For half a century, one theory about the way we experience and express emotion has helped shape how we practice psychology, do police work, and even fight terrorism. But what if that theory is wrong?
An important question continued to nag Barrett. What was the best way to determine the emotions that people are feeling? The therapist in her wanted to use the information to help her patients; her inner researcher just wanted the answer. So she dove into the emotion literature, and what she found surprised her. After reviewing all of the studies she could find, she realized that, statistically speaking, the best that scientists of emotion could do was to determine whether someone was feeling good or bad.
For Barrett, that wasn’t good enough. So she kept looking. She signed up for a physiology and cardiovascular training fellowship, to learn how to measure physiological indicators herself. And then something shocking happened. She returned to those famous cross-cultural studies that had launched Ekman’s career—and found that they were less than watertight. The problem was the options that Ekman had given his subjects when asking them to identify the emotions shown on the faces they were presented with. Those options, Barrett discovered, had limited the ways in which people allowed themselves to think.
Barrett explained the problem to me this way: “I can break that experiment really easily, just by removing the words. I can just show you a face and ask how this person feels. Or I can show you two faces, two scowling faces, and I can say, ‘Do these people feel the same thing?’ And agreement drops into the toilet.”
This exposed a fatal flaw in Ekman’s work as far as Barrett was concerned. “I mean, think about it,” she said. “When was the last time that you saw somebody win an Academy Award for going like this with fear”—at which point she mimicked for me the face in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
Barrett wasn’t the first to question Ekman’s studies. A small handful of outlier psychologists had already begun a steady drumbeat of opposition. One had even shown he could throw the whole thing off by just showing subjects an “angry” face without including anger as a word to match it to. If people were presented with disgust or contempt instead, they happily chose one of those. But these naysayers were considered to be on the fringe. Why take them seriously when so much research already existed in Ekman’s favor?
Barrett found herself profoundly puzzled. “My experience of anger is not an illusion,” she told me. “When I’m angry, I feel angry. That’s real. But how can that be true if there’s no unique biological signature for anger?”
Barrett devoted herself to finding the answer to this question. In 1996 she accepted an assistant professorship at Boston College, where, abandoning her work as a practicing therapist, she continued to research the science of emotion. By then, brain imaging had become a useful tool, and emotion researchers were seizing on the technology to help them trace emotions back to their hotspots in the brain: fear to the amygdala, disgust to the insula, and so on. But with more reading and another training fellowship, this time in neuroscience, Barrett bumped up against the same old story. Data were mixed, conclusions uncertain. Fifty years of research in, only one thing was clear about the field: More research was necessary.
Barrett spent 14 years at Boston College, rising at a steady clip from assistant to associate to full professor. But by the time 2010 rolled around, her research needs and ambitions had outgrown her 1,000-square-foot lab. When Northeastern offered her a job that came along with a 3,500-square-foot multi-floor space, plus an architect to design it to her specifications, she took it. This past spring Northeastern promoted her to the status of University Distinguished Professor—the highest honor the school bestows on its faculty.
One afternoon last fall, I met Barrett at George Howell Coffee, in Newton, only a block or two from her home. While explaining exactly how the brain creates emotion—or, at least, how she believes it does—she opened a computer to show me what looked like a grainy black-and-white mishmash on the screen. “When most people look at this,” she said, “they don’t know what it is. It’s an example of experimentally induced experiential blindness. Your brain is taking in visual sensations from an object, but it can’t make sense of what it is.” The brain tries to fill in the blanks, she explained. “Some people see a lobster, some people see a bunny.”
What we were actually looking at, Barrett told me, was a bee. I couldn’t see it. But then she started clicking back and forth between that picture and a new one, which was very clearly a close-up of a bee’s body. Suddenly the grainy nonsense in the first picture snapped into bumblebee stripes. Now that I knew what I was looking at, I could see it, and for an instant everything I knew about bees flooded into my mind: their hum, their wings, their bumbling flight on a hot summer’s day, the taste of their honey. “Now,” Barrett said, “can you not see the bee? Every time you see this, you will always see the bee. Because right now your mind is adding information from your past experience to create the image of the bee.”
That, Barrett told me, is what the mind does with emotions. Just as that first picture of the bee actually wasn’t a picture of a bee for me until I taught myself that it was, my emotions aren’t actually emotions until I’ve taught myself to think of them that way. Without that, I have only a meaningless mishmash of information about what I’m feeling. In other words, as Barrett put it to me, emotion isn’t a simple reflex or a bodily state that’s hard-wired into our DNA, and it’s certainly not universally expressed. It’s a contingent act of perception that makes sense of the information coming in from the world around you, how your body is feeling in the moment, and everything you’ve ever been taught to understand as emotion. Culture to culture, person to person even, it’s never quite the same. What’s felt as sadness in one person might as easily be felt as weariness in another, or frustration in someone else.