A neuroscientist explains why we need better ways to talk about emotions

A neuroscientist explains why we need better ways to talk about emotions

We still don’t know what an emotion is

Pixar’s Inside Out is a charming, creative film — that “provides a good example of many common but incorrect assumptions about emotion.” That’s according to Ralph Adolphs and David Anderson, both professors of neuroscience at Caltech and the authors of The Neuroscience of Emotion(Princeton University Press).

A neuroscientist explains why we need better ways to talk about emotions 1


Watching the film you’d think, for example, that there are just a few primary emotions, that emotions have mostly external causes, that they’re like reflexes, and that specific emotions cause specific behavior. In short, you’d think that we know a lot more about emotions than we actually do. “We think that because we feel emotions — we feel happy or sad or angry — that we’re an expert on them, but that’s not the case,” says Adolphs.

When it comes to the neuroscience of emotion, say Adolphs and Anderson, there are plenty of exciting new findings, but we still lack a foundational understanding. The Verge spoke to Adolphs about the big questions remaining in emotion research, interesting new tools, and why we’re talking about emotions all wrong. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

First off, I’m curious to know: What are some of the unanswered questions that we still have around the science of emotions?

Well, one is just “how many emotions are there?” And then: what are emotions? A lot of theories have focused less on “what is an emotion?” and instead tried to go, “how many are there? here is a list” but we don’t know the answer to either. We’re still a very long distance from understanding how to categorize emotions.

Is it just happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust? Are there broader dimensions? What about jealousy and awe and embarrassment? It’s cultural too. I’m German, and in Germany we have schadenfreude, gloating at other people’s misfortune. Now, we don’t have a word for that in English, and ditto for different words in different languages around the world. So there’s this big cultural and linguistic component that’s also difficult to take into account when it comes to coming up with a scientific taxonomy of what emotions are.

One of the key ideas of the book is that scientists aren’t being clear enough when we talk about “emotion,” and that’s hampering understanding. Can you explain what that means?

If you look at the way psychologists talk about emotion, or neurobiologists, they often have very different concepts and very different approaches and don’t make it clear they’re not talking about the same thing. There’s no good framework or clear definition.

Take the state of fear. In animals, we can study the neural circuits and what’s happening in the brain that make them run away. Humans also have this conscious, subjective feeling of being afraid, but we don’t know how to measure that feeling properly. And then we think about feeling afraid — we have all types of thoughts in our head, and that’s not something animals do. They don’t think about being afraid, they’re just afraid!

So when we talk about fear, there are multiple multiple processes. The part that’s easiest to study is the first one, the biological state of an emotion instead of its conscious experience or thinking about being afraid. You could say that the prescription of the book is to try to simplify and clarify what it is that we’re studying. Other fields make this distinction without much problem.


What’s an example of other fields making this distinction?

There are scientists who study vision. My iPhone has machine vision and facial recognition, but nobody seems to think that my iPhone is having a conscious visual experience. So there’s a lot of neuroscience about how vision works and how the eye and retina and visual cortex work, but none of that says anything about the conscious experience of seeing.

We should do the same thing with emotion: Study the processes — like a stimulus that is a threat — separate from the conscious experience. It’s not that the conscious experience is unimportant or that it shouldn’t be studied, we just need to separate out the two things.

So do you think we need to change the language? Stop calling it “emotion”?

No, just be clear with terms. Right now, people don’t clarify what they’re talking about and so you can read a book on emotion and they’re talking about something completely different than anybody else. People just talk past one another. Emotions are extremely important, and we need to step back and have a foundation instead of charging ahead, especially now that we have really powerful methods like using optogenetics [using light to control cells] in mice or using fMRI to scan human brains.

What’s some new emotion research you’re excited about?

You can get very interesting results with these two methods. For example, David Anderson has shown that you can very precisely control the activity of a very small number of cells in the mouse brain and make them behave aggressively. That’s a powerful finding. There’s other cool stuff with fMRI where people can look at the pattern of activity in somebody’s brain and decode what particular emotion they might be feeling. But again, what does it mean? How do you interpret this? With the mouse example, are you really inducing an emotion, or are you just producing a behavior? We need to build this foundational knowledge of what emotions are so we can interpret these findings. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

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