How Emotions Are Made

Is an emotional superconscious in our future? A networking of our brains through artificial intelligence? If so, what does it mean for our us, as individuals and as a society and culture?

To help guide me on this quest, I read How Emotions Are Made by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. The clear arguments and robust framework laid out in the book really helped me to understand a little more about the brain and emotions.

Constructed Emotions

Dr. Barrett lays out a debate within the scientific community about emotions. The “classical” views argues that specific regions of the brain contain the fingerprints of emotions, essentially arguing humans have specific emotions, like happiness and anger, that are hardwired into the circuitry of the brain.  Instead, Dr. Barrett argues emotions are constructed:

In other words, emotions are not distinct from cognitions and perceptions. Genes that wire your brain are turned on and off in different contexts, resulting in synapses coming into existence based on your interaction with the societal culture and environment. You are a product of your experiences with the world, and you can change how you perceive the world through mindful practice, thus altering your experience with the world.

Within this framework, emotion concepts are goal-based concepts. To state this differently, the goal of your brain is to categorize sensory inputs into similar and dissimilar concepts. This explains why we have a wide range of responses for happiness, all within the same goal, such as acceptance, pleasure or achievement. The sense of happiness in the moment is centered on the goal, binding together the diverse instances from past experiences.

Historic Debate

Societal assumptions about emotions, underlying our justice, political and even economic systems, rest largely on the classical view of emotions. Plato argued the human mind was divided into essences: rational, passions and appetites. Traditional Buddhism enumerated more than fifty mental essences, or dharmas. Christianity argues you are formed in God’s image, a species superior to all other. Charles Darwin wrestled essentialism away from religion and placed it in the power of genes to largely pre-determine emotions. Sigmund Freud took Plato’s essences and called them the id, ego and superego. Clearly there are many intellectual heavy weights throughout human history espousing emotions are part of our wiring.

Yet, throughout history there has been a counter-argument in favor of constructionism. Before even Plato, Heraclitus argued the mind constructed perceptions from countless drops of water to form a river. A branch of Buddhism later broke off and recast dharmas as human constructions. Christianity has many divisions with a few arguing God is everywhere, including within humans constructing our perceptions of the world. Although widely misinterpreted, William James stated each instance of emotion comes from a unique bodily state.

Predictions Construct Emotions

Concepts and predictions are one and the same. The brain is built to use experiences from the past to make predictions about the future in order to work as efficiently as possible. By constantly predicting sensory inputs, the brain is capable of the “remembered present,” as described by neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman. If sensory inputs deviate from the predictions, then brain adjusts accordingly, but at a cost of energy usage. This explains why athletic skills are improved with practice, the brain becomes better at predicting the motion of a curve ball in baseball, the muscle synchronization required to more precisely hit a golf ball, and swimming strokes improve over years of practice.

Physically in your brain, concept development begins within the smaller neurons with fewer connections, where simple concepts like lines are stored. As the concept becomes more elaborate, lines combined to form angles, which may move up to become part of an eye and upwards to multisensory summaries, the size of the neurons and the number of connections increases. When predictions are constructed the process flows from multisensory summaries back down to simple concepts, which are checked against actual sensory input at each stage.

Lastly, our brain does not construct one instance of something like happiness. It constructs a large population of predictions for happiness, all of which cascade from multisensory down to simple neurons. This explains why there is not one feeling of happiness, but many variations. Meeting an old friend brings a different type of happiness relative to watching your child run across a field giggling. The brain has a high level of emotional granularity to create a precise concept for that moment, which offers an evolutionary advantage when sorting through complex stimuli from the environment.

“In every waking moment, your brain uses past experiences, 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.” – Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett

Emotional Superconscious Framework

Constructionism offers an excellent framework for thinking about the Superconscious in Evolved. The Superconscious is effectively an extension of the physical processes of our brain. It represents an intimate integration of our brains. How Dr. Barret describes the physical functioning of the brain implies our brains can extend outside our bodies once we understand how to physically plug-in and mimic processes artificially.

Our cultures are built on sharing concepts, initially through gestures and evolving up through spoken words, written words, email, internet, and now moving towards integration of sensors in our brains. What each step in this evolution has enabled is a richer and more immediate communication of thoughts and emotions.

Do not discount how the increasing intimacy between our thoughts has impacted culture and our brains. Dr. Barret demonstrates how social reality literally forms our brains. Scholars have even traced how the Jewish-Christian perception of God has changed from ‘around us’ when Genesis was written, to ‘up there’ later in the Biblical period, to now increasingly ‘everywhere.’ Our culture and society are defined by the intimacy between our minds.

So, assuming technology continues to advance and we can increasingly share our thoughts and emotions directly with one another, what does this change? Well, almost everything, I imagine. For example, integrating our brain functions across a network, a Superconscious, would force us to re-evaluate:

  • Neurology: Does AI become another layer on top of our brains to make predictions for multi-brain networks?
  • Government: Are governments defined by the culture they create, instead of geographies?
  • Justice: Are we punishing ourselves when we punish a person intimately connected to a collective mind?
  • Economic Systems: Does monetary currency, a social reality we create, even exist?
  • Religious Systems: How do religions re-define the concept of the soul and even God?
  • Definition of Self: Where do YOU end in a environment of shared mental concepts?
  • Reality Itself: Does our brain, with increased access to data about its environment, create new realities for us?

These are some of the questions raised as I wrote about the Superconscious, and how to create the world in Evolved around it. These questions will become more and more imperative for us to answer. I expect humanity, including society, culture and even our physical brains, to enter a period of radical reformation. The future both excites me and scares me out of my mind!