Emotions We offer you a mind-blowing alternative explanation for how emotions get made with a bizarre lawsuit, where a child dies in a car accident, and her parents get sued by the man driving the other car.


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Marina Muun for NPR

Marina Muun for NPR

Marina Muun for NPR

To learn more about the theory of constructed emotion and the work of neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, check out her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

Special thanks to the following musicians:

  • Helena Ahlb├Ąck (formerly of The Broken Assembly) - "Emotional"
  • Jon Luc Hefferman - "Upbeat"

Note: A previous version of this story stated that Tommy Jarrett had received $50,000 from the court. He actually received $50,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

ALIX SPIEGEL (HOST): There are people who discover new planets. There are people who discover new birds, new flowers. But until Hanna and I talked to the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, I'd never talked to anyone who had discovered a new emotion. I honestly didn't even know that was a thing.

What is the name of the emotion that you discovered?





ROSALDO: (Laughter) Yes. So it's liget, almost like gut, your stomach, right?


SPIEGEL: For a small group of communities in the Philippines, this emotion of liget was central, one of the most important feelings in their culture. But liget is not like anger or joy or fear, emotions that pretty easily cross cultural borders. No, liget was way more complicated and disquieting and intense. In fact, liget was so complicated that even though Renato spoke to members of the community about liget over and over and over again for years, he felt he was never able to understand or truly feel what they were feeling.

ROSALDO: Yeah. We were out of our depth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) SPIEGEL: There was something missing in Renato, something that wouldn't allow him to feel liget - some absence. In fact, it wasn't until about a decade after he was introduced to liget that what the emotion truly was in all of its intensity finally became clear. He finally felt it. It overwhelmed him, just came rushing out.

ROSALDO: (Vocalizing).

ROSIN: And are you glad you have that knowledge?

ROSALDO: (Laughter) My first answer's no.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: Emotions - you don't have to be a professional emotion discoverer like Renato to have thought a lot about them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You need to learn how to overcome fear.

ROSIN: These days, our culture spends a ton of time talking about emotions.


ROSIN: We think and obsess about them endlessly. And it does often feel like they just come over us. Someone tells us a joke, and we laugh.

(LAUGHTER) ROSIN: We learn about a death and we cry.

(CRYING) ROSIN: We see a cute baby and we melt.


ROSIN: They seem so straightfoward...


ROSIN: ...An automatic response, almost like a machine. Put something in, get something out, right?


(LAUGHTER) ROSALDO: (Vocalizing).

ROSIN: Well, today, we introduce a completely different way of thinking about emotion, a way of thinking about emotion that honestly blew our minds.

SPIEGEL: It involves that thing that Renato was missing, the absence that wouldn't let him feel liget.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) SPIEGEL: Welcome to the third season of INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And I'm Hanna Rosin. Lulu Miller is mostly off this season writing a fabulous book.

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is a show about all of the invisible forces that shape human behavior, our thoughts, our concepts, our beliefs. And today, we are looking at emotions. We are going to tell you what liget is. In part two of our show, we will return to Renato's story.

ROSIN: But first, we have another story about a very unusual legal case.

SPIEGEL: And this emotion show, it's part of a new experiment we're doing this season. All of the episodes in this season are connected. We're going to take this really provocative idea that we're going to lay out today into all different corners of the world and see if it holds up. We have a bear fairy tale, a musical of umpires, a few sudden deaths, a practical guide to bubble popping...

ROSIN: And a rom-com about puking. We're calling this season the Concept Album for reasons that will hopefully become clear.

SPIEGEL: So pour yourself a drink. INVISIBILIA is back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: OK. So for our show today, we have a story about this bizarre legal case we heard about, which has at its center this question - where do emotions like pain come from, and how much control do we have over them? Both of us tell the story. Alix begins.

SPIEGEL: If a child dies, who should feel worse - the parent of the child or a complete stranger? The answer to this question might seem obvious, that is unless you start from the beginning when the parent and the stranger were still young.

When you were growing up, did your family talk a lot about emotion or not really?

AMANDA THORNBERRY: No. I can't remember ever talking about my feelings.

TOMMY JARRETT: Emotional guy? Not in the least.

ROSIN: Like, did you ever cry?


ROSIN: Tommy Jarrett and Amanda Thornberry have spent roughly 15 minutes in each other's company, and that was 13 years ago. But their encounter had huge consequences in part because it changed the way the law sees emotion but also because it changed the direction of their own emotional lives.

JARRETT: That's the day everything changed for me - us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) SPIEGEL: Amanda is 36 now. She's petite with blonde hair and brown eyes and has one of those faces that can shift in an instant. One second, she looks strikingly beautiful, and then her face turns, and she's more plain. She lives in the same town where she grew up - Ozark, Mo. And as a kid, she was bookish. She loved anything having to do with learning, like this box she had.

THORNBERRY: It's called a pickle box. It was a little, green, plastic box. And I loved that.

SPIEGEL: Every month, the pickle box company would send these little stories to Amanda through the mail to file in her pickle box, And she'd file them. But then one day, Amanda's parents were fighting, and the pickle box got in her dad's way.

THORNBERRY: And my dad took my pickle box and threw it up against the wall, and it smashed. And I can see, you know, the papers flying everywhere.

SPIEGEL: Watching her papers rain down, the remains of her pickle box in pieces on the floor, Amanda felt devastated. But she knew to keep her face flat.

THORNBERRY: I knew if I would get upset about that then they would punish me for it. I had to make sure that I didn't show emotion to the fact that something that I adored was now destroyed. I mean, it - it's always been like that. I was raised that emotions are a burden, something that we have to control.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: Tommy Jarrett was also taught that he needed to control his emotions, and he has his own version of the pickle box story, only it's the dude version. He's 51 now and wears a Harley Davidson item of clothing nearly every day. For 40 years, he's been a trucker based in Ohio - CB handle Ninja. Tommy grew up in a farm in Alabama. And one day, when he was a teenager, he decided farmwork didn't do it for him. He was craving something bigger and better.

JARRETT: I said, screw it. I said, I'm running away. And I packed a bag and out the back door I went. I about crossed the field, and that lasted - I don't know - 15 minutes and here come Dad.

ROSIN: What followed was not an exploration of Tommy's internal emotional landscape, how he was frustrated by his inability to live his full truth. Instead, his dad got out of the car.

JARRETT: He's like, OK, you want to be a man? He goes, this is how it is. He goes, stand up here. And I stood up to him. He says, take your best shot, and I did. And that was stupid because he said now it's my turn.

ROSIN: Tommy's dad hit him so hard he blacked out. But Tommy didn't hold it against him. What his dad was trying to communicate was clear to Tommy - don't get carried away by your desires and frustrations. Control your emotions. That's what a man does.

JARRETT: Sometimes you can let emotions control your behavior. Get over it - plain and simple or suck it up (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: For a long time, Tommy held onto this view, even passed it on to his kids.

SPIEGEL: But Amanda back in Missouri moved to a more modern way of dealing with emotions. After she got married, she and her husband, Michael Jones, had a daughter, Makayla, a little girl with bright red hair and a lisp. And Amanda says right from the beginning, like a lot of parents these days, she constantly talked emotions with Makayla.

THORNBERRY: Like, if she was upset about something or if she wanted something and she couldn't have it and she got angry, instead of saying, you know, well, you know, just stop acting that way, I would get down with her and say, you know, Makayla, it's OK to be upset.

SPIEGEL: Together on the floor, they would explore Makayla's frustration, speak the emotions out loud, puzzle through what to do with them. And even before Makayla was 3, she says, Makayla stopped throwing tantrums.

THORNBERRY: She'd go, Mom, I'm mad or I'm sad or she would tell me that instead of crying or instead of throwing a fit.

SPIEGEL: So Tommy and Amanda, two strangers in two different parts of the country, both raised to believe that emotions need to be controlled, each experimenting with different ways to control them. And then came June 8, 2004. It was a Tuesday, and Amanda, her daughter, Makayla, her husband, Michael Jones, and their new baby, Hannah, were driving from their home to Columbia, Mo. Amanda was taking classes there because she wanted to be a nurse, so they all loaded into the car.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) THORNBERRY: I had a little green Grand Prix, and that's what we decided we were going to take. So got up, got everybody packed.

ROSIN: A few miles away, Tommy was also loading himself into his rig. He was headed in the opposite direction from Amanda. He needed to get out west.

JARRETT: Got up, nice day, sunny, warm, summertime.

THORNBERRY: I mean, it was probably 65 outside.

JARRETT: Actually, I was still in a great mood because we had just come off of vacation.

THORNBERRY: And I remember Makayla - I was getting ready to sit her in her car seat, and she just gave me the biggest hug. And she goes, Mommy, I just love you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) THORNBERRY: I remember getting on the highway...

JARRETT: Two lanes going west, median, two lanes going east.

THORNBERRY: ...And turning around and both of the girls were asleep. And so I told Mike - I said, hey, the girls are asleep. I'm going to close my eyes.

JARRETT: I was actually, you know, listening to the radio, country - country music. And then.

ROSIN: There was a sudden summer downpour. And Amanda's husband, Michael Jones, driving in the opposite direction of Tommy, lost control of his car, the green Grand Prix. It spun around and skidded across the median into the lane where Tommy was driving.

THORNBERRY: I remember just, like, the flashes...

JARRETT: A black object...

THORNBERRY: ...The car spinning...

JARRETT: ...Trying to take the truck left...

THORNBERRY: ...A shadow of somebody on my right side...

JARRETT: ...Coming across the median...

THORNBERRY: ...Turning around and putting my hand on Makayla.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: When it all stopped, Tommy says he just sat still in his truck for a second.

JARRETT: I'd have to say I was probably conscious but blacked out at the same time. I don't know if that even makes any sense.

ROSIN: But then Tommy snapped back into being Tommy, the man in control and in charge.

JARRETT: That's when I jumped out of the truck and ran back to the car.

ROSIN: Tommy was completely uninjured, but the other car, the Grand Prix, looked like an animal that had been ripped apart by a pack of wolves, totally mangled with its parts all in the wrong places. Michael Jones, Amanda's husband, was trapped under the dashboard, unconscious. And there was an infant, their second child, Hannah, in the back, crying but OK.

JARRETT: I seen Mr. Jones's wife.

ROSIN: Mr. Jones's wife, Amanda. That was the single time that Amanda and Tommy were in the same space at the same time. Amanda was not aware of Tommy. She was in a daze but Tommy was very aware of Amanda. And what was coming off her made it clear to Tommy that nothing was OK.

JARRETT: Mrs. Jones says something about the other child, and we're like, what other child? And that's when I seen Makayla's arm hanging there.

ROSIN: Makayla was dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: Horrible accidents like this happen all the time, and they sometimes end up in courts, but there was something unusual about the way this legal dispute played out. Amanda and Michael Jones had suffered an unimaginable loss. Their daughter Makayla had died. And yet, they were the ones who got sued. A year after the accident, Tommy Jarrett sued the Joneses for emotional distress. I'm going to repeat that. Tommy Jarrett, the truck driver who walked away from the accident without a scratch, not a single Band-Aid, sued the family that had lost a child because he suffered emotional pain. The case made it all the way up to the Missouri Supreme Court, and it's an important case because it helped transform the way the law thinks about emotions. You see, Tommy Jarrett won.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: In the months after the accident, Amanda hardly knew what to do with herself. Michael had a brain injury, and Makayla was gone.

THORNBERRY: Like, I would get up and, you know, make myself breakfast or whatever. And then I would sit down to eat it, and I just would stare at it.

ROSIN: She would think of Makayla, her red-haired girl, and feel a kind of pain she had never encountered before, a pain so deep it was physical.

THORNBERRY: I felt at times that maybe my feelings were too intense for the situation. I had never felt anything like that before, that loss.

ROSIN: She says it got so bad, she started wondering if her emotions were actually real.

THORNBERRY: I did kind of wonder to myself if the feelings were appropriate for the loss or if I was kind of imagining it to being worse than it really was.

ROSIN: Meanwhile, Tommy was also struggling to understand his emotions because for the first time in his life, he couldn't do what his dad had taught him. His feelings were totally out of his control.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL) UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Unintelligible) have your attention.

ROSIN: The day after the accident, after a tortured night in a motel room, Tommy's trucking company put him on a plane to go home. He got in his seat, fastened his seat belt. Would you like something to drink, sir?

JARRETT: Her little arm hanging out of the car. I couldn't get none of them images out of my mind, her little arm hanging out of the car. I got to get a grip on this.

ROSIN: But he couldn't. On the plane, he was aware of the person sitting to his left, the person in front of him, but he couldn't look any of them in the eye. He thought it was obvious.

JARRETT: They knew I killed the child. I mean, I was a killer. I was like, how could I have done this? I killed a child. And I was a piece of shit for doing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: Once Tommy settled on the story, he couldn't shake it. One day, he was a good man, the ninja in control of his truck and his life. Now, he was a baby killer.

JARRETT: I blamed myself because of my inability to control what I had the ability to control, a child lost her life.

ROSIN: His first couple of weeks home, Tommy's buddies came over to see how he was doing. They all said the same thing. It sounds like it wasn't your fault, like there was nothing you could have done. What Tommy heard them say was.

JARRETT: Blah, blah, blah. Pathetic.

ROSIN: He stopped eating or sleeping. He just stayed awake thinking...

JARRETT: I killed a child.

ROSIN: How are you with your own kids during that period?

JARRETT: I didn't want to be around them because I felt at that time when they were looking at me, I felt like they were disgusted at me.

ROSIN: He was sure that come sunrise, he would master these emotions as he'd been raised to do and as he always had. And sometimes for a flash, it would feel that way.

JARRETT: There was mornings I would get out of bed and I'd be like, I'm going to be OK. Cup of coffee and about half a pack of cigarettes, and it just - I didn't deserve to be there. cigarettes.

ROSIN: The emotions just ran over him - one month, two months...

JARRETT: Get over it.

ROSIN: ...Four months, five months. He stopped leaving the house.

JARRETT: I couldn't stop it.

ROSIN: Seven months, and he still wasn't back behind the wheel.

JARRETT: How in-depth are we going on this?

ROSIN: It's up to you. I mean, I'm just trying to understand where your mind was.

JARRETT: There for a while, I thought I should die.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: But then nine months after the accident, Tommy finally turned a corner. He had seen a doctor who explained to him in a way that he could actually hear - Makayla's death wasn't your fault. There's no truth there. What's happening is that your emotions have hijacked your body, and they have taken control, and they are torturing you.

And at first, this was a hard thing to understand because it was the opposite of how Tommy had grown up. His dad with his fist had tried to tell him control it. That's what men do. But the doctor was saying you can't do that, you have no control over how you are feeling. Emotions happen to you.

JARRETT: Emotions are very powerful. They are a very powerful thing.

ROSIN: Tommy had PTSD, the doctor explained. The sight of Makayla's arm had triggered it in him, and it was no more under his control than cancer or diabetes. What Tommy needed to do was recognize that and deal with it. He was a victim.

JARRETT: If somebody has a traumatic experience in their life, it will consume your life.

ROSIN: And that's what the lawsuit was about. After the accident, Tommy had called the insurance company that Amanda and Michael used, and they offered him only $5,000 even though he had lost close to $75,000 in wages.

JARRETT: That sent me over the edge.

ROSIN: Tommy wanted some of those lost wages back. But more important, he'd had his revelation, and he wanted the courts to validate it. The car accident had broken his mind just like a car accident can break a spine.

JARRETT: It became a principle. That emotional distress is the same thing as physical damage. It can wreak havoc on somebody's life, and it can destroy them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: And isn't that in a way how our culture increasingly thinks about emotions? That they're triggered by events in the world, that we often don't have control over them in the way that they affect us, and that we should take them really seriously. I mean, isn't that where the idea of safe spaces come from, the idea that triggers can happen at any time so people need a place where they're sure they won't be touched?

And if anyone was going to convince the legal system to embrace this idea in the culture, it was Tommy, a trucker in a leather Harley jacket. Nothing off him suggested he was anxious to play the victim but according to his doctor, he was a victim.

Tommy pointed out in his lawsuit that Michael Jones drove too fast for a road that was wet after a summer rain, and he hadn't taken care of his back tires. So Michael had crashed into Tommy's truck and caused his trauma.

JARRETT: Somebody else causes that, then they should be liable for that.

ROSIN: Tommy was nervous about suing Makayla's family, but his attorneys assured him over and over that the insurance company would likely end up paying any damages, so Makayla's parents would in no way be harmed. Still, they warned him that the case wouldn't be easy.

JESSICA OLSHESKI (ATTORNEY): Well, emotional cases are hard. Cases premised on - purely on emotions are hard.

ROSIN: That's Jessica Olsheski, Tommy's lawyer. She and her partner, Tim Boone, recognized that winning Tommy's case wouldn't be easy because the courts were traditionally suspicious of cases based purely on emotional distress. But they ultimately took the case because her partner Tim really liked hard cases.

OLESHESKI: He was a very forward-thinking litigator and was always trying to push the boundaries of case law.

ROSIN: What they could see is that the courts were changing, moving in the same direction as the culture. Emotions are triggered, and people can't control them. The courts just needed another nudge, so they went forward. And though it took three years, he won.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that yes, he had technically gotten his emotional injury after the accident was over, but the court chose to think more like the culture - triggers can happen at any moment, and you can't control your emotional reaction.

Victory - or maybe not. We're going to get back to Tommy and Amanda later in the story, but first, that court decision, it might be based on a flawed idea of where emotions come from.





SPIEGEL: Lisa Feldman Barrett is a psychology professor at Northeastern University. And for a very particular kind of person - and I'm going to grant you it is a very, very particular kind of person - Lisa is kind of a rock star because she's someone who has come up with a new mind-blowing way of thinking about emotion. Which is why Hanna and I were super excited to talk to her. And she was excited to talk to us, too - kind of.

BARRETT: Other than the pieces on emotion, I'm on a totally big fan.

(LAUGHTER) SPIEGEL: According to Lisa Barrett, the show that you are listening to right now, INVISIBILIA, has consistently portrayed emotion and how emotions work incorrectly. But in our defense, the reason why we've been wrong, at least according to Lisa, is because the whole culture is wrong. We think wrong about emotions, where they come from and how they work because the way that we experience the world makes it very, very hard to think right about them.

BARRETT: How I would describe what's actually happening will not make sense to people, right? It will seem really counter-intuitive to people.

SPIEGEL: So let's begin the catalogue of wrongness with this, what Lisa says is the very first thing we are taught about emotions that is wrong.

BARRETT: Emotions are built into your brain at birth.

SPIEGEL: We've been told this over and over again, that we are wired to feel X or that evolution has wired us to feel Y because our forbearers on the African savannah had to survive, needed to respond instantly and appropriately to big bad lions and hungry tigers.

BARRETT: So there's a stimulus...


BARRETT: ...Which triggers a circuit inside you...


BARRETT: ...Which causes a bodily response in you...

SPIEGEL: (Gasps).

BARRETT: ...Which then causes you to behave in a particular way.


BARRETT: You know, they're not exactly seen as reflexes, but they're as close to reflexes as you might get. If the stimulus is there, the response is obligatory. That's the view. It's an automatic reaction to the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) SPIEGEL: Now, according to this view, you can choose how you respond to the emotion that's been triggered. You can suppress it, reframe it, make a photo collage about it. But the initial emotion itself, that is universally programmed. There is nothing you can do.

BARRETT: It just seems absolutely preposterous that an emotion could be anything other than a reaction because in a moment where someone bursts into your house with a gun, there is very little that doesn't seem like a reaction. You know, it's such a strong feeling. It feels like you've been hijacked.

ROSIN: And to me anyway, there is something profound and hopeful in this way of thinking.

SPIEGEL: It's such a beautiful and connecting idea that we all share emotions. I mean, it's the kind of idea if you cut us, we bleed. If our children die, we cry.

ROSIN: That is literally the Coke ad, right? It's the Coke ad which takes you around the world and everybody smiles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'D LIKE TO TEACH THE WORLD TO SING - IN PERFECT HARMONY") THE HILLSIDE SINGERS (MUSICAL GROUP): (Singing) I'd like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.

SPIEGEL: We all smile when we're happy and so know the meaning of a smile when we see it in the face of someone else. Even if their skin is a different color or their culture feels strange, we know what they feel. Emotion is our universal language.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'D LIKE TO TEACH THE WORLD TO SING - IN PERFECT HARMONY") THE HILLSIDE SINGERS: (Singing) I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.

SPIEGEL: But this - apparently - is not what 25 years of studying emotion has taught Lisa.

Basically you're saying, not so much?

BARRETT: For every emotion category that we have in the U.S. that we think is biologically basic and universal, there's at least one culture in the world that doesn't really possess a concept for that emotion and where people don't really feel that emotion.

SPIEGEL: Fear, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, happiness - for Lisa, there is nothing inevitable about these emotions or any emotions, including the emotion of despair. Because one day, you were driving a truck and got into an accident and saw the tiny arm of a toddler hanging from a door.

JARRETT: I couldn't get none of them images out of my mind.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) SPIEGEL: How many emotions do you feel in a day? Recently, I found myself wondering. This morning, I woke up insecure about my worth. But by the time I got to the shower, which is about 10 feet away from where I sleep, there had been a subtle shift. I was cycling between regretful and angry.

Later at the coffee store, some music on the speakers above my head during my walk out helped me feel determined. I was energized and ready to take on the world. If I had a square jaw, it would have been set. All day long, these emotions wash over me, hundreds of them - thousands of them? I've never counted but I always seem to be feeling them.

BARRETT: Yes, they're seen as happening to you - right? - not something that you yourself make.

SPIEGEL: But that's not how Lisa sees it. Lisa is one of the most respected researchers in psychology right now, lead editor on an enormous tome on emotion. And her latest book, "How Emotions Are Made," is an attempt to synthesize emotion research from a variety of fields - neuroscience, biology, anthropology.

Which makes it hard to summarize in a pithy way, but if I had to boil it down, here's how I'd do it. The way emotion works is the opposite of what you think. Emotions aren't reactions to the world. Emotions actually construct the world.

I know, at first, it didn't make any sense to me, either. So let's start this explanation where science stories usually start these days, with the 3 pounds of meat between your ears and the very difficult job it must do all day long.

BARRETT: The reason why we have a brain is because we have to control the systems in our body. We have a tremendous number of systems.

SPIEGEL: You mostly aren't aware of all of the systems in your body that your brain is regulating.

BARRETT: Systems for glucose. We have systems for salt, systems for oxygen.

SPIEGEL: But if your brain decided to take a day off, kick back, go to the beach, you would definitely notice because you'd be dead.

BARRETT: A circulatory system.

SPIEGEL: So many systems, and all of them need to be managed perfectly in order for you to do anything - any single thing.

BARRETT: So, for example, your brain starts to change your blood pressure before you stand up because, you know, it has to make sure that blood gets to the brain with oxygen, otherwise you'll faint.

SPIEGEL: Which brings us to the obligatory fancy science word that I spent three weeks trying to pronounce correctly - interoception. Interoception?

BARRETT: Interoception is just your feeling of the sensations that come from the movements inside your body.

SPIEGEL: The easiest way to think about interoception is that it's the thing that senses the status of all these internal systems, monitors all the comings and goings. I think of it like an eye but inside your body, turned so it's looking at you.

In the same way that your eye takes in the world and then communicates what's going on to your brain, the interoception thingy (ph) surveys your body and then communicates what's going on with all these systems to your brain, only it doesn't do as thorough a job as your eye for good reason.

BARRETT: You don't feel these sensations in very high fidelity in the way that you see things in the world with a lot of detail. And you can hear things often with a lot of detail, but you don't feel things from the inside of your body with a lot of detail because if you did, you would never pay attention to anything else in the world ever.

SPIEGEL: So your internal eye keeps things super stupid simple.

BARRETT: So the way your brain is wired is to feel interoceptive sensations - the sensations from our bodies - as simple feelings of pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, calmness.

SPIEGEL: That is literally all your internal eye can communicate, those four sensations.

BARRETT: Pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, calmness.

SPIEGEL: But all day long, it's sending your brain status updates like a teenager on Snapchat, only worse.

BARRETT: Pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, unpleasantness, calmness.

SPIEGEL: Feel sympathy for a moment for your brain. There it is, trapped in the dark, silent box of your skull. It's getting these updates about these important sensations in the body, but it doesn't know for certain what's causing them. That unpleasant loop in the stomach just then, was that because the body was hungry or because the man who just sat down across the table is insanely good looking?

BARRETT: Arousal, calmness.

How does it know what caused something when all it has are the effects of that thing? The answer is it has past experience, so it's guessing.

SPIEGEL: Whatever sensation you have in your body, the brain develops a theory - actually a whole bunch of theories - based on previous experience and then uses them to make a prediction about what is going on.

BARRETT: When you have an ache in your body, it asks the question essentially, you know, in this situation, in this context, the last time this happened, what was the cause of that ache? And that's really what concepts are. Concepts are your brain's using past experience in order to make sense of incoming sensory input.

SPIEGEL: OK. Let's pause on concepts because we need to talk about them and the role they play in how you feel. Your culture has a ton of emotional concepts. When you were little, a toddler, you learn them from your parents.

You feeling a little bit nervous about the big

kids? You went to the park, and your mom and dad carefully explained to you that that feeling that you had when that two-bit kid in the red sneakers shoved you off the swing, that was anger. Acquaint yourself with that emotion, they counseled, it will likely play a major role in your teens.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: You're crying just because you got tagged?

SPIEGEL: Sometimes they told you not to be afraid.


SPIEGEL: Sometimes you simply watched how they responded - the contours of sadness and the things that prompted it, the experience of joy and how it was expressed. These were likely the first emotional concepts you learned but you went on. You learned regret. You learned determination. Then in college, you got introduced to the idea of schadenfreude, which during your 20s you practiced liberally.

BARRETT: That's correct.

SPIEGEL: And these concepts, these emotional concepts, they are the things that shape the raw sensations from your interoception thingy - those raw materials of pleasant, unpleasant, aroused, calm - into the actual emotions that you experience. And without these concepts, Lisa says, you wouldn't have any of the emotions that you think of as hardwired, even sadness, even fear, even all the other things that you think of as fundamental and wired into you.

BARRETT: And it's parallel for vision. For example, if you have no concepts, you will see bright and dark. You won't see objects. You know, we know this for a fact. There are people, for example, who have corneal damage or who have cataracts at birth. And then at some point in their adult life, they have a corneal transplant or their cataracts are removed, and we would imagine from the classical view that they would just be able to see everything, but they don't.

They don't see for days and sometimes weeks. And sometimes years there are things they can't see because they don't have concepts. Their brain has no past visual experience to make meaning of the visual sensations that they receive.

SPIEGEL: So all they see is light and dark?

BARRETT: All they see is light and dark.

SPIEGEL: So if you put an apple in front of them, what would it look like?

BARRETT: They wouldn't see an apple. They wouldn't even see an object.

SPIEGEL: You're saying that emotion works the exact same way? That...

BARRETT: Yes. I'm saying that instead of having blobs of light and dark, without concepts you will feel pleasant or unpleasant. You can feel pleasure. You can feel high arousal, being worked up. You can feel low activation, but you don't really feel anger, sadness, fear, disgust or any of the other emotions that we think of as being given to us by nature.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) SPIEGEL: What Lisa is saying is that our concepts make the world. And it is hard to overstate how much this changes our idea of what is actually going on when we walk down the street. The usual idea is that you are taking in the true world around you and reacting to it, this real thing that exists outside of you.

But what she's saying is that everything around you is a blob until the concepts in your head shape it into a thing, and then you respond to the thing that you just created. The concepts themselves are the key.


SPIEGEL: Now, if you watch the news, it's likely you've encountered a more contained version of the idea that concepts literally shape the world you see.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: On the streets of Ferguson, Mo., outrage and anger.

SPIEGEL: We've heard a lot about troubling police shootings of young black men or George Zimmerman pulling a gun on Trayvon Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: It's the story that's ignited fierce passions across the nation.

SPIEGEL: And part of the way that people talk about police shootings is that sometimes police are responding not to the reality of the people in front of them but to a stereotype in their head. Stereotypes are concepts. In this case, the concept that young black men are dangerous. Critics say it's that concept that shapes what the police see and can prompt them to pull the trigger when there is no actual need.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Family members confirm that 32-year-old Philando Castile has died.

SPIEGEL: But what Lisa is saying is that concepts like these work in all of us all of the time. They take the blobs in front of us and shape them into what we see. And they take the blobs inside us and shape them into what we feel.

BARRETT: For better or for worse, experiences are constructed. And your emotional experience is not an indication of something objective about the event. That's just not true.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: And here is the point of all this, according to Lisa.

BARRETT: That means that you have more control over your emotions than you might imagine. The horizon of control is much broader because.

ROSIN: Because concepts are not hardwired. We can change them. Ultimately, we have control.


ROSIN: And this is not just a fun science fact, a trippy nugget you heard on a podcast. That's not what this is.

SPIEGEL: Like, essentially you're saying we have way more control over and therefore responsibility for our emotions.


ROSIN: Control and responsibility for our emotions. It's such a puzzle. Control is fun. Who doesn't like control? But responsibility - much less fun, much, much less fun.

SPIEGEL: So if I have post-traumatic stress disorder, say, do I have control over that?

BARRETT: Well...

JARRETT: Her little arm hanging out of the car. I couldn't get none of them images out of my mind.

BARRETT: Well, yes.

ROSIN: Tommy Jarrett, the trucker, was traumatized. And if you look at it the court's way, Tommy's emotions start with Michael Jones, Amanda's husband, who lost control of his car. But if you look at it Lisa's way, they start much earlier with the concepts in Tommy's head. In the culture where Tommy grew up, a farm in Alabama in the 1960s...

JARRETT: A man should be strong enough to protect people.

ROSIN: A man should be in control of his truck and of himself. And if something goes wrong, it's his fault. That was the underlying concept that caused Tommy to think he was a killer. So did the PTSD come from Michael Jones, or did it come from inside Tommy?

Even bringing up a question like this, it feels like a radical thing to do because we all like to assume that if we feel something, it tells us something true about the world, something that happened to me. But Lisa isn't saying that PTSD or trauma of any kind isn't real, or that people suffering shouldn't be recognized and relieved, or that we shouldn't address the individuals and systems that harm people.

She's just saying trauma isn't cancer or diabetes, where cells in your body have gone wrong. The problem has much more to do with concepts in your head created by and based in our culture. And those aren't inevitable. Those can be changed.

Lisa identifies herself as a progressive, so she really struggled when we talked about things like PTSD. But she had to admit that yes, her theory has obvious implications for lots of things in our society, even implications she doesn't like.

BARRETT: I see the risk in what I'm saying - right? - but science is science. And we have to - I feel like it's necessary to draw people's attention to what the science has to say. And in the proper context in society, in culture, people can debate the consequences. But I think, you know, I do think that it's very dangerous to treat things as objective when they're not.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) SPIEGEL: Emotions are not objective. All kinds of emotions are not objective, even the emotions you have in response to a death.

THORNBERRY: I did kind of wonder to myself if the feelings were appropriate for the loss or if I was kind of imagining it to be being worse than it really was.

SPIEGEL: What is the appropriate level of pain in response to the death of your child? This was one of the questions Amanda felt herself asking over and over again in the months after Makayla's death but she went on. She took care of her baby, Hannah, went back to work, had another baby, Ashley. And slowly, the emotions inside her shifted, and the pain became less painful. And then one day, she got a call, a very strange call.

THORNBERRY: I thought it was a joke. I was standing in my kitchen. Ashley was playing on the floor, and Hannah was kind of holding on to my leg.

SPIEGEL: The person on the phone wanted Amanda to know that her family was being sued for the death of her daughter...

THORNBERRY: By the driver for his emotional distress and his pain and suffering. And I can remember thinking, you know, he doesn't know what pain and suffering is.

SPIEGEL: As the person talked, Amanda struggled to make sense of what she was hearing. Tommy, who had never met Makayla, couldn't go back to work for nine months but Amanda, Makayla's mother, went back after six weeks. How could that be?

THORNBERRY: You know, I thought, well, how can I be getting over this but yet he still has all of this emotional distress?

SPIEGEL: After the person hung up, Amanda stumbled into the living room, sank down into a chair.

THORNBERRY: And I kind of put my head in my hands. And I just shook my head. And I can remember thinking, this is unbelievable. I mean, this is, you know, after everything we've been through, you know, and now we get to deal with this.

SPIEGEL: Amanda says sitting there, she was suddenly overcome by fear.

THORNBERRY: What if we lose our house? What if we have to file bankruptcy? You know, all of this stuff, this overwhelming fear of, you know, not being able to cope.

SPIEGEL: But mostly, she thought about Tommy, and it enraged her.

THORNBERRY: He didn't have any right to feel that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: So Tommy. How do we think about Tommy, his pain and the lawsuit? Lisa wants us to acknowledge that Tommy's pain, it wasn't an automatic inevitable response. It came from the concepts in his head. So does that mean he didn't deserve to win his case? Well, Lisa's just asking us to be more honest. We can say yes, it partly came from in his own head, but we as a society still think it's fair and just that he be compensated.

BARRETT: The point is that we can acknowledge the perceptions are constructed or we can ignore it and just keep doing what we're doing anyways. I think it would be much fairer if we just acknowledged how our brains actually work.

ROSIN: Our brains rely on concepts, and concepts make our world, our culture, our systems. Which is why it's useful to know which concepts are shaping us and which ones we're passing on to each other and to our children.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE) UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: Well, today's news is shocking. And reaction is quickly...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: You scared? Why?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: April fool.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: But you really feel that way.

KEVIN SPACEY (ACTOR): (As Frank Underwood) For those of us climbing top the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy.

LESTER HOLT (NBC): From England tonight, a video that touched millions of people around the world today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Janice, I love you. She's like, you're the color of poop.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Run, sissy, run.

ROSIN: And you know what? If we make these concepts, we can unmake them. But even if we don't choose to do that, even if we decide to build the world just exactly as we've built it down to the very last brick, there in the back of our heads when we experience something that disturbs us can hover a liberating thought - this feeling I have, it doesn't have to be this way. There is nothing inevitable about the world that is.

BARRETT: You have more control over your own experience. You become more the architect of your own experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) ROSIN: And that's exactly what Tommy did. We met up with him 10 years after the lawsuit. He ended up getting $50,000 from the court. Half went to the lawyers. And in the end, Amanda's insurance company covered it.

These days, Tommy's feeling much better. His life is great now, he says so himself. About a year after the accident, he started driving again. Now, he has his own trucking company and a motorcycle which he and his wife ride out West when they can. About the whole awful period after the accident, he understands one thing for sure now.

JARRETT: My emotions wasn't being true to me. I had every right to be upset and be hurt and distraught. I didn't need to keep telling myself that I was a killer.

ROSIN: That emotion that the court had validated, it felt real, but it wasn't telling him anything real about the world. Tommy realized that basically because he did exactly what Lisa Feldman Barrett says people should do when they feel like a powerful emotion is controlling them. He took this construct which had been in his head since he was a kid, that as a good man and a ninja of a driver he should have been able to prevent the accident.

JARRETT: A man should be strong enough to protect people.

ROSIN: And he learned a new construct. It took him a long time, more than a year, and a lot of work. And he had help from his family and from a therapist because changing the concepts we've grown up with and absorbed all of our lives is not easy at all. But eventually, Tommy did it.

He replaced his old concept with a new one that led him to the actual truth. He was not a killer. Because when that car skidded across the median, there was nothing he could have done. The new concept? Sometimes a man is not, in fact, in control.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) SPIEGEL: Amanda has healed a lot too since the accident. She and Michael got a divorce but she's remarried now and works as a nurse. She has a beautiful home where birds sing loudly in the morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING) SPIEGEL: But it's not so easy to wrap up her story because it's not possible to wrap up the bones of a dead child neatly. So instead of trying, we thought we would spend a moment thinking about the person who hovers over this story and powers so many of the emotions in it, the person who didn't get to fully be.

THORNBERRY: Oh, she was, sweetie. Her face was just very much full expression.

SPIEGEL: During our interview, we spent a lot of time talking with Amanda about Makayla. And here are the words that Amanda said to us - Makayla loved questions.

THORNBERRY: She was always asking, you know, why id (ph) dat (ph)? Why id dat?

SPIEGEL: Makayla had a lisp and an easy way with love. She was good at talking about her feelings and always said the word that as dat with a D. She was buried in a yellow and purple princess costume.

ROSIN: In her princess outfit?

THORNBERRY: Yes 'cause that was her favorite.

SPIEGEL: These are the words that Amanda used. But even at the time, none seemed to fully capture the feelings Amanda has about her child and her child's death. Those feelings were larger than the concepts could contain. They floated in and around her, a great indistinct mass of pleasant and painful sensations.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMOTIONAL") THE BROKEN ASSEMBLY (MUSICAL GROUP): (Singing) I'm not going to get emotional. I'm not going to get involved.

ROSIN: That's it for today's episode.

SPIEGEL: Make sure to listen to part two of our Emotions show. You'll hear the rest of Renato's story about discovering an emotion in the Philippines. And stay tuned for the rest of our concept album. We are taking this new way of looking at the world and testing it not just with emotions but with other big, big things like reality and race and the self.

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And me, Alix Spiegel. Our senior editor is Anne Gudenkauf. Our executive producer is Jeff Rogers. The INVISIBILIA ninjas are Meghan Keane, Yowei Shaw, Abby Wendel and Liana Simonds.

ROSIN: Our technical director is Andy Heuther. We had help from Micaela Rodriguez, Jon Hamilton, Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, Nancy Shute, Meredith Rizzo, Maya Dukmasova, Hilary McClellen, Chris Benderev, Nurith Aizenman, Caroline Kubzansky, Maria Paz Gutierrez and our vice president of programming, Anya Grundmann.

SPIEGEL: Special thanks to Jody Madeira (ph), Walker Irving (ph), Alice Gilford (ph) and to The Broken Assembly for letting us use their song "Emotional" to close out the show - and to Jon Luc Hefferman for letting us use his song "Upbeat."

ROSIN: For more information about these artists and to see the amazing original art for this episode and the entire season by the fabulous Marina Muun, go to npr.org/invisibilia. And now for a moment of non-zen.

SPIEGEL: Like, every time you say something that annoys me, I'll just be like, you're a construct.

ROSIN: I can't even hear you.

SPIEGEL: I can't even hear you.

ROSIN: Construct.

SPIEGEL: Join us next time for more INVISIBILIA.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMOTIONAL") THE BROKEN ASSEMBLY: (Singing) I'll probably lose control. I'm going to let everything out tonight. This story will soon be told.

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