People who claim to rec­og­nize a burned imprint of Jesus on a piece of toast are chan­neling what North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology Lisa Feldman Bar­rett calls a self-​​interested per­cep­tion of the world.

We take sen­sory infor­ma­tion and match it up to some­thing we have seen before,” Bar­rett told more than 200 stu­dents, fac­ulty and staff in the Raytheon Amphithe­ater last Thursday for the inau­gural lec­ture in the Col­lege of Sci­ence Col­lo­quium Series. “This is not a failure of sci­ence but rather a nat­ural con­se­quence of how the human brain works.”

Bar­rett based her lec­ture on research con­ducted in the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Affec­tive Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory at North­eastern, which studies how emo­tions func­tion in the mind by using expe­ri­en­tial, behav­ioral, psy­chophys­i­o­log­ical and brain-​​imaging methods. The lab’s working hypoth­esis is that words for emo­tion, such as “fear,” “anger” and “sad­ness,” cor­re­spond to mental states that can be described as the com­bi­na­tion of more basic psy­cho­log­ical processes.

On Dec. 1, Bar­rett, along with asso­ciate pro­fessor David DeSteno and other North­eastern researchers, will lead an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary con­fer­ence that will serve as the first spon­sored event of the newly cre­ated Affec­tive Sci­ence Insti­tute (ASI). ASI will be a nexus for col­lab­o­ra­tion, training and the exchange of ideas between researchers and scholars who study emo­tion and related topics in the New Eng­land area. The meet-​​and-​​greet event will also fea­ture a poster ses­sion and a keynote address from neu­ro­sci­en­tist Joseph LeDoux.

As part of her lec­ture, Bar­rett described how a tech­nique called semantic sati­a­tion could shed light on how lan­guage affects our ability to rec­og­nize emotions.

Say the word “anger” over and over again and you won’t know the meaning of the furious scowl on the face of the person sit­ting next to you on the subway. Repeat the word “smile” over and over, and you won’t be able to tell whether two happy kids with ear-​​to-​​ear grins are con­veying the same emotion.

This prin­ciple is useful for deac­ti­vating the meaning of a word for a split second,” Bar­rett explained. “Per­cep­tual accu­racy can drop sig­nif­i­cantly and influ­ence how you take in infor­ma­tion from someone’s face.”

Bar­rett said the brain is con­stantly pro­cessing sen­sory input from both the body and the world and using expe­ri­ence to make sense of images, phrases, sounds and smells. “At any given moment, the brain is doing these things, whether you are expe­ri­encing an emo­tion, cog­ni­tion or per­cep­tion,” she said.

Half of our waking lives, how­ever, are spent in reverie — lost in day­dream. As Bar­rett put it, “Fifty per­cent of the time we’re not paying too much atten­tion to what’s going on the world.”

View selected pub­li­ca­tions of Lisa Feldman Bar­rett in IRis, Northeastern’s dig­ital archive.