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Thursday, December 3, 2020

The psychologist rethinking human emotion

David Shariatmadari
The Guardian
Originally posted 25 Sept 20

Here is an excerpt:

Barrett’s point is that if you understand that “fear” is a cultural concept, a way of overlaying meaning on to high arousal and high unpleasantness, then it’s possible to experience it differently. “You know, when you have high arousal before a test, and your brain makes sense of it as test anxiety, that’s a really different feeling than when your brain makes sense of it as energised determination,” she says. “So my daughter, for example, was testing for her black belt in karate. Her sensei was a 10th degree black belt, so this guy is like a big, powerful, scary guy. She’s having really high arousal, but he doesn’t say to her, ‘Calm down’; he says, ‘Get your butterflies flying in formation.’” That changed her experience. Her brain could have made anxiety, but it didn’t, it made determination.”

In the lectures Barrett gives to explain this model, she talks of the brain as a prisoner in a dark, silent box: the skull. The only information it gets about the outside world comes via changes in light (sight), air pressure (sound) exposure to chemicals (taste and smell), and so on. It doesn’t know the causes of these changes, and so it has to guess at them in order to decide what to do next.

How does it do that? It compares those changes to similar changes in the past, and makes predictions about the current causes based on experience. Imagine you are walking through a forest. A dappled pattern of light forms a wavy black shape in front of you. You’ve seen many thousands of images of snakes in the past, you know that snakes live in the forest. Your brain has already set in train an array of predictions.

The point is that this prediction-making is consciousness, which you can think of as a constant rolling process of guesses about the world being either confirmed or proved wrong by fresh sensory inputs. In the case of the dappled light, as you step forward you get information that confirms a competing prediction that it’s just a stick: the prediction of a snake was ultimately disproved, but not before it grew so strong that neurons in your visual cortex fired as though one was actually there, meaning that for a split second you “saw” it. So we are all creating our world from moment to moment. If you didn’t, your brain wouldn’t be able make the changes necessary for your survival quickly enough. If the prediction “snake” wasn’t already in train, then the shot of adrenaline you might need in order to jump out of its way would come too late.