How We Feel


from psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book, How Emotions are Made. Dr. Barrett tells this story:
“Back when I was in graduate school, a guy in my psychology program asked me out on a date. I didn’t know him very well and was reluctant to go because, honestly, I wasn’t particularly attracted to him, but I had been cooped up too long in the lab that day, so I agreed. As we sat together in a coffee shop, to my surprise, I felt my face flush several times as we spoke. My stomach fluttered and I started having trouble concentrating. OK, I realized, I was wrong. I am clearly attracted to him. We parted an hour later – after I agreed to go out with him again – and I headed home, intrigued. I walked into my apartment, dropped my keys on the floor, threw up, and spent the next seven days in bed with flu.”
For Dr. Barrett, this is an illustration of how we create emotions by interpreting our bodily states. In this case, the initial interpretation was over-written with the strong evidence that her bodily state was not, after all, attraction, but the onset of flu. Usually, we have no reason to second guess our initial interpretation. Dr. Barret writes:
“An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensation mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world. In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion. If a swarm of buzzing bees is squeezing underneath your front door while your heart is pounding in your chest, your brain’s prior knowledge of stinging insects gives meaning to the sensations from your body and to the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations from the world, simulating the swarm, the door, and an instance of fear. The exact same bodily sensations in another context, like watching a fascinating film about the hidden lives of bees, might construct an instance of excitement....Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions....With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.”

Four weeks ago, in the sermon called, “Believing, Really Believing, and Talking to Your Car,” I mentioned that psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are constructed. There are, she says, two main biological continua. There's the pleasant to unpleasant continuum, and there's the high arousal to low arousal continuum.

For low arousal and pleasant, think of blissful calm. For high arousal and pleasant, think of something really fun and exciting. For high arousal and unpleasant, think of being very scared or anxious. For low arousal and unpleasant, think of being bored.

The rich and subtle texture of our emotional lives is then a matter of using learned concepts to interpret our biological states in socially recognized ways. Today, I wanted to go back to that earlier point and say a bit more about that.

Our emotions are a huge part of what we are. What are they, where do they come from, what do they mean, what are we to do with them?

Consider, for example, a feeling that you may have had, though you didn’t have a name for it. Lisa Feldman Barret describes it:
“Imagine the feeling of reaching into a bag of potato chips and discovering that the previous chip you ate was the last one. You feel disappointed that the bag is empty, relieved that you won’t be ingesting any more calories, slightly guilty that you ate the entire bag, and yet hungry for another chip.”
So: a mix of feelings: disappointment yet relief, a hint of guilt, yet desire for more. Dr. Barrett gives this made-up emotion a name. She calls it chiplessness.

What makes an emotion is that we learn to interpret our body states with a category. We use those categories to interpret other people’s feelings as well as our own – so the categories constitute a social reality. If you have feelings of love, well, you wouldn’t know that feeling was love if you didn’t have lots of examples from other people. So, chiplessness becomes a real emotion to just the extent that it becomes a social reality – that we learn from each other to understand our body states with that category.

The empty potato chip bag is the paradigm, but the emotion applies in other cases. Any time you are enjoying something that comes to end and you’re disappointed and relieved and a little guilty because you think maybe you’ve been enjoying it more than you should – yet you’re desirous of more, that’s chiplessness. If you’ve ridden the roller coast at a given amusement park hundreds of times, and you get there one day and the ride is closed for repairs -- you’re disappointed, yet a bit relieved because you’re a little guilty about the way you’ve been a touch over-enthusiastic about this ride – yet there’s still a part of you that did want to ride it. So you’re feeling chipless. Or, you come to the end of the last episode of a series you’ve been binge watching. You’re relieved that you got all the way through it, yet at the same time sorry that it’s over. You suspect maybe spending all that time on this show may not have been the best use of your time, yet you hope there’s going to be another season. You’ve got that chipless feeling.

If you interpret your experience with this category a few times, it won’t be long before you’re adept at it. And now it’s a real emotion – as real as happiness, sadness, anger, or fear.

You might be thinking this new concoction is surely a mix of more elemental emotions. The feeling that something is bittersweet is a combination of bitterness and sweetness. The feeling of “awe,” says the Oxford Dictionary, is “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” Even supposedly opposite feelings can be mixed – like happiness and sadness at the same time. If you saw the 1997 Roberto Benigni film, “Life is Beautiful,” in which a father tries to keep his child’s spirits up while they are in a concentration camp, then you probably got a strong dose of happiness and sadness at the same time. The masters of literature evoke the various mixing of emotions as their stock in trade, as in a 1960 New Yorker column by John Updike about witnessing the baseball great Ted Williams’ last at-bat. Updike wrote:
“No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.”
Emotions can certainly be mixed, but let’s examine this idea that mixtures are ultimately made up of elemental, primary emotions. The supposed primary emotions are generally identified with some list such as fear, anger, sadness, happiness, and disgust. Those are the five internal characters inside the psyche of eleven-year-old Riley in the 2015 Pixar movie, “Inside Out.” When I’m encouraging people to identify their emotions and separate the emotion itself from judgment and evaluation – I start with the basics: mad, sad, glad, and scared.

How are you feeling? I might ask. And I might hear, I feel wronged, or neglected, or cheated, or abandoned, or betrayed, or let down. Those are judgments. If you say you feel disappointed, that’s getting closer, but in a given context it’s likely to be tinged with judgment about another person’s conduct rather than your own emotion. So to be helpful in identifying the emotion I might ask, are you mad, sad, glad, or scared? From there, we can begin learning how to fine tune our identification of emotions. Under the general rubric of sadness, one might discern discouragement, distraughtness, resignation, helplessness, hopelessness, misery, despair, grief, sorrow, or anguish – each of which is distinct. Anger might be fine-tuned as annoyance, frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness, vengefulness, or fury. Gladness might be fine tuned as sensory pleasure, rejoicing, compassionate joy, amusement, relief, pride, wonder, excitement, or ecstasy. And so on.

Psychologist Paul Ekman did a number of cross-cultural studies in which he showed people photos of facial expressions. Ekman’s work led him to the conclusion that there were six emotions that were innate and universally recognized in all cultures: mad, sad, glad, and scared, plus disgust and also surprise. Another source lists eight primary emotions, leaving out sadness, but including distress and anxiety, as well interest. Despite ongoing ambiguity about the precise list of what the primary emotions are, various writers confidently declare that “primary emotions are universal and innate.”

Turns out – according to Lisa Feldman Barrett and a growing number of researchers whose evidence I find pretty persuasive – that none of these are universal or innate. None. What is universal and innate -- in the area of feelings – are those two axis: low arousal to high arousal, and pleasant to unpleasant. That’s the biology that is indeed basic. It’s basic to all vertebrates and possibly to many invertebrates. Everything else, it turns out, is cultural and learned. We had to learn how to interpret ourselves and each other as angry or scared – and we learned it basically the way we learned a few minutes ago to interpret ourselves sometimes as chipless.

The classic facial expressions that Ekman thought were cross-culturally universal – Surprise --- Anger --- Disgust --- Happiness --- Etc. Those are stereotypes and they are problematic in the way that stereotypes generally are. In the attempt to abstract or summarize, they misrepresent the complex reality. Ekman’s photos weren’t of people who were feeling the emotion supposedly pictured. They were people who were told to show an assigned emotion, so they displayed the stereotype. In reality, people who are angry have all kinds of facial configurations. Maybe sometimes you quietly seethe. Other times you might be scream and shout – which would look more like an open mouth than a very tight-lipped closed mouth. If professional actors made faces like the ones pictured above, we’d think either that their character was being campy, or that they were ham actors. In real life, if you saw someone with stereotypical “surprise" face --- or the "fear" face --- or any of them, you’d be more likely to think they were mocking the feeling than that they were authentically feeling it.

Careful studies measuring facial muscle movements find that there is no facial configuration and no part of a facial configuration that all angry people display or that only angry people display. Sometimes those pursed, tight lips are just someone thinking hard about something.

When we dig a little into Paul Eckman’s methodology, we learn that when he showed his pictures like these to people in remote cultures, he didn’t just say: What’s this person feeling? He presented the question as multiple choice: Choose the word that best matches the face. And the options were limited to Eckman’s six. They might not have been the emotions that in that culture were the most central or primary. Members of a culture in which chiplessness was central and primary to their way of understanding themselves, if there were such a culture, would not have found chipless an available option.

Moreover, in cultures that didn’t speak English, Eckman had to use translations of the English words, even if close matches to the English word didn’t exist in the other language. The !Kung people of the Kalahari don’t have any word for Fear. They certainly feel the heightened adrenaline from an immediately imposed danger, and they will flee from it, and we would characterize them as afraid, but that’s not how they think of themselves – and since part of the experience of fear is recognizing “this is fear” – they don’t have the experience that we have.

“Utka Eskimos have no concept of ‘Anger.’ The Tahitian have no concept of ‘Sadness’.” (148)

You might think, as one writer put it, that: “A smile is recognized in all cultures as a signal of happiness and social welcome.” Actually, no. Here’s what Dr. Barrett says about that:
“For one thing, ‘Happiness’ is usually the only pleasant emotion category that is tested using the basic emotion method, so it’s trivial for subjects to distinguish it from the negative categories. And consider this fun fact: The historical record implies that ancient Romans did not smile spontaneously when they were happy. The word ‘smile’ doesn’t even exist in Latin. Smiling was an invention of the Middle Ages, and broad, toothy-mouthed smiles became popular only in the eighteenth century as dentistry became more accessible and affordable.”
Classics scholar Mary Beard adds:
“This 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.”
Thus, Barrett concludes,
“So far as I know, no emotion concept is universal, but even if one were, universality itself does not automatically imply a perceiver-independent reality.”
Take, for example, magical little people – called nymphs in ancient Greece, leprechauns in Ireland, brownies in Scotland, fairies in Celtic legend, Menehune in Native Hawaiian folklore, trolls in Scandinavia, Aziza in Africa, Agloolik in Inuit culture, Mimis in Aboriginal Australia, Shin from China, Kami from Japan. Even if magical little people were part of every single human culture on earth, that wouldn’t mean they were a perceiver-independent reality like atoms, rocks, and trees.

We’re not saying emotions aren’t real. We’re saying they’re cultural. They’re very real – like money – which also isn’t a perceiver-independent reality, but which depends on the social agreement of a given society. Other than those two axis of arousal and pleasantness, everything else in the area of emotion depends on having the concept, and concepts are learned features of a culture.

Not all cultures have the emotion concepts of English-speaking cultures. Instead, they may have others. Of course, cultures sometimes borrow from each other, the way that English speakers borrowed – examples I’ve mentioned before – schadenfreude and weltschmerz from the Germon and ennui from the French. Here are 17 others we might consider appropriating:
From Italian: fiero: the enjoyment felt when you have met a challenge that stretched your capabilities
From Yiddish: naches: feelings of pride in the accomplishments, or sometimes just the existence, of your offspring or mentees
From Dutch: gezellig and voorpret. Gezellig is a specific experience of comfort with friends. Voorpret is pleasure felt about an event before the event takes place – a delighted anticipation
From Greek: stenahoria: a feeling of doom, hopelessness, suffocation, and constriction.
From Korean: jeong: happiness specifically from attachment to a close friend.
From the Ilongot of the Philippines: liget: exuberant aggression involving intense focus, passion, and energy while pursuing a hazardous challenge with a group of people. (Sounds similar to recently developed emotion concept in our culture that we call putting your game face on.)
Also Filipino: gigil: the urge to hug or squeeze something that is unbearably adorable.
From Norwegian: forelsket: an intense joy of falling in love.
From Dansih: hygge: a certain feeling of close friendship.
From Russian: tokka: a spiritual anguish.
From Portuguese: saudade: a strong spiritual longing.
From Spanish: pena ajena: sadness over another person’s loss, or discomfort or embarrassment on someone else’s behalf.
From Japanese: arigata-meiwaku: the feeling that someone has done you a favor that you didn’t want from them, and which may have caused difficulty for you, but you’re required to be grateful anyway (Doesn’t that sound very Japanese? The culture is its concepts, and the concepts for the way we feel – plus the physiological sensations we are interpreting – ARE the emotion.)
Also from Japanese is age-otori: the feeling of looking worse after a haircut.
Other cultures mix and match emotion categories differently: For the Ifaluk, of Micronesia, fago: depending on context, can mean love, empathy, pity, sadness, or compassion
From the Czech: litost: torment over one’s own misery combined with the desire for revenge.
We might want to revive twitterpated from the 1942 Disney movie, Bambi. Twitterpated, like chipless, is a made-up emotion – but they’re all made-up. That's Barrett's point: all emotions are made-up by members of a given culture.

Your emotional life is cultural habits of interpretation of, and projection onto, your awareness of your body states. As we work through the meaning of this new understanding of emotion it’s going to have wide implications. It’s going to have legal implications. Like, we can’t tell what remorse is. Remorse is a cultural product, and some cultures have very different expressions for it, or don’t have the concept at all. So the notion of remorsefulness in criminal sentencing is problematic – yet juries decide sentences in part on whether they think the defendant feels remorse. Dzokhar Tsarnaev of Chechnia, the suriving bomber of the 2013 Boston Marathon bomb, was sentenced to death in 2015. “Tsarnaev spoke words of apology, but when [jurors] looked at his face, all they saw was this stone-faced stare.”

If Lisa Feldman Barrett is right, then
“jurors do not and cannot detect remorse or any other emotion in anybody ever. Neither can I and neither can you....That might be someone who is a remorseless killer, but a stone-faced stare might also mean that someone is stoically accepting defeat, which is in fact what Chechen culture prescribes for someone in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's situation.”
There’s solid reason to believe Dzokhar Tsarnaev committed the acts of which he was accused. There is no basis for saying that he was remorseless -- or that he wasn't.

There’s a lot more to say about how to understand emotions, but let me leave you with two take-aways. One: learn more emotion concepts. Emotional granularity – having a higher vocabulary of emotion words – is healthy for you. Yes, they are all cultural concepts, but it’s good to have a large toolbox of cultural concepts. The ability to speak and think with greater precision is a brain efficiency for navigating your reality – and we humans have created a fantastically complex social reality for ourselves, so your brain needs all the efficiency it can get.

Second, whatever you’re feeling, you don’t have to take it so seriously. And particularly don’t take seriously your interpretation of what you think other people are feeling. Talk to people and ask them about what they’re feeling – don’t assume. Emotions are social, so be sociable with them and about them.

Blessed be. Amen.

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