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A New Way To Look At Emotions

Emotions may not be as distinct as some think.

When I was a kid, I noticed that sometimes fear and anticipation felt the same way.

I'd get butterflies, a kind of queasiness in the stomach. To figure out what I was feeling, I came to realize, what was needed was not introspection, but attention to the context.

According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, who directs the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University, and who has just published a smart and informative essay on the topic in The New York Times, I was actually on to something.

Emotions, even the basic ones like fear, anger, sadness, happiness and disgust, according to Barrett, are not distinct entities inside us. You will look in vain for neural signatures that are either necessary or sufficient for their occurrence. This is a striking claim — and she's got meta-data to support it. The point is not only that no pattern of neural activity reliably corresponds to emotional state but, moreover, that neural activities and networks that do sometimes support emotion also do cognitive and perceptual work. (A similar thesis is advanced by University of Maryland, College Park, neuroscientist Luiz Pessoa in his new book The Cognitive Emotional Brain.)

So, both the idea that we can neatly distinguish emotion and thought, as well as the idea that emotions are things in the brain, come in for sound and deserved criticism.

Nor are there stable non-brain bodily markers of emotion, observes Feldman Barrett. A scared rat will express its fear by freezing, fleeing or fighting — and see changes in heart rate, respiration, perspiration, temperature — depending on the context.

In sum, what an emotion is can vary widely depending on the context.

This is important work, and I look forward to the new book that Feldman Barrett is publishing soon on the topic.

But I do have a concern. It's worth noticing that there are two ways to interpret this idea that emotions are contextual.

One might simply take it to say that emotions look and feel different in different settings. Or that without information about context, it can be hard to know what you're feeling, as I noticed as a little boy.

But there is a more radical interpretation as well. Emotions, one might say, are contextual all the way down. What we call fear in one setting might be totally different from what we call fear in another setting.

The first interpretation pushes us to revise a simple-minded theory of emotions as entities inside us. The second urges us to deny that there are emotions.

Barrett, judging by what she writes in the Times, hasn't made up her mind on the topic.

Invoking the idea from the theory of evolution that a species is not a single type of being with a fixed set of bodily features but is, rather, a population of diversely varied individuals, Feldman Barrett writes:

"Analogously, emotion words like 'anger,' 'happiness' and 'fear' each name a population of diverse biological states that vary depending on the context. When you're angry with your co-worker, sometimes your heart rate will increase, other times it will decrease and still other times it will stay the same. You might scowl, or you might smile, as you plot your revenge. You might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm."

Here, I take it the thought is not that there are no emotions but, rather, that when it comes to these, membership isn't fixed by the instantiation of one fixed, shared essence common to all, and only, members of the species or the class of emotions. Variation is the norm. And, crucially, this is consistent with there being norms and regularities in the variation that are what justify treating members of the class as members of the class.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's idea of family resemblance helps here. Members of a family may all look alike without there being one distinct look that each of them has. We have overlapping similarities and differences in appearance here. There are norms in the variation in appearance.

And so, Feldman Barrett argues, with species and emotion.

But, then, what she says next is puzzling:

"This insight is not just academic. When medical researchers ask, 'What is the link between anger and cancer?' as if there is a single thing called 'anger' in the body, they are in the grip of this error. When airport security officers are trained on the assumption that facial and body movements are reliable indicators of innermost feelings, taxpayers' money is wasted."

Now, it may very well be that it is a waste of taxpayer money to try to train airport security officers to recognize emotional states on the basis of what passengers say and do. But nothing Feldman Barrett has said supports this claim at all. The fact that you can't define emotions in terms of a strict set of a behavioral rules does not entail that you can't learn to be more sensitive to a person's emotional state by careful observation, just as the fact that variation is the norm with biological species does not entail that you can't sort animals into species by examining them.

It is a non sequitur to move from "anger is contextual" to "there is no such thing as anger," just as it would be to move from "variation is the norm" to "there are no recognizable norms or patterns in variation."

It would be similarly fallacious to take the fact that all the members of a family do not look exactly the same to entail that there is no family resemblance among them.

I applaud Feldman Barrett's positive discoveries about the constitutive role of context when it comes to emotion. And I love her rejection of simple-minded neural reductionism about emotions, as well as the equally simplistic, quasi-behaviorist identification of emotions with physiological or behavioral patterns.

But you do not need to adhere to such views to think that it is sometimes possible to tell, by looking, what a person is feeling.

We need a view of the emotions that is not simple-minded.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe