A lot of my career has been spent forging a new path,” said Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. “When you try to be a leader in some­thing, you’re not always liked and your work isn’t always appre­ci­ated until later.”

But Bar­rett doesn’t have to worry about whether her work will be accepted by her peers. That’s because she was recently elected to the Royal Society of Canada, the highest honor bestowed upon Cana­dian scholars in the arts, sci­ences and humanities.

It’s very nice when your work is rec­og­nized like this,” said Bar­rett, who will be for­mally elected into the Royal Society of Canada in November. “It’s also spe­cial to be rec­og­nized by my home country.

Bar­rett recently recounted her journey to the top of the aca­d­emic mountain.

As a clin­ical psy­chology doc­toral can­di­date at the Uni­ver­sity of Waterloo, for example, Bar­rett found that she could not repli­cate many of the find­ings on anx­iety and depres­sion that she read in the literature.

When­ever people reported they felt depressed, they also reported they felt anx­ious, and vice versa,” she explained. “But anx­iety and depres­sion are sup­posed to be very dif­ferent dis­or­ders from a clin­ical perspective.”

Knowing this, she decided to tease out the problem, exploring the pos­si­bility that people just don’t know the dif­fer­ence between anx­iety and depres­sion. It turned out, she said, that  “There is tremen­dous vari­ability in peo­ples’ ability to expe­ri­ence dis­tinct emo­tional states.”

Bar­rett spent 10 years doc­u­menting the fact that some people expe­ri­ence sad­ness, fear and anger as very dis­tinct feel­ings, whereas others expe­ri­enced them as gen­er­ally unpleasant feel­ings with very little speci­ficity. When she attempted to find bio­log­ical mea­sures to objec­tively assess emo­tion, she dis­cov­ered a problem: The body cannot reli­ably dis­tin­guish one emo­tion from another.

I fig­ured if there was going to be speci­ficity any­where in a bio­log­ical signal, it would be in the brain,” Bar­rett said. “That was what moti­vated me to learn cog­ni­tive neuroscience.”

She spent the next decade teaching her­self neu­roanatomy and neu­ro­science, con­ducting brain-​​imaging exper­i­ments in an attempt to find the bio­log­ical basis of each kind of emotion.

Over time, she demon­strated with more and more cer­tainty that “emo­tions like sad­ness, fear and anger are not dis­tinct mental fac­ul­ties with clear bio­log­ical sig­na­tures, local­ized to spe­cific regions in the brain.”

She added, “You cannot look at acti­va­tion in a single brain region, like the amyg­dala, and know whether a person is feeling afraid or angry. Like­wise, you cannot look at her face or test her blood pres­sure for a defin­i­tive answer. There is a bio­log­ical basis to emo­tion, but it is much more com­pli­cated than this.”

Barrett’s find­ings directly con­flict with one cen­tury of research, but elec­tion to the Royal Society of Canada demon­strates that the field has already rec­og­nized the sig­nif­i­cance and validity of her contributions.

Keith Oatley, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto, where Bar­rett studied as an under­grad­uate, nom­i­nated her for the award.  Bar­rett was inspired by Oatley’s work when she was com­pleting her PhD at the Uni­ver­sity of Waterloo

One of the best parts about a life in sci­ence is that the people who’ve shaped your own thinking and research are often the ones that become your friends and col­leagues,” Bar­rett said. She acknowl­edged  “a great intel­lec­tual debt” to both Oatley and her stu­dents, noting that “You never engage in sci­en­tific activity by yourself.”

When you accept an award, you’re really accepting it on behalf of all the people who worked with you — the people who trained you, yes, but also all your stu­dents, your post­doc­toral fel­lows and all your col­lab­o­ra­tors,” she added. “You’re really accepting it for a com­mu­nity of people.”