The Marginalian
The Marginalian

How Emotions Are Made

How Emotions Are Made

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his revolutionary 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings — a gauntlet thrown at the classical view that emotions are the brain’s response to the outside world, hard-wired and universal. In the century-some since, we have come to discover that this embodied construction of emotion, known as interoception, is the tectonic activity shaping the psychological landscape of being, which the brain then interprets to navigate the world based on concepts derived from past experience: learned frames of reference that classify and categorize the blooming buzzing confusion of reality into comprehensible morsels of meaning.

This is the model psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett advances in her constructed theory of emotion, detailed in her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (public library) — a bold, empirically grounded challenge to the classical view that events in the outside world trigger emotions inside us, instead showing that our affect is largely the product of prediction and that we feel what our brain believes. Emerging from this revolutionary view of what it means to be human is the assuring intimation that by consciously reexamining the predictions and beliefs entrained by our past experience and culture, we can take charge of our own emotional experience — we can re-render the reality we live in, which is always lensed through our interpretation of meaning.

René Magritte. The False Mirror. 1929. (Museum of Modern Art.)

Barrett — who worked as a clinical psychologist before she came to lead a team of a hundred scientists at Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory — writes:

An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations 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.

A generation after philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed in her visionary work on the intelligence of emotions that “emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature [but] parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself,” Barrett adds:

Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. You wouldn’t know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to behave to deal with them. With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf

Unlike the core assumption of the classical view, which treats the basic emotions as inborn and universal, displayed and recognized by healthy people across different cultures in the same way, the theory of constructed emotion holds that any universality of emotion is due not to shared wiring but to shared concepts. With an eye to the various wonderfully untranslatable words denoting concepts of common experiences in a particular culture for which other cultures have no direct equivalent, she writes:

What’s universal is the ability to form concepts that make our physical sensations meaningful, from the Western concept “Sadness” to the Dutch concept Gezellig (a specific experience of comfort with friends), which has no exact English translation.


Emotions do not shine forth from the face nor from the maelstrom of your body’s inner core. They don’t issue from a specific part of the brain. No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built-in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us. We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems. Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.

And yet our experience is shaped by our past, encoded in the very circuitry of the brain — the neural pathways that formed our frames of reference as we responded to life. Barrett writes:

Some of your synapses literally come into existence because other people talked to you or treated you in a certain way. In other words, construction extends all the way down to the cellular level. The macro structure of your brain is largely predetermined, but the microwiring is not. As a consequence, past experience helps determine your future experiences and perceptions.

Tears of grief from The Topography Tears by Rose Lynn Fisher

These templates of prediction are set as much by our personal experience as by our culture:

The human brain is a cultural artifact. We don’t load culture into a virgin brain like software loading into a computer; rather, culture helps to wire the brain. Brains then become carriers of culture, helping to create and perpetuate it.

But while past experience filters the present, it does not predetermine it. The human brain is a prediction machine that evolved to render reality as a composite of sensory input and prior expectation, but by continually and consciously testing our predictions against reality, we get to construct our lived experience — largely the product of how the brain handles its natural prediction errors. Barrett writes:

It can be a responsible scientist and change its predictions to respond to the data. Your brain can also be a biased scientist and selectively choose data that fits the hypotheses, ignoring everything else. Your brain can also be an unscrupulous scientist and ignore the data altogether, maintaining that its predictions are reality. Or, in moments of learning or discovery, your brain can be a curious scientist and focus on input. And like the quintessential scientist, your brain can run armchair experiments to imagine the world: pure simulation without sensory input or prediction error.

What emerges from this new theory of emotion is nothing less than radical new understanding of being human, counter to the long-held dogma of essentialism — the intuitive but misguided idea, dating back to Ancient Greece, that everything has an immutable innate essence, which predetermines its destiny. The classical view that human emotions have a universal fingerprint in the brain and represent universal responses to the world is a form of essentialism Barrett indicts as “a self-perpetuating scourge in science.” Drawing on a wealth of research from her laboratory affirming the theory of constructed emotion, she distills this potent antidote to the old dogma:

Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world.

In the remainder of How Emotions Are Made, Barrett examines how the theory of constructed emotion can help recalibrate everything from mental health care to the criminal justice system, revolutionizing our very understanding of human nature along the way. Complement it with the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray on the interplay of reason and emotion, then revisit Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown’s unusual and lovely dissent against essentialism.


Hermann Hesse on Discovering the Soul Beneath the Self and the Key to Finding Peace

Hermann Hesse on Discovering the Soul Beneath the Self and the Key to Finding Peace

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” E.E. Cummings told students from the hard-earned platform of his middle age, not long after Virginia Woolf contemplated the courage to be yourself.

It is true, of course, that the self is a place of illusion — but it is also the only place where our physical reality and social reality cohere to pull the universe into focus, into meaning. It is the crucible of our qualia. It is the tightrope between the mind and the world, woven of consciousness.

On the nature of the self, then, depends our experience of the world.

The challenge arises from the fact that, upon inspection, there is no single and static self but a multitude of selves constellating at any given moment into a transient totality, only to reconfigure again in the next situation, the next set of expectations, the next undulation of biochemistry. This troubles us, for without the sense of a solid self, it is impossible to maintain a self-image. There is but a single salve for this disorientation — to uncover, often at a staggering cost to the ego, the constant beneath this flickering constellation, a constant some may call soul.

Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) takes up the question of discovering the soul beneath the self in his 1927 novel Steppenwolf (public library).

Hermann Hesse

He writes:

Even the most spiritual and highly cultivated of men* habitually sees the world and himself through the lenses of delusive formulas and artless simplifications — and most of all himself. For it appears to be an inborn and imperative need of all men to regard the self as a unit. However often and however grievously this illusion is shattered, it always mends again… And if ever the suspicion of their manifold being dawns upon men of unusual powers and of unusually delicate perceptions, so that, as all genius must, they break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves, they have only to say so and at once the majority puts them under lock and key.

Accepting the fact of the bundle is not easy, for it requires seeking the deeper unifying principle, the mysterious superstring binding the bundle. (After all, daily you confront the question of what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of physiological and psychological change — a question habitually answered with precisely this illusion of personality.)

With compassion for this universal human vulnerability to delusion, Hesse observes:

Every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities. It appears to be a necessity as imperative as eating and breathing for everyone to be forced to regard this chaos as a unity and to speak of his ego as though it were a one-fold and clearly detached and fixed phenomenon. Even the best of us shares the delusion.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Considering this ego-self a kind of “optical illusion,” Hesse insists that, with enough courage to break the illusion and enough curiosity about these “separate beings” within, one can discern across them the “various facets and aspects of a higher unity” and begin to see this unity clearly. He writes:

[These selves] form a unity and a supreme individuality; and it is in this higher unity alone, not in the several characters, that something of the true nature of the soul is revealed.

A generation before Hesse, Whitman, after boldly declaring that he contains multitudes, recognized across them “a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal.”

We call this consciousness, this higher unity of personhood, soul.

I see my soul reflected in Nature — one of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Knowing that even the soul is two-fold, Hesse offers his prescription for resisting the easy path of illusion and annealing the soul from the self. Half a century before Bertrand Russell insisted that the key to a fulfilling life is to “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Hesse writes:

Embark on the longer and wearier and harder road of life. You will have to multiply many times your two-fold being and complicate your complexities still further. Instead of narrowing your world and simplifying your soul, you will have to absorb more and more of the world and at last take all of it up in your painfully expanded soul, if you are ever to find peace.

It is only by nurturing and expanding the soul that the self, fluid and fractal, can be held with tenderness. And without tenderness for the self, Hesse reminds us a century before the self-help industry commodified the concept, there can be no tenderness for the world and no peace within:

Love of one’s neighbor is not possible without love of oneself… Self-hate is really the same thing as sheer egoism, and in the long run breeds the same cruel isolation and despair.

Couple with Virginia Woolf on how to hear your soul, then revisit Hesse on the courage to be yourself, the wisdom of the inner voice, and how to be more alive.


Endling: A Poem

I turned the corner one afternoon to find my neighborhood grocer gone. No warning, just gone — padlocked and boarded off, closed for good, a long chain of habit suddenly severed.

We know that entropy drags everything toward dissolution, that life is a vector pointed at loss, but how rarely we realize that the lasts are last, how staggering the turning of those corners. The friend you embrace in a casual parting not knowing it is the final farewell. The lover you kiss not knowing you will never touch again. Your mother answering the phone in a voice you’ve known forever, a voice you don’t know you will never again hear.

Even science has tenderness for these unbidden finalities in its term for the last known survivor of a species: endling — an end abrupt yet somehow endearing in its smallness, its particularity, in the way a tragedy so vast and collective can culminate on the minute scale of the individual, the scale on which our lives ultimately unfold.

And so, a poem:

by Maria Popova

Unspooling from a reel
in the sound archive
of the British Library
is the syncopating chirp of
the last Moho braccatus
a small Hawaiian bird
     now extinct.

After centuries of humans
silenced the species
     with civilization,
after a hurricane
killed the last female
     in 1982,
he alone was left
to sing the final song
     of his kind —
a mating call for
a world void of mate.

In ten billion years,
the Sun will burn out.
In a hundred billion,
the galaxies will drift apart
and take away the light,
leaving the night sky
black as the inside
     of a skull.
In time,
all the energy
of the cosmos
will dissipate
until none is left
     to succor life
as the universe goes on expanding
     into eternity.

Somewhere along the way,
there will have been a creature
to think the last thought
and feel the last feeling
and sing the last song
     of life.

And it will have been beautiful,
this brief movement of being
in the silent symphony
     of forever,
and it will have been merciful
that only hindsight
ever knows
     each last.


The Secret Life of Chocolate: Oliver Sacks on the Cultural and Natural History of Cacao

The Secret Life of Chocolate: Oliver Sacks on the Cultural and Natural History of Cacao

Without chocolate, life would be a mistake — not a paraphrasing of Nietzsche he would have easily envisioned, for he was a toddler in Germany when a British chocolatier created the first modern version of what we now think of as chocolate: a paste of sugar, chocolate liquor, and cocoa butter, molded into a bar. As the making of bars entered the factories over the course of the next century, chocolate — further and further removed from the lush life of cacao, stripped of its cultural history and botanical wonder — became a microcosm of our progressive commodification of delight, our aggressive erasure of ancient cultures, our self-expatriation from the living reality of nature.

To retrace the roots of chocolate across space, time, and culture is to reclaim its status as a pinnacle of the creative conversation between nature and human nature, to recapture some of the lost wonder.

That is what Oliver Sacks does in some wonderful passages from his Oaxaca Journal (public library) — the altogether marvelous record of a botanical expedition animated by his love of ferns and his largehearted humanistic belief in “how crucial it is to see other cultures, to see how special, how local they are, how un-universal one’s own is.”

Cacao by Étienne Denisse from his Flore d’Amérique, 1846. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Detailing the wonder of cacao at the crossing point of the sensual and the scientific, Sacks writes:

Cacao trees have large glossy leaves, and their little flowers and great purplish pods grow directly from the stem. One can break open a pod to reveal the seeds, embedded in a white pulp. The seeds themselves, the cacao beans, are cream-colored when the pod is opened, but with exposure to air may turn lavender or purple. The pulp, though, has almost the consistency of ice cream, Robbin says, and a delicious, sweet taste… The sweet, mucilaginous pulp attracts wild animals… They eat the sweet pulp and discard the bitter seeds, which can then grow into new seedlings. Indeed, the tough pods do not open spontaneously, and would never be able to release their seeds, were it not for the animals attracted to their pulp. Early humans must have watched animals and then imitated them… opening the pods and enjoying the sweet pulp.

Nested into the story of chocolate is a miniature of the scientific method itself, with its twin prongs of observation and empiricism:

Over thousands of years, perhaps, early Mesoamericans had learned to value the beans as well, discovering that if they were scooped out of the pod with some pulp still attached, and left this way for a week or so, they would become less bitter as fermentation occurred. Then they could be dried and roasted to bring out the full chocolate flavor…

The roasted beans, now a rich brown, are shelled and moved to a grinder — and here the final miracle happens, for what comes out of the grinder is not a powder, but a warm liquid, for the friction liquefies the cocoa butter, producing a rich chocolate liquor.

And yet this liquor is almost undrinkably bitter. What lodged cacao into Mesoamerican culture and what first made it appealing to Europeans was not its taste but its bioactive properties, channeled through culture before science uncovered the underlying chemistry — Montezuma is said to have consumed forty or fifty cups a day as an aphrodisiac, and we now know that the flavonoids, polyphenols, theobromine, and magnesium in cacao vitalize the body in various ways.

Portrait of Montezuma by Antonio Rodríguez, 1600s.

Tracing the trajectory of the bitter chocolate liquor across time and cultures, Sacks writes:

[The Mayan] choco haa (bitter water) was a thick, cold, bitter liquid, for sugar was unknown to them — fortified with spices, corn meal, and sometimes chili. The Aztec, who called it cacahuatl, considered it to be the most nourishing and fortifying of drinks, one reserved for nobles and kings. They saw it as a food of the gods, and believed that the cacao tree originally grew only in Paradise, but was stolen and brought to mankind by their god Quetzalcoatl, who descended from heaven on a beam of the morning star, carrying a cacao tree.

The tree itself is an evolutionary miracle — like the avocado, it went almost extinct in the wild. But, for more than two millennia, humans cultivated it in present-day Mexico as a source of that divine drink. Sacks writes:

Cacao pods served as symbols of fertility, often portrayed in sculptures and carvings, as well as a convenient currency (four cacao beans would buy a rabbit, ten a prostitute, one hundred a slave). Thus Columbus had brought cacao beans back to Ferdinand and Isabella as a curiosity, but had no idea of its special qualities as a drink.

1671 engraving of Aztec chocolate-making by John Ogilby.

By the middle of the 17th century, chocolate houses populated Europe — the progenitor of the soon ubiquitous coffeehouses and teahouses; without cacao, we would not have neighborhood cafés. Goethe, who traveled widely, always carried his own chocolate pot — an emblem of the spell chocolate would soon cast upon humanity with its dual enchantment of chemistry and culture.

Cross-pollinating physiology, psychology, and philosophy the way only he could, Sacks leaves the story of cacao with a rosary of questions painted at the mystery that haloes all knowledge:

why, I wonder, should chocolate be so intensely and so universally desired? Why did it spread so rapidly over Europe, once the secret was out? Why is chocolate sold now on every street corner, included in army rations, taken to Antarctica and outer space? Why are there chocoholics in every culture? Is it the unique, special texture, the “mouth-feel” of chocolate, which melts at body temperature? Is it because of the mild stimulants, caffeine and theobromine, it contains? The cola nut and the guarana have more. Is it the phenylethylamine, mildly analeptic, euphoriant, supposedly aphrodisiac, which chocolate contains? Cheese and salami contain more of this. Is it because chocolate, with its anandamide, stimulates the brain’s cannabinoid receptors? Or is it perhaps something quite other, something as yet unknown, which could provide vital clues to new aspects of brain chemistry, to say nothing of the esthetics of taste?

Couple with the fascinating evolutionary and creative history of the avocado, then revisit Ellen Meloy on how chemistry and culture created color.


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