A new theory of how the brain constructs emotions that could revolutionize psychology, health care, law enforcement, and our understanding of the human mind. Emotions feel automatic to us; that's why scientists have long assumed that emotions are hardwired in the body or the brain. Today, however, the science of emotion is in the midst of a revolution on par with the discovery of relativity in physics and natural selection in biology. This paradigm shift has far-reaching implications not only for psychology but also medicine, the legal system, airport security, child-rearing, and even meditation. Leading the charge is psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, whose theory of emotion is driving a deeper understanding of the mind and brain, and what it means to be human. Her research overturns the widely held belief that emotions are housed in different parts of the brain, and are universally expressed and recognized. Instead, emotion is constructed in the moment by core systems interacting across the whole brain, aided by a lifetime of learning. Are emotions more than automatic reactions? Does rational thought really control emotion? How does emotion affect disease? How can you make your children more emotionally intelligent? How Emotions Are Made reveals the latest research and intriguing practical applications of the new science of emotion, mind, and brain.
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Most new pop science books irritate me since they give me nothing I didn't already know. This book is definitely an exception to that rule. I started liking this book from the very beginning, because I have previously read in over 20 books the experiment where they show photos of actors posed with an emotional expression of some kind and showed it to various people from different cultures and then claiming that each group shown the pictures knew what emotion was being invoked by the actor posing in the picture. I always suspected there was something wrong with the results which claimed that there is a universal set of emotions based on unique emotional 'fingerprints'. This author demolishes that finding, and I really hope I never see anyone else site that experiment again without at least first mentioning this author's analysis.
There is a classical view of emotions. It's been wrongly floating around since Plato hypothesized that we were like the charioteer (reason) being led by the horse being pulled apart by our passion and our appetites. Similarly Freud gave us a super ego, ego, or id, and Kahneman has his 'S1' and 'S2' (quick thinking vs thoughtful mind). The author not only tears down the classical emotional models of the mind, but she builds one up in its place that seems to make sense.
The author calls it the constructive emotional model. What she's saying is that emotions are not things. They are instances of previous experiences. They do have essences or fingerprints. Darwin knocked it out of the park with his "Origins of Species", but his book "Expression of Emotions in Man in Animals" brought back essentialism (the author will say). That is a belief that there are real categories in the world and they exist beyond the concepts within our own mind. Our emotions are always of a particular instance and never from the general because they are always about something particular.
The author's theory takes the best from the Social, Neurological and Psychological constructive theories from the past. In the past, the social theory would have agreed with Beauvoir that girls are not born girls but made into girls, neurological would have said that there are basically unique areas in the brain for different emotions or patters of neurons, and the Psychological would have been William James' reaction to the bear that we would meet in the woods. The author does not accept any of those premises but does construct her constructive emotional model from those three areas. She builds her system from holism, emergent properties, and multiple different neuron formations leading to various emotional states.
The author really focuses on our body budget as to how we construct our emotional makeup. Also, she speaks about how our mind is constantly predicting, and when we create our 'now' we are also predicting it since we don't always understand everything and we are constantly making our best guess about our world and our current emotional states. We are statisticians from an early age (she'll say) and we often must take all of our previous best guesses of the world (an average) and interpolate (or even extrapolate) what we think we know and use that as our guide even though we know there is an error because we're forcing averages on to a particular. Since she's a scientist in the field she will provide some experiments and data to back up her beliefs.
A lot of the book I didn't like in particular the last third. That's just me. She did a little bit of self help type book and that always bores me, but basically her advice was along the lines of do more exercise and eat broccoli (okay, she doesn't say 'broccoli' but she does say eat healthier). She mentioned Spinoza and that he falls in to the classical school of emotional theory and he does, but within his book "Ethics" he too gave advice for living a healthy emotional live and I think he did a better job then this book did.
Though, I don't recommend skipping the last third. She did a really good job on speculating on the nature of autism. She theorized that the autistic person under predicts their body budget needs since they are not always attuned to the local environment correctly and therefore are often out of sync with what is really going around in their local environment. It seemed reasonable to me. I just never seem to come across any good books on autism, and her section seemed to be better than most that I have seen.
There is a real Phenomenological bent to her theory (think Husserl, some Heidegger, the Existentialist and in particular Gadamer in his book "Truth and Method", a book that no one reads today, but I would rate it as one of my all time favorites). Gadamer did say all "understanding is interpretation, being that can be understood is language". The author makes the point that if we don't have the word for the emotion we can't fully understand the emotion. Not everyone has a rich vocabulary to understand all of their perceived emotional states, and so therefore might not always be fully aware of their emotional state (she'll say). In addition, Gadamer ends his book by emphasizing that it's not the pieces that matter, and it's not the whole it's how they fit together. Similarly, the author is saying that's how we experience our emotions.
I really enjoyed this book. The author has a theory that goes against common wisdom, and builds a system that can explain a better way to understand our emotional world. I don't always agree with everything she says, but I always like to see the world differently and am open to new ways of thinking about old problems.