The Chronicle Review

The Secret History of Emotions

Matt Manley for The Chronicle Review

March 05, 2017

On a brisk fall day in 2006, I was sitting on the floor of my former office in the Boston College psychology department, weeding through boxes of old journal articles on the science of emotion. As I perched in the center of a pile, I came across a tattered paper by a psychologist named Elizabeth Duffy, dated 1957, titled "The Psychological Significance of the Concept of Arousal or Activation." I vaguely remembered reading it in graduate school, but the details were foggy. Probably worth rereading, I thought, and spared it from the recycling bin.

I had no idea that this action would lead me to unearth two major errors in psychology and a half-century of lost research.

Before I can tell you that story, you’ll need to understand how the science of emotion came to be. Most scientists who study it would relate a history roughly like this:

Once upon a time, people believed that the human mind was bestowed by gods or God. Emotions, in contrast, were said to live within the body, like an inner beast that needed to be controlled by divine, rational thought. In the 19th century, Charles Darwin replaced God with natural selection, and shortly thereafter, psychology was born. A golden age of emotion research began, as neurologists and physiologists searched for the physical basis of emotions. They discovered that emotions live in ancient parts of the brain that control the body: the mythical "inner beast" made real. These scientists’ triumph was short-lived, however, as the science of emotion soon plunged into a "dark ages." Psychology fell prey to a scourge known as behaviorism, the study of pure behavior, in which intangibles like thoughts and feelings were deemed unmeasurable and therefore irrelevant to science. Nothing worthwhile was published on emotions for half a century.Then the cognitive revolution arrived, in the 1960s, rescuing psychology from the darkness, and the science of emotion experienced a renaissance. Emotions were discovered once and for all to have distinct and universal facial expressions, bodily patterns, and brain circuitry, and we all lived happily ever after.

Pick up any psychology textbook or read Wikipedia, and you’ll see some variation of that story: that emotions are inherited through natural selection and located in specific parts of the brain that trigger distinct reactions — the "fingerprints" of emotion — in the face and body. See a snake slither across your path, for example, and a "fear circuit" is said to cause your heart to race, your eyes to widen, your voice to shriek. If you’ve ever heard that emotions live in a "limbic system" in the brain, that you have a "lizard brain" that triggers your emotions, or that fear lives in a region called the amygdala, those ideas are rooted in the same story. So is the movie Inside Out, a children’s fantasy about emotions as individual characters in the brain, which was described by National Public Radio as "remarkably true to what scientists have learned about the mind, emotion, and memory."

Scientific progress sounds more impressive when it's portrayed as a beacon of light, even if the ideas have been around for ages.
This classical view of emotion is simple and intuitive, and it’s big business. Companies including Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are collectively investing billions of research dollars to develop software to read the signs of people’s emotions. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration likewise spent nearly a billion dollars training airport security agents to detect signs of deception in airline passengers. The Dalai Lama has weighed in as well, commissioning a $750,000-plus web-based "Atlas of Emotions" to depict the nature of the "five universal emotions": anger, disgust, fear, enjoyment, and sadness.

The story of how we came to the classical view of emotion has influenced generations of scientists, educated millions of students, and set the course of psychological research for decades. But it’s a fiction. The details about Darwin, the dark ages of behaviorism, and the subsequent rescue and renaissance bear only a passing resemblance to the facts. That’s what Elizabeth Duffy’s paper was about to teach me.

An extensive body of research points to a wholly different view of what emotions are. They are not caused by dedicated brain circuits that, in certain circumstances, flip on and make you feel and move a particular way. Rather, emotions are whole-brain affairs. Happiness, surprise, anger, and the rest are constructed in the moment by general-purpose systems throughout the brain, the same systems that create thoughts, memories, sights, sounds, smells, and other mental phenomena. The name for this alternative view is "construction," and my particular approach is called the theory of constructed emotion.

Construction eschews "fingerprints" and points out the variety of emotion in real life. In anger, your heart rate might go up, go down, or stay the same. Your eyes might widen, narrow, or close. The so-called fingerprints of emotion, like a grimace and elevated blood pressure for anger, are merely cultural stereotypes. They are reinforced by popular TV shows like Daredevil and Lie to Me, in which people’s innermost thoughts and feelings are revealed by facial movements and heartbeats. My lab has copious data showing that emotions have no consistent patterns in the face, body, and brain, however, including a meta-analysis of 22,000 test subjects across more than 220 studies of peripheral physiological changes during emotion, and another meta-analysis of every published neuroimaging study of emotion.

I had begun graduate school believing in the classical view of emotion and its dignified history. By the time I encountered Elizabeth Duffy’s paper, I’d been publishing about construction for several years. However, I still believed the part about behaviorism, when nothing much happened in emotion research from about 1910 to 1960. Behaviorism redefined emotions as observable behaviors: Fear was defined as freezing in place; happiness as a tasty treat at the end of a maze. Many psychologists today consider the period of behaviorism to be scientifically bankrupt, producing little knowledge of any value about the human mind.

Reading Duffy’s paper, what caught my eye was the list of references at the end. Two of them, from the 1930s and ’40s, also written by Duffy, were unknown to me, which was odd because their titles sounded remarkably relevant to my research. When I tracked them down, I was dumbfounded. Duffy was making exactly the same points that I had made in a recent paper, questioning whether the scientific evidence on emotion really supports the classical view. But she’d done it 70 years earlier, when supposedly nobody was studying such things.

Her two papers were clearly crucial to the field. Why hadn’t I heard of them? Back in my office, I searched and located a few authors who had cited Duffy here and there over the past 60 years, but for the most part, the field had overlooked her.

I had stumbled onto a mystery. But I didn’t know how big it was going to get.

Duffy’s references led me to several other unfamiliar papers that tried in vain to locate emotion fingerprints. Unlike behaviorists, these researchers weren’t saying that emotions don’t exist. They were running experiments to find physical markers of distinct emotions, failing to do so, concluding that the classical view was unjustified, and speculating about what would later be called construction.

The list of references kept growing, and soon I had more than a dozen of these mystery papers, enough to make me wonder what the hell was going on. Together with one of my sharpest graduate students, I hunted for more papers in earnest and started buying rare, used psychology texts online. My husband was bemused by the steady stream of small packages from Amazon and the timeworn books inside them. We bought another bookcase. Then another.

Little by little, I headed backward in time. From Duffy and her peers in the 1930s and ’40s, to a trove of obscure work dating back to the turn of the century, and then to textbooks on emotion written in the mid to late 1800s. My new bookshelves creaked. I was looking at a mountain of research that was critical of the classical view: more than 100 little-known works spanning at least five decades.

Once I’d reached back into the 1800s, I turned to the work of luminaries in the field of emotion, including Charles Darwin and William James, that I’d last encountered in graduate school. This time around, rather than read bits and pieces or interpretations by other scholars, I pored over the original books in their entirety. They were eye-opening in ways I had not expected.

First up was Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which has been lauded for more than a century for demonstrating that facial expressions are useful and functional products of natural selection. I was stunned to discover that the book says nothing of the sort. Natural selection is barely mentioned, and Darwin never claims that facial expressions are functional. Quite the opposite: He repeatedly calls them vestigial and "purposeless"! Virtually everyone in my field, for reasons unknown, was citing Darwin’s ideas on emotional expressions inaccurately.

After Darwin, I reread William James, considered a father of modern psychology. James is widely known for saying that every type of emotion has a distinct fingerprint in the body. You can find this claim about James in undergraduate textbooks, in scholarly papers, and in best sellers. And yet, the more James I read in the original, the less plausible the claim became. A whole section in his classic Principles of Psychology, Volume 2, is titled "No Special Brain-Centres for Emotion." And I kept encountering criticisms of the idea of emotion fingerprints, such as " ‘Fear’ of getting wet is not the same fear as fear of a bear" (in "The Physical Basis of Emotion"). Ultimately, I discovered that James had been wildly misinterpreted. He never said that every type of emotion has a distinct bodily state. He said every instance of emotion may have a distinct bodily state — in other words, variety is the norm. That is the opposite of a fingerprint.

After some research, I uncovered how Darwin’s and James’s words had become twisted into these alternative meanings. In both cases, other scientists had reinterpreted the original text, and their modifications were wrongly attributed back to Darwin and James. Each mistake has endured for a century, becoming a firm yet false basis of the classical view of emotion, misleading generations of students, and wasting billions of dollars of research money in search of emotion fingerprints.

My findings implied an entirely different history of emotion research, one that is not kind to the classical view. Darwin and James could no longer be seen as the foundation of this view, and the so-called dark ages had actually been a period of tremendous innovation and evidence against the view.

So, how did these errors and oversights happen? Were 50 years’ worth of research papers accidentally overlooked, actively ignored, or intentionally suppressed? As with most historical events, there’s probably more than one cause.

A first possibility is that the "dark ages" of emotion never existed. What people call "history" is just a representation of the past that helps make sense of the present. People are creative historians who craft a story somewhere between fact and fiction. (Therapists know this, as does anyone who has tried online dating.) The history of scientific ideas is no exception.

One example is the "flat earth" myth. Students today learn that people of the Middle Ages thought the world was flat, and that Columbus set sail to prove it round. But that history is not true. The myth was propagated in the early 19th century to embellish a story about how the Age of Reason (science) triumphed over the ignorance of faith (religion).

Scientific progress sounds more impressive when it’s portrayed as a beacon of light suddenly appearing after decades or centuries of darkness, when in actuality those ideas have been around for ages. It’s possible that in a similar manner, the so-called dark ages of emotion research were manufactured to make the "renaissance" of the classical view viable.

A more mundane possibility is that the ideas of Duffy and her colleagues never took root because they did not offer a fully formed alternative model to compete with the classical view. They had a critique of the dominant scientific view, but dissent alone was not enough to remain relevant. As the philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote about the structure of scientific revolutions: "Because there is no such thing as research in the absence of a paradigm, to reject one paradigm without simultaneously substituting another is to reject science itself."

But the most likely reason that the classical view persisted, I believe, is that it’s not just a view of emotion. It also represents a compelling story of what it means to be a human being. It says that you are an animal at the core, at the mercy of automatic emotions that you regulate by that most human of abilities, rational thought. This view of human nature is deeply embedded in society. It’s in the legal system, which distinguishes between calculated crimes, such as first-degree murder, and crimes of passion, in which your emotions "take you over" and you are partially absolved of responsibility. It’s in economics, forming the foundation of theories about rational and irrational investors. It’s in health care, as autistic children are taught stereotypical facial poses ostensibly to help them recognize emotions in others. It’s in stereotypes of men versus women, in which women are believed to be innately more emotional than men.

Construction theories of emotion are an ambassador for an entirely different view of human nature. Your mind cannot be a battleground between animalistic emotions and rational thoughts, because the brain has no separate systems for emotion and cognition. Instances of both are constructed by the same set of brainwide networks working collaboratively. Scientists didn’t know this in Elizabeth Duffy’s time, but modern neuroscience has confirmed it. These observations force us to reconsider some of the most fundamental tenets of law, economics, psychology, health care, and other areas of life.

In addition, the classical view of human nature, with its tale of ancient emotion circuits robed in rationality, depicts humankind as the pinnacle of evolution. Construction uncomfortably dislodges us from this honored position. Yes, we’re the only animal that can design nuclear reactors, but other creatures eat our lunch when it comes to other abilities, like remembering fine details (a strength of the chimpanzee brain) or even adapting to new situations (where bacteria reign supreme). Natural selection did not aim itself toward us — we’re just an interesting sort of animal with particular adaptations that helped us survive and reproduce. Construction teaches us that our brain is not more highly evolved, just differently evolved. That’s a humbling message to swallow in Duffy’s time and in ours.

We might never know why 50 years of research fell off the map. What is most important is to rediscover what was lost. Today we can peer harmlessly into a living human brain, and we have computers to gather and process data. It’s pretty clear that emotions are constructed, not lurking in dedicated brain circuits. At long last, we are on a scientific path marked by the data, rather than ideology, to understand emotion and ourselves.

Lisa Feldman Barrett is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) published this month.