Book Recommendation

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett Ph.D.


Why I recommend this book:

Our emotions play a crucial role in our lives but there is so much that we don’t understand about them. Lisa Feldman Barrett is an award winning researcher on emotions and brain science. Her research has been referenced by many other top academics. Barrett challenges the classical view of emotions(which is how most of us understand emotions)  and replaces it with a theory of constructed emotions. To simply paraphrase, she states that our traditional viewpoint that there are basic human emotions with similar characteristics is not supported by scientific research. Instead, we create our emotions based on a combination of our physical sensations, our environment and our cultural background. Increasing my understanding of emotions helped me to understand and process my own emotions.


Classical View of Emotion:

The classical view of emotions was that we all have specific basic emotions which are hardwired into our brain and body. For example, that there is a “sadness circuit”, which provides “a unique fingerprint of sadness”, with similar circuits for other emotions. That the feeling of sadness, or any other emotion, would be universal throughout the human experience. Essentially that we would all experience the same set of physical characteristics when we feel sad. Our face would take the same shape. We would have the same chemical or hormonal changes within our bodies. However, this is not what science has discovered.

Barrett wrote, “even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion. When scientists attach electrodes to a person’s face and measure how facial muscles actually move during the experience of an emotion, they find tremendous variety, not uniformity.” She elaborates further that “emotions are not what we typically think they are.”


Theory of Constructed Emotions:

Barrett explains that emotions “are not universal but vary from culture to culture.” They can even depend on our use of language within different cultures. Some cultures have words for emotions that do not exist in other cultures. She explains that emotions “are not triggered; you create them.”

She continues about how we create our emotions, “they emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment.” We are attributing emotional labels to our perceptions of our feelings. However, sometimes those feelings can be similar.

She elaborates that “emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real – that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.” For example, she uses a rainbow as an analogy. In North America, we perceive there to be six colour in the rainbow. We group them together based on our perceptions of the wavelengths of light. However, a rainbow in Russia is described as having 7 colours because within their culture the colours light blue and dark blue are two distinct colours in the same sense that green and red are different colours to us. We are all looking at the same thing, but their culture has informed them that they are perceiving something differently.

This is an analogy for our experiences with emotion. We have cultural influences that instruct us what to perceive and believe based on our sensory input, which helps us to classify the emotion that we are seeing or perceiving. We categorize that individual experience and those feelings into a generic emotional label, even though they can be quite different.


Barrett Described Her Experience of Emotional Reaction:

Barrett explains her own reaction to an emotional situation. She describes her emotional reaction after hearing the Governor speak about the Sandy Hook school massacre. She could feel the emotion in his words, which caused her to cry. She describes understanding that her reaction was to cry, which was her bodies attempt to calm her nervous system. Even though she understands emotions, she too experiences them. However, an understanding of our emotional experience can help us to process those feelings. Understanding that crying is our bodies attempt to down-regulate our current state allows us to let go of the perceptions of weakness that have traditionally been attached to it.  She explained that “no matter what I know about emotions as a scientist, I experience them much as the classical view conceives of them.”



We all experience emotions but we don’t really understand what is happening on a scientific level. Reading this book helped me to understand my own emotional experiences. It also helped me to let go of any shame or stigma that I felt about those emotions. For example, Barrett’s explanation of when she was crying after hearing about a school shooting, which she understood to be her bodies attempt to down regulate itself, but she still experienced it in the moment. I don’t feel any more stigma about crying when my body needs to than I do about yawning when my body is tired. Increasing my understanding of the emotions that I feel has helped me to accept the emotions that I feel in the moment without judging myself for feeling my emotions. 

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