Radical Theory Overturns Old Model of How Emotions are Made
In her new book, professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett proposes a radical new theory of emotions.
The classic model of emotion goes something like: You're born with an innate suite of emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, fear. You feel these emotions by perceiving a stimulus. That triggers a circuit in your brain. That then causes a bodily response, which causes you to behave a certain way.
Emotions happen to you, essentially.
That’s all wrong, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, an author and psychology professor at Northeastern University. In her latest book, "How Emotions Are Made," Barrett synthesizes research from neuroscience, biology and anthropology to construct a radical new theory of emotion.
According to Barrett, emotions aren’t reactions to the world. Rather, emotions actually construct our world. And it happens because of interoception.
Interoception is our sense of the physiological condition of our bodies. This sense monitors our internal processes and sends status updates to the brain. Those updates come in four rudimentary signals: pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal and calmness. Emotions, Barrett claims, are formed from the brain's attempt to make sense out of this raw data. The brain does this by taking the raw data and filtering it through our past experiences – through our learned concepts.
(From a study that asked participants to interpret emotions by viewing facial expressions.)
This means emotions aren't objective reflections about events in the world. Barrett elaborated in a recent episode of NPR's Invisibilia podcast:
“For every emotion category that we have in the U.S. that we think is biologically basic and universal, there's at least one culture in the world that doesn't really possess a concept for that emotion and where people don't really feel that emotion.”
The same concept applies to vision, Barrett suggests, noting cases in which blind people who've had corneal damage since birth remained blind for some time after receiving transplants.
“They don't see for days and sometimes weeks. And sometimes years there are things they can't see because they don't have concepts. Their brain has no past visual experience to make meaning of the visual sensations that they receive.
...We would imagine from the classical view that they would just be able to see everything, but they don't.”
The key implication of Barrett's theory is both striking and somewhat liberating: We have a lot more control and responsibility over our emotions than previously thought. The concepts we've accrued, whether consciously or not, can be learned and unlearned. According to the theory, you have the power to fundamentally change your experience of emotion.
Barrett's theory has a catch, though. If Barrett is correct, then what should society tell those suffering from, say, PTSD? To sit down and learn some new concepts? Barrett said:
“I see the risk in what I'm saying – right? – but science is science. And we have to - I feel like it's necessary to draw people's attention to what the science has to say. And in the proper context in society, in culture, people can debate the consequences. But I think, you know, I do think that it's very dangerous to treat things as objective when they're not.”
You can hear Barrett discuss her theory on NPR's Invisibilia podcast below:
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
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Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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