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The Psychological Construction of EmotionReview - The Psychological Construction of Emotion
by Lisa Feldman Barrett & James A. Russell (Editors)
Guilford, 2014
Review by R.A. Goodrich, Ph.D.
Jun 30th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 27)

The Psychological Construction of Emotion is a carefully crafted eighteen-chapter anthology by the editors of the quarterly journal Emotion Review. They have enlisted over two dozen contributors sympathetic to their holistic, constructionist approach to investigating the emotions, the vast majority of whom are based in North American departments of psychology and neurology. This approach is declared to be a scientific revolution (449), one able to assimilate and thereby transform rival accounts. It is a declaration, despite its modern neuro-psychological underpinnings, redolent of John Dewey in his 1884 paper, "The New Psychology":

The idea of environment is a necessity to the idea of organism, and with the conception of environment comes the impossibility of considering psychical life as an individual, isolated thing developing in a vacuum;

a claim he continued to make even in such late works as his 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry:

there is never any such isolated singular object or event; an object or event is always a special part, phase, or aspect, of an environing experienced world—a situation.

Lisa Barrett and James Russell have posed four questions for contributors to consider (6; cf. 311), initially in the form of programmatic statements before expounding detailed responses that comprise the substance of each chapter. In order, the following issues are raised: (a) Are emotions psychological events or episodes constructed from more basic elements? (b) Should there be such elements, which combinations of them, if any, constitute emotions? (c) To what extent is there variation within emotions and amongst individuals from similar and different communities? (d) What kind of evidence substantiates constructionist and/or rival accounts? Given the expository nature of this tightly cohesive volume, attentive readers, whether researchers themselves or their students, should have little difficulty plotting a chart of responses.

Owing to limits upon length this critique will initially focus upon The Psychological Construction of Emotion by way of the conceptual act theory promulgated by Barrett singly or jointly with colleagues in Chapters One, Three, Four, and Eighteen with particular emphasis upon Chapter Four (83ff.). In choosing Barrett, it should be noted that all but two of the remaining chapters specifically refer to her work. After examining several core contentions of conceptual act theory, we shall conclude with some crucial questions facing the quest by the editors for a "greater constructivist project" (429ff.) and an "integrative framework for the science of the emotion" (448ff.).

I

As indicated above, Chapter Four specifically presents conceptual act theory. From the beginning, Barrett, Wilson-Mendenhall & Barsalou bluntly reject previous theoretical assumptions that our emotions such as anger, fear, or sadness comprise a set of natural "basic elements" or "mental faculties" that have presumably evolved to serve what they term "adaptations in the teleological sense" (83). In the past, emotions were said to be "primitive," that is, they were regarded as factors or experiences not capable of being further analysed, for which scientists then sought "the corresponding physical essences," be they muscular movements, neuronal responses, or the like (83). Having dismissed past assumptions in the foregoing terms, Chapter Four proceeds to summarise the conceptual act theory of emotion since its inception a decade ago.

          The summary is presented in the form of a set of hypotheses. Let us list them first of all before examining how Bartlett and colleagues begin to expand upon them under the heading of how "conceptual knowledge combines with sensory inputs to construct human experiences" (87). The first hypothesis claims that our "mental states" emerge as a "consequence of an ongoing, continually modified constructive process during which stored knowledge within an experience...makes incoming sensory inputs meaningful as situated conceptualizations" (86). Next, words for "all mental states" including emotions are not idealised ("Platonic") types, but "abstract categories" whose instances are variable owing to the sheer diversity of "sensory inputs (from the body and the world)" being "made meaningful" (86). Whether "meaningful" here should be taken in the sense of "having meaning" or "being significant, salient, or important" remains unsaid. Nonetheless, the sensations derived from the body or beyond are "made meaningful" by the individual "using highly context-dependent and culturally dependent conceptual information about emotion derived from past learning or experience" (86), including, presumably, those experienced as completely new. The third hypothetical claim proposes that our cerebral organisation is such that it generates "individual brain states that correspond to each individual instance of an emotion" by virtue of physio-psychological "core systems" that are not themselves specific to the domains of emotion, cognition, or perception as such (86). Consequently, conceptual act theory, firstly, aims at accounting for "how mental states emerge from their interaction" and, secondly, is based upon "emotional episodes" having a "functional (rather than teleological)" character that physical sensations themselves lack (87).

How do these hypotheses underpinning conceptual act theory become airborne so to speak? They take flight by analogy with visual perception in the case where "your brain cannot make sense of it" (87) as illustrated by a blurred black-and-white depiction of a bee on a flower (87, Fig. 1; cf. 110). What does this, in turn, imply? The implications are purportedly threefold. We are told that "Your brain continually generates hypotheses based on past experience...and tests them against incoming data"; that such "knowledge" is deemed "necessary" for "you normally [to] categorize incoming information to construct a visual representation of the object" in question; and that, were the foregoing lacking, sensations would become "meaningless, and you would not know how to act in the world" (88). Indeed, "once the conceptual knowledge is applied" whether as "a deliberate, conscious goal" or occurring "instantaneously, continuously, and effortlessly," "it should now be virtually impossible to 'unsee' the [blurred] object" even by "the sheer force of will" (88 & 89). Any act of categorization, which supposedly activates "a relevant category representation...binding it to a perceived instance" as well as "drawing inferences from knowledge associated with the category and applying them to the instance," "prepares you for situated action" and "always produces some kind of automatic change in your physical state" (89).  So, "external and internal sensations," being "a conceptual act" by which the making of meaning occurs "transactively and simultaneously," suggests to Bartlett and colleagues "how the brain understands the current sensory array to create a unified conscious moment" (89).  Hence, they declare: "This is how the brain creates the mind" and whether a situation is experienced as "a perception or as an emotion" simply "depends on your attentional focus" (90). Accordingly, when "your brain is foregrounding visual sensations while viewing the bee, you experience a perception," but when it foregrounds "intense" or "reinforced" "sensations from your body...you experience tranquillity or distress" (90). Alternatively expressed, the brain's "process of predictive coding" is tantamount to "embodied" "conceptual acts" which "shape the trajectory of future experiences" (91). This reveals how "the mind works" in a simultaneously perceptual-cognitive-feeling act of seeing a bee where "[a]ll mental states are, in fact,conceptualizations of internal bodily sensations and incoming sensory input" (91).

II

Having briefly sketched the conceptual act theory of emotion, let us begin to examine what might be meant here by the very notion of conceptual and categorial acts and their consequences for the notion of emotion (whilst Barrett rightly tries to circumvent the danger that investigating "the brain without appealing to mental categories" simply becomes "the study of neurons" (72)). Readers immediately encounter various senses of these notions, not all of which are merely elucidations of one another, and where the act of categorizing is far removed from its seminal use by Adhémar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein last century. Amongst the many contentions populating Chapters One, Three, and Four, consider three typical examples.

Because emotions allegedly are "categorized physical states," constructionist psychology aims to demonstrate "how emotional episodes arise within the brain's functional architecture for creating situated conceptualizations of sensations from the body and the world" (9; cf. 14 & 59). Certainly, we can feel emotions ("Ewan feels envy"), agitations ("Alyssa feels excited"), and moods ("Ewan feels depressed"). None of these, however, are fully discriminated within this volume other than being occasionally mentioned (e.g. 179, 198, 218, 317). Affective feelings are not the same as the feelings associated with sensations which can be located bodily ("Alyssa feels Ewan's forehead with her forefinger"). Nor are affective feelings the same as the feelings (and desires) associated with appetites ("Ewan feels ravenous") or those resembling appetites as a result of actions ("Alyssa feels fatigue"). In other words, has Barrett unjustifiably slipped into identifying sensory or bodily feelings with emotional or mental feelings?

As with concepts of colour, we are told, "the psychological events to which people refer with emotion words...cannot exist as we typically conceive of it without...conceptual knowledge for emotion" (57) where "conceptual knowledge is embodied and enactive, producing novel features during an instance of emotion via inference" (87). Despite Barrett's earlier rejections of the teleological, this, in turn, "is considered one of the primary purposes of memory" just as "the primary purpose of categorization is to produce inferences" in readiness for "situated action" (88 & 89). Indeed, during the very act of categorizing events as an emotion, any physical change "becomes anger" for instance "by representing it as anger" (56) even if the categories are derived from what Wilfred Sellars first dubbed "folk psychology" or what people ordinarily and unselfconsciously take to be the meaning of mental expressions. Again, there is little difficulty envisaging circumstances where Ewan encounters an unknown dog beginning to bare its teeth. As a participant wishing to avoid harm, Ewan need not pause to consider whether the dog might be angry or fearful or both or whether its tail is up or down: the unfolding actuality is all. As a spectator of the scene, Alyssa is free to entertain if not evaluate the possibilities, be they actual or imaginary. The participant-spectator distinction, inaugurated by Edward Bullough and Denys Harding, can scarcely be said to support Barrett's presumption about the primary purpose of categorization. Moreover, when proposing how "abstract relational concepts, such as emotions, integrate...local concepts...into a coherent representation of the situation...to interpret what is happening in the world," has Barrett conflated both roles when contending that the categorial "inferences (i.e., predictions)" which follow include "how you can best interact" with some object or phenomenon or "the likely value to be obtained from interacting with it" (94)?

Similarly, Barrett and colleagues assert that concepts "used during categorization" can be construed as "tools used by the human brain" not only "to modify and regulate the body," but also "to create feelings, and to create dispositions toward action" (89) where "emotion concepts" more specifically, are "tools...that are acquired in a culture-sensitive matrix of social learning" (69). This thereby makes "every emotional episode a cultural artefact as much as it is a biological event" (69; cf. 86, 93 & 97) in contexts construed as "conceptual machinery...available inside the brain" (56). Leaving aside the switch between neuro-psychological and sociological contentions and whether or not organs such as brains can operate tools or instruments in a literal manipulative sense here, the human brain as a causal condition for the possibility of feeling emotions is not in dispute. However, this concession is not equivalent to regarding the brain as the cause of particular emotions. What makes Ewan feel jealous of Anton is the latter's persistent attention to Alyssa and not the condition of his brain that makes jealousy possible. Nor is it a portion of the brain, be it frontal or parietal cortices let alone the hippocampus or the amygdala, any more than the left earlobe or right kidney. Brains neither hypothesize nor categorize; they neither predict nor understand: persons do. In short, has Barrett, for all her appeal to the holistic (e.g. 100-101 & 450-451), constantly committed the mereological fallacy of attributing psychological properties of the whole person to neuronal processes or systems in the cerebral part of human beings?

III

Although The Psychological Construction of Emotion laudably attempts to integrate causes, mechanisms, and differences of emotion, its claim to introduce a virtual revolution "to transformemotion from an essentially contested concept into a scientifically viable one" (14) rests heavily upon a promissory note. In short, Barrett concedes, constructionist psychology "will have to stimulate new experimental methods and statistical procedures to test its hypotheses properly, as is typically the case in paradigm shifts" (455). Yet readers—including those still to be convinced that attributes of minds are attributes of brains—may well feel that many of its crucial hypotheses are still in need of conceptual clarification and that foreshortened appeals to scientific paradigm shifts (cf. 45 & 449), as Margaret Masterman once diagnosed, waver unwittingly amongst sociological, metaphysical, and analogical senses.

 

© 2015 R.A. Goodrich

 

R.A. Goodrich is an associate of the A.R.C. Centre for the History of Emotions (University of Melbourne) and of the A.D.R.I. European Philosophy & History of Ideas Research Group (Deakin University), co-edits the online refereed arts-practice journal, Double Dialogues, and co-ordinates with Maryrose Hall a longitudinal project investigating behavioural, cognitive, and linguistic development of higher-functioning children within the autistic spectrum and related disorders.


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