What are emotions? Where do they come from? Are they something innate or something we learn? The classic view is that they’re precognitive impulses that happen to us. If so, this would imply that they have specific neural signatures.
Early in her career, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett attempted to isolate the neural basis of emotions using brain scans, but discovered no consistent patterns for any one emotion. For example, the neurons involved in anger were not consistent in every brain, or even in every instance of anger in a particular individual. No individual neuron consistently fired in every case.
This evidence seemed to line up with what she had already found when attempting to find the behavioral signatures of emotions. After discovering problems with research showing multiple cultures the same emotional faces, she eventually discovered that reading real emotions via facial expressions has little or no objective basis. It only seems to work when the other person is from a similar culture. Objectively reading emotions from the faces of people from other cultures proved to be impossible.
Each emotion, she found, was more a category of neural activity rather than a discrete process. Their diffuse nature led her to conclude that emotions are mental concepts. Similar to other types of concepts such as chairs, dogs, or hiking, they are things we learn, sensory predictions our brains develop over a lifetime.
Somewhat in opposition to her understanding, is the one championed by the recently deceased neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. Focusing on animal studies, Panksepp identified what he referred to as seven primary emotions, labeling them in all caps as: RAGE, FEAR, SEEKING, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, and PLAY. Panksepp identified these primary impulses as sub-cortical and mostly sub-cerebral circuits arising from the brainstem and mid-brain regions, deep regions that are difficult to reach with brain scans.
So who is right? As is often the case, binary thinking here can mislead us. I think it helps to review the details on how they agree and disagree.
Barrett admits in her book, How Emotions Are Made, that most animals have circuits for what are commonly called the “Four Fs”: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and mating. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to link Panksepp’s RAGE to fighting, FEAR to fleeing, LUST to mating, and to see feeding as a result of a type of SEEKING. In other words, Barrett’s admission of the Four Fs gets her halfway to Panksepp’s version of innate impulses. It’s not hard to imagine that mammals and birds have innate impulses for CARE and PANIC/GRIEF.
However, there is a big difference in how Barrett and Panksepp label these circuits. Barrett makes a sharp distinction between emotions and affects. She regards affects as more primal states and characterizes them in a fairly minimalist manner, sticking to the traditional description with two dimensions: valence and arousal. Valance is an assessment of how good or bad a stimulus is. And arousal is the level of excitement the stimulus causes. Barrett either is unaware of or disagrees with the idea put forth by other scientists that affects also include an action motivation. She sees affects as an early pre-emotional stage of processing.
Panksepp in contrast, in his own book, The Archaeology of the Mind, seemed to view the words “emotion” and “affect” as almost synonymous, or perhaps saw emotions as merely a type of affect. Panksepp’s view was that the primal drives he identified were feeling states, that they include some form of lower level consciousness in the sub-cerebral regions he discussed.
In this sentiment, Panksepp stood in opposition to Barrett’s view that these are best described as “survival circuits”, non-conscious reflexes. From what I’ve read, the vast majority of neurobiologists would agree with Barrett on this point, that consciousness is a cortical phenomenon, at least in mammals, and that sub-cortical, or at least sub-cerebral structures are primarily reflexive in nature.
Interestingly, both Barrett and Panksepp push back against the popular notion that emotions, particularly fear, originate from the amygdala. In Panksepp’s view, the amygdala seems like more of a linkage system, linking cerebral memories to the primal impulses he identifies as coming from lower level structures. Both acknowledge that patients with destroyed amygdalae can still experience fear, although generally only in response to a subset of the stimuli that cause it in healthy people.
And Panksepp admits early in his book that social learning has a major role to play in the final experience of felt emotions in the neocortex, which seems like a major concession to Barrett’s views.
One significant difference between them, which may come down to a definitional dispute, is whether animals have emotions. Panksepp, using his understanding of emotions, unequivocally considered animals to have them. Barrett, while admitting some great apes may come close, doesn’t think animals have much beyond what she considers affects. In her view, most species lack the neural machinery to learn emotions the way a human does.
My own reaction to all of this is similar to how I view consciousness, as a multi-level phenomenon. It seems pointless to argue about how and where emotions arise unless we can agree on definitions. I perceive most, though not all, of the disagreement between Barrett and Panksepp to amount to a difference in definition, in what is meant by the word “emotion”.
Regardless of how we label them, it seems like what we experience as emotions start as lower level reflexes in sub-cerebral regions, which reach cortical regions as primal feelings. Over a lifetime, the interpretation of these primal feelings change and evolve into what we commonly refer to as emotional feelings.
It seems like there’s a major divide here between interoception, sensory perceptions from the body, and exteroception, perceptions from distance senses such as sight, hearing, and smell. We probably have strong innate primal responses to certain interoceptive sensations, but mostly have to learn which exteroceptive ones to link to those primal responses.
In other words, we don’t have to learn that a stinging sensation on our hand is bad. We likely know that innately. But we do have to learn (as I once did as a small child) that sticking our hand in an anthill will result in the bad stinging sensation. Once we’ve done it the first time, our amygdala will link the memory of an anthill to the negative valence of a stinging hand.
So emotions, it seems to me, have an innate core and a learned response. Crucially, introspectively separating the learned response from the innate primal feeling is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible. This is why anthropologists can often say that emotions are not universal across all cultures. In their final learned form, we shouldn’t expect them to be.
What do you think? Do you see any issues with either Barrett’s or Panksepp’s view? Or my own syncretized one? Am I missing anything?