A new way to look at emotions – and how to master yours

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A new theory of emotions reveals just how easily our feelings can be shaped by context – offering some powerful ways for dealing with stress.

One day at graduate school, one of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s colleagues asked her out on a date. She didn’t really fancy him, but she had been in the lab all day and felt like a change of scenery, so she agreed to go to the local coffee shop. As they chatted, however, she started to become flushed in the face, her stomach was churning, and her head seemed to whirl. Maybe she was wrong, she thought: perhaps she really did like him. By the time they left, she’d already agreed to go on a second date.

Still feeling somewhat giddy, she got home, put her keys on the floor, and promptly threw up. It wasn’t love, after all; it was flu. She spent the next week in bed.

How could someone mistake the rush of an infection for the fever of love? A psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Barrett has spent her career examining the ways we construct emotions, culminating in a recent book – How Emotions Are Made – and her experience on that date is just one of many examples that illustrate the ways our feelings can confound us.

Although we may believe strongly that we know how we feel, she shows that the sensations of anger, anxiety, hunger, or illness are not nearly as distinct as we assume – and we may sometimes misinterpret those signals with profound consequences. Fortunately, Barrett’s theories also offer us some practical ways to gain control of our feelings, and to live a calmer and more productive life.

Charles Darwin popularised the view that we had emotional 'fingerprints' (Credit: Getty Images)

Charles Darwin popularised the view that we had emotional 'fingerprints' (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s quite a departure from the centuries-old assumption – popularised by Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal – that we display emotion “fingerprints”. This theory suggested that each emotion creates a specific combination of facial expression, body language, and other physiological cues such as heart rate or sweaty palms.

Yet the scientific research was never quite so clean cut, and Barrett’s detailed analyses of the findings now suggest that there is no such thing as an emotion fingerprint. Each emotion may be represented by a whole range of reactions in the brain and the body, and there is a huge amount of overlap between each one. Instead, she points out that the way we interpret our body’s signals – and whether we actually feel excited or anxious as a result – depends entirely on context and circumstance, and it can be easily shaped by our expectations.

For her piece de resistance, Barrett mashed up baby foods and smeared it on (clean) diapers

As a simple comparison, she describes a “gross foods party” she threw for her daughter’s 12th birthday. When her daughter’s friends arrived, she served them the usual party food like pizza and fruit juice: but she smeared the cheese with green fruit colouring to make it look mouldy, and she served the juice in medical urine sample cups. For her piece de resistance, she mashed up baby foods and smeared it on (clean) diapers.

As you might expect, the children were suitably disgusted. “Many guests could not bring themselves to touch the food as they involuntarily simulated the tastes and smells,” she writes. “Even though the guests knew the smears were food, several actually gagged.”

You can see BBC Future’s attempt to re-enact the experiment in the video below. And although our colleagues had stronger stomachs than the average 12-year-old, we can safely say that few enjoyed the experience.

Taste experiment

We can probably all identify with their reactions. The serious point, though, is that the brain was constructing the experience: the mere thought of the baby poo was causing them to completely reinterpret the smell of the food in front of them, triggering the disgust response.

It may seem a trivial example, but Barrett argues that the same thing happens with our broader emotions. Consider her date. Those few physical sensations – the churning stomach and flushed face – might have been (correctly) interpreted as ‘feeling ill’ if she’d been at home, in bed, with a thermometer in her mouth. But since she was on a date, her brain instead constructed an entirely different emotion – a genuine feeling of romantic attraction – from exactly the same physical responses. (According to the classical view, in contrast, the two feelings should have been easily identifiable thanks to their own unique fingerprints.)

A stomach ache, similarly, might signal a gut infection – or, if you were away from your family, might be confused with feelings of homesickness and longing. A rushing heart beat could be interpreted as fun and excitement on a rollercoaster, or acute anxiety if you are giving the speech at a wedding. Or it might simply signal that you’ve drunk too much coffee, but physiologically, there may not be much of difference.

Particular concepts like ‘anger’ or ‘disgust’ are not genetically pre-determined

Barrett’s theory has many implications. For one thing, she argues that we learn those interpretations from others. “Particular concepts like ‘anger’ or ‘disgust’ are not genetically pre-determined,” she writes. “Your familiar emotion concepts are built-in only because you grew up in a particular social context where those emotion concepts are meaningful and useful. Other cultures can and do make other kinds of meaning from the same sensory input.”

Our parents and friends, TV and books, and our own past life experiences, our brain have all taught us how categorise particular situations, the sensations they bring, and the ways we should respond – and those concepts will, in turn, determine how we feel in the future. But two people, with different pasts, may therefore come to categorise sensations very differently.

Himba people from south-west Africa have a very different response to certain facial expressions than Westerners (Credit: Getty Images)

Himba people from south-west Africa have a very different response to certain facial expressions than Westerners (Credit: Getty Images)

This is a direct contrast to thinkers like Darwin, who had argued that emotions like ‘anger’ and ‘disgust’ are universally expressed and recognised by everyone across the globe. Barrett’s lab visited a group of Himba people from Namibia, for instance, and asked them to sort photos of facial expressions into different groups according to similarity. She found that their categories were markedly different from those the average Westerner might make, and their interpretations of the pictures were similarly diverse. One picture of a wide-eyed stare tended to be considered fearful by Westerners, for instance: but the Himba described it as a tarera (‘looking’) face instead. And her lab found the same results when they asked the Himba to categorise the sounds of different vocal expressions, too.

The smiles we recognise today – broad, toothy, and with crinkling at the eyes – only became more common in the 18th Century, as dentistry became more accessible

Barrett offers many other examples of variation between cultures; Utka Eskimos appear to have no clearly defined concept of anger, for instance, while Tahitians seem not to share our concept of sadness. We can also see how emotional concepts have changed throughout history. She points out that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not seem to smile spontaneously with big broad grins, for instance – suggesting that their expressions of pleasure and positive feelings could have been quite different from ours. (Apparently, the word smile does not even exist in Latin.) Instead, it appears that the smiles we recognise today – broad, toothy, and with crinkling at the eyes – only became more common in the 18th Century, as dentistry became more accessible.

As Mary Beard, a classicist at the University of Cambridge, puts it: “That is not to say that Romans never curled up the edges of their mouths in a formation that would look to us much like a smile; of course they did. But such curling did not mean very much in the range of significant social and cultural gestures in Rome. Conversely, other gestures, which would mean little to us, were much more heavily freighted with significance.”

Weathering the storm

This is not merely academic curiosity: Barrett’s book suggests some ways that we could all ride the tides of our emotions a little more wisely.

The fact that states like hunger, fatigue, or illness, all produce the same signals as emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness, or anxiety, emphasises the importance of looking after your body as a way to stabilise your mood. That can include things like a healthy diet and regular exercise, but Barrett also emphasises the importance of comforts like a good massage, which can reduce inflammation in the body. Such pleasures are not just luxuries – they may be a simple, practical way of keeping your mood in balance.

Mindfulness meditation, meanwhile, should encourage you to observe and deconstruct those bodily signals: understanding the physical origins of the emotions can help you to regulate the feelings. “Many things that seem unrelated to emotion actually have a profound impact on how you feel, because of the porous boundary between the social and the physical,” she says.

Barrett also emphasises the benefits of a good emotion vocabulary. As her work has shown, our emotion concepts are not hard-wired, but learnt – and some people have many more nuanced ways of reading their bodily signals and describing how they are making them feel in a particular context. Rather than simply describing yourself as happy, for instance, you may distinguish whether you are “blissful” or “inspired”; rather than just feeling “sad”, you might say you are “dejected” or “disappointed”.

Reading widely can help us understand more complex emotions (Credit: Getty Images)

Reading widely can help us understand more complex emotions (Credit: Getty Images)

The result is a deeper understanding of the situation you are in, perhaps helping you to savour your pleasure with new relish, or, conversely, to reframe your unhappiness so that it no longer feels so all-encompassing. It may even cause you to reconsider the source of your discomfort, and remind you of ways that you have righted your mood in the past.

As a result of these benefits, people with greater “emotion granularity” (as Barrett calls it) tend to do better at school, drink less and recover from a stressful situation more quickly. They also seem to be in better health: they visit doctor less frequently, take less medication and are less likely to be hospitalised for illness.

She says that there are many ways to learn new emotion concepts, such as reading widely or watching stimulating films. You could also try out new experiences, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and then observe how it makes you feel. “Try on new perspectives like you try on new clothing,” she says. “Just like painters learn to see fine distinctions in colours, and wine lovers develop their palettes to experience tastes that non-experts cannot, you can practise [emotion] categorising like any other skill.”

Given that other cultures can categorise their feelings in different ways, you might also benefit from borrowing terms from other languages. Schadenfreude, for instance, is a now-familiar addition to the English language that encapsulates the bitter-sweet feelings that we may feel at another’s misfortune. But there are many more, often highly specific terms we could all learn – as we recent discussed in our feature on the untranslatable emotions you never knew you had.

We can learn to recognise more complex emotions just like wine tasters develop a more sophisticated palate (Credit: Alamy)

We can learn to recognise more complex emotions just like wine tasters develop a more sophisticated palate (Credit: Alamy)

Eventually, you may find that you are able to categorise a situation with wonderful precision. Barrett, for instance, lists “gezellig”, the Dutch “feeling of togetherness”, “age-otori” from Japanese, which apparently describes “the feeling of looking worse after a haircut” and “litost”, from Czech culture, which refers to “the torment over one’s misery combined with the desire for revenge”. As she puts it: “Each word is another invitation to construct your feelings in new ways.”

Barrett recognises that these steps may seem a little simplistic for someone in the midst of an emotional crisis, and she doesn’t claim that they are an immediate solution to any problem. “Can you snap your fingers and change your feelings at will, like changing your clothes?” she writes. “Not really. Even though you construct your emotional experiences, they can still bowl you over in the moment. However, you can take steps now to influence your future emotional experiences, to sculpt who you will be tomorrow.”


David Robson is a freelance writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

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