Posts Tagged ‘Lisa Feldman Barrett’

The Brain is in the Mind

July 6, 2017

This is the fifth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in that book.

When asked where the mind is located, most people respond that it is in the brain. So most people assume that the locus of thought—the most impressive of human capacities—is in the most sophisticated of human organs, the brain. Is this correct? Consider the following experiment.

This is a simple experiment where participants are asked to push a button with one of their hands to indicate their response. We have no problem with this task and respond in not much more than half second. But if the experiments vary one little detail, a detail that shouldn’t matter if the mind is in the brain, the results changed. The objects were oriented either to the left or to the right. For example, the handle of a watering can be on the right-hand side in half the pictures and on the left-hand side in the other half. If all we’re doing to decide whether the object is upright or upside down is consulting the knowledge stored in our brain about the object’s orientation, then whether the handle is on the left or right should make no difference. But it does. When responding yes with our right hand, we are faster when the handle is on the right than when the handle is on the left. When we are asked to say yes by pressing a button with our left hand, we are faster when the handle is on the left.

Here’s why. A photograph of a utensil with a handle on the right makes it easier to use our right hand. We see the photograph and immediately and unconsciously start organizing our body to interact with the picture object. Even though the handle is a photograph and not real, the handle is calling for our right hand. The fact that our right hand is primed for action makes us faster to respond with it, even to a question about the orientation of the object, which has nothing to do with action. By priming our hand to interact with the object, our body is directly affecting how long it takes us to answer the question. We don’t just pull the answer out of our brain. Instead our body and brain respond in synchrony to the photograph to retrieve an answer.

We use our bodies to think and remember. One study showed that acting out a scene is more effective than other memorization techniques for recalling a scene. Embodiment is a cluster of ideas about the important role the body plays in cognitive processing. Cognition is unified with objects that we’re thinking about and with. When we make music, our thoughts about music and the music we make with out mouths or instruments are part of the same process and highly interdependent. It’s much easier to move our fingers as if we’re playing a guitar if we actually have a guitar, and it’s much easier spell a word or do arithmetic if we write down what we’re thinking. The fact that thought is more effective when it is done in conjunction with the physical world suggests that thought is not a disembodied process that takes place on a slate inside the head. The authors conclude, “Mental activities do not simply occur in the brain. Rather, the brain is only one part of a processing system that also includes the body and other aspects of the world.

Emotional reactions are also memories. Remember the healthy memory blog post on Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and her book “How Emotions Are Made” Our emotions are the result of our interpretations of and models based on our interoceptive responses. We learn to interpret our internal bodily responses in an analogous manner to how we build models and interpret the external world.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dougla Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Ramifications of HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE

May 14, 2017

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book has repeatedly been called revolutionary.  Why?  First of all,  it is revolutionary in that it has debunked the longstanding view of emotion that has existed for two millennia.  Readers of the healthy memory blog should know that we do not have direct knowledge of the external world.  We develop concepts and models based on the inputs we receive from our senses.  Dr. Barrett has found that our emotions come from the concepts we develop based on our internal world, our interoceptive environment.  This is the theory of constructed emotions. It forms a nice parallel to how we understand the external world.  Our brain is constantly dealing with external and internal inputs forming concepts, models, and interrelating them.  This fits nicely into the scientific principle of parsimony.

This is a nice result for science, but what does it mean to us personally?  The word here is constructive.  We construct our emotions, we are not passive recipients of information that goes to receptors for specific emotions.  In other words, we need to be proactive rather than reactive.  We construct concepts and models of the external world, and we do the same with our internal interoceptive world.  So we can strongly affect, if not control, our emotions, so that we are happier, healthier, and more productive.

At the same time, we need to understand how we can be mislead by affective realism.  Judges need to understand that their interoceptive feelings of hunger can cause them to be more severe in their supposedly rational judgments.  Our interoceptive feelings can be in error and we need to be aware that we need to recalibrate and to refine them.  We should not be governed by our emotions, we need to understand, correct, and refine them.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Illness, Other Species, and the Law

May 13, 2017

This post is based on material in a revolutionary book by Lisa Feldman Barrett titled “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”  Dr. Barrett has chapters on illness, other species, and the law.  It should be clear that illness and emotion are inextricably intertwined.  The same health factors underly both illness and emotion.  Consequently Dr. Barrett devotes considerable effort addressing the healthy lifestyle.  Exercise, sleep, and the whys and wherefores of a healthy diet.

She also has a chapter on emotions in other species.  It’s titled “Is a Growling Dog Angry?”.  Considering the differences within our own species, there should clearly be differences in animal emotions.    She systematically explores what animals are capable of feeling, based on brain circuitry and on experimental research.  She focuses primarily on monkeys and great apes.  She does assume that all animals experience affect.  The question she tries to address is to what extent can different species be capable of developing concepts regarding affect.

It is the law for which Dr. Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion has profound implications.  The law is conceived in terms of rational thought versus emotion.  The role of rational thought is to constrain emotions.  But in constructed emotion rational thought and emotion are inextricably intertwined.  How can the law accommodate this conception?  It cannot be accommodated all at once.  But over time the concept of constructed emotion is likely to chip away at this edifice governed by rational thought.

Already the law is largely oblivious to relevant research in psychology.  To the extent that this ignorance exists, there is a large gap between the legal system and justice.  To read more on this topic go to the healthy memory blog post,  “The Law and Psychological Science.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mastering Your Emotions

May 12, 2017

This post is based on material in a revolutionary book by Lisa Feldman Barrett titled “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”   The first item is to remember to keep your body budget in good shape.  Your interoceptive network works day and night, issuing predictions to maintain a healthy budget.  This process is the origin of your affective feelings (pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, and calmness).  To feel good your brain’s predictions about your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, hormones, metabolism, and so forth, must be calibrated to your body’s actual needs.  Otherwise you body budget gets out of whack, and you’re going to feel crappy.  Unfortunately, modern culture seems to be engineered to screw up your body budget.  Work and school schedules can make it difficult to get enough sleep, and junk food is omnipresent.  What can be done about this?  Try to adjust your schedule and diet as best you can.   Regular exercise increases the levels of proteins called anti-inflammatory cytokines, that reduce your chances of developing heart diseases, depression, and other illnesses.

Your physical surroundings also affect your body budget, so if possible, try to spend time in spaces less noisy and crowded, and with more greenery and natural light.  Reading a compelling novel is also beneficial for your body budget.  When you get involved in someone else’s story you aren’t as involved in your own.  These mental excursions engage part of your interoceptive network, known as the default mode network.  And do not ruminate, and if you are ruminating, stop.

After you body budget, Dr. Barrett says that the next best thing to do for emotional health is to beef up your concepts, to become more emotionally intelligent.  Remember that you create your emotional concepts.  Emotional intelligence is about getting your brain to construct the most useful instance of the most useful emotion concept for a given situation.  Sometimes it is important not to construct emotions but instances of some other concept.  Daniel Goleman, the author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” argues that higher emotional intelligence leads to success in academics, business, and social relationships.

Dr. Barrett writes that there are many ways to gain new concepts: walking in the woods, taking trips, reading books, watching movies, trying unfamiliar foods.  She says to be a collector of experiences.  Try on new perspectives the way you try on new clothing.  These kinds of activities will provoke your brain to combine concepts to form new ones, changing your conceptual system proactively so you’ll predict and behave differently later.

Try to develop higher emotional granularity.  A collection of scientific studies indicate that people who could distinguish finely among their unpleasant feelings, say fifty shades of feeling crappy, were 30% more flexible when regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed, and less likely to retaliate against someone who has hurt them.

Rather than ruminating about something unpleasant, keep track of positive experiences.  Each time you attend to positive things, you tweak your conceptual system, reinforcing concepts about those positive events and making them salient in the mental model of your world.

If you deal with children, be positive and try not to say negative things.  Studies have shown that children in low-income homes hear 125,000 more words of discouragement than praise, while their higher-income counterparts hear 560,000 more words of praise than discouragement, all by age four.  If a child is whining incessantly, instead of yelling “Knock it off,” try something like, “your whining its irritating me, so stop it.”

Dr Barrett offers the following tips for mastering feelings in the moment.  She says that the simplest approach is to move your body.  She writes that moving your body can change you’re predictions and therefore your experience.

Another approach is to change your location or situation.  For example, during the Vietnam War, 15% of U.S. soldiers are addicted to heroin.  When they returned home, 95% stayed off the drug their first year back.  Given the strong addictive effects of heroin, this is an extraordinary result.

Dr. Barrett writes that recategorization is a tool of the emotion expert.  The more concepts you know and the more instances you can construct, the more effectively you can recategorize in this manner to master your emotions and regulate your behavior.  So, if you’re about to take a test and feel affectively worked up, you might categorized your feeling as harmful anxiety (“Oh, no, I’m doomed”) or as helpful anticipation (“I’m energized and reading to go!”).

Last, but certainly not least, is meditation.  She notes that key regions in the interoceptive and control networks are larger for meditators, and connections between these regions are stronger.  Some studies have seen stronger connections even after only a few hours of training.  Other studies find that meditation reduces stress, improves the detection and processing of prediction error, facilitates recategorization (termed “emotion regulation,”) and reduces unpleasant affect.

The Origin of Feeling

May 11, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s revolutionary book “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”   Both pleasant and unpleasant feelings come from an ongoing process inside us called interoception.  Interoception is our brain’s representation of all sensations from our internal organs and tissues, the hormones in our blood, and our immune systems.  This interoceptive activity produces the spectrum of basic feeling from pleasant to unpleasant, from calm to jittery, and completely normal.

The intrinsic activity in our brains is not random;  it is structured by collections of neurons that consistently fire together, called intrinsic networks.  An intrinsic network has a pool of available neurons.  Each time a network does its job, different groupings of its neurons fire in synchrony.  Intrinsic brain activity  is the origin of daydreams, imagination, mind wandering, and reveries.  Dr, Barrett calls these activities simulations.  We simulate what we might experience in the world.  They assist in helping us to interact with the world.  Intrinsic brain activity ultimately produces every sensation we experience, including our interoceptive sensations, which are the origins of our most basic pleasant, unpleasant, calm and jittery feelings.

Our brains, with only past experiences as a guide, make predictions.  These predictions take place at a microscopic scale as millions of neurons talk to one another.  These neural conversations try to anticipate every fragment of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that we experiences, and every action we will take.  These predictions are our brains’ best guesses of what’s going on in the world around us and how to deal with it to keep us alive and well.  Through prediction our brains construct the world we experience.  It combines  bits and pieces of our past and estimates how likely each bit applies to our current situation.  Prediction is such a fundamental activity of the human brain that some scientists consider it the brain’s primary mode of operation.  Predictions not only anticipate sensory input from outside our skulls, but also explain it.  Our brains also use predictions to initiate  our body’s movements, such as reaching our arm out to pick up an apple or dashing away from a snake.  We are our brains, and the whole cascade of events is caused by our brains’ predictive powers.

If our brains were merely reactive, they would be too inefficient to keep us alive.  We are always being bombarded by sensory input.  One human retina transmits as much visual data as a fully loaded computer network connection in every waking moment.  Now multiply that  by every sensory pathway we have.

Evolution wired our brains for efficient prediction.  The brain predicts far more visual input than it receives.  Through prediction and correction our brains continually create and revise our mental models of the world.  It’s an enormous, ongoing simulation that constructs everything we perceive which determine how we act.  However predictions are not always correct, when compared to actual sensory input, and the brain makes adjustments.

Dr, Barrett notes that prediction efforts are not problems.  They’re a normal part of the operating instructions of our brains as they take in sensory input.  She continues, “Without prediction error, life would be a yawning bore.  Nothing would be surprising or novel, and therefore our brains would never learn anything new.”   She goes on to summarize,  “the brain is not a simple machine reacting to stimuli in the outside world.  It’s structured as billions of prediction loops creating intrinsic brain activity.  Visual prediction, auditory predictions, gustatory predictions, somatosensory predictions, olfactory  predictions, and motor predictions travel throughout the brain, influencing and constraining  each other.  These predictions are held in check by sensory inputs from the outside world, which our brains may prioritize or ignore.”

The most important mission of the brain is predicting the energy needs of the body.  Our inner-body movements and their interoceptive consequences occur every moment of our lives.  Our brains must keep our hearts beating, our lungs breathing, and our glucose metabolizing even when we’re not playing sport, even when we are sleeping or resting.  Therefore interception is continuous, just as the mechanics of hearing and vision are always operating, even when we aren’t actively listening or seeing.  However, sometimes we experience moments of intense interoception as emotion.  In every waking moment, our brains give our sensations meaning.  Some of these sensations are interoceptive sensations, and the resulting meaning can be an instance of emotion.

Dr. Barrett’s presentation of the interoceptive network is detailed and highly technical.  If interested, please read the book.  What is important for the purpose of this blog is the concept of a body budget that the brain needs to keep our hearts beating, lungs breathing, and our glucose metabolizing.  The requirements of the body budget strongly affect our interoceptive network and the emotions that emerge from this interoceptive network.

Myths of the Triune Brain and the Rational Human Mind

May 10, 2017

This post is motivated in part by Lisa Feldman Barrett’s revolutionary book “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”  Unfortunately, Carl Sagan popularized the notion of a triune brain in his book “The Dragons of Eden.”  The model begins with ancient subcortical circuits for basic human survival, which we allegedly inherited from reptiles.  Sitting atop those circuits is an alleged emotion system, known as the “limbic system”  that we supposedly inherited from the early mammals.  Wrapped around this so-called limbic system is our allegedly  rational and unique human cortex.  Any expert in brain evolution knows that humans don’t have an animal brain gift-wrapped in cognition.  Neuroscientist Barbara L. Finlay, editor of the journal “Behavior and Brain Sciences” says  that “mapping emotion onto just the middle part of the brain, and reason and logic onto the cortex is just plain silly.  All brain divisions are present in all vertebrates.”  Brains evolve as effective companies do, by reorganizing as they expand to keep themselves efficient and nimble.

Dr. Barrett’s bottom line is this:  “the human brain is anatomically structured so that no decision or action can be free of interoception and affect, no matter what fiction people tell themselves about how rational they are.   Your bodily feeling right now will project forward to influence what you will feel and do in the future.  It is an elegantly orchestrated, self-fulfilling prophecy, embodied with the architecture of the brain.”

One of the most cherished narratives in Western thought, is that the human mind is a battlefield where cognition and emotion struggle for the control of behavior.  Modern neuroscience does not back up this narrative, nor does human behavior.  Much research has clearly debunked this narrative.  There are many posts on this blog on behavioral economics (to find them enter “behavioral economics” into the healthy memory blog search.)  Behavioral economics was born by the research of Kahneman and Tversky.  Unfortunately, mainstream economics is dominated by the assumption of the rational mind.  This assumption makes the underlying mathematics tractable.  They are tractable but wrong.  Mainstream economics did not expect the financial crash of 2008, nor the market crash of 1929 for that matter.

Dr. Barrett writes, “You cannot overcome emotion through rational thinking, because the state of your body budget is the basis for every thought and perception you have, so interoception and affect are built into every moment.  Even when you experience yourself as rational, your body budget and its links to affect are there, lurking beneath the surface.”

How Emotions Are Made

May 9, 2017

“HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE” is the title of a revolutionary book by Lisa Feldman Barrett.  It’s Subtitle is “The Secret Life of the Brain.”  It is indeed a revolutionary book as it debunks longstanding theories of emotions and substitutes for them a new theory based on detailed experiments and data.  Daniel Gilbert wrote, “A brilliant and original book by the deepest thinker about this topic since Darwin.”

For two-thousand-years the assumption has been that we all have emotions built-in since birth.  “They are distinct, recognizable phenomena inside us.  When something happens, whether it’s a gunshot or a flirtatious glance, our emotions come quickly and automatically.  We broadcast emotions by way of smiles, frowns, scowls, and other  characteristic expressions that anyone can easily recognize.  Our voices  reveal our emotions through laughter, shouts, and cries.”

The classical view of emotion posits that there are circuits of particular sets of neurons for different emotions.  Emotions were thought to be a kind of brute reflex, very often at odds with our rationality.  Our rationality was supposed to control our emotions to keep us from acting out too strongly.

Dr Barrett notes that this view of emotions has been around for millennia in various forms.  “Plato believed a version of it.  So did Hippocrates, Aristotle, the Buddha, Rene Descartes, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin.  Psychologist Steven Pinker, Paul Ekman, and the Dalai Lama also offer descriptions of emotions based on this classical view.  The classical view is found in virtually every introductory college textbook on psychology, and in most magazine and newspaper articles that discuss emotion.  Preschools throughout America hang posters displaying the smiles, frowns, and pouts that are supposed to be the universal language of the face for recognizing emotion.  Facebook even commissioned a set of emoticons inspired by Darwin’s writings.”

Dr. Barrett continues, “And yet…despite the distinguished intellectual pedigree of the classical view of emotion, and despite its immense influence in our culture and society, there is abundant scientific evidence that this view cannot possibly be true.  Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion.  This notion also held that emotions were universal.  Regardless of where or when people lived, they experienced the same emotion.

Dr Barrett concedes that there are experiments that offered some evidence for the classical view, but many more cast the classical view in doubt.  She presents detailed research in the book that compels the reader to conclude that the classical view is flawed.  For example, emotions vary across cultures, much like languages will vary their vocabularies to reflect the environment in which they reside.

Of course, having debunked the classical view, it is incumbent on the critic to propose something better.  Dr. Barrett calls this view the theory of constructed emotions.  These emotions are constructed on the basis of our interoceptive environments.  She presents a convincing argument that our emotions are built upon our interpretation of our internal environments, that is analogous to the manner in which we develop an understanding of the external world.

Readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware that we do not experience the external world directly.  Rather we develop concepts and models on the basis of what our senses receive from the external world.  In other words, emotions are based on what we feel, that is how we interpret what we receive from our interoceptive environment.  Emotions are interpretations of our interoceptive conditions.  In other words we learn our emotional concepts in an analogous manner to how we learn about the external world.  We have an energy budget and this budget affects feelings of hunger and other bodily conditions.

Dr. Barrett provides a personal anecdote to illustrate how constructed emotions work.  When she was a graduate student a fellow male graduate student asked her out at the end of the day.  Although she had no feelings for this guy, she was tired and thought it would be a good way to kill the evening.  While they were dining, she thought she was beginning to fall for him.  Nothing further happened and she went home and fell asleep exhausted.  The next morning she woke up with the flu and remained in bed for several more days.  Apparently she had misinterpreted her interoceptive environment.  What she had originally interpreted as incipient feelings of love, were really incipient feelings of the flew virus.