Sunday, November 15, 2020

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

This review was written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = Psychology
Book Club Event = Book List (04/22/2023)
Watch Short Review


“Emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts.  They are not universal but vary from culture to culture.  They are not triggered; you create them.  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 you culture and upbringing, which provide that environment.  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.” – Lisa Feldman Barrett, Introduction: The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Assumption, Page 10

“Emotions are not reactions to the world.  You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions.  From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action.  If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise.  You wouldn’t know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to behave to deal with them.  With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.” – Lisa Feldman Barrett, Chapter 2: Emotions Are Constructed, Page 43

“In a 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.  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.  And marvelously, your brain does not just predict the future: it can imagine the future at will.” – Lisa Feldman Barrett, Chapter 4: The Origin of Feeling, Page 78

Elaborate Description


Emotions are a social construct used to explain body and brain information.  Emotions vary from culture to culture as they are defined by human agreement.  Different physical responses can represent the same emotion.  Context provides much of the information needed to understand which emotion is active. 

The brain is continuously predicting how to respond to a myriad of internal and environmental factors.  The brain uses past experiences to construct meaning, to construct emotions, to determine how to handle sensory inputs.  Past experiences are represented by concepts, which enable the extraction of meaning from inputs.  Without concepts, inputs would just be noise.   

Emotions are shaped by society, which means that each individual can shape how societies perceives concepts.  The way each individual treats and speaks to others, shapes the micro wiring of their brain.  Words do hurt physically and mentally, which means that each individual is responsible for how they treat other people.  Different past experiences create conflict as each individual derives different meaning from the forthcoming experiences.  Everyone is also responsible for how their brain makes predictions, because they can choose the experiences that change the forthcoming predictions.  


What Are Emotions:

The classical paradigm asserts that emotions have essence.  That each emotion has an identifiable pattern in body and brain.  Evolutionary fixed so that the same patterns appear no matter where the individual is from.

The problem is that there has been no consistency in physical expressions indicating emotions.  Rather than emotions having a physical fingerprint for each emotion, researchers find variety of physical reactions for the same emotion.  Emotions and physical expressions match when actors show an expression without feeling the emotions. 

Alternately there is the constructed emotions paradigm, in which humans actively construct emotions rather than being passive receivers of emotions.  Emotions are a social reality. Emotional concepts are learned from culture, social agreements.  The same changes within the body, such as heart rate, can have different meanings in different cultures.  Experiences are constructed and requires a perceiver to create meaning of the data.  They live in a social reality in the presence of human perceivers.  Emotions are a social reality like many human organizations such as an occupation, and government.  Emotion as a concept was invented in the seventeenth century.

Context changes the meaning of an expression, changing which emotion is shown.  Each emotion depends on information from context, culture, internal and other surrounding influences.  Situational context provides emotional cues more than facial expressions.  An emotion is the brain’s creation to explain bodily sensations according to the situation.

There are culturally stereotypical symbols for emotions, but each emotion actually takes on various physical forms.  Emotion is a category of instances with tremendous variety. 

Within the classical paradigm, there is a brain area dedicated to every psychological function, to each emotion.  This view has become problematic because there are those with brain impairments, but still possess the emotions that were supposed to be impaired.  The brain contains core systems which shape a variety of mental states.  Each core system has the ability to function for various other brain functions.


Making A Prediction:

The brain makes prediction on the potential responses to stimuli, given past experiences.  As the brain is continually predicting, the world people experience is of their own creation, only to be reined in by the sensory world.  Senses are not actually reactions to the world, but largely simulations of the world. Not passive receivers but active constructors of emotions.  Real world is secondary, for believing is seeing.  

The brain does not only make prediction due to external needs.  Predictions regulate the body’s energy use, the body budget.  Emotions and logic are not separate, for emotions regulate the body budget.  If the prediction about the information is correct, the brain does not need any more energy.  More energy is needed to rectify the wrong prediction.  Prediction errors are normal and are not a problem. Too few prediction errors prevent learning.  Too many prediction errors make everything appear as a hallucination.



When individuals communicate, they become responsible for each other’s experiences, for each other’s micro wiring, for each other’s physical and mental health.  Some caveats for the book includes there is little reference on a practical way on how to seek out an appropriate understanding of someone else, to find a better method of interacting with others.  Miscommunication is likely given that what is said and done can be interpreted in a variety of different ways based on prior experiences.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What are emotions?
•What is the classical emotions paradigm?
•What is the constructed emotions paradigm?
•What are social constructs?
•Why does the brain make predictions?
•What responsibility does everyone have?
•What is emotional acculturation? 
•What are the health consequences of not understanding emotions? 
•How do emotions impact law?
•What is the body budget?

Book Details

Edition:            First Mariner Books
Publisher:         Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Edition ISBN:  9780544129962
Pages to read:   338
Publication:     2018
1st Edition:      2016
Format:            eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability     5
Content           5
Overall           5