How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett

  • This book is about the “theory of constructed emotion,” which is based in experiments and research.


    My goal in reading the book was to explore whether current neuroscience can add any clarity to the prolepseis, as there is so little remaining text concerning them. What I found is that it actually is relevant to the entire Canon. Though the subject of the book is emotions, it also covers sensations and feelings as well as what I think we can interpret as prolepseis. Note that although the author (LFB) says that construction dates back to ideas relating to Heraclitus’ “no man steps in the same river twice,” Epicurus or Epicurean thought is never mentioned in the book.


    The book is very readable, with lots of illuminating examples and explanations. My aim here is to try to simplify (perhaps oversimplify) the information for comparison with the Canon, at least to the best of my ability.


    Core ideas of constructed emotion:

    1) Variation: an emotion does not have a “fingerprint” or a specific set of neurons.

    2) Your particular perceived emotions are not an inevitable consequence of your genes but are built in because of the specific social context in which you grew up: for instance heart rate changes are inevitable but their emotional meaning is not.

    3) Emotions are not, in principle, distinct from cognitions and perceptions.


    In every instant that we are alive we are exposed to immense amounts of sensory information. If the brain processed all of this as bits of input, it would be so inefficient and metabolically expensive that we wouldn’t survive. Therefore the brain makes predictions to attempt to anticipate and explain every fragment of sensation that you will experience by combining pieces of your past and estimating how likely it is that each bit applies in your current situation. This is so fundamental that some scientists consider prediction to be the brain’s primary mode of operation.


    Predictions are then tested against small bits of sensory input that are useful in the moment. Prediction errors are used to learn by way of prediction loops which occur at all levels from neurons interacting to brain regions and networks interacting. These continual prediction loops then create the experienced sensations that make up your experience and dictate your actions.


    Prediction loop: Predict---→ Simulate---→ Compare---→ Resolve errors---→ (and back to Predict)


    Simulation is an invisible process in which your past experiences give meaning to your present sensations. Your brain uses your past experiences to construct a hypothesis (simulation) to compare to the flood of input from your senses and to select what is currently relevant. What we experience as our senses are simulations of the world, not reactions to it.


    The balance between prediction and prediction error determines how much of your experience is rooted in the outside world versus inside your head. In many cases, the outside world is irrelevant to your experience. In as sense, your brain is wired for delusion: through continual prediction, you experience a world of your own creation that is held in check by the sensory world [my emphasis]. Once your predictions are correct enough, they not only create your perception and action but also explain the meaning of your sensations. This is your brain’s default mode.”


    So the Sensations are still true. But in this model, in a given instance, they are basically a reality check on the predictions and simulations.


    It is interesting to examine predictions as prolepseis, in the language of the Canon. LFB states that predictions and concepts are neurologically the same thing. While “predictions” and “concepts” are her words, to me these ideas read as a modern description and clarification of prolepseis.


    The brain uses concepts to group and separate things and to guess the meaning of sensory inputs, both external and internal. Without these you are experientially blind; with concepts your brain simulates so invisibly and automatically that your senses seem to be reflexes, not constructions.


    Everything you perceive around you is represented by concepts in your brain.” “...concepts aren’t fixed definitions in your brain, and they’re not prototypes of the most typical or frequent instances.” “When your brain needs a concept, it constructs one on the fly, mixing and matching from a population of instances from your past experience, to best fit your goals in a particular situation.” Your brain hones “the probabilities until it settles on the best-fitting concept that will minimize prediction error.”


    The brain begins constructing concepts very early in life, perhaps even in utero. “The newborn brain has the ability to learn patterns, a process called statistical learning. The moment that you burst into this strange new world as a baby, you were bombarded with noisy, ambiguous signals from the world and from your body. This barrage of sensory input was not random: it had some structure. Regularities. Your little brain began computing probabilities of which sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes, and interoceptive sensations go together and which don’t.”


    Instances grouped as a concept are not stored as a group in the brain, they are represented in different patterns of neurons on each occasion and are created in the moment.


    The human brain is a cultural artifact. We don’t load culture into a virgin brain like software loading into a computer; rather, culture helps to wire the brain. Brains then become carriers of culture, helping to create and perpetuate it.” “What’s innate is that humans use concepts to build social reality, and social reality, in turn, wires the brain.”


    The concept of “Emotion” itself is an invention of the seventeenth century. Before that, scholars wrote about passions, sentiments, and other concepts that had somewhat different meanings.”

  • Affect is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout each day. It is not emotion but a combination of valence (pleasant/unpleasant) and arousal (calm/agitation).


    An affective circumplex describes the relationship between valence and arousal. The horizontal axis represents valence, the vertical axis represents arousal. Distance from the intersection of the two axes represents intensity:




    So arousal does not correspond to intensity, distance from the intersection of the two axes does. Also, if I’m not mistaken, LFB uses the word “pain” to describe an interoceptive sensation. She describes aspects of valence as “pleasure/displeasure” or pleasant/unpleasant.”


    ...interoception is not a mechanism dedicated to manufacturing affect. Interoception is a fundamental feature of the human nervous system, and why you experience these sensations as affect is one of the great mysteries of science. Interoception did not evolve for you to have feelings but to regulate your body budget…. Your affective feelings of pleasure and displeasure, and calmness and agitation, are simple summaries of your budgetary state…. Are you overdrawn? Do you need a deposit, and if so, how desperately?

    “When your budget is unbalanced, your affect doesn’t instruct you how to act in any specific way, but it prompts your brain to search for explanations. Your brain constantly uses past experience to predict which objects and events will impact your body budget, changing your affect. These objects and events are collectively your affective niche…. Your affective niche includes everything that has any relevance to your body budget in the present moment. Right now, this book is within your affective niche, as are the letters of the alphabet, the ideas you’re reading about, any memories that my words bring to mind, the air temperature around you, and any objects, people, and events from your past that impacted your body budget in a similar situation. Anything outside your affective niche is just noise: your brain issues no predictions about it, and you do not notice it.”


    ...In short, you feel what your brain believes. Affect primarily comes from prediction.”


    Interoception is the sense of the internal state of the body and is a continuous process inside you. Pleasure and displeasure are universal feelings and come from interoception. They are components of emotion but are not the complete emotional experience. “Any healthy human can experience low-arousal, unpleasant affect. But you cannot experience sadness with all of its cultural meaning, appropriate actions, and other functions of emotion unless you have the concept ‘Sadness.’” Affect does not tell you what sensations mean or what to do about them. You must make them meaningful, and one way to do this is to construct an instance of emotion.


    ...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.”

  • What does this mean for the pursuit of pleasure? LFB explains that this information can be used to design a “recipe for living,” by working with your body budget and your concepts. People with a balanced body budget are apt to have better health, sharper mental abilities for longer, and a more meaningful and fulfilling life. (To me this sounds very Epicurean: pleasure equates to health, displeasure [or pain] to disease.)


    Some ingredients of the recipe:


    - Keep your body budget in good shape. “...your interoceptive network labors day and night, issuing predictions to maintain a healthy budget, and this process is the origin of your affective feelings (pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, and calmness). If you want to feel good, then your brain’s predictions about your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, hormones, metabolism, and so on, must be calibrated to your body’s actual needs. If they aren’t, and your body budget gets out of whack, then you’re going to feel crappy no matter what self-help tips you follow.”


    - The foundation for regulating your predictions and body budget begins with the basics: healthy eating, exercising, getting enough sleep.


    - To build on that, improve your physical comfort and your physical surroundings. Get a massage, spend time in nature and natural light. Regular lunch dates with a friend, taking turns treating each other has benefits in terms of giving, gratitude and friendship. Get a pet. Research your hobbies to see if they’re beneficial for stress.


    - Improve your emotional intelligence: increase your “emotional granularity.” Becoming more specific in identifying emotions improves your brain’s ability to construct more specific and useful emotion concepts in any given situation. Take trips, read books, watch movies, try new foods, experience different perspectives. Learn new words as these contribute to your store of concepts. Invent new emotion concepts for specific situations and learn emotion concepts from other languages.


    - Track your positive experiences; keep a gratitude journal. Reinforcing positive concepts makes them easier for your brain to re-create.


    - Learn to deconstruct your affective feelings into their basic physical sensations. Avoid letting those sensations color how you see the world. (Separate “pain” and “suffering”) “When you feel bad, treat yourself like you have a virus, rather than assuming that your unpleasant feelings mean something personal.”


    - Recategorize your physical feelings from negative to positive. For instance from harmful anxiety to helpful anticipation; or categorize discomfort as helpful as when exercising: “pain is weakness leaving the body.”


    - Try mindfulness meditation.


    - Cultivate and experience awe.

  • An extra tidbit pertinent to discussions on the forums"


    Essentialism vs Construction


    “The belief in essences is called essentialism.” Similar to Platonic Forms, idealism, etc, and integral to the classical view. LFB explores this in terms of emotions, Darwin, and natural selection, but I am taking the liberty of applying it to philosophy.


    Why is essentialism so persistent?


    - It’s intuitive and easy to believe.


    - It’s difficult to disprove: since essences are unobservable, one can always believe in them even if they can’t be found. If an experiment fails to detect an essence, it can be blamed on a failed experiment. “Essentialism inoculates itself against counterevidence.”


    - If a scientist believes in essences he will design experiments to finding them.


    - William James: “Whenever we have made a word. . . to denote a certain group of phenomena, we are prone to suppose a substantive entity existing beyond the phenomena, of which the word shall be the name.”


    - “So, essentialism is intuitive, logically impossible to disprove, part of our psychological and neural makeup, and a self-perpetuating scourge in science. It is also the basis for the classical view’s most fundamental idea, that emotions have universal fingerprints. No wonder the classical view has such stamina—it’s powered by a virtually unkillable belief.”


    - “It’s hard to give up the classical view when it represents deeply held beliefs about what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the facts remain that no one has found even a single reliable, broadly replicable, objectively measurable essence of emotion. When mountains of contrary data don’t force people to give up their ideas, then they are no longer following the scientific method. They are following an ideology.”

  • 1 - Godfrey those last quotes about essentialism are from LFB?


    2. - Thank you for all the effort in those posts!


    3. - I am going to have to reflect for a while on what you wrote, but as usual I have this starting point:


    It looks to me like we are going to run into the usual danger here: Are we talking about "concepts" and "conceptual thinking" or are we talking about "preconcepts"?


    In other words, in the broader discussion everyone seems to agree that there is such a thing as "conceptual thinking." Whether we call that "logic" or some form of "abstract reasoning" or whatever, there is a human proceses wherein we define terms (eg "capitalism" or "communism") and then we use those terms as markers by which to evaluate the objects of our concern at a particular moment. I would argue that this covers as well the examples of Diogenes Laertius, in that we form a concept of a cow, and use that to judge new animals that we see, and we form a concept of Socrates, and use that to determine if the person we meet is in fact Socrates. These examples are "conceptual reasoning" and no one - surely not Epicurus - would deny that they exist.


    But is this process of conceptual reasoning the same thing that is referred to as "PRECONCEPTIONS" or "ANTICIPATIONS" in Epicurean theory? I tend to think that it is NOT the same thing, and that we are talking about two distinct mechanisms and products of that mechanism.


    It does not seem likely to me that Epicurus would have held that CONCEPTIONS (the product of definition and logical analysis) would be considered to be a criteria of truth, for the reason that the process of logical reasoning and definition which forms conceptions is inherently a matter of "opinion" and not something that occurs by nature WITHOUT opinion, which appears to be a criteria of something being considered a part of the canon of truth.


    So in our discussion I think we need to be careful to be clear that the part of the canon of truth that we would like to examine is the "preconceptions / anticipations" and that these are not simply the mind's definition of a certain number of objects to which it has been exposed in the past.


    Everyone is of course free to agree or disagree with the comments I have made here, but I think for maximum clarity we ought to be evaluating modern research in light of this distinction so that we can be sure we are talking about the canon of truth vs something very different.

  • The most confusing issue seems to be the word "concepts." When LFB writes "concepts" in the brain she is referring to what we would call "preconceptions."

    Quote

    The brain uses concepts to group and separate things and to guess the meaning of sensory inputs, both external and internal. Without these you are experientially blind; with concepts your brain simulates so invisibly and automatically that your senses seem to be reflexes, not constructions.

    However I think when she refers to culture, concepts can also come from "conceptual thinking" that is shared among people and passed down to subsequent generations. So she's using the same word in different ways and it becomes our task to translate it into proper Epicurean verbiage.


    We do have rational "conceptualizing," but she points out that our rational thought is never purely rational but is always influenced by body budget and affect.


    Something like "the gods" or "justice," as I understand this, is a preconception not because it is innate but because we are exposed to it so early in life that we don't remember ever not knowing it. But that brings up the point that a sense of fairness is often observed in very young children: is this a preconception of justice? I would posit that it is an example of a prediction loop involved in the process of keeping the child's body budget balanced.

  • For ease of reference here is the section on anticipations from DeWitt If someone needs the rest and doesn't have it, let me know. This doesn't necessary help with understanding LFB's points at all, but it will help with the higher-level issue of whether the mechanisms she is talking about are the same category of phenomena as what Epicurus was talking about, or a separate category of phenomena.


    As I see it, the crux of the issue is in this paragraph as circled - are we talking about something that is truly prior to any experience with instances of a thing (DeWitt's position focusing on Velleius) or or we talking about the manipulation of concepts after experience with one of more instances of a thing (the majority modern commentator view). Again, whichever position you take doesnt necessarily mean that LFB is right or wrong, because they could be talking about entirely separate things.









  • Godfrey we crossposted again! ;-)


    This quote from you I think highlights the issue. Your first sentence is the contention of Bailey and others, and that is NOT the contention of DeWitt. Dewitt argues based on his references that anticipations are in fact "innate" and programmed from birth, not by "early in life" experiences that we have forgotten. Whether one agrees with Dewitt or not, it's important to address what Velleius was saying about etching and so forth and wrestle with the question of "innateness" - referencing PRIOR to experience and PRE-the type of concept -formation based on experience. If you were Bailey, you would say "concept-formation based on experience is the only process we have!" DeWitt would differ, and say that Velleius is clearly stating something that comes BEFORE any experience at all. I think before we can finish our analysis we have to wrestle with Velleius and DeWitt's other references.

    Something like "the gods" or "justice," as I understand this, is a preconception not because it is innate but because we are exposed to it so early in life that we don't remember ever not knowing it. But that brings up the point that a sense of fairness is often observed in very young children: is this a preconception of justice? I would posit that it is an example of a prediction loop involved in the process of keeping the child's body budget balanced.

  • One of the issues here is that we can dig deeply into the details of LFB's analysis, conclude that what she is saying does (or does not) make sense, and yet that conclusion may not necessarily move us one iota closer to having addressed the Velleius / PRE-conception material. If in fact DeWitt is right to allege that Velleius points to something that is going on before all experience of the thing under consideration, then all the analysis in the world about the processing of experiences will never address or illuminate the "innate process" analysis.


    Animals through instinct do things regularly that they have never observed themselves or observed their parents do, even though there is much that they do that is indeed influenced by their parents and their own experience. BOTH phenomena can be going on without one ruling out the other, meaning that there are two separate phenomena.


    The position of DeWitt/Velleius in no way rules out the process of learning from experiences, so from the Velleius perspective there are two separate phenomena. But the position of Bailey and others is to refuse to acknowledge even the possible existence of their being two separate phenomena, so they collapse all the issues into one single phenomena.


    Regardless of whether DeWitt/Velleius are correct from a physiologcal / brain function point of view, it makes sense to me to suspect that from a philosophical point of view Epicurus would not want "concepts formed through experience" anywhere near his "canon of truth." Otherwise Epicurus built a feedback loop of "opinion" right into the "canon" which he was apparently erecting for the purpose of avoiding the influence of opinion. You would never be able to say that your canon was your unbiased measuring stick, because your measuring stick incorporated your opinion. Or at least that reasoning is what I think impels someone of DeWitt's persuasion to his conclusion.

  • LFB is closer to Elayne's term "pattern recognition" as the only thing innate; she calls it "statistical learning."

    Quote

    The brain begins constructing concepts very early in life, perhaps even in utero. “The newborn brain has the ability to learn patterns, a process called statistical learning. The moment that you burst into this strange new world as a baby, you were bombarded with noisy, ambiguous signals from the world and from your body. This barrage of sensory input was not random: it had some structure. Regularities. Your little brain began computing probabilities of which sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes, and interoceptive sensations go together and which don’t.”

    I'm only looking at the neuroscientific view now as it's fresh in my mind. I'll need to step away for a bit before I conceptualize more about concepts.

  • Yes I agree - the "faculty of pattern recognition" is something that would appear to exist at birth, prior to ANY experience with a thing under consideration. To that extent, the existence of such an innate faculty, and how it would unfold over a lifetime, is where DeWitt is going but which Bailey et al exclude.


    DeWitt is saying I think that there is affirmative input that results from the way pattern recognition faculty works, just like there is input from the way the eyes work or the ears work, regardless of what the eyes are seeing or the ears are hearing.

  • "This barrage of sensory input was not random: it had some structure. Regularities. Your little brain began computing probabilities of which sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes, and interoceptive sensations go together and which don’t.”


    I would see in that sentence the issue of two phenoma:


    (1) the sensory input was not random because the sense faculties received and presented their findings in ways influenced by their functional makeup (ears hearing only at certain frequencies, eyes seeing only at certain wavelengths, etc) DeWitt would say that there is in fact an anticipatory faculty as well which is active in helping organize according to the nature of the anticipatory function.


    (2) the part as to "your little brain began processing" would be the separate second step of conceptual reasoning - taking the observations and forming them into concepts and then applying those concepts to new observations. DeWitt probably would say that the "which go together and which don't" isn't entirely observational, but that "go together" is at least partly what the anticipatory function recognizes by pre-birth etching. Cats and dogs can observe lots of things that we do, but they never make connections that we as humans do because our minds are wired to see things "go together" that theirs never will, regardless of how much they see and observe.


    No amount of additional observation will ever move a cat or a dog to a human level of processing of abstract ideas because the initial wiring to make those connections is simply not "etched" there from the beginning. As I read between the lines it is this etching which Dewitt aserts Epicurus held to be the faculty of anticipation, with "an anticipation" being a connection drawn that would not and could not have been drawn without that pre-existent etching. Which is not to say that the connection drawn will be any more accurate to the full facts than a single perception of an eye or an ear, but is to say that the connection would not come to our attention to consider as a criteria of the "truth" of our eventual opinions if we did not have and exercise the faculty.


    And further, it is to say that the existence of this faculty amounts to something that Nature has provided in order to make available to us these very connections, just like Nature provides eyes that see and ears that hear. And would not the implication of that observation be that to ignore the results of the anticipatory faculty would be as unwise (or as contrary to Nature) as would be ignoring the perceptions of the eyes or the ears?

  • LFB is closer to Elayne's term "pattern recognition" as the only thing innate; she calls it "statistical learning."

    Also:


    I think "pattern recognition" is a very useful term. I would also think "pattern detector" would be good.


    Continuing to think again about the words, in "canon of truth" I think we are referring to "canon" in the sense of "measuring device" or "ruler" or "yardstick." The measuring device does nothing but measure, it contains no data about the thing being measured.


    We also need to examine "truth" but for now maybe what we're talking about is a conclusion which allows us to make accurate predictions about future repeatable observations (or something like that). We need to rule out "truth" in a divine or universally absolute perspective sense, since our physics would tell us that no god or intelligent being exists which could form such a perspective to which we could compare our own.


    In addition to "pattern" I would think we are also talking about "relationships" or "connections."


    Using these words, if they prove to be accurate after we examine the texts and what we really think is going on, the faculty of anticipations might be describable variously as:


    "pattern detector"

    "pattern measuring device"

    "connection detector"

    "connection measuring device"

    "relationship detector"

    "relationship measuring device"


    I think all these terms would probably be useful in varying degrees to indicate an innate faculty which we have at birth, prior to any experience in the real world, which provides a tool (measuring device) in the field of patterns/connections/relationships just like the eyes provide a measuring tool for light, and the ears for sound, etc.

  • Yes and I want to repeat that I do not mean my comments to derail discussion of details of the LFB book. My main point is that to the extent we devote time to analyzing it under the category of anticipations it would be best if we make clear what view of anticipations we're talking about as we discuss her observations.


    I'm not sure how to categorize the two competing alternatives, but they generally fall under something like (1) "anticipations as product of an innate faculty predating experience" vs (2) "anticipations as product of conceptual reasoning based on experience."


    With one part of the issue being that those who advocate (2) either ignore (1) or contend that (1) does not exist.


    I have no clue yet as to where to fit LBF into that paradigm. Presumably the answer to that comes from determining whether LBF believes that there are innate dispositions predating experience, or whether all mental processing occurs after, and based exclusively on, experience. Also, I really don't know if LBF has a position on what "truth" means.

  • First, let me say that I have nothing to add to Godfrey 's excellent summary other than to encourage people to read LFB's book and explore her research.

    Here's my take on the prolepses relation to LFB:

    The Canon has the following:

    -Sensations

    -Pain/Pleasure

    -Prolepses

    My understanding is that this order is meaningful and now even more so in light of LFB's research (and, I should include, from others):

    - the sensations include all of our sensory input

    - This input then impacts our "feeling" of pain or pleasure, or as LFB states, pleasure/displeasure.

    -and our minds use this to compare our past experience to our current situation. These are our predictions based on our "prolepses."

    I'm still not entirely convinced that Cicero is a reliable narrator.

    The "inborn" vs "early experience" paradigm of the prolepses is an important one and I'll not resolve it here. But it seems to me that there is probably a faculty we're born with but individual prolepses have to come from experience in utero, early in life, or even later. To say we're born with prolepses seems to me to fall into the realm of Plato. Epicurus vociferously argued against his philosophy.

    My take was that LFB's "concepts" come very close to describing Epicurus's prolepses.

    I think her pleasure/displeasure axis is maybe a better description of "feelings" since Epicurus's άλγος can be translated as "pain" but encompasses "pain (of either mind or body), sorrow, trouble, grief, distress, woe" That's the word he usually uses that's translated "pain."

    So, there are my initial thoughts for this thread. Look forward to continuing this conversation!