I'm continuing to make progress on reading Lisa Feldman Barrett's book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.
As noted in a previous post about the book, I'm glad that I decided to read it straight through, even though some chapters seemed more appealing than others. Barrett is a good writer. She organized her book well, with interesting topics in every chapter.
Before I get to how she views the self, which is pretty much how I also see it, as something constructed, not a given, I want to briefly mention her wise words about jumping to conclusions about how someone feels.
We're all guilty of this, me certainly included. It's easy to do, but we shouldn't do it. Feelings, or emotions, are private. And Barrett stresses that there aren't universal outward signs of any emotion. For example, a person can smile when happy, smile when anxious, or smile when angry.
So assuming that they are happy because they're smiling isn't justified. Of course, it's way worse when people on social media claim that they know how someone feels just from words appearing on a computer screen.
Perceptions of emotion are guesses, and they're "correct" only when they match the other person's experience: that is, both people agree on which [emotion] concept to apply. Anytime you think you know how someone else feels, your confidence has nothing to do with actual knowledge. You're just having a moment of affective realism [tendency of your feelings to affect what you see].
Now, regarding the self, Barrett views it as constructed in much the same way she views emotions as constructed.
Not by a conscious act of will, but via brain processes. This means that just as there is no hard-wired place in the brain where anger or any other emotion resides (an essentialist view), neither do we possess, or are, an essential self, a perspective shared by Buddhism. She writes:
My scientific definition of the self is inspired by the workings of the brain yet is sympathetic to the Buddhist view. The self is part of social reality. It's not exactly a fiction, but neither is it objectively real in nature like a neutron. It depends on other people.
In scientific terms, your predictions in the moment, and your actions that derive from them, depend to some extent on the way that others treat you. You can't be a self by yourself. We can understand why Tom Hanks's character in the movie Cast Away, who was marooned alone on a desert island for four years, needed to create a companion named Wilson out of a volleyball.
Certain behaviors and preferences are consistent with your self and some are not. There are foods you enjoy and others you'd prefer not to eat. You might call yourself a "dog person" or a "cat person." These behaviors and preferences vary quite a bit: your favorite food might be French fries, but not at every meal.
The most enthusiastic dog lovers know a couple of dogs that they can't stand and are secretly fond of a few cats. Overall, your self is like a collection of dos and don'ts that summarizes your likes, dislikes, and habits in the moment.
We've seen something like this before. These dos and don'ts are like the features of a concept. So in my view, the self is a plain, ordinary concept just like "Tree," "Things That Protect You from Stinging Insects," and "Fear."
I am quite sure you don't go around thinking of yourself as a concept, but just go with me for a bit on this.
If the self is a concept, then you construct instances of your self by simulation. Each instance fits your goals in the moment. Sometimes you categorize yourself by your career. Sometimes you're a parent, or a child, or a lover. Sometimes you're just a body.
Social psychologists say that we have multiple selves, but you can think of this repertoire as instances of a single, goal-based concept called "The Self" in which the goal shifts based on context.
How does your brain keep track of all the varied instances of your "Self" as an infant, a young child, an adolescent, a middle-aged adult, and an older adult? Because one part has remained constant: you've always had a body.
Every concept you have ever learned includes the state of your body (as interoceptive predictions) at the time of learning. Some concepts involve a lot of interoception, such as "Sadness," and others have less, such as "Plastic Wrap," but they're always in relation to the same body.
So every category you construct -- about objects in the world, other people, purely mental concepts like "Justice," and so on -- contains a little bit of you. This is the rudimentary mental basis of your sense of self.
The fiction of the self, paralleling the Buddhist idea, is that you have some enduring essence that makes you who you are. You do not.
I speculate that your self is constructed anew in every moment by the same predictive, core systems that construct emotions, including our familiar pair of networks (interoceptive and control), among others, as they categorize the continuous stream of sensation from your body and the world.
As a matter of fact, a portion of the interoceptive network, called the default mode network, has been called the "self system." It consistently increases in activity during self-reflection. If you have atrophy in your default mode network, as happens in Alzheimer's disease, you eventually lose your sense of self.
Deconstructing the self offers a new inspiration for how to become the master of your emotions. By tweaking your conceptual system and changing your predictions, you not only change your future experiences; you can actually change your "Self."
...Western culture has some common wisdom associated with these [Buddhist] ideas. Don't be materialistic. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Sticks and stones [may break my bones but words shall never hurt me]. But I am asking you to take this one step further.
When you are suffering from some ill or insult that has befallen you, ask yourself: Are you really in jeopardy here? Or is this so-called injury merely threatening the social reality of your self?
The answer will help you recategorize your pounding heartbeat, the knot in the pit of your stomach, and your sweaty brow as purely physical sensations, leaving your worry, anger, and dejection to dissolve like an antacid tablet in water.