Emotions are real

I just read an article that got me so jazzed, I don’t quite know where to begin.

The article, a kind of sci­en­tific man­i­festo by psy­chology pro­fessor Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, is called Emo­tions are real and sets up a nearly rock solid argu­ment for that statement.

Appar­ently the “real­ness” of emo­tions has been under debate for over a cen­tury. That is, sci­en­tists have argued over whether or not emo­tions can be asso­ci­ated with a dis­tinct set of phys­i­o­log­ical fac­tors such as blood pres­sure or facial expres­sions. Some say, yes it’s pos­sible it’s just that we need “better exper­i­ments and better mea­sures, or per­haps more pre­cise def­i­n­i­tions,” writes Bar­rett. Others say no, emo­tions are simply illu­sions, because only “affec­tive prop­er­ties” (plea­sure, dis­plea­sure, arousal) can be objec­tively measured.

But Bar­rett sets up her argu­ment for why they are real with the fol­lowing game changing statement:

From my per­spec­tive, a per­sis­tent dis­con­fir­ma­tion dilemma — the inability to unequiv­o­cally answer a ques­tion with the sci­en­tific method — might be a big hint that sci­en­tists are asking the wrong ques­tion to begin with. [I LOVE THIS!!!] What would happen if we replaced the ques­tion “are emo­tions real?” with “how do emo­tions become real?” Would this dis­solve the dis­con­fir­ma­tion dilemma before our eyes, leaving a clearer path forward?

And then, of course, things start to get really exciting.

She goes on to first define what it means to be real: To a chemist or a physi­cist, she said, real might mean that an object can be proven to con­tain mol­e­cules or quarks (even though we can’t see them with our own eyes). Sup­pose that object were a plant, she goes on. A plant is obvi­ously real because it con­sists of chem­i­cally and phys­i­cally robust matter. Whether or not humans are around to per­ceive them, plants are real.

But what about weeds and flowers? Are weeds and flowers real? Yes…but only when humans are around to cat­e­go­rize them as one or the other. “Under­standing how the human brain cre­ates a flower or a weed from a mere plant is really the ques­tion of how flowers and weeds come into exis­tence (because without the per­ceiver, there is only a plant),” she explains.

So, what does this mean about emo­tion? Sen­sory inputs from the out­side world (light, sound, etc) com­bined with sen­sa­tions from the body count as an expe­ri­ence or per­cep­tion of emo­tion only when “cat­e­go­rized as such during a sit­u­ated con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion.” That sounds kind of jar­gony, but all she means is that emo­tions are real when we’re around to cat­e­go­rize them.

But that’s not to say they are illu­sions (which is what the ‘emo­tions aren’t real’ folk like to say). “Emo­tions have been essen­tial­ized as nat­ural when in fact they are con­structed,” writes Barrett.

Since social con­text qual­i­fies emo­tion, the sci­ence of emo­tion (and, says Bar­rett, the sci­ence of psy­chology in gen­eral) “should explic­itly the­o­rize about how to inte­grate phys­ical, mental and social levels of con­struc­tion. This is not eso­teric phi­los­ophy. It is a nec­es­sary tool for doing science.”

This is such an ener­gizing article I def­i­nitely rec­om­mend you read it. If you’re a dog owner, like me, don’t get too worked up about the fact that dogs can’t really feel emo­tion because they can’t cat­e­go­rize it that way, I’m sure that what­ever they are thinking when they lap your face at the end of the day is somehow equiv­a­lent to love in their crazy little brains.