Emotions, constructed

I read a lot, both for my own enjoyment and also to continue my training and development as a therapist. There are a few books that I recommend to fellow clinicians, and once in a while there’s a book that I love — I notice I love a book when I give little quotes, paraphrases of its concepts to every client I’m connected with, every clinician with whom I’m collaborating and consulting.

“How Emotions are Made” is a book written by psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett that challenges the traditional view of emotions as universal, biologically determined reactions to stimuli. Instead, she proposes a new theory, the “constructed theory of emotion,” which suggests that emotions are not hardwired in the brain, but are instead constructed by the brain in response to the environment. Deeper than this, she proposes that the conception of “brain scans” shown from MRIs and fMRIs do not demonstrate “essential” or fundamental emotion-states, but rather show loosely held patterns — emotions are experienced in the body on a spectrum, and each person attaches meaning (based on their social environment, the function of these feelings, etc), based on their biological, social, environmental context.

All of these particular aspects of “emotion concepts” are in conversation, rather than a hard-wired, determined “thing” selected from a menu of pre-determined options. Here, the ‘determined’ options refer to the assumption that “anger” and other emotions have a universal (across all races, cultures, histories, social groups) presentation in its facial expression, brain state (as shown by an MRI and other imaging), experience in the body, constellation of nerve firings, etc.

The “things we experience as emotions” are constructed socially.

This conception of emotion is very helpful for therapists working with clients for several reasons. Barrett presents evidence from various scientific studies to support this theory, including neuroimaging studies that show that different emotions activate different areas of the brain in different people, and studies that show that emotions can be influenced by cultural and social factors. For a client living in one social context or the other, different emotions have different social functions — “anger,” for example, has a particular, personal history for each individual person. One culture may hold up anger as valued, honored, where others may view that “emotion state” as a thing to be scored, shamed, suppressed.

“Emotions have goals.” A few simple examples, starting with body states, make the point: the goal of hunger is (obviously) food, sustenance. Low energy, lethargic, worn out, tired, the goal there is usually sleep or rest.

The less obvious emotion states still lead to a bodily, social experience (an “emotion concept”) that can, with some thought, be conceived as a need / want. When your heart is racing, your hands get clammy, your jaw clenches, your muscles tighten, what is the “goal” present? The environment can sometimes hold clues. The lights on the police car light up behind you. The text from your partner says “we need to talk.” The sales presentation is turning from bad to hostile. The relapse cycle has begun. And, still compatible with the same set of body cues (heart racing, clammy hands, clenched) could be the opposite set of circumstances: watching a scary movie with friends, getting asked out on a date by the object of your affection, the yearly review went great and you’re getting promoted.

Body experience + social context + one’s needs, wants + all of a person’s history up to this point = “emotion”

We therapists sometimes fall into some confusion, hearing the “content” and missing the emotion-state (and values, meaning, goals) attached. “My partner and I are pregnant.” “I changed jobs.” “My mother started coming to our church.” Is this good news? Are you excited? I sometimes react too soon, missing the rest of the story. Maybe the feeling attached, the bodily experience is “I’m in danger,” fight or flight, “the pressure is unbearable.” The body is giving signals of shock, fear, anxiety, a flood of whatifs. Sometimes the play-by-play doesn’t tell the story. Connecting back to the book, and one of the key ideas in the book, “Emotions have goals” (and emotions are socially constructed), we get to engage with ourselves and each other in what these body sensations mean, what the goal or need is in that moment, and how this will impact our social relationships.

Barrett argues that emotions are not simply a response to a stimulus, but are instead constructed by the brain using a variety of cues from the environment, including sensory information, past experiences, and social context. She suggests that emotions are not discrete categories, but are instead part of a continuous spectrum of affective experiences. Taking one example, “My mother started coming to our church,” this could mean, at the emotional level, anything from “there’s a threat in the room, my once safe refuge is now mixed in with disapproval, shame” to “this is wonderful, this is exactly what I’ve been hoping for!” Sometimes it’s a confusing, conflicting combination of both. Our emotion-states are less like light switches, or canned goods (with the same taste, consistency across every store in the country), and more like an orchestra in conversation with everything. “In conversation,” here implies, the orchestra (our emotion-states) are both talking to and hearing from the environment, social and sensory information, past experiences, etc.

Barrett suggests that the constructed theory of emotion has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of mental health, as well as our approach to treating mental health disorders. The current DSM-5 comes with a set of assumptions related to symptoms, which can be helpful for clinicians to coordinate treatment, use shorthand for communicating (F43.10 for PTSD, for example), formalize and standardize care, and so on. Essentialism sees categories and identities as fixed and inherent, while social constructivism emphasizes the role of social and cultural factors in shaping our understanding of them. Extending this contrast to our understanding of emotions opens up the door, specifically in the mental health field, to understanding “the emotion things” in a wider, more holistic context. Rather than “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” for example, being a checklist of symptoms, we who are working towards health and healing get a very different set of questions — rather than, “what’s wrong with you?” we arrive at questions like:
What happened to you?
What is the function of this behavior in this current place and time?
How is this behavior effective or helpful for you, or what are you getting out of this behavior (mood, attitude, belief, thought, relationship, etc)?
What is the goal of this emotion?
What is this emotion telling you?
How is this emotion showing up in your body?
What do you feel about this feeling? (For example, Do you feel ashamed about the anger?)

Overall, “How Emotions are Made” offers a compelling and thought-provoking argument for a new understanding of emotions that challenges long-held beliefs about the nature of emotions. The book provides a wealth of evidence from scientific studies, and is written in a clear and accessible style that makes it accessible to a broad audience. In terms of therapy, the “essentialist” line of thinking follows a rigidly held set of protocols in order to manage symptoms (which are, in the first place, a rigidly held checklist). The alternative is less like “paint by numbers” and more like an organic, interactive, collaborative experience among all parties involved — a beautifully formed living subject who is experiencing healing.

For you who are looking for therapy, our goal at Progress Counseling is to provide therapy that is evidence-based, trauma-informed, and ultimately centered on you, the client, in determining how to work towards health. That is, healing, what you want your life to look like. This, in so many words, is well in line with the conception of emotions found in this work — you, as the client, get the wonderful task of making meaning of what’s happening in your body, your life, the things we experience as “emotions.”

Are you thinking about starting therapy for yourself or with one of your loved ones? Reach out now, our therapists have immediate openings both telehealth and in-person.

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