Kirkus Reviews QR Code
HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE by Lisa Feldman Barrett Kirkus Star


The Secret Life of the Brain

by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Pub Date: March 7th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-544-13331-0
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A well-argued, entertaining disputation of the prevailing view that emotion and reason are at odds.

As Barrett (Psychology/Northeastern Univ.; co-editor: The Psychological Construction of Emotion, 2014, etc.) writes, the “internal battle between emotion and reason is one of the great narratives of Western civilization. It helps define [us] as human.” From this perspective, emotion is treated as “a kind of brute reflex, very often at odds with our rationality.” To the contrary, the author, who also has appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, contends that our emotions are not hard-wired in our brains and triggered by circumstances. Instead, they are flexible and vary from culture to culture. During the course of our lifetimes, our brains wire and rewire themselves in response to upbringing and individual experiences. This argument puts Barrett at odds with the prevailing review of well-regarded scientists, such as Antonio Damasio, who emphasize that not only are our emotions shaped subconsciously, but also many of our actions. The author makes a convincing case that such explanations are too simplistic. She emphasizes that our brains respond flexibly to the circumstances of our lives. The degree to which we are responsible for actions that occur in the heat of passion, or prejudices of which we are unaware, may be arguable; that we share responsibility as parents and citizens for the social norms of our culture—e.g. racial prejudice and gender stereotyping—is not. We are responsible for our individual actions, of course, but we also bear responsibility for working to eliminate racial prejudice, gender stereotyping, and the like from our society. As Barrett points out, this has important legal as well as moral implications and leads into the thorny questions surrounding free will.

A highly informative, readable, and wide-ranging discussion of “how psychology, neuroscience, and related disciplines are moving away from the search for emotion fingerprints and instead asking how emotions are constructed.”