The controversial theory claims that we create our own feelings. Does a distressing situation trigger fear or is it just an interpretation of the physical reactions of the body produced by life experience?
Although there are big differences between people, we all feel anger, love, shame and disappointment in the same way.
Or do we know? Scientists do not completely agree on that.
Most emotion researchers believe that our emotions are the result of evolution because emotions have promoted survival and reproduction.
Thus, people around the world should experience emotions in the same way and in much the same way as our predecessors in evolution.
A loud minority of researchers has come to a different conclusion. Indeed, our feelings are individual interpretations of our body’s reactions, and by no means the same for everyone.
Perhaps the loudest of these scholars is Canadian-American Lisa Feldman Barrett. In his book How emotions are made (how emotions are made) he calls the view of mainstream scholars the classical theory of emotions.
Barrett’s own theory, on the other hand, speaks of the construction of emotions. He uses the concept of emotional construction.
According to Barrett, the emotions experienced by people are not the same for everyone, but the emotions are sets of individual sensations in the body. The body responds to stimuli. Everyone interprets, based on their previous experiences, how the body’s reaction feels.
Barrett uses anger as an example: according to him, anger varies much more in experience than the classical theory of emotions can explain.
When a person is angry, blood pressure may rise, fall, or stay the same. The palms may sweat or dry out, the eyebrows may rise or fall, the person may scream or be icy.
There is quite a bit of variation in the expressions of anger, but everyone is described as related to the concept of anger. Admittedly, people also describe the feeling of anger in very different ways. Others are angry or irritable, or vindictive and furious.
It is often said that something triggers anger, but according to Barrett, we create anger ourselves.
According to the theory of built emotion, there is no single, universal feeling of anger or other feelings. All that is common is the concept of emotion that people tell each other.
So each of us interprets the reactions of our body, the events around us, cultural assumptions, and our own past experiences and only then comes to the conclusion that we are angry.
Sounds like confusion? Let’s try to think differently.
The world, cultural concepts and sensory perceptions are like gingerbread dough. Our past experiences are gingerbread molds that define our boundaries.
In the so-called classical theory, all emotions have a clear common mold of common anger, but according to Barrett, we all have our own. He came to this idea after years of searching for so-called fingerprints of emotions in the brain and bodies.
Barrett wanted to find the exact points where each emotion arises or a combination of precise areas. They would be so-called emotional fingerprints.
The fact that people’s typical emotional expressions are at least seemingly quite similar around the world speaks in favor of universal emotions. People from different cultures also interpret emotions from photographs in the same ways.
But the thing changes when an observer with assumptions is removed from interpreting expressions and emotions are attempted to be measured with an insensitive device.
By attaching electrodes to the face, one can try to interpret the feelings of the obvious, i.e. the movements of the facial muscles. However, it has not been possible to infer emotions reliably despite several studies.
At best, it has been possible to distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant feelings. A clear fingerprint of individual emotions has not been found in the facial muscles, Barrett said.
Long it was also thought that emotions are found in certain parts of the brain. Among other things, it was thought that fear is somewhat located in the almond nucleus. It can be called the emotional center of the brain.
The brain is often examined with the help of people whose brains are damaged or abnormal in some way.
Take, for example, a person whose brain is damaged at a certain point. If he or she is unable to feel a particular emotion, it would indicate that that emotion usually arises in the newly damaged part of the brain.
Attachment of fear to the almond nucleus was initially observed in subjects with Urbach-Wiethe’s disease. The disease destroys the almond nucleus by adolescence.
The subject, known as SM, did not react to things considered scary by others, such as horror movies, snakes, or ghost houses, nor did he recognize the fear on people’s faces. He also failed to teach a sense of fear.
It has a fingerprint of fear, it was thought. The almond kernel thus creates a universal experience of fear.
But then the emergence of a sense of fear was further explored. It turned out that SM could interpret other people’s fear of their postures and voices.
Researchers even made SM experience fear, putting him to breathe in carbon dioxide-rich air. A small amount of oxygen made him in a panic-like state.
When other similar subjects were examined and similar reactions were observed, the link between fear and the tonsil nucleus disappeared.
Barrettin theories are supported by the fact that no clear areas have been found in the brain where emotions arise.
Barrett compared the newspaper to the Guardian in an interview brain imprisoned inside the skull. Things outside the skull can be interpreted using sensory observations, but it is a guess based on past experience.
Similarly, the brain mainly subconsciously interprets hormonal activity, heart rate, respiration, and other bodily functions, for example. These form pleasant and unpleasant feelings, from which, according to Barrett, we build our own feelings based on the cultural burden and past experiences.
Most scholars disagree with Barrett’s theory of emotion building, such as the professor of medical imaging Lauri Nummenmaa, which explores emotions and mental disorders with groups.
He and his groups have used surveys to study how body sensations are transmitted to the brain and create a certain feeling.
Nummenmaa believes that there is a map of emotions in the body that is roughly similar around the world.
“Yes, for example, all mammals feel pain and even experience fear in the same way as well as other defensive reactions, such as disgust at the idea of eating feces,” Nummenmaa explains.
In other relatively universal feelings, he raises the pleasure caused by, for example, sexual intercourse or eating.
“Sure, there are people who don’t enjoy these, but in the same way there are people, for example, who can’t see, but seeing is still a universal experience.”
Feelings are, according to Nummenmaa, action programs modified by evolution, in the same way that vision has emerged to serve information acquisition.
“The emotional system is part of a cavalcade developed by evolution, for example, to defend against threats or to motivate us to multiply when we feel like wanting to be close to love and having sex,” says Nummenmaa.
Nummenmaa does not dispute that emotions do not adapt to the situation and experience. They can be linked to diet, for example. In some cultures, hot dishes are preferred and in others sweet, but the food is still enjoyed in the same way.
“However, the pleasure caused by food does not change so much,” Nummenmaa says.
The same goes for sexual desire. The objects of people’s desire are very different. Yet the reaction in people’s brains is quite similar when they see the object of their desire.
Nummenmaa divides emotions in two ways: what happens physiologically in the body and how people interpret feelings.
“After all, both conscious experience of emotions and sensory perceptions that guide the emergence of emotions develop in the brain,” Nummenmaa says.
Nummenmaa speaks of simple and universal experiences, such as pleasure, as does Barrett. In fact, the researchers ’explanations of bodily functions and the interpretation of emotions sound very similar. Theories are therefore not completely different.
Barrettin in theory, however, emotions are only points on the continuum of acceleration and pleasure. These broad feelings, called affections, are the basic elements of human experience, not so much emotions.
Intense acceleration and pleasantness can be interpreted as joy by Barrett, while slight acceleration and intense pleasure can be interpreted as satisfaction. However, the concept that describes knowledge varies according to culture and personal history.
Which of the theories is ultimately correct? The more you get to know both views or several different views, the more they sound very similar to the layman in the end. Maybe in the end it’s just what it feels like right now.