April 27, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 16

Prof. Lisa Feldman Barrett (Psychology): "Thereís a lot of evidence against the idea that emotions are hard-wired into our brains. Despite this, when I tell people that there's no circuit for anger in the brain, they look at me like Iím nuts and tell me: 'Of course there is.'"

Psychologist's Work on Emotions Causing Stir

Barrett's theory draws praise, as well as strong (and loud) objections

By Greg Frost
Staff Writer

Prof. Lisa Feldman Barrett (Psychology) has made some of her peers angry and here's why: She is challenging their deeply held views about where anger comes from.

In a series of papers published this year, Barrett has laid out a controversial new theory that is creating a buzz in the psychology community and could well trigger a shift in the science of emotion.

According to her theory, emotions are not hard-wired into the human brain as many scientists believe but rather are constructed from each person's individual experiences.

Aspects of this argument have been put forward at various times over the past 100 years - most recently by her departmental colleague and chairman Prof. James Russell - but Barrett has built on these views to lay out what may be the first master theory that connects previous arguments with what she sees as serious flaws in the empirical evidence about emotion.

Already, colleagues in the field are taking note. Some say the new theory may radically transform the science of emotion.

One peer reviewer who read her manuscript wrote that Barrett "makes a strong case for a paradigm change in emotion research" and that her argument is "provocative and new." Another reviewer wrote that her paper was "very important and controversial...with the capability of becoming a classic." A third said: "This is a bold and exciting contribution, which is likely to stir up a hornet's nest of reaction."

It already has. Barrett says that when she has presented her theory to other psychologists, it has been met with praise by some but scorn by others.

"I've had people yell at me from the audience. I've had people ridicule me. I've had people point their fingers at me over lunch and get really animated," she recalls.

"There's a lot of evidence against the idea that emotions are hard-wired into our brains. Despite this, when I tell people that there's no circuit for anger in the brain, they look at me like I'm nuts and tell me: 'Of course there is.'"

Barrett thinks others become so agitated over her ideas because she is violating a deeply held belief about the way people experience emotions like anger, sadness, happiness and fear.

"One of the reasons we have trouble talking about an alternative is that it doesn't match our everyday view, so we can't imagine perceiving it in a different way," she says. "People believe what they see."

And what they think they see is that people express certain emotions because there are specific circuits in the brain for each that switch on and off depending on a variety of circumstances. So for example, if a car hits a pothole and splashes water all over a well-dressed pedestrian headed to a job interview, the common assumption is that this experience would instantly trigger an anger circuit inside the pedestrian's brain, prompting a bodily reaction such as frowning, shouting or cursing.

One problem with this assumption, Barrett says, is that decades of research have failed to find evidence that specific behaviors or bodily patterns are associated with experiences of anger. Moreover, recent research using brain imaging techniques have thus far not identified emotion circuits in the brain. That's not all, she says: There are other anomalies that weaken the so-called "natural kind" theory of emotion.

So where do emotions come from? Barrett thinks that what is hard-wired into the brain is not emotion but something more primitive that she calls "affect," which is simply how pleasant or unpleasant a person feels. Emotions, she says, are not present from birth but are instantly assembled from affect at the moment each person experiences them.

Barrett says a good analogy may be seen in the way people experience colors. People see colors like red, blue and orange as separate and distinct. But in reality, color comes from a continuous spectrum of light, measured in frequencies ranging from ultraviolet to infrared.

"When you perceive a color, you don't experience a frequency, you experience light that has been categorized with a familiar name like 'blue,'" she says.

Similarly, Barrett believes that people experience a continuous stream of affect on a "spectrum" that ranges from pleasant to unpleasant.

If emotions are not hard-wired into the brain, there could be ramifications for the estimated millions of Americans who receive psychotherapy each year.

Barrett said her theory does not necessarily threaten cognitive psychotherapy, which is widely used to treat disorders like depression and anxiety. Rather, she said, her view "suggests that cognitive therapy is only one kind of learning that can take place in therapy that would change a person's reaction, and that this more basic affective level requires a different kind of relearning."

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