You experience a variety of emotions throughout the day. Anger—when someone cuts you off, fear—when you happen to see a snake crawling on your morning run, sadness—when watching the depressing news, and all other kinds of emotions come and go automatically. You aren’t born with these emotions, you learn your emotions. Emotions are the core of our motivation, they are out muses and they are why we continue on with life even in the face of disappointment or disaster.
According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, the director of Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, emotions are not something that happens to you. Instead, she says, we create them. We create our emotions from bodily sensations, past experiences, and from learning emotional concepts from our parents and cultural upbringing. In short, our emotions are not reactions to the world, but an invention of our brain to explain the cause of our sensations and actions.
“Emotion requires something more than affect,” Barrett says. “It requires making meaning out of that effect. That’s not something if a child was born and grew up in the wild, with no other humans around that would develop.” They would instead feel more vague sensations like pleasantness or unpleasantness; arousal or calmness—similar to the way that infants feel at a young age, or even the type of “emotion” we see in animals.
Barrett’s lab also did a meta-analysis of 100 neuroimaging studies on anger, disgust, happiness, fear, and sadness. It covered 1300 test subjects over a span of 20 years. What they found supported their hypotheses: there was no brain region that consistently held a “fingerprint” for any emotion. Even the amygdala, which we are told to associate with fear, was shown to increase in fear experience studies, but only in a quarter of them. And they found that the amygdala also showed increases in anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness, pain, learning something new, meeting new people, or making decisions.
In 2007, developmental psychologists Linda A. Camras and Harriet Oster used a gorilla toy to scare babies from different cultures, and held their arms down to make them angry. The researchers found they couldn’t distinguish the babies’ facial movements during these emotions, though adult test subjects—when watching the videos—perceived the babies as fearful or angry.
Barrett’s graduate student, Maria Gendron, travelled to Namibia to see if test subjects from the isolated Himba culture would sort facial expressions and vocalizations into the same emotion categories that we have in the US. There, and on subsequent trips to other groups, including hunter-gatherer communities in Tanzania, she found that people sorted emotions differently than we do, and labelled photos of posed facial expressions differently, often labelling them, instead, as behaviours.
Over the years, many of us learn to accept, enjoy, understand, and trust our feelings. Emotions aren’t inborn instincts but taught understandings. You learn your emotions, just close your eyes and feel those emotions as deeply as you can.