sense, it's an action plan. And you can change those action plans.” —Lisa Feldman Barrett

Imagine feeling worked up while trying to learn a new skill on the job. You might experience your heightened heart rate and breathing as your excitement at the challenge or as fear of failure. You might experience your fatigue as your hunger for lunch or your lack of will to persevere. You might experience a co-worker’s jibe as an attempt at closeness or a commentary on your inadequacy to the task. Using Barrett’s method, you could say to yourself, I’m experiencing an uncomfortable level of arousal when I try to do this. What do these sensations mean to me in this situation? What do I want to do now to help me achieve my goal? By being aware of how your brain is making meaning out of sense data in particular situations, you can take an active part in your own constructions. “Meaning isn’t an evaluation in any kind of deliberate propositional sense,” Barrett says, “it's an action plan. And you can change those action plans.”

Why emotions feel real

To repeat, Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion doesn’t mean emotions aren’t real. The anxiety you feel facing a deadline has a concrete effect on the effort and immediacy of your work, as any procrastinating writer will tell you. Emotions feel real in order to do their job (like getting you to focus on that deadline). 

“In every waking moment,” Barrett explains, “your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to predictively guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When your brain constructs concepts from past experiences of emotion, your brain is categorizing sensations and guiding action. But the same is true for any other category of experience.” She uses the term “affective realism” to describe the phenomenon that we believe what we experience—our emotions and our sensations all feel equally real to us. “Affective realism is when you use your feelings as evidence that the world is a particular way,” she says. “For example, I feel negative so therefore something bad must be happening. I feel threatened therefore you must be threatening me.” This is ultimately why essentialism is so persistent in human culture. It feels so natural and intuitive to see the world this way—unless we make a special effort otherwise. The scientific method is exactly such a special effort, but scientists themselves aren’t always immune, especially when it comes to emotion. 

The idea of needing to make an effort is also a clue when we remember that brains must be energy efficient. Affective realism is energy efficient because it allows us to accept our brain’s predictions as fact—most of the time. A big leap for Barrett came with her investigation of predictive coding in neuroscience, starting with Andy Clark, which led her eventually to the work of Karl Friston. Briefly, the picture of the brain that’s emerged from their and many others’ work is that most of the brain’s activity is predictive. The brain is composed of a set of core systems arrayed in a hierarchy from the cortex at the top to the sense organs at the bottom. The signals flowing upwards through the neural hierarchy are prediction errors—just the difference between what we expected and what we actually encountered.

Like a surfer, your brain is always trying to stay just ahead of the wave of sensations as they crest. Fall too far behind and you get walloped.

Andy Clark captured this feeling well with the title of his 2015 book, Surfing Uncertainty. Like a surfer, your brain is always trying to stay just ahead of the wave of sensations as they crest. Fall too far behind and you get walloped. 

Ultimately, the architecture of the brain, the laws of physics, and the behavior of complex systems together suggest that our classical and naive intuitions about our own brains can’t be correct. There just isn’t enough time to take the world in, process it accurately, and plan your actions before that wave comes down on your head. So affective realism, feeling that our predictions are true in an objective sense, buys us critical time to adapt to our environments and survive in them.

Resetting the default mode

The brain uses 20% of the body’s energy at rest, and 2/3 of that is consumed by sending signals up and down the neural hierarchy. This is true even when your mind is not paying attention to anything in particular. So what’s all that signaling about? There have been many articles in the popular press about the default mode network and its role in mind wandering. Some cast the default mode as a key to creativity and others to unproductive distraction. A metabolic account of brain function paints a more coherent and precise picture.

If all that’s flowing upstream through the brain’s neural hierarchy are prediction errors, what’s flowing downstream? Through her work on emotion, Barrett has conceived this top-down hierarchy as a “concept cascade” that’s an integral part of how the brain maintains the body’s metabolic budget. Key here is that the brain has two distinct types of sensory input flowing upwards: sensations from the outside world and sensations from the body itself. 

No matter what you’re consciously paying attention to at any given moment, your brain is always receiving information from your senses about what’s going on in the world and in your body. These bodily sensations are called interoception, which you experience as moods, affect, or “gut feelings.” They feel real, but have many potential causes. The problem, Barrett explains, is a reverse inference, “the brain does not have access to the causes, it only senses the outcomes.”  

To solve this puzzle, the brain re-assembles past experiences that are similar in some way to the present. A group of similar things is a category, and psychologists call a mental representation of a category a concept. “So, when your brain asks, ‘what is this pattern of sense data similar to?’ it is constructing a concept,” says Barrett.

Barrett and her collaborators have demonstrated that the human interoceptive network encompasses emotion and body budgeting—as well as thinking, perceiving, memory, and much more. It’s composed of both the default mode network and what is known as the salience network, which evaluates the information content of sensory prediction errors, prioritizing what’s worth paying attention to. In Barrett’s scheme, the default mode initiates the concepts that cascade through the brain, leading to action plans, making sense of the predicted sense data, and learning salient prediction errors to improve prediction in the future.

But prediction errors don’t just add up to concepts on their own. For that, we need to go beyond the networks of the brain to the networks of brains that shape our social worlds. We need other people.

Wired by social reality

“If you take a very embodied view of the mind,” says Barrett who clearly does, “then really, you're being pickled in the minds of other people.” Human babies, she points out, are much more helpless than those of almost any other species. Their brains are very much “under construction” at birth, which makes babies vulnerable, but also able to become exquisitely wired to the circumstances they’re born into.

These wiring instructions happens through the words and actions of other people, from parents and caregivers early on, to neighbors, teachers, schoolmates, and eventually the people you choose to surround yourself with as an adult. Parents, Barrett says, have a crucial responsibility to first maintain their child’s body budget and then teach them to maintain it for themselves. 

Pickling is really a nice analogy here, because it implies both a medium that something is immersed in and also a container. When it comes to wiring the brain, the medium is the words and actions of the people in your life, and the container is your culture. Taken together, this context is either supportive of your ongoing body budgeting—or not.

“If you take a very embodied view of the mind, then really, you're being pickled in the minds of other people.” —Lisa Feldman Barrett

What’s so powerful about our families, communities, and cultures is that they teach us concepts before we’re even aware that they’re doing it. These concepts, like anger, pride, or bias, will seem intuitive and natural to us and hard to escape later in life. And because our cultural concepts feel natural to us, we intuitively assume they do for others as well. This can lead to prejudice, but also to cooperation.

In a just published paper, Barrett and collaborators Jordan Theriault and Liane Young make a metabolic case for the emergence of “the sense of should.” In their model, it is energetically efficient to meet the expectations of others because doing so makes their behavior more predictable to you. Barrett calls conformity a form of “coasting,” because when the brain’s constructions are primarily driven by prediction, they’re more metabolically efficient compared to when they must adjust for novel situations.

Constructing is the act of generating concepts out of bits and pieces of past experience. Coasting, relying on easily made concepts native to your social reality, is efficient as long as these concepts prove predictive. But maintaining the accuracy of your predictions requires learning and exposing yourself to novelty. This is exactly the dynamic that Friston has identified with the free energy principle: Living systems balance reducing uncertainty with gathering evidence for their own predictions.

 

Working with your constructions

“I think there's a very direct parallel to the workplace,” says Barrett, “both in terms of the physical environment and your relationships with co-workers.” Is the temperature, the lighting, the noise level OK, and if not, can you make adjustments? Do you trust your boss and your co-workers? Do you feel free to float new ideas? Barrett asks, “Are they predictable to you? Do they give you enough information to remove allostatic burdens that free up metabolic energy for you to do the really hard stuff?”

This emphasis on the metabolics of collaboration explains the value of both strong company culture (to allow coasting when conformity is beneficial) and diversity (to support constructing when innovation is needed). “Innovation culture” may indeed be an oxymoron (as comedian George Carlin said of “jumbo shrimp”). In Barrett’s view, culture sets the metabolic stage for individuals to bubble up new ideas. And cultures learn new practices based on which ideas its members adopt. 

Most important, perhaps, is paying attention to what you find yourself paying attention to. You don’t have to do cross-cultural research with a remote tribe to conclude that different cultures care about different things. Barrett, who grew up in Canada, remarks that it took her quite a while to get used to the emotional tenor of Americans. This difference, which is both individual and cultural, is called your affective niche. This is easy to see at work the week before the Super Bowl: Some of your co-workers are all worked up about “the game” and others could clearly care less. 

Identifying your own affective niche is a key to greater emotional granularity. It’s also a great way to improve your relationships with your co-workers by allowing yourself to care about them as people. This doesn’t just mean having empathy for them when they’re down, but also caring enough to push them to be their best. Barrett uses an example from her lab, which she likens in many ways to running a small business. “When someone goes on the job market, they have to give a series of practice job talks,” she says. “We are sometimes so hard on people that we make them cry. But they understand that if I'm trying really hard to nail their ass to the wall, it's because I want them to succeed. I want them to be prepared. But also I want them to get used to that feeling, and embrace that feeling, instead of being afraid of it.”