Lisa Barrett: Facing Down Ekman’s Universal Emotions

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The Scream (After Edvard Munch) by David NeelBoston Magazine has a fantastic profile of the work by psychologist Lisa Barrett that takes on Paul Ekman’s theories of universal emotion types, with corresponding facial expressions. The article is About Face: New Theory – Emotions and Facial Expressions Not Directly Related.

First excerpt:

“Honestly, this is going to sound terrible,” Lisa Barrett told me when I asked her about Ekman and his original study. “But at first, when I read that work, I thought, Well, nobody can take this seriously. This can’t possibly be right. It’s too cartoonish.”

Barrett is a professor of psychology at Northeastern, and for years she’s been troubled by Ekman’s ideas. People don’t display and recognize emotions in universal ways, she believes, and emotions themselves don’t have their own places in the brain or their own patterns in the body. Instead, her research has led her to conclude that each of us constructs them in our own individual ways, from a diversity of sources: our internal sensations, our reactions to the environments we live in, our ever-evolving bodies of experience and learning, our cultures.

This may seem like nothing more than a semantic distinction. But it’s not. It’s a paradigm shift that has put Barrett on the front lines of one of the fiercest debates in the study of emotion today, because if Barrett is correct, we’ll need to rethink how we interpret mental illness, how we understand the mind and self, and even what psychology as a whole should become in the 21st century.

Second excerpt:

One afternoon last fall, I met Barrett at George Howell Coffee, in Newton, only a block or two from her home. While explaining exactly how the brain creates emotion—or, at least, how she believes it does—she opened a computer to show me what looked like a grainy black-and-white mishmash on the screen. “When most people look at this,” she said, “they don’t know what it is. It’s an example of experimentally induced experiential blindness. Your brain is taking in visual sensations from an object, but it can’t make sense of what it is.” The brain tries to fill in the blanks, she explained. “Some people see a lobster, some people see a bunny.”

What we were actually looking at, Barrett told me, was a bee. I couldn’t see it. But then she started clicking back and forth between that picture and a new one, which was very clearly a close-up of a bee’s body. Suddenly the grainy nonsense in the first picture snapped into bumblebee stripes. Now that I knew what I was looking at, I could see it, and for an instant everything I knew about bees flooded into my mind: their hum, their wings, their bumbling flight on a hot summer’s day, the taste of their honey. “Now,” Barrett said, “can you not see the bee? Every time you see this, you will always see the bee. Because right now your mind is adding information from your past experience to create the image of the bee.”

That, Barrett told me, is what the mind does with emotions. Just as that first picture of the bee actually wasn’t a picture of a bee for me until I taught myself that it was, my emotions aren’t actually emotions until I’ve taught myself to think of them that way. Without that, I have only a meaningless mishmash of information about what I’m feeling. In other words, as Barrett put it to me, emotion isn’t a simple reflex or a bodily state that’s hard-wired into our DNA, and it’s certainly not universally expressed. It’s a contingent act of perception that makes sense of the information coming in from the world around you, how your body is feeling in the moment, and everything you’ve ever been taught to understand as emotion. Culture to culture, person to person even, it’s never quite the same. What’s felt as sadness in one person might as easily be felt as weariness in another, or frustration in someone else.

So there’s no such thing as a basic emotion? It sounds crazy. But this is where all sorts of brain science is headed. Researchers once assumed that the brain stored specific memories, but now they’ve realized that there is no such stash to be found. Memories, the new science suggests, are actually reconstructed anew every time we access them, and appear to us a little differently each time, depending on what’s happened since. Vision works in a similar way. The brain, it turns out, doesn’t consciously process every single piece of information that comes its way. Think of how impossibly distracting the regular act of blinking would be if it did. Instead, it pays attention to what you need to pay attention to, then raids your memory stores to fill in the blanks.

Third excerpt – about her very cool new research with anthropological populations:

Barrett recently decided to take on Ekman’s ideas directly, by sending a small research team to visit the isolated Himba tribe in Namibia, in southern Africa. The plan was this: The team, led by Maria Gendron, would do a study similar to Ekman’s original cross-cultural one, but without providing any of the special words or context-heavy stories that Ekman had used to guide his subjects’ answers. Barrett’s researchers would simply hand a jumbled pile of different expressions (happy, sad, fearful, angry, disgusted, and neutral) to their subjects, and would ask them to sort them into six piles. If emotional expressions are indeed universal, they reasoned, then the Himba would put all low-browed, tight-lipped expressions into an anger pile, all wrinkled-nose faces into a disgust pile, and so on.

It didn’t happen that way. The Himba sorted some of the faces in ways that aligned with Ekman’s theory: smiling faces went into one pile, wide-eyed fearful faces went into another, and affectless faces went mostly into a third. But in the other three piles, the Himba mixed up angry scowls, disgusted grimaces, and sad frowns. Without any suggestive context, of the kind that Ekman had originally provided, they simply didn’t recognize the differences that leap out so naturally to Westerners.

For those who want to see more of her research, here are two of her foundational articles that are mentioned in the piece:

Lisa Barrett (2006), Are Emotions Natural Kinds? Perspectives in Psychological Science. (pdf here)

Lisa Barrett (2006), Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review. (pdf here)

Barrett and colleagues also published a big Behavioral and Brain Sciences article in 2012:

Kristen A. Lindquist, Tor D. Wager, Hedy Kober, Eliza Bliss-Moreau and Lisa Feldman Barrett (2012), The brain basis of emotion: A meta-analytic review.

We review both locationist and psychological constructionist hypotheses of brain–emotion correspondence and report meta-analytic findings bearing on these hypotheses. Overall, we found little evidence that discrete emotion categories can be consistently and specifically localized to distinct brain regions. Instead, we found evidence that is consistent with a psychological constructionist approach to the mind: A set of interacting brain regions commonly involved in basic psychological operations of both an emotional and non-emotional nature are active during emotion experience and perception across a range of discrete emotion categories.

And for the other side, here is a recent Ekman review:

Paul Ekman and Daniel Cordaro (2010), What Is Meant by Calling Emotions Basic. Emotion Review.

Emotions are discrete, automatic responses to universally shared, culture-specific and individual-specific events. The emotion terms, such as anger, fear, etcetera, denote a family of related states sharing at least 12 characteristics, which distinguish one emotion family from another, as well as from other affective states. These affective responses are preprogrammed and involuntary, but are also shaped by life experiences.

Photo Credit: This painting The Scream (After Edvard Munch) is by David Neel, and references the Munch reference in the article. The painting is for sale on Neel’s site. I quite like the description of the work:

Northwest Native masks are known for being very expressive, and when I saw an old Kwakiutl potlatch mask in the UBC Museum of Anthropology, the similarity between it and “The Scream” struck me immediately. I am, of course, referring to Edvard Munch’s iconic and famous painting. Artists have always been influenced by the work of other artists, and I have often wondered if it is possible that Edvard Munch may have seen photographs of Kwakiutl masks? Whether this is true we will never know, but the mask and the painting definitely led me to create this work.

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