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20170709 – How Emotions are Made



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The main idea of this book is to dismantle traditional view of emotions as something hardwired by evolution in our brain and substitute it with the new paradigm of continuing concept acquisition, prediction of the future, and dynamic construction of emotions resulting in actions that increase probability of successful survival and procreation. For humans and other group dependent animals these concepts of constructed emotions and appropriate actions are supplemented by the notion of somewhat artificial socially created environment where emotions and actions occur.


Introduction: The Two-Thousand- Year-Old Assumption

The assumption is about emotions that they are instinctive, natural, and just barely controllable by higher parts of the brain. Author claims that scientific research demonstrates that it is just not true and she proposes the new theory of constructed emotions that claims emotions being just a typical part of human repertoire of behavior that is developing culturally as a part of individual’s maturation and socialization. It is not only emotions, but overall human personality is a construct based partially on genetic endowment and partially on accumulated experiences of interaction with environment and other people.

  1. The Search for Emotion’s “Fingerprints”

This chapter discusses idea of emotions being genetically predefined method of human reactions to environment common for all. The research however does not support this idea, which circumstance directed author to the finding that emotions are different depending on cultural environment and in actuality are formed during development and socialization. Moreover usual idea allocating emotions to specific part of human brain-amygdala failed to obtain of experimental confirmation. On the contrary, the finding demonstrated that emotions as well as practically all other activities involve multiple parts of brain’s neural networks. The brain analysis using its division into cubic areas (voxels) and statistical analysis of higher level of activation for each voxel found “no brain region contained the fingerprint of any specific emotion”. Author believes that this finding falsifies the idea of emotions as specific inborn functionality of a part of the brain.

  1. Emotions Are Constructed

This chapter starts with demonstration of partial picture unrecognizable from outset, but easily recognized as a bee after individual sees complete picture at least once. This indicates that mental representation of the picture is not direct proportional replica of visual perception, but rather mental construct based on available, even if often incomplete, information combined with preexisting patterns of activation of the neural networks. Author describes “gross food” experiment when individual provided with good, tasty food presented as something disgusting. In this case even if smell, visuals, and taste tells that it is a good piece of food, people still have difficulty because of the presentation. Author uses this experiment as another demonstration of construction of emotion in this case disgust for perfectly good food due to presentation. Another example is the projection of internal well being on external objects. Author recalls her negative attitude to a date that she later understood was not caused by the date, but rather by the condition of her body inflicted by cold. Author uses kitchen metaphor where emotions are cookies prepared in the kitchen (brain) from ingredients already present in it in form of previously developed neural networks and their susceptibility to activation.

  1. The Myth of Universal Emotions

This chapter is about emotions being construct of human experience rather than universal hardwired characteristics of humanity. It starts with analysis of recognition of pictures representing emotions by people from different cultures, demonstrating that previously commonly believed results showing universal recognition is actually incorrect, coming from purely designed research. It discusses specific studies with African tribes demonstrating that facial representation of emotions is culturally dependent.

  1. The Origin of Feeling

This is the first of four chapters going into details of author’s theory of constructed emotion. It starts with discussion of brain’s functionality and structure of its 86 billion neutrons. Somewhat unusually author looks at the brain as not that much a reaction and control tool, but rather as future prediction tool, which constantly builds short, medium, and long term predictions based on previous experience and perceived data flow from human electromagnetic, acoustic, and other censors. Here is a nice presentation of this process:

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Author specifically discusses brain’s predictions as powerful method in body resource allocation. It constantly regulates energy flow inside the body, data from environment, and produces decisions what body should do next. To simplify author divides brain functions into body-budgeting and primary interoceptive, meaning sensations within the body. Each time action is defined the brain develops prediction of future perception both from environment and from the body and regulates the body system to act as required. The actual perception is used to produce the next prediction and so on. The experience defines affective niche and author provides a nice graph to demonstrate what it means:

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Human are constantly make decisions depending on gut feeling, which is actually just an internal representation of affective condition. Consequently we live within a bubble of affective realism created by combination of our internal condition and environment signals and our experience based reading of these signals at any given moment. A very important point here is that all this information is processed by the brain so we really do not have access to raw information and actually feel what our brain believes. This idea is defined as affective realism. One interesting inference is that what we hear and see is highly dependent on our internal condition.

The final note here is that typical presentation of human brain as layered organ with lower layers developed by evolution earlier then upper layers and kind of compete between them for control is incorrect. Here is graphic presentation of this typical, but wrong idea:

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Author claims that in reality all decisions and actions based on interoception and affect, so rational thinking is just an illusion. Our environment as we perceive it does not really exists, it is what our brain build based on experience and current signals.

  1. Concepts, Goals, and Words

This chapter is about relation between objective reality and its presentation in human mind and communications between humans. It starts with the nice example of rainbow, which is objectively just a range of electromagnetic frequencies, which different parts got names of colors. Interestingly enough it is culturally dependent so there are 7 colors in Russian, but only 6 in English. This follows by the discussion about conceptualization, objects, and goals. Here is representation of these notions:

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After that author applies these notions to emotions and discusses how they are developed and how they constantly impact body functions and our behavior.

  1. How the Brain Makes Emotions

This chapter is about how brain uses concepts to build emotions. It starts with discussion of infant’s brain developing ability to predict via trial and error process that is based on training neurons and developing neural networks that respond to combination of internal and external signals. The general idea is that formation of concepts is similar to coding and compressing visual information, while prediction is similar to unpacking and application of this information. Here is visual representation:

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  1. Emotions as Social Reality

This starts with discussion of idea that even simple signals such as sound of falling tree or colors of a flower are really construction of the brain build on incomplete bits and pieces of information. Similarly emotional reaction is a construct that used by the brain to define what emotion needs to be activated and then produces corresponding activities in the body. Then author expands this to wider notion of social reality that only tangibly connected with objective reality. Author provides a very charming example when Andy Warhol’s painting named $200 and picturing exactly that was sold for $300,000. Finally author discusses language and words as communication tools used to exchange concepts in order to cooperate or just interact.

  1. A New View of Human Nature

This is about the inferences that follow from the new theory of constructed emotions: humans are much more in control of their experiences than usually thought because they are not passive recipients of external information that automatically activate emotions, but rather active interpreters of incongruent data flow, active constructors of emotion, and implementers of action that they believe would lead to achievement of more or less identified objectives. How exactly this construction occurs, depends on complex interplay of individual genetic endowment, cultural environment, and previous experiences of individual. Another point is that construction theory decisively shifts responsibility for action to acting individual because it defines brain as predictive rather than reactive tool, making it clear that action follows conscious or subconscious decision to act. This chapter also includes critic of essentialism, which obviously is not compatible with emotional construction theory, including Broca’s ideas of brain area specific emotional configuration. The final part of the chapter is about history of research and prevalence of ideas of construction in 1930 that nevertheless was pushed out by essentialism.

  1. Mastering Your Emotions

This is about a strong link between brain and the whole body and multitude of feedback loops between these entities. The key for success in live here is to maintain balanced body budget and develop a rich set of concepts. It follows by discussion of emotional granularity and also by a bit of practical advice how to improve ones emotional intelligence.

  1. Emotion and Illness

This is about connections between emotions and body conditions including illness. The main point here is that brain constantly tries to predict needs of body and direct different processes inside the body to meet these needs. This process is especially important for immune system. It works differently for each individual consequently making usual medical approach driven by symptoms outdated because the same symptoms could be produced by different causes in different people and successful treatment should concentrate of fixing causes. Even pain is not purely biomechanical process, but rather brain construct that needed to conduct actions of organism and author discusses research on how exactly it works. There is also discussion of purely psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety.

  1. Emotion and the Law

This is discussion on responsibility for actions when essentialist claims that action under influence of inherited emotion should not be punishable if individual acted under overwhelming emotional pressure. The emotional construction theory states that individual’s brain construct emotion and predicts results of actions in all circumstances consequently making individual responsible. Author also discusses unordinary value assigned to criminal’s remorse that is mainly unjustified. A very important point here is that emotions and their expression is not objective factors, but rather depend on culture and perception.

  1. Is a Growling Dog Angry?

This is discussion of emotions in animals and review of relevant experiments. The overall inference is that animals could not develop human concepts, but humans project their own notion of emotions on animal behavior. In reality animals just produce behavior to control bodily budget and necessary for survival based on 4 F: Fighting, Fleeing, Feeding, and Fucking.

  1. From Brain to Mind: The New Frontier

The final chapter is a bit philosophical, discussing brain – mind connection. The new brain imagining technology opened a window in its internal working and it pretty much made obsolete traditional ideas about dichotomy between animal body and spiritual mind. The experimental approach demonstrated unitary character of body-mind functionality with brain being an analog dynamically changing universe of neural networks that constantly develops concepts, construct emotions, and overall manage body’s actions necessary to survive and reproduce. There are no essences emotional or otherwise that are hardwired in the brain, rather the brain constantly construct emotions and behavior necessary to maintain body budget and produce actions necessary to survive based on predictions build on the bases of concepts and experiences many of which for humans come from social reality rather than from purely objective environment.


For me this book is a very welcome set of theoretical and experimental research generally supporting my believe that human brain is biological self-programming analog computer based on constantly forming and reforming neural networks containing billions of neurons, that constantly change their electro/chemical parameters and connections based on frequency and power of their activation/deactivation. On this terms we are dynamic creatures who constantly construct and reconstruct our memories, believes, emotions, and just about everything else, while maintaining some continuity, which is pretty far away from being absolute. The important inference from this is that we to a very large extent responsible for our condition and actions even if a lot of it happen at the unconscious level where prediction of future is constructed depending on universe of possible actions. However the choice of the specific actions from this universe is always ours.


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