Review: How Emotions are Made

The Secret Life of the Brain

Lisa Feldman Barrett (2017)

We feel ways about things because things matter to us.1 That is not as tautological as it sounds: individual instances of things make us feel things because, in general, over evolutionary time, those things had a meaningful impact on our survival. The genes of creatures who felt those things about those sorts of things reproduced at greater rates than the genes of creatures who didn’t feel those things, or felt different sorts of things in those circumstances. In the debate over the nature of emotions, the vast majority of scientists agree on this point.

What separates them is the question: what kind of things can we feel? For essentialists, there are some limited number of true emotions which are evolved specifically to motivate particular behaviours in particular kinds of circumstances: we feel fear to encourage us to run away, happiness to encourage us to engage, etc. Perhaps at any given moment we might feel a mixture of them, but, as in the animated film Inside Out,2 they’re real and distinct parts of our minds which are dominant at different times. For constructivists, emotions are generated more dynamically in response to context, blurring into one another at the edges and demarcated by socially determined rather than discovered categories.3 Constructivists see emotions more like the rainbow: it may appear to be made of bands of colour but only because we put our colour categories onto it - in the rainbow itself there is only a continual smooth variation in electromagnetic radiation wavelengths. Fledman Barrett’s theory of How Emotions are Made is firmly in this latter camp.

What distinguishes How Emotions are Made from other constructivist theories of emotion is that it has predictive processing as its foundation. Predictive processing considers the brain’s role to be predicting its sensory inputs, which it does through a combination of learning (making its internal model match the world) and acting (making the world match its internal model). Feldman Barrett’s view of emotion is that it is a conceptual framework imposed on this basic regulatory system. As sensory input (and the brain’s own continuously evolving state) prompts learning and action, the accommodations come with affective consequences - they feel like something.4 This affective flavouring forms the basis of our experience, and onto it we project a socially-constructed array of categories, turning a continuous, featureless landscape of ‘ways we can feel’ into an atlas of ‘emotions’ which have boundaries, classic features, and ostensive evolutionary purposes. For Feldman Barrett, the essentialist perspective mistakes this atlas for the territory it represents, assuming that because emotions can be put into categories, those categories must represent something fundamental about the nature of those emotions.

The story is complicated, however, by a feedback mechanism in which the categories taught to us by our culture inform our classification of the emotions we feel, and, in turn, the emotions we are able to feel. We cannot, on Feldman Barrett’s view, experience emotions we don’t have categories for, even if our internal state is the same as someone who can and does experience those emotions. In teaching children to identify their emotions, for example, we turn people who lack emotional concepts and consequently cannot feel particular emotions into people who have those concepts and can feel those emotions. If we were to teach them different concepts, they would experience different emotions.

A futher complication is the idea that emotions are not diagnosable in any special way by the person who is experiencing them: they are just as readily interpretable by someone else, perhaps with different emotional concepts with which to categorise them. Moreover, someone else’s interpretation of your emotion has as much truth to it as your own. This is perhaps the most counter-intuitive inference Feldman Barrett draws from her predictive account of emotions: the idea that the subject of the emotion has no special authority over what emotion they are feeling. If I say, for example, that I feel sad, I am basing my identification of sadness on very different information than when I say that you feel sad. In the first case, I have my internal state, as well as my external behaviour. In the latter case I have your behaviour, though perhaps your behaviour includes helpful communication such as saying “I’m feeling sad.” While Feldman Barrett does focus a good deal on the role of interoception (our ability to detect internal sensations like how tense or relaxed we are) in emotion categorisation, this extra input is not allowed to constitute a fact-of-the-matter. The reasons for this are never adequately explained, but it is presumably due to emotions being created in the process of categorisation. If I categorise my own emotion as ‘sad’, that act of categorisation means that I genuinely am sad,5 and, because your emotions are in part constructed in response to mine, if you categorise me as being ‘sad’ then I’m sad in a real enough sense for your response to be generated.6

Because of the grounding in a predictive processing approach, emotions are successful or unsuccessful insofar as they allow better prediction of incoming sensory information (and perhaps our own and others’ behaviour). For Feldman Barrett, having a large and varied emotional vocabulary, and having the ability to categorise one’s own emotions effectively using that vocabulary (i.e. having good interoceptive sensitivity), allows us to predict ourselves and others better. A child who is learning about their emotions might only have very basic categories for identifying (and hence constructing) emotional instances: they may only be able to tell if they are angry. An adult teaching them, however, may construct instances of more nuanced emotions for the child: perhaps they’re vengeful, or overwrought, or jealous, or envious, or frustrated, or maybe just tired or hungry. Over time, as they become more adept at wielding emotion concepts, the child becomes better able to predict and understand their own emotional responses, and to produce emotional responses which are culturally and situationally appropriate.

In the tradition of popular science books offering a comprehensive theory of X, How Emotions are Made illustrates how widespread adoption of its theory of emotion will lead to a fairer, happier world. This, as is often the case, is the weakest part of the work: many of the changes apparently suggested by the theory do not require the theory to be made, and often do not even clearly follow from the theory at all. The other major sources of weakness in the book are a philosophical over-simplicity (which is perhaps necessary for popular science), and the caricaturing of opposing arguments to which it leads. At no point are opposing arguments really allowed to shine with any lustre or motivate any intuitions: a pity given how rueful Feldman Barrett is over the long history of strawmanning in emotion science.7 Lastly, in undermining robust distinctions between widely-recognised emotions such as joy and other products of the conceptual system (such as ‘things you could use to spread butter’), How Emotions are Made can leave the reader wondering whether emotions are worthy of study in their own right at all.

Overall, the book has some broadly persuasive ideas, although much of the persuasion is in the rejection of essentialist categorisation of emotions, which is (at least to my mind) relatively easily accomplished because essentialist thinking is appealing but almost always wrong. The broad point, that emotions are best understood in relation to affect-generating disturbances to our bodies energy distribution, is well made, though it is not clear this point necessarily implies the predictive account offered. Predictive accounts of neuroscience and psychology are in vogue, and have a broad appeal, and the account of emotion sits well within it.


  1. There is an enduring philosophical squabble over the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’, which is why we have consciousness at all. Why do emotions, or thoughts, or sensations or anything have to be experiences? 

  2. It seems important to point out that I haven’t actually seen this film… 

  3. The constructivist and essentialist theories are convenient handles for broadly distinct perspectives, but they are certainly constructed things. They are grab-bags of perspectives on the properties of emotions which tend to come bundled together but are philosophically distinct: one could have a theory that emotions are constructed by the whole brain in a dynamic way, for example, while also holding that the products of this dynamic process are categorisable into a basic set of universal emotions with distinct evolutionary roles. 

  4. Feldman Barrett introduces the term ‘body budget’ to describe features of the world which have consequences for our body’s energy management (i.e. require our body to do something), and consequently have affective consequences. 

  5. Because emotions have no essence, categories for Feldman Barrett are ways we group things in the world, not the way things in the world are grouped that we then discover. This means that my categorising a feeling as ‘sad’ does not mean it is an example of sadness in some deep sense, only that I have decided to file it in the folder labelled ‘sad’. 

  6. This reasoning still does not illustrate clearly why you have just as much authority as I do to determine how I’m feeling. It would be perfectly possible for you to have legitimate emotions in response to mistakenly attributing emotions to me. Likewise, your responding to an emotion of mine need not create some fully-fledged concept which would have to be considered an emotion in its own right - the response does, but the thing which provokes it need not. 

  7. A recurring example is the charge that the essentialist account cannot handle the variation found in all instances of emotion, which is difficult to square with the typical essentialist account seeing any instance of emotion as a more-or-less warped reflection of some essential ideal emotion. In other words, while essences may not have variation, the instances to which they give rise certainly do.