Friday, June 23, 2017

The Rational Content of Emotions

This morning I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts Invisibilia.  I was doing the dishes.  Put this one on.  It is brilliant.  The topic was emotions, one of two on that.  I haven’t listened to the second one yet. 
The podcast interviewed Lisa Feldman Barrett, a research psychologist who specializes in the study of emotions.  She has a book.  How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.  I walked up to the Northern library to check it out and… it is missing.  So I sought out several of her papers and read them this afternoon.  It was very interesting. 
I have long accepted a view that, according to Barrett, is misguided.  That view is what she calls the Natural Kinds View.  Human beings are born with a more or less fixed pallet of emotions (my term): anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and happiness, etc.  When something happens‑I am offended, threatened, disappointed, etc.‑the emotion is triggered more or less automatically.  The emotions are hardwired into the brain and produce all of our emotional experience in the way that a set of colored pixels in the screen produce all the colors of a cooking show. 
Barret says that decades of psychological research have failed to establish or clinically define any of these well-known emotions.  You will have to read her book to see why.  She argues (if I understand the paper) that there are only two fixed biological foundations for emotions: valence (I like or I like not) and arousal (I act or I act not). 
What makes for all the emotions that we think we experience and have names for?  She argues that, in any emotionally relevant context, we interpret the visceral experience according to our concepts.  If I don’t like what is happening, my brain has to supply a context that will tell me what to do or not do about it.  If my brain interprets the displeasure I feel as an offense (he took my fish!) then I interpret it as anger and that is what I feel.  If I interpret my arousal as “I am out of here!” then I run.  The character of the various emotions is largely supplied by the contest and my concepts. 
An analogy occurs to me, and it is mine not hers’s.  Our tongues have only a small number of sensations: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and I forget the other one.  Yet we experience a wide range of tastes: wine, beer, cheese, pan sauce poured over lamb shank, beer…  Our sense of smell provides all the wide range.  Likewise, our biological pallet is just valence and arousal.  Categorization provides all the nuance. 

As a biopolitical scientist, I like the idea of biologically fixed emotions.  As a student of Aristotle and Plato, I like the idea of a rational component to the emotions.  I am pretty sure that when I am angry I am angry about something, and that implies categorization and concepts.  This is worth keeping an eye on.  

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