Thanks to a Church of the Churchless commenter who mentioned Lisa Feldman Barrett's book about how emotions are uniquely fashioned out of our experiences and environment, rather than appearing ready-made the same way in every human brain, I've been reading How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain with increasing enjoyment now that I'm past the initial introductory chapters.
Barrett, a psychologist and neuroscientist, makes a strong case for her admittedly out-of-the-mainstream view of what emotions are and how they come to be. She cites lots of research, both her own and that of others, as she systematically describes why the prevailing view of emotions is wrong.
So far, I'm finding a lot to like in her book. Her stance fits with other books I've read about how the human brain constructs reality, rather than being a mirror of reality. Of course, because most human brains are similar in many regards, we tend to agree on the more objective aspects of reality, such as whether a stop light we're approaching is green, yellow, or red.
(That's a good thing for our traffic safety; not so good for auto body repair shops.)
I'm reading the book straight through, though I was tempted to skip to the "Mastering Your Emotions" chapter, since like most people I'd like more happiness/peace of mind and less sadness/anxiety. But when I started that chapter, I realized that it contained key concepts that I hadn't been exposed to yet, like the body budget, which should be in balance for optimum well-being.
So here's some excerpts from "The Origin of Feeling" chapter that I finished this morning. I found these passages to be interesting and accurate. It's easy to believe that how we feel about something is the way that thing truly is -- whereas actually we're simply looking upon it as our affect guides us to.
A definition: interoception "is your brain's representation of all sensations from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system."
Affect is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout each day. It is not emotion but a much simpler feeling with two features.
The first is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel, which scientists call valence. The pleasantness of the sun on your skin, the deliciousness of your favorite food, and the discomfort of a stomachache or a pinch are all examples of affective valence.
The second feature of affect is how calm or agitated you feel, which is called arousal. The energized feeling of anticipating good news, the jittery feeling after drinking too much coffee, the fatigue after a long run, and weariness from lack of sleep are examples of high and low arousal.
...When you experience affect without knowing the cause, you are more likely to treat affect as information about the world, rather than your experience of the world.
The psychologist Gerald L. Clore has spent decades performing clever experiences to better understand how people make decisions every day based on gut feelings. This phenomenon is called affective realism, because we experience supposed facts about the world that are created in part by our feelings.
For example, people report more happiness and life satisfaction on sunny days, but only when they are not explicitly asked about the weather.
...Affect leads us to believe that objects and people in the world are inherently negative or positive. Photographs of kittens are deemed pleasant. Photographs of rotting human corpses are deemed unpleasant. The phrase "an unpleasant image" is really shorthand for "an image that impacts my body budget, producing sensations that I experience as unpleasant."
In these moments of affective realism, we experience affect as a property of an object or event in the outside world, rather than as our own experience. "I feel bad, therefore you must have done something bad. You are a bad person."
...You might think that in everyday life, the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it's mostly the other way around: that what you feel alters your sight and hearing. Interoception in the moment is more influential to perception, and how you act, than the outside world is.
You might believe that you are a rational creature, weighing the pros and cons before deciding how to act, but the structure of your cortex makes this an implausible fiction. Your brain is wired to listen to your body budget. Affect is in the driver's seat and rationality is a passenger.
It doesn't matter whether you're choosing between two snacks, two job offers, two investments, or two heart surgeons -- your everyday decisions are driven by a loudmouthed, mostly deaf scientist who views the world through affect-colored glasses. [Meaning, your brain.]
...Affect is your brain's best guess about the state of your body budget. Interoception is also one of the most important ingredients in what you experience as reality. If you didn't have interoception, the physical world would be meaningless noise to you.
Consider this: your interoceptive predictions, which produce your feelings of affect, determine what you care about in the moment -- your affective niche. From the perspective of your brain, anything in your affective niche could potentially influence your body budget, and nothing else in the universe matters.
That means, in effect, that you construct the environment in which you live. You might think about the environment as existing in the outside world, separate from yourself, but that's a myth.
You (and other creatures) do not simply find yourself in an environment and either adapt or die. You construct your environment -- your reality -- by virtue of what sensory input from the physical environment your brain selects; it admits some as information and ignores some as noise.