Written by Yamini Bharadwaj, grade 9 student.
In her book, How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barett shares her theory – supported with research and real-life instances – suggesting that emotions are constructs the brain creates in response to the situation it is within. She calls this the theory of constructed emotions. Shockingly, there are no universal or ‘natural’ emotions. They are all nothing but constructs.
To begin, let’s figure what a simulation is. “Simulations are your brain’s guesses of what’s happening in the world. Your brain uses your past experiences to construct a hypothesis – the simulation – and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses.” This way, the brain imposes a meaning upon what it receives. It selects what is relevant and ignores the rest. Scientific evidence shows that what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell are not reactions to the world, rather simulations of it. Researchers speculate that simulations are not limited to the senses but are common mechanisms in perceptions, empathy, dreaming, and emotions.
The foundation of a constructionist approach to emotions has a few core ideas. One is that emotions like anger and disgust do not have a fingerprint. For instance, one may be very calm and cold when they are angry in one situation but in another they may shout or scowl. The classical view believes that all emotions have fingerprints, a theory that is rejected by the constructionists. Another idea is that emotions are to a certain extent consequences of your genes. This is because some concept has to be present for making sense of sensory inputs.
The theory of constructed emotions also takes into consideration how social values and interests impact emotional responses. It also considers emotions to be constructed by core systems in the brain and body sort of like lego blocks. Finally, it also believes that experiences wire the brain. Essentially, your brain takes a situation and overlays its memories and previously acquired data upon it to produce a simulation which in this case is an emotion.
An example from the book is that someone has a stomachache. Sitting at the dining table they may experience it as hunger. A judge in the courtroom may experience it as a gut feeling that the defendant is guilty. Thus, depending on the context and the brain’s own concepts, it gives meaning to external and internal sensations.
As it turns out emotions are very likely illusions we create for our own selves. They are not natural reactions, rather varied perceptions.
By Yamini Bharadwaj
Yamini is an artist and a writer. She loves to paint in her free time
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