Psychologist delves into emotion, brain development

By Catherine Robertson Souter
May 28th, 2019
Northeastern University Professor of Psychology Lisa Barrett, Ph.D

Northeastern University Professor of Psychology Lisa Barrett, Ph.D

In one of the most watched TED talk videos of 2018, Northeastern University Professor of Psychology Lisa Barrett, Ph.D explained how the jury who condemned the surviving Boston Marathon bomber to death was working from a false premise.

The jury, she said, passed the sentence, in part, because they felt they couldn’t read remorse in the man’s face. While not looking to debate his guilt or sentence, Barrett used it as an example of how we misunderstand emotion and how it is expressed.

Barrett, also director of the interdisciplinary affective science laboratory at Northeastern, is the recipient of numerous awards for her research on emotion and neuroscience and is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Society of Canada.

She has research appointments in the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH.

Her 2017 book, “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), has received strong reviews and recommendations from such luminaries as Malcolm Gladwell.

Speaking with New England Psychologist‘s Catherine Robertson Souter, Barrett explained why it would be impossible for that jury, or anyone, to reliably read another’s emotional state, how brain function is impacted by today’s culture, and the future of the field.

How did your work in this area evolve?

In grad school, I was measuring feelings of anxiety and depression and [I found that] people were not distinguishing between the two. I thought it was a problem with self-reporting. I thought that if I could find the objective measures of anxiety and depression, I would be able to measure the state they were in and maybe figure out who was aware of their internal state and who wasn’t and maybe train people about emotional awareness.

I thought naively, ‘This won’t take very long. I will be able to go to the literature and figure out what are objective measures and use them.’

But it didn’t work that way?

Every introductory text book tells you that Darwin says there are distinct facial expressions for each emotion and William James says that there are distinct bodily states for each emotion.

But it turns out William James didn’t actually say that certain emotions have their own physical states associated with them. He was talking about an instance of emotion, not a type. So, what he said was every instance of anger that feels different from every other instance of anger has its own bodily state. He was talking about variability within a category.

And it turns out that the facial expressions that Darwin stipulated were not discovered by observing people, they were stipulated based on photographs.

In reality, there are lots of sets of proposed ‘universal’ expressions in different places and at different times in history. For instance, the stereotype for fear in our culture, a wide-eyed gasping face, in Melanesia is the stereo-typic expression for anger.

When we measure people, we find that they do many more things than, say, scowl in anger. They can smile in anger, laugh in anger, cry in anger, sit stone-faced in anger, widen their eyes in anger.

Basically, people move their faces in very different ways during instances of the same emotion category and they move their faces in the same way across instances of different emotion categories.

There is no single set of neurons in a circuit, in a brain area, in a network, even a distributive pattern that is stable for all instances of the same emotion category.

So, are emotions real?

Emotions are “real” but not in a way that is independent of any perceiver. We all have decided to agree that smiling means something about a person’s state and it allows us to predict what that person is going to do next.

Here is how your brain works: Your brain is stuck in your skull, in a dark, silent box and it is only receiving reports about sights and sounds and smells which are the effects of something happening in the world.

What is the cause in the world? Well, you don’t know. You have to guess at what it is because your brain is stuck in your skull. Same thing about your body – there is a twinge in your body and your brain receives information about the twinge, about the effect. What is the cause?

Your brain has to guess.

That is what science calls inverse inference problem. Your brain is guessing at what potential causes might be based on past experience.

But it is not guessing at what is happening right now, it is guessing what is going to happen a moment from now.

What have been the most interesting findings in the past few decades?

That the brain is predictive and not reactive. Also, I think the fact that little infant brains are not miniature adult brains. They are brains that are waiting for wiring instructions from what we do with them, how we share attention with them, the words we use, the phenomena we pull out and label for them.

That suggests things about child care and child rearing we should probably take very seriously.

Next, the idea that facial and body movements are not a language to be read like words on a page. And that emotion categories are highly variable. So, what it means for psychology is very exciting because there are a lot of opportunities for new discoveries.

What are you working on now?

That is a hard question for me to answer because I have 20 full-time people in my lab and sometimes upwards of 100 undergrads. We have at last count four to five federally-funded grants.

One thing I am doing is writing another book for the public with seven essays on some of the most interesting discoveries of the last couple of decades.

I am also writing a more academic book on brain development and evolution with Barb Finley, who is an evolutionary and developmental neuroscientist.

I am starting to do work on brain energetics, research on how the brain transforms glucose into little energy molecules called ATP and trying to understand the metabolism of that.

I think that is going to be really interesting, digging into the energetics of the brain and linking it to understanding disorders of mood or disorders of metabolism.

I am working on a piece now that links brain metabolism to nationalism. Why is there a rise in nationalism at particular times in history? I think it has something to do with people being metabolically compromised.

What does that mean, “metabolically compromised” and how would it affect us politically?

Your brain didn’t evolve for you to think or see or hear. It evolved to regulate your body. The way I talk about it is that your brain is running a budget for your body, not on money but on glucose and water and salt and so on. It is making decisions about what to spend on moving your body and learning something new, the two most expensive things your brain can do.

When you are running a deficit, you stop spending. You feel fatigued, don’t want to move, and you stop learning. You surround yourself with things you already know, with people you already know so you have good predictability of the world around you.

A brain that surrounds itself with likeminded people and ideas is a brain that is cutting costs.

It is just a hypothesis but that is what we are working on.

When we find people turning to news sources that support their world view or shutting out people with whom they disagree, that could be connected to this idea of a brain metabolism deficit? Why are our body budgets running in deficit?

If I had to create an environment that maximally put a human body budget into a deficit, it would have many features of life right now. People wouldn’t sleep enough or eat healthfully or exercise sufficiently.

Add on top of that, the fact that we’re social animals and we regulate each other’s nervous systems. The best thing and worst thing for a human’s nervous system is another human. So, look at all the stuff on social media and also in entertainment where verbal aggression is now the mainstream.

I’m not saying that everybody has to walk on eggshells, but I am saying that over the long run, if you don’t sleep sufficiently and you don’t eat healthfully and you don’t exercise and you are exposed to interactions that are casually brutal, you add it up and it is pretty hard on the human nervous system.

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