My problems with the Constructed Theory of Emotions

Updated June 2024

I finally finished reading a book.

It took me three years to read.



And it’s not because I’m a slow reader. I plowed through Brandon Sanderson’s 1100-page brick The Way of Kings in less than a day. So why, then, did this particular book take me so long?

Well, before I tell you, let me frame the context.

It’s a book that’s getting a lot of traction amongst animal trainers lately, specifically amongst the behaviour analytic crowd.

The book is called How Emotions Are Made, and it’s by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of Psychology and a neuroscientist. In the book she makes a big, and in many peoples’ eyes, compelling, case of emotions being constructed rather than innate.
So, many behaviour analysts love the book, and I feel like a complete dissenter in that crowd, because while they’re all nodding in agreement, I shake my head thinking that some of the main conclusions in the book are seriously flawed.

Swimming against the behaviour analytical crowd

We’ll get to my objections in a minute, but let’s start with: what is the central idea behind the Constructed Theory of Emotions?

What the Constructed Theory of Emotions (CToE) is all about.

The case Barrett makes is that rather than being innate, emotions are constructed.

According to the CToE, emotions are not our reactions to the world, they are our constructions of the world. The theory suggests that our past experiences guide us in making sense of incoming stimuli, and emotions would then be actively constructed from sensory input, previous learning, and language.

In the book, Barrett goes on a quest looking for what she refers to as “fingerprints of emotions”; looking for evidence that humans would have innate facial expressions indicating different emotional states, or that these different emotional states would be processed in specific parts of the brain; in a “fear center” or an “anger center”, for instance.

Her conclusion is that we do not have innate facial expressions related to emotions, but rather, we learned for instance to smile when happy by watching others do it, and she also rejects the notion that categories of emotion such as sadness, fear or anger would take place in a distinct brain location, or brain blobs, as she jokingly calls it, but rather she leans on a body of research that proposes that each instance of emotion is a whole-brain state; emotional processing taking place throughout the whole brain at once.

She rejects what she refers to as the “classic” view of emotions being innate.

“Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience”.(p 40)

Human infants don’t feel emotions, according to Barrett, because they lack the rich set of concepts required to construct them. They do feel affect, though: pleasant or unpleasant sensations, but not fear, sadness or joy.

Barrett also suggests that if someone doesn’t have a concept to describe an emotion, they won’t be able to perceive it. They might still feel the bodily sensations associated with the experience, but won’t be able to label them precisely.

In other words, according to the CToE, the range of emotions a person can experience is limited by their emotional granularity – the ability to construct and identify more precise emotional experiences. And language is crucial here – without language, there would be simply pleasant or unpleasant feelings (affect), and specific emotions concept are not constructed until we start labelling them, using language. According to Barrett, a person with low emotional granularity may experience a stomachache in a particular situation, in contrast to a person with a more granular emotional vocabulary, who might experience anger in the same context.

That is, animals don’t experience emotions, according to the CToE: they simply feel affect. Since they lack language, they can’t categorize emotions, and they go through the world experiencing pleasant and unpleasant situations, and reacting with different degrees of arousal – but not emotions as such. No fear, anger, sadness, joy.

The reason why we think animals feel emotions, according to the CToE, is because we feel emotions, and we anthropomorphize and project. To paraphrase Lisa Feldman Barrett, humans might perceive a dog crouching with ears back and lip licking as fearful, when in fact all he’s feeling is an unpleasant experience, not “fear”.

Barrett suggests that we think animals have emotions because we make the mental inference fallacy: we unknowingly apply our own emotion concepts to the behaviours we observe in the animal, and we wrongly attribute emotions to those behaviours.

“Construction views of emotion are frequently misinterpreted as saying “dogs don’t have emotions”[…] Such simplistic statements are meaningless because they assume emotions have essences so that they can exist, or not, independent of any perceiver. But emotions are perceptions, and every perception requires a perceiver. And therefore every question about an instance of emotion must be asked from a particular point of view.” (p 272)

So, in Barrett’s view, emotions are the concepts we make up when we think about how we feel in situations characterized by some type of affect – but those affects themselves are just somewhere on the scale from pleasant to unpleasant, or characterized by a certain degree of arousal. There’s no such “thing” as fear, rage or happiness, neither for humans, nor for animals.

This, in short, is my understanding of the central themes of the book and the conclusions relevant for those of us interested in animal behaviour and welfare.

And I have major problems with these conclusions. In fact, when first reading the book, I finished chapter 1 and thought “this is clearly wrong”, and so I put the book aside, waiting for someone to debunk it – so that I wouldn’t have to.

And then I waited a couple of years, but I never came across any such critique – and yet I see parts of the world of animal training accepting the teachings of the CToE as absolute and irrefutable; I’ve even attended a conference where a leading Behaviour Analyst suggested that we throw out all our old literature on emotion from our bookshelves, more or less hailing the CToE as the new gospel.

So, since there seems to be no critique forthcoming, I finally bit the bullet and sat down to read the book – so that I could write one, at long last.

I chose to write it in blog form rather than a formal scientific paper, because then a) I don’t have to provide academic references for every other statement, and b) I can easily edit and revise any of the no doubt numerous mistakes and misinterpretations I’m about to make.

So, fair warning: this blog post may evolve as my understanding of these concepts change.

After all, that’s what science is all about. Trying to make sense of the world through observation, experiment and civil discussion – and our scientific ideas and theories changing over time as we learn more.

One reason I suspect that there will be revisions of this blog post is that I’m no neuroscientist or statistician. A lot of the information in the book is simply beyond my area of expertise, and I don’t know enough about the subject matter to assess whether experiments were well executed and actually measured what they claimed to measure.

But those shortcomings won’t stop me from writing this post, because I do feel confident and competent enough to raise objections to the CToE from one particular area, and that is the evolutionary perspective. Being an associate professor of ethology, I’m on reasonably solid ground here.

And from the evolutionary perspective, the Constructed Theory of Emotions is plain wrong.

And here’s why.

The evolutionary perspective.

Whenever we come up with a theory that might explain behavioural or morphological traits in humans or other animals, we must start by doing a quick check whether it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Sort of like a litmus test. Does our new theory make sense? If yes, then we can move on and try to figure out the details.

If the novel theory doesn’t make sense from the evolutionary perspective, then we need to throw it out and start over.

Does the theory make sense from the evolutionary perspective?

And let’s be clear: everything in biology must make sense from an evolutionary perspective. Unless we’re counting on divine intervention or extraterrestrials to have played any role in how the human condition came about, our biological world, and humans within it, evolved under the unforgiving rule of natural selection.

Generally speaking, only the best adapted individuals survive, over time.

Typically, one way that we evolutionary biologists tackle this topic is by asking a very simple question.

“Would someone with this trait do better, or worse, than someone without this trait?”

In this particular case the question would be: “would someone who constructed emotions do better, or worse, than someone who didn’t construct emotions?”, or perhaps rather “would someone who constructed emotions do better, or worse, than someone who had innate emotions?”

Which strategy is the most effective?

To answer that question, let’s do a little thought experiment.

Let’s say we live in a group of pre-historic humans.

And let’s say that, within this hypothetical group, there are, thanks to some random mutations, two main strategies with regards to emotions: a number of individuals who have the strategy of Innate Emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness etc. And one subset of the group has the strategy of Constructed Emotions: they learn through experience what to do and how to name the affects they experience in different contexts.

Now, imagine belonging to the second group, and you’re standing there on the savannah, digging for some yummy roots, and all of a sudden there’s a pre-historic big cat with huge fangs rushing towards you.

The theory of constructed emotions would then suggest that you may experience an unpleasant reaction, and perhaps get increased arousal… and then what?

Without any previous experiences of being ran at by huge-fanged cats, the theory suggests that you experiment to see what works best, and learn from your actions. Perhaps try running. Perhaps try yawning. Perhaps freezing in place, immobile. Perhaps keep digging.

A thousand options. Take your pick.

And the outcomes of those options will be decided by trial and error. Sometimes you choose a good option, and succeed.

Only, and here’s the problem, in some situations, such as when a big fanged cat is sprinting towards you, the errors will get you killed. Out of the four behaviours I listed, only one is likely to lead to survival in this context – running.

But let’s say there’s another human in that pre-historic group, one that has a propensity of showing innate emotional responses, such as running-in-the-face-of-danger. Another strategy.

So, whenever that person sees a big kitty rushing towards him, he’ll get not just an unpleasant feeling, but a fear reaction, and start running. Or show another behaviour that’s part of the cluster of fear-related behaviours.

And so, the person-who-shows-fear-related-behaviours-such-as-running-from-cats is much more likely to survive a random cat attack than the person-who-experiments-and-learns-from-trial-and-error.

And in the next generation, the genes from the one-who-runs-from-cats will be more prevalent than the genes from the one-who-experiments.

Until finally, the one-who-experiments has gone extinct.

This is natural selection at work.

And that’s why I first stopped reading the book How Emotions Are Made after the first chapter, because the theory of constructed emotions violates some basic tenets of evolutionary theory: the concept of learned emotions is simply not an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS). The moment a more effective alternative strategy, such as having innate emotions, is introduced, it will start invading and eventually replacing the unstable strategy of learned emotions, over evolutionary time.

And again, if we want to understand behaviour, we must bring in the evolutionary perspective; the theories that we formulate must make sense when seen through the evolutionary lens.

But in How Emotions Are Made, the adaptive perspective is completely lacking. Nowhere does Barrett discuss which adaptive value emotions might have.

And that is my main concern with that book, and the theory of constructed emotions: it doesn’t make sense from the evolutionary perspective; it doesn’t even discuss adaptation in any way that makes sense.

Indeed, when Barrett mentions Darwin, it’s for two reasons:

  • Either she points out that one of the central tenets of the theory of evolution is variability. And that’s true: thanks to mutations, novel genes, novel behaviours and traits are slowly and constantly being introduced into the population.
  • She also argues that Darwin’s book the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals is essentialist (claiming traits having defined properties), stating that “natural selection is completely absent from Darwin’s thinking on emotion”. In this statement, Barrett exposes her own lack of understanding of evolutionary processes. What she fails to mention is that the other central tenet of evolutionary theory is natural selection: that only some of the above-mentioned novel mutations survive over evolutionary time. And that most often, natural selection is not an arbitrary killer, but actually favours adaptiveness: selecting traits and behaviours that increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction of the individuals who carries certain gene variants in comparison with individuals who lack those gene variants. And, as we saw above, any mutations leading to Constructed Emotions wouldn’t stand a chance in the evolutionary race against mutations leading to Innate Emotions.

Because of natural selection, certain gene variants will replace others within a population. Indeed, traits critical for survival get locked into the population; they become evolutionarily stable. Yes, there may still be variation, but that variation is around the new mean, the trait that currently survives the best in the current ecological niche. So, I would argue that Darwin’s book on emotions is not a reflection of essentialism, but rather, adaptionism. A set of emotions evolved because they had tremendous survival value for the individuals who carried those genes – at the expense of those who didn’t. That’s not to say that every single emotion felt by modern humans has tremendous survival value, but the ones put forth by Jaak Panksepp (see below) certainly do.

Also, I believe that the variation that we see in the expression of emotional behaviour in different animals shows that it’s not a case of essentialism, but rather behaviours with similar function adapted to different ecological niches. And naturally, these behaviours will also change through learning, too. Those innate predispositions will be refined through each individual’s unique learning experiences.

Barrett completely misses the significance of the adaptive value of emotions, and indeed, she doesn’t discuss how and when they arose, evolutionarily. Given that she argues that language is a prerequisite for emotions, would it be during the Cognitive Revolution, when the cave paintings started showing up, about 70.000 years ago? Or would it be when the first Homo sapiens appeared, some 200.000 years ago? Or perhaps during the time of Homo erectus, a couple of million years ago? Or how about H habilis?

And how did it all evolve, which came first? The sensation and concurrent action, or the ability to name the sensation? Without both, we wouldn’t have emotions, according to Barrett. I would argue that the sensation/action came first, and the ability to name it came second. Why? Because the action associated with the sensation has clear adaptive advantage, the ability to name it doesn’t to the same degree, if at all.

In “How Emotions Are Made” none of this evolutionary perspective is present. Barrett almost exclusively discusses modern humans, humans for whom emotions serve to consider things like meeting a friend, receiving a gift, hearing favourite music, or arguing with the significant other. She discusses whether stomach butterflies are a sign of infatuation or a viral infection, or that “being angry at the boss” may take the form of silently plotting, yelling or whispering threats.

So, these are Barrett’s examples, from the human experience in the 21st century. And I would argue that these types of examples are completely irrelevant when discussing how emotions evolved. These everyday modern low-stake experiences don’t explain why emotions evolved – in high-stakes situations.

And again, we can’t understand behaviour without the evolutionary perspective, and so in order to understand how emotions came about, we can’t look at the lives and woes of modern humans, but rather we must understand human behaviour from the evolutionary perspective and ask ourselves under which circumstances emotional reactions would be adaptive, that is, save lives.

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, and even during most of the 10.000 generations we’ve enjoyed as Homo sapiens, life was incredibly hard: it’s been estimated that half the children born did not survive beyond their tenth birthday, and life expectancy was about 30 years. I propose that under such conditions, we were not “architects of our own experience” as Barrett puts it, but rather seeds to the wind.

We’ll only understand how emotions came about if we take the evolutionary perspective: how did emotional reactions help us survive critical situations?

We can’t understand how emotions came about by looking at modern humans; I firmly believe that emotions evolved to have some type of function that saved lives in some prehistoric Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), and the crucially important emotions all lead to some type of physical action:

  • Running or hiding from predators (FEAR)
  • Fighting if caught by a predator (RAGE)
  • Caring for offspring (CARE)
  • Finding and securing a mate (LUST)
  • Vocalizing and actively trying to find companions if suddenly alone (GRIEF)
  • Exploring the environment and searching for resources (SEEKING)
  • Rambunctiously tumbling about and having fun with others (PLAY)

The actions listed above are just examples from a cluster of potential behaviours that may be displayed for each of these contexts. The seven core emotions listed above (using Jaak Panksepp’s terminology in caps) all make sense from the evolutionary perspective: having these innate responses kick in in response to challenges will help the animal (or human!) survive and reproduce more effectively than an individual who doesn’t show these innate responses, which makes Innate Emotions an Evolutionary Stable Strategy (an ESS) – which, again, the Theory of Constructed Emotions is not.

Emotions serve to launch actions – and these actions are the difference between life or death. This, in my opinion, is how we should attempt to understand and unravel emotions. We won’t understand emotions by talking about how happy we get when we meet Uncle Kevin, or how nostalgic we feel when we remember Grandma’s baking.

Barrett writes: “An instance of emotion, constructed from a prediction, tailors your action to meet a particular goal in a particular situation, using past experience as a guide.”(p 139)

This is the key misunderstanding, in my mind: that sometimes there is no past experience to serve as a guide! That approach will likely get you killed when attacked by a fanged big cat – it’s maladaptive. In contrast, the adaptive response includes some innate predisposition to behave emotionally in a certain manner in a certain context, and then over time, as we learn and acquire experience, we may then tailor our actions to meet that particular goal even more effectively in the future.

Barrett doesn’t discuss Panksepp’s work in any length in her book, other than saying that “some scientists still presume that all vertebrates share preserved, core emotion circuits to justify the claim that animals feel as humans do. One prominent neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, routinely invites his audiences to see evidence of such circuits in his photos of growling dogs and hissing cats, and in videos of baby birds “crying for their mothers”. It is doubtful, however, that these proposed emotion circuits exist in any animal brain. You do have survival circuits for behaviors like the famous four Fs (fighting, fleeing, feeding and mating); they’re controlled by body-budgeting regions in your interoceptive network, and they cause bodily changes that you experience as affect, but they are not dedicated to emotion. For emotion, you also need emotion concepts for categorization.”(p 279)

I must confess I am puzzled by these statements. For starters, she dismisses Panksepp without discussing his findings that emotional responses can only be triggered subcortically in specific locations (is she saying he falsified his data, then?). Also, she acknowledges the four F – types of behaviours but claims that they’re associated with “affect” but not “emotion” without any further explanation – which in a way suggests that this whole discussion is about semantics rather than whether or not specific behavioural systems evolved to resolve different types of critical situations.

Indeed, Panksepp distinguishes three levels of emotional processing, primary level processing (the 7 Core emotions listed above and originating subcortically), secondary level processing (learning, expanding to other regions in the brain) and tertiary level processing (thoughts about emotions; involving the cortex). It would seem that Barrett only considers the tertiary level “emotions”, calling the rest “affect”..?

So, how we define “emotion” matters. In my understanding, evolution granted us some core affective reactions that have survival value and that can’t rely on words to be effective, since they are shared by all mammals. These primary level affective reactions must therefore occur without words, and perhaps then also without concepts. I choose to call these primary level affective reactions emotions, Barrett does not.

And you may think of emotions as subjective experiences, feelings. Sensations in the body and mind. The elation of joy, the pain of loss, the terror of fear. In our day-to-day modern lives, that’s often how they make themselves known, through subjective sensations.

That’s how we primarily experience them, so that’s what catches our attention. But that doesn’t explain why they evolved.

Emotions didn’t evolve so that we could just feel them.

They evolved to spur us into life-saving action. Emotion is “energy in motion” and the word is derived from a Latin verb meaning “to move.” Emotions came about as innate responses to challenges. Which is why I believe that those four Fs that Barrett dismisses as a result of affect would also be involved in emotion.

Thus follows that we should be able to find out how these Core Emotions, crucial for survival, are processed in the brain. Since they must be innate, we expect there to be different areas of the brain dedicated to dealing with these crucial challenges. We expect a blueprint that can spring into action without any prior learning – we expect Core Emotions to involve specific brain regions.

We don’t expect every single emotion that’s known to mankind to involve specific brain regions, but specifically those with tremendous survival value.

I can think of seven, identified by Jaak Panksepp and colleagues: CARE, GRIEF, PLAY, LUST, SEEKING, FEAR, and RAGE: the Core Emotions.

And again, Panksepp identified these 7 Core Emotions by sending small electrical currents through subcortical brain regions of multiple species of animals including humans, and noting that they all responded with similar reactions indicating similar emotional responses, each originating in a distinct area in the brain. His human subjects would show specific emotional facial expressions and report corresponding emotional reactions when each specific area of the brain was stimulated.

Note that what he found typically involved emotions being triggered in the different subcortical areas, and then rapidly spreading throughout other areas in the brain. This is in contrast to the so-called “classical” view that Barrett purports in her book: as far as I understand she suggests that the “classical” view would view emotions as localized only to specific areas in the brain rather than spreading from specific areas.

Note also that Panksepp could only trigger emotional reactions in the subcortical areas, the most ancient parts of the brain whose structures are roughly similar in all mammals and birds. He couldn’t trigger emotional reactions by stimulating the cortex.

Panksepp also found that several of the core emotions are active when animals are young, and diminish as they grow older: when higher brain functions take over, and become more dependent on learned behavioural strategies.

In the book The Constructed Theory of Emotions, Lisa Feldman Barrett completely ignores Panksepp’s and his coworkers’ 30+ years of data. She does not refute it or point out if and why it’s erroneous – she simply ignores it.

Rather, she says that there’s no evidence that specific emotions are processed in specific regions of the brain, and she bases most of that assertion on a big meta-analysis.


Fair warning, I’m leaving safe ground now. I’m an ethologist, not a statistician, and even though I did study statistics as part of my phD, it was never my strong suit. So what follows could be wrong in several ways, and I’m counting on you, my statistics-minded reader, to set me straight.

A meta-analysis is a way to combine and analyze data from multiple studies. In this way, effect estimates are obtained with greater precision due to the increase of the sample size, and it’s considered the pinnacle of scientific evidence, the type of study that can decide a controversial issue once and for all. Meta-analyses carry tremendous weight and are the highest level of evidence, because they consider all the available data and pool results to summarize a whole body of research.

And that’s what Barrett and coworkers did:

“So, my lab set out to settle the question of whether brain blobs are really emotion fingerprints once and for all. We examined every published neuroimaging study on anger, disgust, happiness, fear and sadness, and combined those that were usable statistically in a meta-analysis. […] Overall, we found that no brain region contained the fingerprint for any single emotion. […] For me, these findings have been the final, definitive nail in the coffin for localizing emotions to individual parts of the brain.”(p 21-22).

So, if a meta-analysis pooling “every study” together draws the conclusion that there are no specific brain regions involved in any specific emotions, that must be true, right?

Nail in the coffin, right?


I’m having huge doubts, for a couple of reasons.

One of the limitations of a meta-analysis is that in order to be able to include data into the analysis, the data need to be similar, and measure the same thing in the same way.

The data must not be heterogeneous, as it were.

If it’s heterogeneous, the variability in the data will obscure any true findings, and we risk a false negative outcome.

Apparently it’s one of the more common mistakes people make when conducting a meta-analysis: combining heterogeneous data. One study suggested that about 3,75% of currently published meta-analyses are decent and clinically useful, the other 96,25% being flawed beyond repair, misleading, decent but useless or redundant.

Chew on that for a bit.

96% of meta analyses lacking in some way. So we should always be critical thinkers when faced with them, even in peer-reviewed published papers in prestigious journals.

So, rather than taking Barrett’s meta-analysis at face value, I questioned it. After all, it only had 3,75% chance of being decent and clinically useful.

And after reading through the abstracts of the 60 first references of the studies included in the meta-analysis, I quickly discovered that the data included were not measuring the same thing, and they were also not collected in the same way; rather it was extremely heterogeneous.

Here’s how emotional reactions were triggered in some of the studies in the meta-analysis, using either fMRI or PET (measuring blood flow versus blood oxygenation):

  • Film-induced sadness/amusement
  • Looking at neutral and negative scenes
  • Looking at angry and fearful faces / sadness
  • Looking at happy/fearful faces and hearing happy/fearful voices (or mix)
  • Passively viewing emotion words
  • Matching emotional face with words
  • Viewing photo of beloved while being in love
  • Watching a filmed bank robbery in which they had been the victim.
  • Recalling emotional situations that they have lived through: (sadness, happiness, anger, fear, disgust)
  • Listening to an autobiographic narrative meant to cause anger
  • Listening to angry prosody in meaningless speech
  • Olfaction / tastes and core affect space
  • Pairing faces to neutral, pleasant and unpleasant odors
  • Listening to music that produces the chills
  • Mentally preparing a speech to be presented to a panel of professors and experts
  • Comparing depressed / healthy people viewing sad film
  • Comparing panic disorders/ controls viewing anxiety-inducing images
  • Comparing borderline / controls viewing aversive and neutral images

In other words, the data was all over the place, both with regards to measuring technique (fMRI versus PET), which purported emotion they were measuring, how that emotional reaction was triggered, which sensory system was involved in processing the trigger, whether the study involved primary, secondary or tertiary level emotional processing, whether the studies looked at emotion experience, perception, memory or categorization, as well as the emotional baseline state of the person when the experiment started.

Not to mention that all of these were carried out on humans who were aware of being part of an experiment, so one might question perhaps how authentic the purported emotional reaction would be to, for instance, listening to an autobiographic narrative meant to cause anger in such a highly contrived scenario. Might we expect “real” anger to be triggered and processed differently in the brain? And is a social evaluative threat, fear of giving a speech in front of an audience, really fear – or some other emotion, such as embarrassment?

In other words: garbage in – garbage out.

Meta – Schmeta.

Just because you can throw a bunch of numbers into the same mathematical pot, doesn’t mean you should.

Another problem I have is that the findings of a particular meta-analysis may be valid only for a population with the same characteristics as those investigated in the study. In other words, the results of Barrett’s meta-analysis would be valid for people undergoing this type of contrived experiment, where “emotions” (if that is indeed what they are) are triggered by images, video, odors or sounds while strapped into a laboratory apparatus. We can’t extrapolate to real-life situations, because that’s not what they studied – and we don’t know how well biologically meaningful situations correlate with these artificial experimental set-ups.

Also, due to ethical reasons, truly distressing emotions are never evoked in these types of experimental studies included in the meta-analysis – so we simply don’t know what goes on in human brains experiencing intense negative emotions.

Another issue with Barrett’s nail-in-the-coffin meta-analysis that makes no sense to me whatsoever is that Barrett and coworkers chose to virtually divide the brain into tiny 3D-cubes (voxels) to analyze the data:

“For every voxel in the brain during every emotion studied in every experiment, we recorded whether or not an increase in activation was reported.”(p 21)

And here’s my problem: when looking for brain blobs (or localized networks dedicated to processing different emotional states), the voxeling approach can lead to either false negatives or false positives depending on the chosen voxel size.

Let’s look at two hypothetical scenarios to illustrate my objection.

First, since no two human brains are exactly similar in structure, a specific voxel, if small enough, may be located in different structural regions in two brains. So, even though the same brain region were activated in both brains, different voxels would be activated – a false negative.

Scenario 1 – small voxels. Activation (the red/yellow smudge) occurs in the same region of the same brain blob, but since that particular blob differs in size in the two brains, different voxels would be scored in the two brains (6G and 7H, respectively). In other words: a false negative.
The risk of a false negative is increased with reduced voxel size.

Indeed, in chapter 11 Barrett writes: “No two brains are exactly alike. They generally have the same parts, roughly in the same place, connected together in pretty much the same way, but at a fine-grained level, in their microcircuitry, they have vast differences” (p 230). This statement, to me, completely invalidates the voxeling approach.

But we’re not done yet – there’s also hypothetical scenario two – when voxel sizes are too large.

Scenario 2 – big voxels. Activation occurs in different brain blobs, but the same voxel is scored (4D). In other words: a false positive.
The risk of a false positive is increased with increased voxel size. 

I would argue that the choice of voxel size for this study is thus most likely biased: if one wishes to prove that brain blobs don’t exist, one is more likely to choose small voxels and obtain a negative result that proves one’s thesis – so that one can triumphantly proclaim that one has successfully hammered the final “nail in the coffin”.

Even if we assume that we could find a balanced voxel size that would yield neither false negatives nor false positives, that would probably only be true for some emotions and some brain blobs in some brains. Other emotions might involve other brain blobs, requiring a re-calibration of voxel size – and we would have no way of knowing if we had found that balance unless perhaps we also look at whether our voxels align with defined neurological structures that might house such brain blobs, such as amygdalas, hippocampuses (or is it –campi?) and whatnot. However, I doubt that those balanced voxel sizes even exist since no two brains are structurally identical – we will either fall into the false negative or the false positive error, and our biases will predispose us to choosing one or the other.

Meta-analyses are a controversial tool, because even small violations of certain rules can lead to misleading conclusions. Since multiple decisions when designing and performing a meta-analysis require personal judgment and expertise, there is a substantial risk of personal biases or expectations influencing the result.

Indeed, in his scathing critique of the current Meta-analysis fad, John Ioannides writes: “Ideally, people who have no stake in the results should perform systematic reviews and meta-analyses, excluding not only those with financial conflicts of interest but even those who are content experts in the field.”

In this case, omitting Panksepp’s data altogether (they were indeed missing despite the claim to include every published neuroimaging study) while throwing in a heterogeneous bag of other studies is a way of cherry picking data that concerns me, and I think that the findings reflect the biased selection of data, the heterogeneity, and the overwhelming risk of a false negative result obtained through voxeling.

Also, in the meta-analysis they tested the assumption that each emotion is processed only in one specific brain area, calling this the classical, locationist perspective, and they took any failure to find such associations to mean that emotions would be constructed, rather than innate. An alternative explanation may be rather that emotion processing is not limited to a single location but rather part of specific networks connecting several regions, extending throughout the brain – which in fact is what Panksepp has suggested all along. Brain regions do not function in isolation, but rather in the context of the networks to which they belong.

Others have criticized Barrett’s and coworker’s meta-analysis, and one of the most convincing arguments that I found was put forth by professor Andrea Scarantino:

The authors “…are open to the possibility that there may be “widely distributed” networks for discrete emotions, but argue that their existence “would be consistent with a psychological constructionist … view” (sect. 6.1, para. 4). I strongly disagree. Constructivism posits that discrete emotions are not causal entities in their own right, but rather, effects of more basic psychological processes. The existence of networks for discrete emotions would strike at the heart of this idea, vindicating instead the natural kind proposal that discrete emotions have ontological status as causal entities and are driven by distinctive, though distributed, neural mechanisms. [The authors have] built their argument such that if criteria for the locationist argument are not met, it is assumed to be support for the psychological constructionist perspective. This is misleading, and fails to recognize other possible explanations.”

Another shortcoming of the study was that fMRIs typically only capture the initial response to an emotional stimulus, and we know nothing of what happens over time; this type of measuring technique doesn’t capture the development of the emotional experience beyond the first second or so. Panksepp typically used PET studies rather than fMRIs, much for this reason if I’m not mistaken.

To summarize, it’s not surprising that the meta-analysis found nothing, or rather, it found a huge variability in how emotions are processed in the brain, given that the included data was too heterogeneous; despite the heterogeneity there was still cherry picking with critical studies omitted; the use of voxels rather than comparative anatomy may obscure any real findings and further increase the chance of false negatives, and we don’t know how well the contrived experimental set-up translates to real-life emotional reactions.

So, there’s no way of distinguishing whether those results were a false negative or a true negative result.

For me, Barrett’s meta-analysis was by no means any nail in the coffin with regards to how emotions are processed in the brain.

Indeed, using Ioannides’ classifications of published meta-analyses, Barrett’s nail-in-the-coffin one would classify both as flawed beyond repair (see the Catch 22-reasoning below) as well as misleading. Yes, that’s a harsh judgment coming from someone who doesn’t know much about statistics. I’ll grudgingly change my mind if you prove me wrong, though!

And even if I didn’t have these glaring objections to Barrett’s meta-analysis, I would still be concerned.


Because I would expect the brain to be involved, in some way. Since in the previous section we discussed the need to run from big fanged cats, that needs to be choreographed by the brain, without prior learning, somehow.

Yes, I would expect learning to occur, naturally, but I’d also expect innate emotional reactions orchestrated by different sections in the brain.

In other words, I’d expect to see what Panksepp actually did find.

Barrett writes: “I sometimes hear comments from emotion researchers who subscribe to the classic view: “what about these other 50 studies with these thousands of subjects, that show incontrovertible evidence for emotion fingerprints?” Yes, there are many such confirmatory studies, but a theory of emotion must explain all the evidence, not just the portion that supports the theory”. (p 22)

She makes a valid point that all evidence must be explained by a theory of emotion. But the studies of emotions in the brain carried out to date simply don’t lend themselves to a relevant meta-analysis, since they’re too heterogeneous, and any selection of studies to include into a homogeneous meta-analysis would be biased one way or another and contain only a fraction of the studies carried out.

Meta-analyses for emotion studies are a catch 22, as it were:

  • If we try to do a rigorous meta-analysis and only choose a homogeneous sample of studies measuring the same thing in the same way, the selection would have to be only a fraction of all emotion studies – with a huge risk of selection bias: choosing studies that prove one’s point.
  • If we try to include all studies (as Barrett and co-workers did), the selection will be heterogeneous – and there’s a huge risk of false negatives due to the noise in the data.

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. There’s simply no way to thread that meta-analysis needle, as far as I can tell.

Not sure why we would need one, though? Rather than insist that all emotion studies should obediently line up in a huge meta-analysis, couldn’t we flip the burden of proof and say: if emotions were truly constructed, how come those 50 studies showed evidence of emotions being processed in the same parts in those thousands of brains? Wouldn’t we expect complete variability within each of these studies if emotions were indeed constructed?

Also, one disturbing omission in the book is a discussion on neurotransmitters. Barrett searches for, and dismisses, “fingerprints” on emotions related to facial expressions, and brain areas involved in emotions. But she doesn’t address what we know about neurotransmitters associated with emotions (oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins, and endogenous cannabinoids to mention a few), how they are involved in emotional reactions or how the synapses where they take action are distributed throughout the brain. How well do these findings reconcile with a Constructed Theory of Emotion? I suspect not well at all, but I could be wrong.

Let’s leave the brain behind and move on to another topic: whether facial expressions are innate or rather learned, as suggested by Lisa Feldman Barrett and the Theory of Constructed Emotions.

Facial expressions

In the book, Barrett shows snapshot images of partial facial expressions, making the relevant observation that we can’t reliably decode an emotion from seeing an image of a part of a facial expression.

Rafael Nadal winning the Olympic Gold Medal. One may mistake his facial expression for terror if one doesn’t have the whole context.

Barrett then goes on to make the case that we can’t tell emotions from facial expressions because they’re too variable, and it’s only in context that we understand what the person might be experiencing, and on top of that it’s only if we share similar learned expectations about what facial expressions should mean (smiling means happy, frowning means angry, etc) that we can interpret them.

I disagree.

Rather, I would say that we didn’t evolve to decipher emotions from snapshots of partial facial expressions, so we shouldn’t expect to be able to do that. We evolved to understand a subset of facial expressions unfolding in real life and over time in relevant contexts.

Again, everything in biology must be understood from the evolutionary perspective.

So, the crucial question is: when would innate facial expressions be adaptive? If we look at what type of situations that we would expect to result in adaptive stereotypical facial expressions or body language signals, it would be in some social contexts, such as to signal intent (benign or malign), as well as to realign the face or body to better deal with environmental challenges (the scrunchy nose face that’s often associated with disgust for instance, may serve to close the nasal passage protecting it from dangerous fumes, and squinting our eyes shields them from damage).

And in my understanding, the human smile doesn’t necessarily mean “happy”, but rather it’s a social signal of benign intent. From the evolutionary perspective, it’s highly adaptive to be able to recognize if a person has benign or malign intent even from a distance, and so we would expect that there would be a selection pressure favouring that type of signaling.

But again, the adaptive perspective is completely lacking in Barrett’s book. She simply concludes that decades of studies of facial expression are faulty, that we learned to smile by watching TV, and so she rejects the notion of innate facial expressions altogether.

In Barrett’s words, according to the classical view, “emotions are supposed to have universal fingerprints that everyone around the world can recognize from birth”. (p 43)

I’m not sure who claims this – who makes that argument? Over and over while reading the book, I get the feeling that much like Don Quijote, she’s tilting at windmills. She’s attacking a straw man, one that doesn’t exist. The simplistic “classical view of emotions” that she attacks isn’t actually argued by anyone, as far as I’m aware. There are more than 92 definitions of “emotion” in the scientific literature – which is the “classic” one?

As to her quote above, from the evolutionary perspective, I would neither suppose that every single emotion is matched by a specific facial expression, nor that we could necessarily be able to recognize those expressions from birth. There’s no adaptive reasoning that would suggest that any of those two statements would be true.

I won’t go into much detail of Barrett’s arguments here, but Paul Ekman defends his research on facial expressions here, and a Nature paper summarizes much of the controversy here.

Here’s a passage that I had to read several times, though, feeling my jaw drop.

“The historical record implies that ancient Romans did not smile spontaneously when they were happy. The word “smile” doesn’t even exist in Latin. Smiling was invented in the Middle Ages and broad toothy-mouthed smiles […] became popular only in the eighteenth century as dentistry became more accessible and affordable. The classics scholar Mary Beard summarizes the nuances of the point: “This is not to say that Romans never curled up the edges of their mouths in a formation that would look to us much like a smile; of course they did. But such curling did not mean very much in the range of significant social and cultural gestures in Rome.” “ (p 51)

I’m not sure on which data this classic scholar rests the conviction that Romans didn’t smile, and although I’m fascinated by the idea of time travel, in my mind the only two relevant sources might be literature, or art.

I would not take the lack of discussions of social smiling in the Roman literature to necessarily mean that people didn’t smile: the absence of evidence is by no means evidence of absence.

But even more importantly, I can think of one huge reason why smiling would be expected to be absent from Roman art: because smiling would indicate benign intent. And when you’re getting your formal portrait made, whether you want to come off as powerful or friendly will surely differ depending on the cultural climate. And I can think of no epoch when the projection of power were more important than during the Roman era.

The Roman emperor Caracalla. Friendly or powerful?

We always need to think about alternative explanations to our observations, and the lack of smiling portraits or sculptures from the Roman era might either mean that people didn’t smile at all, as Barrett assumes, or that smiling wasn’t something that was captured in art during that particular era – which in my mind is a vastly more plausible explanation.

As to the statement that “the word “smile” doesn’t even exist in Latin”, what about subridere? Does it not mean “smile”, or is it not Latin?

Silent bared-teeth displays, signaling benign intent, is shown in gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and macaques – our closest relatives. To suggest that smiling in humans came about in the Middle Ages doesn’t align well with these comparative findings. Frankly, it’s preposterous.

Silent bare-teeth displays in primates tend to signal benign intent (in the contexts of greeting, submission, or sexual behaviour, for instance). It’s been hypothesized that the silent bare-teeth display is the precursor of the human smile, and that the relaxed-open-mouth-display (not shown here, but also seen in many primate species in playful situations) is the precursor of human laugher.

In my opinion, Barrett throws the baby out with the bathwater by suggesting that all facial expressions are learned, rather than some being innate. Looking at someone’s face and understanding their emotional state and intention – without prior learning – has tremendous adaptive value. We’re often more honest in our facial expressions than what we communicate verbally. What we say about our emotions is often incomplete, faulty and adapted for the public – censured.

Besides, if emotional facial expressions were truly learned, surely there’d be more variability? Would smiling-when-greeting-a-friend or frowning-when-annoyed be that ubiquitous, seen in all cultures around the globe? If they were truly culturally transmitted, wouldn’t we expect as much variability in facial expressions as in, say, language?

The importance of the discussion climate

So why did it take me 3 years to read How Emotions Are Made? Well, to me personally it was an extremely aversive read, and after the first chapter I put it aside and kept stewing over it for a very long time before I picked it up again, months later. Here are the main reasons why it was so difficult:

  • Barrett challenged my core beliefs: I’m a firm believer in emotions being innate, and she kept telling me I was wrong.
  • Her tone of voice while telling me I was wrong was extremely condescending, and I’m a sensitive person prone to indignation and affront when patronized. My adrenaline kept spiking, so I kept putting the book down.
  • I felt myself disagreeing with many of the scientific studies reported in the book (I’ve only mentioned a few of those disagreements in this blog post, but there’s more!), which made reading on very difficult because I got so biased to thinking that I would continue to disagree. I actually found that I was mostly in agreement about chapter 9, though!

So, rather than convert me, the book did the opposite: I finally plowed through it on sheer willpower (lots of chocolate as reinforcement after each chapter), and put it down being even more convinced that I was right. I realize this might sound like quite the absurd reaction, and part of it has to do with the Semmelweiss effect and the backfire effect, two cognitive biases that both kicked in.

But also, I truly believe that the Constructed Theory of Emotions is flawed. Those cognitive biases merely exaggerated my reaction to the book.

Lisa Feldman Barrett concludes in her book that “based on overwhelming evidence, the classical view has lost”. (p 152)

I’m actually underwhelmed, and remained unconvinced by most of the evidence she puts forth; my paradigm hasn’t shifted. But she doesn’t invite discussion, but rather accuses people subscribing to the “classical view” of the mental inference fallacy, and of being unscientific:

“When mountains of contrary data don’t force people to give up their ideas, then they are no longer following the scientific method”.(p 173)

I find that statement extremely triggering. I am following the scientific method to the best of my ability, and I’m also questioning her theory.

But although I’m guilty as charged, I’m most certainly biased by the mental inference fallacy, that’s not the reason I’m disputing her claims. I dispute them because I don’t think that the Constructed Theory of Emotion is based on any solid science, and that what is needed here is discussion, not polarization and condescension of the opposing viewpoints. Any Theory on Emotions should incorporate all the main findings and still make sense from the evolutionary perspective – without ignoring Panksepp’s and others’ large body of work. I just don’t think that meta-analyses are useful for this discussion since we risk either false negatives, or biased selection of data.

To me, the Constructed Theory of Emotions is about how we think about our emotions, and how we classify them. Not what triggers them, and how we respond to them – which behaviours we show, or what the outcome of those behaviours are; how they were once (and perhaps still?) adaptive. Indeed, Frans de Waal suggested in Mama’s Last Hug that we make the distinction between emotions (objective, measurable, physical, affective reactions resulting in observable behaviour) and feelings (subjective, conscious experiences of those emotions).

Using that terminology, Barrett’s theory might perhaps better be named the Constructed Theory of Feelings.

Why it matters

So, why did I get so tremendously triggered by this book, and by the fact that large portions of the animal training community thinks the Constructed Theory of Emotions is the best thing since sliced bread?

Because it puts humans on a pedestal, and demotes animals to… something else entirely.

I’m no longer in academia, nowadays I spend my time helping pet parents and animal professionals get happy animals that are reasonably well behaved, through online courses, seminars and blog posts. And hands down, I’ve found that the best way to obtain a harmonious relationship with the animals in our care is by acknowledging that they have emotions.

The horse that refuses to load into the trailer is probably anxious.

The dog that shreds the furniture when left alone is likely panicking.

The cat that lashes out at the veterinarian’s table might be terrified.

We can help them by changing their moods and emotions: very often the behavioural manifestations of their emotional turmoil will disappear if we manage to help them regulate their emotions. But if we don’t even acknowledge that they have emotions, we’re left with a much smaller toolbox to help them change those unwanted behaviours.

There’s a more sinister side to it, also.

By putting ourselves on a pedestal and demoting animals to the other, we create a rift between “us” and “them“.

Just take a look around the world to see how we humans treat people that we categorize asthem, that are not part of our own tribe. We might at best ignore them, and we do unspeakable things to our enemies.

In other words, widening this rift between humans and animals opens the door to sanctioned cruelty.

To quote the philosopher Jeremy Bentham from 1789 on whether it’s morally acceptable to inflict pain on animals: “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

Yes they can. In the last few decades, we have learned that many animals have consciousness and Theory of Mind, they can plan ahead and show cultural learning, and although we can only guess what they’re feeling, we can’t assume that they don’t feel. And yes, they certainly have emotions.

By acknowledging not only their emotions but also their feelings, we can reduce their suffering.


I write the occasional blog post, run silly experiments, and give free Masterclasses as well as extensive online courses, all on the topic of animal behaviour, learning and wellbeing. If you’re interested in being notified about when any of these things happen, just sign up below, and I’ll keep you posted!


186 Replies to “My problems with the Constructed Theory of Emotions”

  1. I also wanted to add- my practice is based out of a farm and I provide animal assisted therapy with cows. Combining my understanding of people, animals, and nature is a core part of how I understand the world, so I had the same triggered reaction as you when I was trying to apply it, understand it, allow for reasonable doubt into my own mind. But at the end of the day I am fairly certain any theory of emotion should try to get humans to see how they are animals and no one should be criticized into believing more modern theories- it doesn’t work that way!

    1. cow-assisted therapy, sounds great! And yes, we tend to forget that we’re just another animal species… 😉

  2. Hey there- very thankful for this post. I am a counselor and came across Barrett’s theory in the book “Tiny Humans, Big Emotions,” I was giving it a read through before referring it to a client. I was trying to not be biased toward it as I have built my understanding of human behavior on a lot of evolutionary ideas. I tell clients weekly that emotions arise and we don’t control them, but they can interact with thoughts and create a self perpetuating feedback loop. So I have been reading all morning to check my bases and go over emotional theories again. I am glad people from other disciplines see it the same way I do. Long story short, probably won’t be referring the book.

    1. Hi Kate – that’s a great way to put it: emotions can interact with thoughts and create a self-perpetuating feedback loop! 🙂

  3. The initial evolutionary argument seems to be from a person who spends a lot of time in a lab. If a child met a predator it would most likely die. There many example so baby dear playing with lions and predators. You some what in a round about way have bolstered LFB argument that emotions are learned. Jaak Panksepp and LFB acknowledge the distinction between affect and emotion. It is obvious that affect is innate both agree with that. I studied with Judith Bluestone who ran the Handle Institute, her concept was that the brain was holographic and one could retrain the brain to use other parts of the brain to do other things. She had basically a lobotomy as a child because she had debilitating epilepsy. She taught herself to speak 3 times in her life, she had multiple protocols for just walking. The idea that parts of the brain control certain emotions relies on there being parts of the brain that are separate and distinct. That idea is a myth their are no special cells or borders that define parts of the brain. Innateness In emotion as elusive as innateness as language which there is no evidence but provides an easy explanation, Cheers

    1. Hi Mark – I’m fully aware that I presented a simplified and black-and white scenario in the sabretooth cat example, what I was trying to get across was simply that organisms with innate behavioural repertoires that increase survival will “win” over organisms lacking those behaviours over evolutionary time. I’m not saying that emotions evolved in humans – or even mammals..! 😉

  4. I loved the theory of constructed emotions and still do. I will read your blog post eventually till the end, hopefully to see all your points of view. Now I feel annoyed (totally learnt concept) because you don’t seem to think that there is a higher power behind all life. I do! I don’t think that life on earth could be just a random consequense of trial and error. This is just too perfect. I stopped reading this blog at you explaining someone showing fear-related behavior when meeting with a big dangerous cat. Running is not the only fear-related behaviour. There is also freeze, fight, flirt or faint. It doesn’t matter wether emotions are learnt or innate. There is still a greater innate wisdom that tells us what to do in order to survive. Too bad that it doesn’t always work. I have witnessed my dog eating several baby birds that were trusting on hiding and staying still. It would work if some predator was just passing by but not when the dog is on a leash and is using her nose because there is nothing more interesting around.
    Since nobody is born in a vacuum, how can you have a situation where there is a person trying to figure out wether to run away from a predator or do something else? Every single animal or human being or bacteria has learnt a lot during its existence. You don’t need to feel fear in order to move away from something harmful.

    1. Hi Christina, and thanks for sharing your thoughts! You’re right, there’s other behaviours shown in addition to running, and I list them further down in the blog post. And yes, learning occurs too, naturally. It’s not either nature or nurture, it’s both! 🙂

      Sorry you got annoyed when reading this – hopefully if you get back to reading all of it you’ll understand why I think this is important, that it does matter greatly, even if we might disagree on the existence of a higher power! 🙂

    2. I think the simplistic explanation of a situation as realistic is obvious. Children are taught by their elders how to deal with dangerous situations. A child would be eaten by a predator 99% of the time. Human children take the longest to raise and the highest cost, this is classical evolution. The longer to raise the child the more adept. Unfortunately the evolutionary critic doesn’t hold up. The innateness of emotions is a unknown as the innateness of language (see Chomsky).

      1. Hi Mark, if you replace “prehistoric human” with “organism” you’ll get a better idea of the type of situation that natural selection acted on. 🙂

  5. Thank-you for writing this. I have picked the book up several times and struggled to read it. All my red flags were waving – more questions than answers; made up words to explain things; and a tone that offended. Yet I kept trying to see and understand, rereading chapters to figure out how this paired up with everything else i have learned about this topic. I finally gave up when I got to her animal chapter. You have clarified very nicely the issues and now it makes sense to me why it was such a struggle to read. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Hi Shelley, it’s been a relief to hear that I wasn’t alone in my struggles… 🙂

  6. I am struck by the thought that there are enough people who were raised without language, who obtained language later in childhood, who can explain themselves and their feelings that all we need do to find out the answer for certain is ask.

    I am also struck that we are stuck chasing our tails here. The dog does not learn to show a grin, but he must learn what that grin means to others. The baby does not need to learn to cast tears, but she must learn what those tears mean to others. So perhaps inate and constructed emotions are intrinsically tied.

    But I didn’t read the book. Thanks for something for the brain to chew on this afternoon.

    1. Hi Sue, thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

      I’m increasingly leaning towards Frans de Waals useful distinctions between emotions (Panksepp) and feelings (Barrett). They’re both intrinsically linked, and both are amenable to learning..! 🙂

  7. Love your thoughtful article. I have a background in Biology and Psychology and have studied Neuroscience just for fun for some years. My first thought while reading the book was very unscientific: “what a pile of BS!” .

  8. Thank you for your detailed criticism of LFB theory. I got to say that her theory felt like a missing piece for my reflections on love. In my writings, I tried to differentiate between different kinds of love (for friends, family, partners, etc). Although the feelings of closeness, warmth, or will to care are similar in all loving relationships, the emotions connected to it can vary substantially. There is for example little (neurological) research on the difference of love for friends and partners. LFB’s emotion theory puts an emphasis on the „social sense“ of a given situation, which in relationships is shaped by behaviors, expectations, commitments. With the CoTE, the emotional fluidity of love is largely connected to the specific, very practical form the relationship takes. I found that to be a convincing and productive line of thought.

    Coming back to your criticism, I would carefully add that your blog entry missed a „mediating“ part in between (low level, granular) affects/sensations on the one side and (high level, complex) emotions – which are feelings. She defines feelings as the sum of all affects/sensations at a given point of time. Connecting the feelings to their social sense of a situation triggers the instance of an emotion that guides our behavior. Within her definitions, one could argue that Panksepp‘s studies proved that some emotions as recipes of behavior are innate, while LFB is still correct about the fact that those emotions (like fear, seeking and so on) can be triggered by various feelings (patterns of sensations/affects).

    When trying to merge both approaches and both languages, Panksepp explains fixed emotion structures (his first level processing) while LFB steps in to make sense of the free floating and complex thoughts or why different feelings lead to similar emotions or same feelings to different emotions (Panksepp‘s second and third level).

    Probably, LFB tries to make a stronger point when she outrightly denies any form of innate emotions, which would undermine her constructivism. I would have wished for a more heterodox approach. What do you think about my diplomatic intervention?

    1. Hi Ole, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I’d say that I’m in full agreement – it’s on my to-do-list to update this blog post with a more nuanced wrap-up section..!

      I don’t think that the two theories necessarily contradict one another in this sense. Why couldn’t we have both a set of innate ancient circuits devoted to predetermined physiological and behavioural reactions in situations critical for survival – and at the same time construct complex emotions based on learning and language – including all those individual warm fuzzy states that you list..? 🙂 After all, it’s my understanding that the brain has evolved building on pre-existing layers, changing some and retaining others. It’s not no-but, but yes-and – if you get my drift..! 🙂

  9. LSB is this year’s invited speaker for the Pufendorf Lecture hosted by the Department of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Lund University, where I’m an associate researcher. A colleague of mine sent a link to your blog post in an email, and I’m writing that comment after sending him my thanks.

    I did not know much about LSB or the CToE before, but an earlier advertisement for the lecture lit my bullshit detector (namely, LSB’s appearance on Andrew Huberman’s podcast).

    Since that detector is, at best, a heuristic and, at worst, a bias against “celebrity scientists,” I knew I needed a deeper dive. Your post is just what I needed—one more data point confirming the reliability of my bullshit-detecting heuristics.

    By the way, I’m using “bullshit” in its technical sense (from Harry Frankfurt).

    1. Hi Emmanuel – I didn’t even know there was a technical “bullshit” definition, so now of course I had to look it up!

      “speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn’t care if what they say is true or false.” – actually one might argue that LFB isn’t bullshitting using this definition; I think she thinks she’s telling the truth. Which makes it misinformation, perhaps? 😉

      Hopefully someone in Lund will ask some challenging questions, at the very least – maybe even you? 🙂

      1. Hi again. I should have qualified my reference to Frankfurt. I was thinking about this passage, where he further qualifies bullshitting and breaks it down to a single necessary and sufficient condition:

        “”A bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.” (p. 54)

        The cognitive science division will hold a pre-lecture seminar (without LSB, but with the colleague who sent around your post) next Tuesday at 10:15, with a Zoom link; would you like me to forward it to you when it is available?

      2. Karolina,
        I want to thank you for writing this. You articulated this much more clearly than ever I could have. I teach an animal sentience and cognition class and we cover the theories of emotion, but more in the context of the implications that such a definition can have on how we treat and perceive non human animal beings. Her book is on my reading list as I need to understand her theory more deeply. But young minds are malleable, and it is of concern to me how this constructivist theory of emotion is the new best thing since apple pie. At a time when we are finally acknowledging sentience, cognition, and consciousness in the non human beings around us, and not, as she apparently concludes, through anthropomorphic projection. (Just a quick search and anyone can see the explosive growth in the study of animal minds in the past decade, and the amazing potential for deeper understanding with new advances in AI technology and neurobiology.) I find this denial of true emotions in non-human beings irresponsible at best, and completely misleading at worst. Am I getting this wrong?

        1. Michelle – not at all, I’m in full agreement. It’s on my to-do list to update this blog post with a better reference to WHY it matters with regards to how we interact with animals. At the time when I penned this, I was just itching to get the critique out of my system, so I fell a bit short of the finish line, I think.

  10. I was getting more and more confused trying to understand LFB’s text, couldn’t quite pinpoint the problems. Thank you so much for clearing this up!!!!

  11. Thank your for writing this very clear analysis that captures exactly what I find problematic at the approach of Feldman Barrett and others. In the end, like with most discussions it is about a semantic debate indeed.

  12. Right on, Karolina!

    Lisa Barrett Feldman seems to be all over the net, and has been for some time, without question or concern. Recently I came across something that raised the same red flags and later I gazed at her book in my stack, still unread after several attempts and I began thinking more pointedly about what wasn’t working for me.

    After a few days of mulling, I typed in “LBF critique”, and found your blog above which brings greater depth and detail to my vague and inchoate concerns. Bravo!

    That our human consciousness modifies our emotions through various understandings and practices is good news, but it is a smaller part of our larger evolutionary epic. This is similar to Daniel Dennett’s belief in ‘free will’, (as learning to control ourselves), being part of the larger story that Robert Sapolsky relates in his latest book, Determined, that convincingly shows how everything is indeed constrained by history.

    The larger issue at play for me here is how fads can take hold of us, unless we apply a careful rigour to all hypotheses, always forsaking our comfortable, or hard won, silos for a more integrated or consilient approach.

    The CToE is another kind of anthropocentrism, right up there with Decartes’ I think therefore I am’, rather than ‘I am (an evolved being, an ape, a product of a certain history, with its amazing accidents and social efforts) therefore I think’!

    As a student of evolution, I see similar fads in play even in respectable quarters. For example, there will come a time when the gene-centric dogma will give way to a far more complex and multileveled theory of evolution, and that may already be in play.

    That you had the gumption to slow down and think deeply is inspiring. This kind of holistic / integrated thinking will be much on order as we confront the coming threats and challenges some describe as our metacrisis.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Geoff, and thanks for sharing your thoughts – those fads and echo-chambers can be extremely hard to crawl out of, for sure! I share some of my thoughts on that topic here:

      oh, and love the “I am therefore I think” wink to Descartes! 🙂

      1. Thanks for the link, Karolina,

        Your primer on the pitfalls of human cognition should be part of everyone’s personal hygiene.

        I especially appreciated what you call the Curse of Knowledge, where we’re invited to pay closer attention to what we know and to creatively investigate what other animals, human and others, know about what we’re on about, when we’re trying to communicate.

        1. Hard enough to understand other humans, but inter-specific communication is an entirely different ballgame! That’s what makes the field of animal behaviour and learning so infinitely interesting! 🙂

  13. Thanks for taking the time to explore this topic! I appreciate it.

    I am having trouble understanding your central claim that her theory is not grounded in an evolutionary perspective. From my understanding of her work, the foundation upon which she builds her theory of constructed emotion is grounded in a theory of how brains evolved. This theory claims that the brain evolved as a result of the emergence of predatory behavior or at the very least, the need to be able to sense a gradient of safety/danger in the environment. This sets the foundation for the emergence of movement as a strategy for responding appropriately to that gradient. Generally speaking, a sense of comfort evokes a movement towards and a sense of discomfort evokes a movement away. She points to myllokunmingia like creatures as the best representation of an early brain that is structured similar to a modern humans. It is these vertebrate brains that will evolve to build a more complex sensitivity to the environment and eventually use language as a means to describe that sensitivity- perhaps this is where we see the emergence of language laden with emotional concepts. To me, this seems like a foundation in evolutionary biology.

    I am also having a hard time with your point about ToCE not providing a better solution that the innate model when encountering a dangerous animal. The reality is that running as a programmed response to such an encounter is definitely NOT ALWAYS the best strategy for survival in these circumstances. At times it might be but in other instances it actually is much more intelligent to respond by staying still or even approaching the animal. This is precisely the point she is making in her ToCE, each experience provides a new opportunity to respond in a unique manner to the incoming information and the more an organism is able to interpret that information in a manner that accomplishes their needs, the better the outcome. This is what separates the wheat from the chafe- it is the organism that can perceive the information most effectively. As each unique instance occurs, the brain begins to model the world to account for that new information. If the organism always reacts the same exact way, there is no learning here. This learning or lack there of gets integrated into the brains model of reality. The modeling is what predicts will happen in the future. The prediction is what constructs the feeling that gets felt by the organism. Humans just happen to have the brain structures for complex linguistics and can categorize those sensations into concepts…feeling concepts–>emotions. Animals have the sensations but maybe not the feeling concepts.

    I hope I didn’t misunderstand you but if I did, I apologize for that. It just didn’t make sense to me.

    1. Hi Sean, and thanks for taking the time to verbalize your thoughts! I absolutely understand where you’re coming from, and I think much of my disagreement with Barrett’s perspective boils down to definitions.

      She doesn’t define “moving towards” or “moving away from” as involving an instance of emotion, and I do. She dismisses those as “survival circuits for behaviour” and assumes that they don’t involve emotion.

      She explicitly says that “An instance of emotion, constructed from a prediction, tailors your action to meet a particular goal in a particular situation, using past experience as a guide.”(p 139) – so according to her, learning MUST be involved in an emotional reaction. And that’s where my main disagreement lies – that evolution have equipped us with a cluster of behaviours appropriate for dealing with dangers – where freezing, fleeing and attacking are three behaviours that might pay off. “Running” as mentioned in my example is one behaviour out of that cluster of potentially useful behaviours – that doesn’t mean that running will ALWAYS pay off, it simply means that running is a potential solution – and for some species in some context perhaps not even the best solution. But trial-and-error (which is essentially what Barrett suggests) has an incredibly high fail-rate and so is therefore inferior to having innate predispositions for the five Fs (Freeze, fidget, flee, fight, faint).

      Also I’m not saying that learning doesn’t occur, of course it does – but it’s layered on top of those innate reactions. We learn both about where dangers might occur (classical conditioning) and what worked last time to evade them – or what didn’t work (assuming our mistakes didn’t get us killed) – operant learning. We just come wired with predispositions to make the split-second right decisions.

      1. Hi Karolina, my name’s Emma and I live in Adelaide, South Australia. I personally share my home with 3 dogs and a family of rescue parrots and pigeons, run my own grooming salon specialising in low-stress, fear free and cooperative care handling, and volunteer for Canine Behavioural School through their aspiring instructors program, so there are many animals that would benefit from me taking this course. I teach weekly at CBS and have also recently (in 2023) begun speaking at conferences, seminars etc, which is something I’m hoping to do a lot more of in the future. Now I have finished my nationally accredited training certification, I have goals to continue to expand and share my knowledge for the betterment of the welfare of pets both in the home and in the grooming salon, as well as to help improve the relationships and understanding between people and the animals they share their lives with. The last year has been a particularly expensive one with my latest rescue dog costing tens of thousands of dollars in veterinary bills, so any assistance in continuing my education would be so greatly appreciated.

  14. Sorry Karolina, my previous Reply wasn’t correctly written. Can you please consider this one instead :
    Thanks for this very interesting paper on this fighting topic.

    I may have missed the point, but it seems to me that nobody, including Lisa Feldman Barrett, talks about consciousness.
    It may be a problem of definition of what means emotion.

    In the following paper for exemple
    Antonio Damasio distinguishes:
    – the emotions produced by the brain from exteroception as being non conscious
    – the drives produced by the brain from interoception as being non conscious
    – the feelings generated from the drives being conscious.

    I am not a neuroscientist just an old man interested by those questions and I am producing this for yours’s and readers’ examination.
    However, I am asking myself this: “There is certainly non conscious mechanism acting the body. How can they be culturally constructed?”

    1. Hi Joseph, thanks for weighing in! 🙂 I think you’re making an important point about definitions, and it seems to me that Barrett’s definition of emotion would encompass conscious feelings, but not any of the non-conscious processes underlying them (whichever they might be)

  15. I don’t know if anyone else has mentioned this here, but Barrett’s theory also fails to explain implicit memories and the somatic response that follows when explicit memories are triggered by an outside event. The reactive individual has no knowledge of what is happening, why it’s happening, and lacks the language to describe either of these concepts, despite having specifically experienced them before. This is because implicit traumatic memories are stored in the amygdala, where the somatic response is initiated. Only much, much later does the full context of this response trickle into the frontal cortex and intellectual connection is then made between the initial traumatic memory, the somatic response to the trigger, and the subsequent analysis of the whole context. (For reference, I am a neuroscientist)
    Thank you for writing this well constructed piece and for inviting discourse, this is how we truly advance scientifically.

    1. Liza, thanks – no, nobody here had mentioned that! I’m guessing that she would simply call such (emotional) implicit memories affect, then – implying that there’s an unpleasant sensation associated with such triggers, not “fear”..?

  16. Thanks for sharing. I started the book… and stopped at 10% because I thought : she just uses an other definition of emotion and dismisses all other studies by doing so…
    I thought it was wrong and a few days later, I found your article 🙂

  17. I imagine this has gotta be some type of evolutionary characteristic to determine what type of person someone is. Whether they are out to get vengence, if they are mean, someone that you need to be cautious about. People would need to understand how to work with to them.

  18. There is an experiment done by Michael Gazzaniga on a Corpus callosotomy, or split brain, patient (The Social Brain p76/77), in which a right brain (which does not have language) is shown a disturbing video. Afterwards, the left brain (which has language and can talk) is asked what it saw.


    M.s.G.: What did you see?
    v.p.: I don’t really know what I saw. I think just a white flash.
    M.s.G.: Were there people in it?
    v.p.: I don’t think so. Maybe just some trees, red trees like in
    the fall.
    M.s.G.: Did it make you feel any emotion?
    v.P.: I don’t really know why but I’m kind of scared. I feel
    jumpy. I think maybe I don’t like this room, or maybe it’s
    you. You’re getting me nervous.
    V.P. then turned to an assistant and said, “I know I like Dr.
    Gazzaniga, but right now I’m scared of him for some reason.”

    In my reasoning this is unexplainable through a constructed emotions lens. How would the left brain know that “scared” was the correct construction, if it never saw the scary video? To me it is clear that, at least some, emotions have biological grounding and are not cultural artifacts.

    1. Hi Kevin – thanks for sharing! Interesting – I don’t quite know what to make of it, since I’m not a neuroscientist and am not read on this topic at all. My first thought would be that it would depend on the age of the patient when the split brain situation occurred – whether any previous learning of emotion words had occurred, or if they were born that way?

  19. What I see in this debate or critique is quite a similar problem as it was with the concept of ‘neuromarketing’ – everybody was seeking a buying button in our brains. And that was really absurd if you ask me. At the same time, the actual value was everything else that research on the neurological implications of consumerism offered. I would instead ask a few questions that would help us think about what I understood from CToE.

    My assumption is that our neurology is a biological communication platform where Information is an energy concept that has physical consequences. Is it possible to understand emotion as an isolated phenomenon/single data point, or is it a bodily and psychological state at the same time that has attributes of information? Do you get a specific signal from an environment that elicits a specific emotion, or is emotion in the function of this biological communication platform and is more of an amebic nature? Another question that itches me is about the cognitive implication of emotional states. How can we measure one specific emotion? Can we measure the effect of plasticity change that affects emotional response? How well does the theory of embodied cognition apply to the classical emotional theory?

    1. Interesting questions, Igor! I don’t quite feel I have the background and learning history to answer them. I would offer that the “scripts” we are born with, our genes and their products, form our brains and bodies, and our experiences alter gene expression, so each single “data point” potentially alters the matrix, so to speak. So it’s an intricate web of causality – I would lean towards the amoeba, I guess.

      Panksepp looked at minute changes in brain activation in neuronal networks as a function of emotional experiences including involvement of secondary and tertiary level processing (learning and cognition), but I’m not familiar enough with the theory of embodied cognition to weigh in.

  20. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion. I also agree with a comment I saw on here discussing how viewing emotions as both innate and constructed can be beneficial. I’m curious about how mental illness plays into Barrett’s theory. I suffer from multiple mental disorders, and one of the main reasons I was diagnosed and sought treatment was the seemingly involuntary emotional responses and surges that did nothing positive for me, and actually caused severe/negative consequences. And I would continue to repeatedly react like this, again, seemingly instantaneously & subconsciously. I’ve experienced a lot of distress over this issue and I’m not sure how this would fit into Barrett’s theory. Also, as a parent, I wholeheartedly believe babies have innate emotions. It’s almost absurd to see anyone posit otherwise.

    1. Hi Trinitty, thanks for commenting! Yes, I definitely think the constructive (or rather, the Core Affect Space, listing valence on the x-axis and arousal on the y-axis) perspective can be extremely useful, and alternating between those two perspectives can be really enlightening and help us understand even better what’s going on.

      I also think the polyvagal theory is very helpful in explaining how our nervous system, emotions, moods and behaviour all interact – and this perspective particularly is very helpful in enlightening the effects of trauma and severe stress. From my understanding of this, a lot of mental disorders, depression and anxiety can be understood in terms of a dysregulation of autonomic function, often due to early life experiences or later trauma. And of course, genes matter too – they make us more or less susceptible to be affected by life’s curveballs!

  21. Jungian analysis here. Lisa’s worldview and approach to emotion is incredibly informed and I would argue limited by her personality type being INTP. As the most logical of all types, the INTP uses introverted thinking as a judging function. They filter information through their ever developing internal logical framework to determine what is true and what is false. They verify all information themselves using this internal framework rather than trusting credible authorities or subject matter experts. The INTP is detached from their own emotions having introverted feeling as the lowest function in their unconscious. The ability to feel one’s own feelings is what one must give up in order to specialize in logic and reason to such a degree. They become detached from their emotional state in order to remain objective and logical. After all, their primary mission is to develop, refine and increase the precision and accuracy of their internal logical systems and experiencing emotion would get in the way of that goal. When they do engage feeling, as we all must, they utilize extraverted feeling, their inferior function, feeling that is directed outward and focused more on understanding and affecting group harmony and social dynamics. This is a notoriously weak area for the INTP and they are both hyper sensitive/aware of and yet typically repress their extraverted feeling function in favor of their introverted thinking. Lisa’s incorrect assumption that emotions require language demonstrates this generic lack of introverted feeling capability in the INTP. INTPs also have introverted sensing as their perceiving function, which I think largely informs her view on how the body perceives its own sensations, as well as her understanding of the role of comfort and discomfort in emotion. Basically, all of her arguments are clearly being filtered through the 4 cognitive functions of the INTP ego and she appears to have disregarded the other 4 cognitive functions in her shadow/unconscious. While this does provide a somewhat objective and logical view of the emotional system, I find that it misses the mark by avoiding the more important questions of meaning and value. I don’t think that she is capable of experiencing and understanding emotion in the way that an Fi user would because it is dead last in her function stack. That inward focused feeling simply isn’t accessible to her cognition, and I think that is made completely clear in her work. So I will conclude by summarizing my argument that her view on emotion is largely informed by the lens of her INTP personality type and that is severely limited in its understanding of emotion.

    1. Carl, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this! I am completely untrained in the area of Jungian analysis, but followed your reasoning with interest! 🙂

  22. Thanks so much for this thoughtful and in-depth critique!

    I’ve been hearing lots of people praise her work. As someone who was deeply impacted from (and impressed by) Panksepp’s work, I’ve had some skepticism of her theories for a while.

    I’m not a neuroscientist, but I seem to remember from reading the Archaeology of Mind that Panksepp mentioned another specific flaw with using fMRI to measure emotional states; namely that the sub-cortical circuitry involved in generating core affective states doesn’t rely on blood flow like the cortex. Instead, it relies on neurotransmitters to trigger the circuitry.

    So using the results of fMRI studies isn’t very helpful for understanding those circuits.

    I believe that’s one reason he also used localized brain stimulation of those regions to come to conclusions as well.

    Am I off base with this? Or did I just misread?

    Thanks again for your thorough critique! It helped me decide not to get her book.

    1. Hi Josh! Intriguing! I’m not a neuroscientist, so I clearly need to read that passage again..! As I recall it had to do with the timing – that PET was the way to better capture the process through which the neural reaction spread through the brain. Seems from a quick Dr Google session that blood flow is closely linked to neural activity: “When neurons become active, local blood flow to those brain regions increases, and oxygen-rich (oxygenated) blood displaces oxygen-depleted (deoxygenated) blood around 2 seconds later. This rises to a peak over 4–6 seconds, before falling back to the original level (and typically undershooting slightly).”

      1. I managed to track down the passage on pg 160:

        “Of course, the experimental conditions in the confines of an MRI scanner are simply not conducive to the experience of strong emotions. We must again remember that neurons in most subcortical regions that mediate emotions fire quite slowly in comparison to higher brain regions like the thalamus and neocortex, which fire incredibly rapidly as they mediate perceptions and cognitions. Thus, small changes, especially in subcortical emotional regions, are hard to detect with fMRI. Different technologies that can take pictures with much longer exposures, such as positron emission tomography (PET) imaging, along with more refined experimental approaches, might be called for in the effort to adequately image emotional processes.”

        That’s not even mentioning the other challenges with studying emotion using fMRI he lists in the book – namely that the person has to be lying still to get a good reading.

        And it’s hard to experimentally induce different emotional states in that kind of unnatural environment.

        Anyways, it just adds to the idea that a meta-analysis that looks at fMRI data may not be a great way to understand how emotion works in the brain.

        Again, thanks for your fantastic critique!

        1. One other little quote I found when looking back at my notes, on pg 30 of the book:

          “perhaps the most troublesome aspect is that these techniques are not well designed to envision the most ancient regions of the brain, where the power of neurochemistries is often more influential than the absolute changes in neural firings.”

  23. Hello, thank you for this article, I enjoyed reading it .

    The criticism based on the thought experiment involving a person with innate emotions and a person with learned emotions isn’t very convincing. The same argument can be used to “prove” that all knowledge is innate — one can always imagine a dangerous situation where person A has innate knowledge of how to deal with it, person B doesn’t, and person B hasn’t created that knowledge by the time the situation arises. Then person A will successfully handle it, but person B will have to rely on trial and error, which will likely end badly.

    But trial and error in an actual dangerous situation isn’t the only way to learn how to handle this type of situations, especially when cultural knowledge exists of how to handle them.

    The person with learned emotions might’ve learned how to act when there’s a big cat around from their tribe, for instance. Or they might’ve observed a big cat in the distance attacking some prey animal, and they might guess the cat would do the same if the they are in the prey’s role, and they might additionally guess that running away is the right course of action, especially if the prey animal escaped via such a response.

    1. Hi Alexander, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

      I’m sorry if I was unclear in the post, but it’s not either- or, it’s both. Both innate and learned responses. And we don’t expect there to be any innate responses to threats that were not common enough in the habitat and niche in which the species evolved. It’s only if a threat happens often enough that we expect evolution to have been able to act on the gene pool through selection: so there’s specificity in certain types of reactions, snakes and high places come to mind with regards to the human species, for instance. As to other general threats, there’s a general tendency to respond with an alert orientation response to any sudden movement or noise for instance. So “big-things-running-towards-you” would be expected to trigger a fear response – and later through learning we might realize that if that big thing has fangs we had better run for it or throw sticks at it, but if that big thing is our brother another response is more appropriate. Hope this helps! 🙂

      1. Yes, I agree on there being both learned and innate responses, I didn’t think you were suggesting it’s either/or :-). However, I’m unsure you’re addressing my concern. Maybe *I* was unclear.

        In my comment above I’m not arguing as much about reality, but confining my attention specifically to the thought experiment — the one which begins with “Let’s say we live in a group of pre-historic humans.”

        It assumes that the person without the innate emotions will necessarily have to resort to trial and error to learn how to deal with the big cat: “Without any previous experiences of being ran at by huge-fanged cats, the theory suggests that you experiment to see what works best, and learn from your actions. […] And the outcomes of those options will be decided by trial and error.”

        Although I agree trial and error will likely end badly, I also think there are other ways to learn, which are quite available especially to a social animal like us capable of learning from their culture. When Barrett says “past experiences”, she doesn’t confine this solely to situations the person has been a part of. Learning from fellow tribe members’ experiences also counts as experience.

        This thought experiment seems unfair to the person without innate emotions, because it doesn’t *only* assume that they don’t have innate emotions, it *additionally* assumes that the person hasn’t made use of other sources of knowledge of how to deal with big cats, such as observation of big cats or the tribe.

        In any case, beyond the thought experiment, what makes the most sense to me is indeed that we have innate knowledge (I count emotions as knowledge — tacit knowledge), which is more or less useful, and which has developed during the course of evolution, and that we’re also capable of replacing it with better knowledge, one which is more suitable for dealing with the problems that arise in an environment quite different from the EEA.

        1. Ah, I get where you’re coming from now! And yes, I understand your argument, and I guess we might say that’s what occurs since human babies are under constant vigilance and care for the first few years, so we rely on others to keep us safe for an astonishingly long period (both in absolute and relative terms) compared to most other species. And we also get the opportunity of learning from how others behave in response to different stimuli – as is shown in other species too. For instance, vervet monkeys’ reactions to alarm calls are entirely a socially transmitted behaviour (they respond differently to raptor alarms, snake alarms and leopard alarms, for instance).

          Both mechanisms would be in play, certainly! I’m not making the argument that the “innate” version would be the only one mechanism, simply that the ToCE couldn’t possibly be the sole mechanism. It’s not an ESS, simply. 🙂 And certainly, today’s world is quite far removed from the EEA.

  24. I was relieved when you said it took you three years to read Barrett’s book. I read the first three chapters and gave up. It just didn’t make sense to me. In fact, like another reader, I sensed a political agenda. At any rate, thank you for your blog. I had no problem comprehending it and it even made Barrett’s position a lot clearer to me. I have a psychology background and am writing a book that deals with how emotions affect decision-making. Your blog is one more piece of the puzzle I am constructing. Thanks!

  25. I really appreciate finding this blog after I saw a video of LBF discussing that The Body Keeps the Score is inherently flawed. I’m not a scientist but I am a CPTSD survivor, yoga teacher, technology CEO and artist. As I was trying to understand her theory, it was missing so many aspects I’ve not only learned, but have put into practice personally and with students. She says the brain controls everything, as though we can entirely manage trauma congnitively, but my recent understanding is it’s not a top down control center – it’s part of a greater system that also interacts with our ANS, including the fascia and neurons in our stomach or skin. None of this perspective was apparent to me, and I found it confusing.
    Reading your critique validated my layman’s critical thinking and the comments here have been amazing for me to further my learning.
    Thanks so much for posting:)

  26. All these topics are old friends of mine. I began studying evolution in the 60s, with six years at two major universities, NYU and UW Madison. My area of focus was behavior. Yes, it evolves just like flesh and blood, for the same reasons, and in the same way. I’ve kept up with it over the decades and in the process stumbled on this relatively new but all too familiar book, How Emotions are Made.

    Karolina, how impassioned and charming was your take down Barrett’s work. I couldn’t agree with you more. Common educational background helps. But so does common sense. I wasn’t born with any, but I’m a good learner. So I’m here to reflect in public on seven decades of learning and observing.

    All your efforts to attack this book based on science are a waste of time. This book is not science. It is politics. This format is as old as the hills and just as worn. Harken back to Richard Lewotin and Stephen Jay Gould who, whatever their actual contributions to real science were, were political activists when producing for a public audience.

    Decade after decade these books appear, announcing scientific discoveries that prove traditional views of human nature are wrong. Credentials and formats are sound, but results are known before the first experiment begins. The findings, after exhaustive research, are always the same: Humans have no innate nature. Society and its misguided traditions and beliefs are the cause of all human and social ills.

    Of course there was no chorus of objection to this ridiculous screed. Anyone objecting too loudly about How Emotions are Made would, or could, face the consequences of being canceled or shunned. This is because the book is pure party-line politics.

    What I find so distressingly predicable over the decades is how so much so-called cutting edge science exactly matches the platform of the Democrat Party. What Barrett says and will say, if translated into public policy, does and would perfectly match the political goals of the Left. And yes, this can happen on the Right as well, but today Barrett is the topic.

    So to all real scientists out there, I offer only this as a solution: Do good work. Do real science. Be true to yourself. And when you encounter pretenders such as Barrett, don’t try a refute their science because there is none to refute. Just point out the absurd results if their theories were actually applied to real-world situations. For example, ask, “Would crime go down is we played NPR in jails?”

    Or how about this? “Who exactly is it that should be picked to transform the world using your theories?” The answer, Ta Da, her and her progressive friends, of course–along with plenty of new legislation and funding. Both will be required in quantity for the transformation of the nation into the paradise her “discoveries” predict.

    That’s all you need to know about the theory of constructed emotions.

    1. Hi David, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! Hadn’t occurred to me that there might be a political issue with this since my perspective is mainly looking at animal behaviour rather than humans… food for thought 🙂

      At some point I will update this blog with my thoughts on how this perspective impacts how we treat animals – and the fallout.

    2. I believe you’re right. It seems also to me, having spent some time with this, that this debate is really about politics, not science. I enjoyed the above read very much.

      Most accepting people feel strongly about it because of the political climate. They need another new theory that can last for a little while in people’s minds until it becomes debunked quietly, later on when they will find the next theory. Popular books and so on make a social impact but put the debunking of all of it on the back page of the smart yellow pages.

      If everything is a social construct then there is no limits to how we can re-imagine everything. This mass mind state of our species is perhaps the up and coming playground for the forces of natural selection to compete. Good luck to the re-imagineers because they’re going to need it!

      1. Benjamin

        Your words: “If everything is a social construct then there is no limits to how we can re-imagine everything.” says it all, almost.
        Re-imagine first, then re-engineer. To re-engineer, everything must be deconstructed. Knowing this, it is suddenly obvious how the Constructed Theory of Emotions fits right into this agenda. By the way, did I mention I am a former Marxist Revolutionary?

        As to your comment about needing luck. They will find out soon enough they must do this on a genetic level. I’ll be dead by then, Thank God.


    3. Can’t believe what you wrote. I read about the first three chapters of Barrett’s book and was so confused I put it down. I got the same impression you did: she is politically motivated. I thought I must be imagining things. Thanks for making me feel a little saner.

  27. Dear Karolina,
    Just a quick question from someone which is not an expert. If emotions are innate ( or some emotions are innate) and because evolution is about genes, does it mean that the innate emotions (let’s say fear) is purely genetic? Is there the gene(s) for fear (or any other innate emotion)?

    1. Hi Joao, great question! I would say there’s no such thing as “purely genetic” because gene expression (the extent to which the genes we’re born with get activated) is mediated through the environment. So there’s always a nature/nurture interaction – and certainly animals also learn about which behaviours work best in which context. Genes make proteins, not emotions, but emotions such as fear arise from the complex interplay of multiple gene products downstream, so to speak. Hope this helps! 🙂

      1. The ascending systems whereby dopamine norepinephrine etc are spread to the cortex from subcortical nuclei, and then elicit felt emotions, come into being by developmental processes based on specific genes being read at the right time and place during embryonic development. So in that sense yes the innate emotional systems are genetically determined. And yes the genes are what they are because of the evolutionary processes described so eloquently by Karolina.

  28. I’m doing a pscy msc at the moment so still trying to get my head around emotion theories. Not sure why this one is upsetting everyone so much, it’s still based on the premise that the brain is adaptive. It is just saying, essentially, that the directionality in which emotions are made on a neural basis is different, that’s things are much more whole brain feedback based than linear and modular ‘kneebone connected to the thigh bone’ type stuff just another one in the line of several emotion theories …That said…..

    I doubt any kind of emotion manifest, whether classic response > stimulus or active inferential/top down predictive is going to do too much for you in the face of a sabre tooth tiger sprinting towards you. By that I mean I’m not sure ToCE is saying you need to have constructed an instance of emotion and be consciously aware of ‘ I am feeling fear’ for the the allostatic response to activate the stress system in an emergency. you are probably on the move in that situation before you know consciously know anything about it.

    The foraging cave-person probably didn’t need first hand prior experience/learning for that kind fundamental threat either, early forms of culture, communication will have created the awareness, or…..

    There is also evidence that primates and humans do have specified detector neurons for particularly dangerous predators (snakes) that kind of cataclysmic threat, and on that basis the autonomic stress response still works alongside constructed emotion?

    I’m sure what she’s saying isn’t all absolutely correct (and she is saying a lot if you read the book and her academic articles) . Much like the other theories of emotion (and most psych theories generally) some of it isn’t going to stack up. Equally
    there may be a lot to be said for it in other regards.

    1. Hi Matt, and thanks for weighing in on this! I am also confounded by this. She does write that “An instance of emotion, constructed from a prediction, tailors your action to meet a particular goal in a particular situation, using past experience as a guide.”

      So, in other words, according to Lisa, the emotion tailors the action, and is based on experience. Which either means that the sensation we feel when fleeing from that cat is not fear (because that would be an emotion and we would only run if we had learned to do it, which is not an ESS), or that the fleeing behaviour doesn’t involve an emotional reaction at all, only “affect” that she doesn’t exactly define anywhere in the book. Admittedly I haven’t read much of her other work.

  29. I laughed out loud when I read this post. Having just come across LFB again in Scientific American Mind I went seeking someone with a cogent refutation of her claims, because I too had the experience (kind of visceral) of reading the first chapter of the book and dropping it, I was in such furious disagreement with her claims. She seems so blindsided by her own self belief that she misses much of the picture of the emotional landscape of human being. In some ways it reminds me of the way behaviourists would give little or no credence to thoughts or feelings. I also find the tone way too patronising for a field of science that is really in its infant stages; we are only beginning to describe and explain emotions outside the realm of poetry and art in the last 60 years or so, getting people to agree on what exactly an emotion is can even leave one frustrated as is evidenced by some of the responses here. I think you make seem really good arguments here that show how short LFB falls in both her description and explanation of the complexity of emotions. Overall a very satisfying read that has got me thinking and digging a little deeper into this area again. Thank you.

    1. YOu’re welcome, Peter. Glad you liked it! 🙂 Will be interesting to see where this discussion goes in the years to come..!

  30. I do appreciate that Feldman’s approach gives the average person the idea that they have more regulation over their emotion instead of being a slave to ancient emotional circuits. It’s a more social and human approach where we have more control of our lives. It’s hopeful. The hard-wired emotional circuits idea really gives people an option to avoid responsibility when they demonstrate inappropriate behavior. “Can’t do anything about it- it’s hard-wired and I don’t have control over it.” There is more accountability in the idea of constructed emotions – because you yourself are constructing the emotion in preparation for the situation.

    I’m not sure about the ferocious cat example. How would anyone know, if a ferocious cat is running towards you, that there is a threat – without some prior context? To alter the example – if an animal we’ve never seen before runs at us – how are we to know if it’s a threat or coming to visit us without previous context?

    I like the idea of Sarah McKay in the idea of context and why it’s important. Consider a lion, an antelope, and an athlete.

    The lion chasing the antelope, the antelope itself, and the athlete running a 400m race all experience SNS activation that enables them to run fast and meet their particular challenge.

    But who do we attribute ‘fear’ to?

    Only to the antelope, not the athlete. Certainly not the lion. When in fact, the same physiological ingredient (SNS activation) is involved, but in slightly different contexts which leads us to use very different ’emotion’ words to describe how the lion, antelope or athlete might be feeling.

    See how we intuitively know that context matters.

    See Sarah’s piece on the reptilian brain.

    1. Hi John, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic!

      I completely agree that it’s problematic that people potentially feel absolved of avoiding responsibility when bringing up the extent to which ancient circuits regulate our behaviours; but that’s also misunderstanding the extent to which learning DOES in fact change our behaviours and responses to what might at some point have been a triggering stimulus.

      Behaviour is a function of nature AND nurture. Not just nature (innate) – and not just nurture (learning). And it seems to me that Feldman falls into the second category of errors; assuming that all emotional behaviour is learned.

      About the cat example, it’s not the knowledge “oh look there’s a sabretooth cat running towards me, I must run” that’s innate, rather we might assume that it’s “there’s sudden movement in the periphery of my eye, and a quick glimpse shows me that there’s something large approaching very quickly, I’d better run”. That would be the nature part (innate fear response). Over time we will learn not to run when we’re being ran at by a well-known friend, and perhaps to stand still and look threatening if it’s some other critter where that strategy is believed to be more effective. Or climb a tree – we might indeed learn to perform different behaviours depending on the level of threat and what strategy might be perceived to be the most effective at diffusing it. That would be the nurture part (learned). I’d expect most of that level of detail to be learned rather than innate.

      Again, the problem with Feldman’s view is that it completely negates the innate part of this equation – and it’s not an ESS; makes no sense from the evolutionary perspective.

  31. Thanks for writing this as it’s helpful to further a discussion. I won’t tackle all of your criticisms as that would be lengthy.

    A critique that seems to not “land” well about ToCE is that other mammals/animals don’t have emotion because they don’t have human language. While I quibble with this because I follow a non-materialist philosophy of panpyschism where *everything* has consciousness….it doesn’t mean ToCE is wrong. To me it means her understanding of consciousness and more-than-human language among other animals is lacking.

    Dr. Barrett never said animals don’t feel.
    Physiological affect, or “mood” or “feeling states,” are foundational precursors to emotions carried by the nervous system up to the brain in a ongoing feedback loop. Hunger, thirst, agitation, etc. are feeling states, not emotions. These are part of ToCE theory. Fight/fight/freeze/fawn are nervous system states. Fear shows up *after* the nervous system is already activated. Animals absolutely escape danger because of that nervous system activation.

    What she’s pointing out is that in her opinion because animals don’t have human language they don’t have these same concepts. I disagree with her because other behavioral research seems to indicate that animals absolutely can learn some human words/concepts (e.g. dogs linking sounds with words in order to communicate using those sound boards).

    I find this a small side-bar conclusion though, not critical to the main theory, and not one that causes me toss out the rest. She’s a neuroscientist and a psychologist looking to understand human emotions – not an animal behavior researcher. While humans are mammals, and therefore animals, we use different forms of language that others do not use which sets us apart.

    I recommend reading her research publications rather than the just the book as the actual research articles are more clarifying than what she wrote as popular fiction. I found your argument that she ignores the adaptive capacity and the evolutionary foundation of the theory puzzling – as my read of the research is the opposite to your conclusion. Language/culture is part of our adaptive response which is encoded in emotions. Survival though happens at the level of nervous system mobilization. People who survived ongoing dangers are those who had a body that got them out of the situation (nervous system mobilization) and the learning capacity to remember what worked. Her research articles talk about this and discuss neurons at length. Here’s the one that goes over the theory which she turned into the book:

    In particular I appreciated the study which revealed different portions of the brain lighting up based on different recorded emotional states indicating that while the amygdala is part of emotional processing that is continually assessing uncertainty/familiarity, it’s not a “switch” or trigger that’s always turned on when fear shows up. Fear is often experienced without the amygdala involved.

    The main reason I found ToCE so compelling is that it sums up the predictive capacity of the brain which is part of what makes us so efficient, and so prone to mistakes and bias errors (which are also learned) which you don’t talk about much here and is absolutely an evolutionary explanation.

    As a complex trauma survivor, ToCE made a huge difference in understanding the emotional patterns that arise in various circumstances that other theories didn’t touch based on a) past learned associations, b) current environmental sensory inputs from outside the body, c) current internal affect sensory inputs from the body, and d) where attention is resting (which affects the other 3). It helps explain why people in the exact same circumstances/situations do not have identical emotional responses. And why I experience “extreme distressing emotions” in situations like those of the research subjects where the various studies are using a multiplicity of different sensory inputs as part of understanding emotional outputs. I experience them because of a history where similar sensory cues put me physical in danger repeatedly.
    Her science methodology critique of Ekman’s work was particularly insightful. If you only keep in people from cultures across the world who can positively match the faces to the emotions YOU TEACH THEM in research studies about the same topic… then of course it will seem that everyone recognizes the same facial expressions.
    I also loved her recent movie on it in particular where she expands on how faces, with context removed, are nearly impossible to interpret, .
    And am a big Sanderson fan 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights!

      I’m quite sure that the aversive experience I had reading biased me quite severely against the potential merits of this theory, some of which you touch on – and she might be more nuanced in other publications, for sure.

      Seems a lot of the disagreement stems from our definitions. What is “emotion”? Depending on how we define it, we’ll come to vastly different conclusions.

      As to the adaptive perspective being addressed by her, I think the quote I used shows that it’s misrepresented: “An instance of emotion, constructed from a prediction, tailors your action to meet a particular goal in a particular situation, using past experience as a guide.”(p 139). She’s saying the action (not the emotion) is learned, not innate.

      Also, after reading through some of the studies in the meta-analysis I got really suspicious about the definitions of different emotional states. What is “fear” – and how was it provoked? By watching images, hearing sounds, remembering past events, being socially embarrassed? I would not classify all of these instances as the same thing.

      … eagerly awaiting Sanderson’s next installment in the Stormlight Archives..! 🙂

    2. Thank you, T., for this contribution; I feel quite similar about ToCE. One thing is a genetic predisposition, another is epigenetic expression. I think we need to rethink what we want to know about emotions, and Barrett’s theory opened a gate to a different perception of emotional function. I think that neuroscience offers a different approach to the explanation of the function of psychological phenomena. But can we integrate old and new paradigms without confronting our beliefs? We already measure valence and frequency, so why is then so difficult to see emotion as an energy process rather than a single data event?

    3. There is a big problem with what Lisa says about language. And that it’s called Whorfianism.

      I’m not sure to which current of it she subscribes for, but either way Whorfianism or Neo-Whorfianism have substantially contradicting evidence in their own “theoretical” structures.

      In general this hypothesis is based on cherry picking. For example, the apparent sexism in Germanic and Romance languages.

      For saying: “I think a nice person does this” in Spanish you say: Pienso que una persona linda hace esto”, in French: « Je pense qu’une personne fait ça »

      In both you use a gendered word “persona”, “personne” both are in femenine. If someone believes in Whorfianism, naturally would think of a tendency of the speakers of this languages as more “sexists”.

      Even Spanish to say “everyone” you use a masculine gendered word “Todos”.

      To the surprise, there is probably not even a weak correlation between the “sexism” of a language to the thoughts or “worldview of their speakers”. And for that a button, the Jarawara.

      When a girl menstruates in the Banawá group for the first time; she is confined to a hut for months, only allowed to get out if she needs to bath or to excretion… When she is released after some celebration, she is beaten in the back until bloody.

      Even with a grammar that gives preference to the feminine gender, even new words arise in feminine.

      The believe that language shapes thought has long been abandoned and discredited, even so the Neo-Whorfian postulate that language shape the worldview of their speakers is as weak as it’s predecessor…

      Even when comparisons arise to other languages in order to “prove” that a language makes people more likely to a behavior or thinking, it’s done in general with less than 10 languages . When there exist 6000 languages out there. Not even the one percent of the pool.

      The other problem with Lisa’s book is a problem that needs to be solved by philosophers, more specifically in an Ontological matter.

      The fact that she calls Darwin work “essentialist” is worrying. Not only because is inaccurate by default, but also as a point of start that makes her hypothesis epistemologically problematic. Since we are stuck in the wrong view.

      Since Aristotle (or even before). The “essence” and “motion” of things have being troubling to philosophy in general… We have reached a point by which the mobility of things, (based on the definition of “motus” by Aristotle). Is the “true” driving nature of things, being currently the most accepted ontological proposition, since we live in a “christianized” worldview here in the West, what i mean is that the works of philosophers like Heidegger, Foucault and others standing in a point that rejects “essentialism”, have found great success since they align (directly or indirectly) with Plato.

      Augustus of Hippo believed that the Christian faith could be structured with Plato. And he did, but i have to say that he was more a NeoPlatonic. Viewing God as a the cause of good and as the seeker of the ones that separated themselves from him. Being the cause of the evil in the world that we decided to live in.

      Not surprising that this view was continued even to the XX century, even so Foucault’s work is ontologically compatible to Christianity. Since both are built around Plato’s cave.

      Even so, Foucault’s mistake and almost of every “denaturaliser” is the switch from the nihilistic thesis that knowledge it’s not possible, or to access to the “natural” is not possible, following Kant’s tradition.

      Some like to point to Kurt Gödel’s theorems as a prove of this. But as some logicians have demonstrated is that knowledge is possible, but rather that an absolute proof is impossible.

      Even so we can take the work of almost all logicians and then expose the incoherency of constructivism.

      As the article says, any biological system is subject to selection. A living organism with a mechanism that allows it to respond to reality has an advantage. The better it responds to reality; the chances of reproduction or continuity increase.

      “Even the most simple mind has to respond at least to a minimal degree to reality”. Or it ceases to exist.

      There is an evolutionary ESS to the existence of a mind to be capable to connect at least in a degree to reality.

      The adaptation that Lisa embraces is(and the same you defend) Lammarkism.

      Materialism, has just won.

    1. A difficult question, for sure! Human society today is nothing like the EEA (environment of evoluationary adaptedness) that we evolved under, which is one reason I think we’re so maladapted to modern life, get stressed and depressed – and sick. And yes, modern medicine, wars and climate change will all to a bigger or smaller degree influence which genes continue into the next few generations…

  32. That’s a great post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I haven’t read her book but read many of her scientific articles and I agree that her theory is flawed.
    Are there any recent scientific articles you could share that challenge her views?

    1. Vivo- thanks! I’m not on top of this literature in the last year, but apart from a chapter in a book I haven’t seen any direct challenge: Asma and Gabriel, The Emotional Mind (Harvard, 2019), pp. 10-13.

  33. This is an excellent and needed post. I am an emotion researcher and frequently find this idea frustrating (the theory also tends to put too much emphasis on the brain rather the contexts especially, evolutionary relevant contexts). Really wish this could be published to a wider audience

    1. Thank you so much – glad to hear it resonates! I would perhaps be open for co-authoring or putting my name on something along these lines in an academic paper if you think that would be of interest? I’m not in academia anymore so wouldn’t have much time for it, unfortunately.

      1. I am not sure I can commit really sorry. Also, one big problem is that theory mischaracterises other research. For example, the wiki entry to ToCE says “Most other theories of emotion assume that emotions are genetically endowed, not learned, and are produced by dedicated circuits in the brain: an anger circuit, a fear circuit, and so on.” The first problem with this is that “genetically endowed” is not the opposite “learned”. A second problem is that “fear circuit”, “anger circuit” etc refer to theories of the brain representation of emotion. You can take an evolutionary perspective that emotions (discrete or not who cares!) evolved in specific situations to solve specific problems without committing to some discrete set of neural circuits. I am sceptical whether there is a specific brain circuit for anger (evolution tends to share structures for different purposes) but I do think that we have an evolved (e.g., there is a genetic basis) tendency to fear spiders, become “jealous” (or aroused an unpleasant if you really want to avoid basic emotion terminology) in specific situations and not others. Often feelings just emerge in situations even when we do not have a label for them – think about how teenagers with limited exposure to cultural shared information become jealous or lonely for example.

        1. No worries – I wrote a blog post because I didn’t have time for an academic paper, so I know exactly what you mean – and yes it seems that any weighty critique on the ToCE would have to have many areas of concern to discuss..!

  34. Hi Karolina

    Great thanks for writing this blog post. I discovered it because I needed to ventilate after reading another text from LBF published today at The Guardian saying again that animals have no emotions –

    I felt sad because I’ve recently read “Mama’s Last Hug” (2018) by Frans De Waal and understood all his embarrassment to say that animals have emotions. He talks extensively about LBF, and also LeDoux who changed views recently, however by the end of the book De Waal is very clear, there’s no way animals have no sense of emotion. Work of decades of relations with primates exemplify it without any margin of doubts.

    I remember when I read this book from LBF I felt exaclty the same as you. I’ve researching emotion for the past 15 years related to the way we interact with machines, and I couldn’t believe what Lisa was saying. More even, couldn’t believe all the applauses she was getting with these perspectives.

    I myself also decided to write a blog post in portuguese. You can read it through google translation to english here: https://virtual–

    I pointed out different problems in her reasoning but one of the most shocking is looking at facial expressions in the visually impaired, in many of reasearch studies made. If the emotions are only learned through interacting with others, how have humans with congenital blindness learned them?

    all the best

    1. Nelson, thanks for reaching out – so glad you enjoyed my post! Google translate is a fantastic thing – it’s mindboggling that I can read an article written in Portugese (the only obvious mistake google did when translating was calling Lisa “he” throughout – as expected since you often don’t write pronouns in Portugese and Spanish)). I think this really illustrates the need for different behavioural disciplines to come together and discuss – your angle of approach and criticism complemented mine nicely! 🙂

      About Barrett’s novel paper, what can I say..? “the three examples have virtually nothing in common physically. They involve different kinds of brains in different situations, moving different kinds of bodies in different ways.” Actually, Panksepp showed that they had a lot in common, homologous brain regions involved in the different emotional states, and the responses can be categorized in similar groups (although different species evolved to exhibit slightly different clusters of fearful behaviour, freezing and fleeing are seen throughout the animal kingdom). We expect similarities based on shared ancestry, but we also expect variability due to the passage of evolutionary time. Barrett points at the variability but fails to notice the similarity.

      Good point about blind people still expressing their emotions in their face. I guess a critic would say that it’s due to social reinforcement that they’ve developed crying-when-sad for instance, but if that were the case I would expect a lot more local variability, sort of like languages.

  35. Thank you for this post. I wanted to summarize what I think is going on here, and please tell me your thoughts.

    Feldman is guilty of the strawman fallacy. She desparately wants to claim that human emotions are not universal. But I think most universalists would allow for variation. As far as I can tell from the evidence, she has only proved that how we generate emotions, both physiologically and facially, are variable. That is, there seems to be deviation from Ekman’s universal emotions. These deviations form a family of curves but all relate to their prototypical emotion. To me, this is to be expected and does not prove that emotions are not universal, only that there is variation from their respective protypical emotion. So there is no exact fingerprint but only instances of a theme. I recall a study that graphically demonstrated this.

    The second fallacy that she commits is the overgeneralization of innateness. She desparately wants to claim that emotions are not innate. What is more likely is that some parts of emotions are learned and other parts are not. None of the evidence that she has provided proves that the physiological apparatus that generates the emotions are not evolved psychoogical mechanisms. The evidence only says that we quickly learn emotion-based concepts. In order to pass on these emotions, someone at one point in time must have generated the first prototypical emotion. Why did they generate that emotion (one of the universsals) and not another emotion? It is because these emotions have survival value. The function of an emotion is always the same. Take the emotion anger which always involves a threat to our wellbeing/status or represents that we are losing in some situation. This is invariable across cultures. So is the emotion of shame, etc. The implication is that there must be a genetic basis to these mechanisms that conferred a survival value.

    Although I think that the crux of her constructivism based hypothesis is probably correct, this does not mean that the underlying mechanisms that generate emotions do not have evolved components. Please tell me if I am on the right track here. I am an electrical engineer who reads a lot of psychology text books, but this is not my formal discipline.

    1. Jonathan, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

      I agree – I would expect nature and nurture to interact, for sure. Innate predispositions that get tweaked through individual learning experiences and culture. I would expect variation to occur around the mean of each emotional expression, so not complete inversions (for instance, I can’t imagine that a frowning face would be interpreted as a happy inviting one in any culture). That’s what would make sense – and what we see, too, I would argue.

  36. Thank you for this excellent and well-written blog entry. I would just like to link for you this response by professor emeritus Roland Meyer to Beard’s contention that the Romans didn’t smile:

    Also, it occurs to me that Latin words for smile and laugh are seen today in languages like French (sourire / rire).

    One concern I have with constructivism, and arguments such as the one that smiling only emerged in the Middle Ages, is that it aligns with a critique of Ekman that came earlier from the field of cultural anthropology and Catherine Lutz, who also had a run-in with Ekman. Basically the argument is against universalism and in favor of cultural diversity: a Japanese smile doesn’t mean the same thing as an American smile. True in some cases, yes, but not all. These arguments however can have the effect of orientalizing non-Westerners just as they separate humans from non-human mammals. In my opinion, they can go way too far: we have to acknowledge such cultural differences while still recognizing cross-cultural similarities based on biology and evolution.

    1. Brendan – thanks for the link, most interesting!

      And I am in complete agreement as to the importance of acknowledging cultural differences while still accepting our common ancestry. It’s not nature OR nurture – it’s nature AND nurture…!

  37. I am an anthropologist. I do not find this either/or thinking productive. Understanding emotions as BOTH evolutionary AND constructed gives us a way to address the complexity of emotional behavior and experience.

    Your argument is that the main element absent from Barrett’s book is an evolutionary perspective. This is a fair point. The main element absent from YOUR response is the role of culture. Human beings do not live the way they did thousands of years ago. We live in a range of culturally and socially complex and diverse environments that have changed over time and that can change over the life course of an individual. Barrett’s analysis allows for & addresses that complexity. Your analysis does
    not. Evolutionary perspectives are useful. Relying on them to the exclusion of other perspectives and in ways that erase culture and history is not.

    1. Hi Di, and thanks for your comment! I agree with you – culture and history are tremendously important in understanding contemporary human behaviour! That’s not the topic of this blog post, however..! 🙂

      To better frame the context of this blog: I write about animal behaviour and welfare, and thus the cultural perspective is less interesting when viewing behaviour from that standpoint.

  38. A great post, and I agree with every word of it: thanks so much for doing it. As you point out, her theory simply does not make evolutionary sense. And her omission of all the neurotransmitters and neuromodulators such as serotonin and dopamine that we know are invoved with felt emotions is extraordinary. They exist for evolutionary reasons: they make us more likely to survive. Very inconenient for her theory.

  39. In Science magazine there appeared an article, The Last Human, which pivots on why we’re the only remaining “human-type” species. They conclude, among other things, that we were more successful because of having emotions and “wanting to help each other succeed”, hence the vast improvements in our ability to communicate.

    It’s tough to link emotions to evolution, because with modern bioinformatics, DNA/proteins/gene should contain incontrovertible proof of a concept if people will want to accept it. On the other hand, some of us understand well that scientific evidence for some things will not materialize in our lifetimes, but there exists many other kinds of proof for things that we’re somehow ‘convinced’ must be the case, for example, that emotions have a strong role to play in our “dominance” over other animals, or that emotions make us more vulnerable and more fearful and therefore make us act out much more strongly to perceived threats (even if they do not exist as perceived).

    It’s a rich discussion, and an important discussion. Science friends of mine deny it, because of “the lack of data” (this is my main problem with colleagues in the academic research community). With mammals, emotions are more prevalent compared to other species, I’d say, also because “lower species” (evolutionarily speaking) do not have the “mammary glands” (needless to say?). An interesting point that latches onto elements from this insightful post is the issue of how emotions are thought to have led to our continued existence as a species, as opposed to the extinction of other hominoids who also had similar traits but still could not compete with us. Did emotions have such a large role to play? Really, and can we prove it, at least theoretically? I would put forward the idea that we make “emotionality” a central theme when discussing mammals, also due to our closeness to mammalian pets, and look at the matter from such an “emotion-driven” point of view. Did genes mutate differently due to emotions? Were traits inherited differently due to emotions? Etc.

    The comment made by Hertha James is a great case in point: dogs certainly have amazingly well-developed sets of emotions. They understand nuance, without having the language we have. Is any of such a trait important for the species? For its survival? Is it somewhere imprinted into the genomes of individual dogs, and can the offspring inherit these enhanced nuances for emotional connections with carers? I’m trying to drive at natural selection for emotional intelligence without saying there is natural selection for emotional intelligence, but I still believe that there must be something to this effect – to my scientific friends, I should deny that emotions could have the slightest chance of being as real as DNA and other “stuff like that”. I hope I’m not confusing you, but the conclusion here is that I support your well-reasoned rejection, and offer in support the idea that emotions are much more central to us mammals than what popular science makes us believe. Granted all the media hype these days, many well-known men in the science offices will not like it if “emotionality” is proven to be the key to advancement and survival of our species. That would mean that “You’re Emotional” could be an empowerment phrase rather than the derogatory slants it is commonly associated with. But let me not drive myself off-topic. As I said, it is an important discussion. And I just love that you make such effort to include your readers. Fascinating.

    1. Nathaniel, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic! 🙂 Glad you liked this post.

      Indeed, I do believe that “emotions” (and I think we need to explain what we mean by that term, since there are apparently more than 90 definitions out there) have a huge impact on our perception, decision making and behaviour.

  40. Wow, so glad to read your blog. I am an editor of a popular scientific magazine in the Netherlands and we were considering Lisa Feldman Barrett for an expert interview. Some famous Dutch authors are calling her book a revelation etc. But whatever I hear and read about her so called groundbreaking new theory just doesn’t convince me. I have a background in the psychology of emotions and evolutionary psychology, and to me it looks like she creates some kind of illusion that everyone falls for! I felt like I was the only one shouting the emperor is naked – but thanks to you I know I am not alone 🙂

  41. I really enjoyed reading your blog. In a psychology group we have been looking at her book “ seven and a half lessons about the brain”. Half way through the first section I became absolutely sure that what she is spouting makes absolutely no sense. I am not a qualified scientist, but a very curious person who studied science at school. It did not take me long to have serious doubts about her assertions that predictive processing is the only processing the brain uses. That just makes no sense on all sorts of levels. I was told that it would not be efficient for the brain to use multiple systems. Why? is my answer to that statement !

    1. Thanks Shirley! I suspect that there’s a lot of grumbling going on in the neuroscience community on this topic – would be interesting to see some public debate..! 🙂

  42. Thanks for that post. I was wondering whether I am the only one thinking that she is arguing a strawman. I always thought that emotions are mapping culture on top of feelings. feelings are innate and emotions very much more finely grained because we developed language, a much better communicator than facial expressions. So in that sense both is true, we have some limited number of feelings that are innate including facial expressions. But our world became much more complex (and we more intelligent) so that we developed spoken language and were able to describe feelings much more granular. And different languages use different words thus associated different things. Makes sense to me. I am not using the terms feelings and emotions correctly (I in fact was completely oblivious to the actual meaning but just read about it), but does that make sense to you when we say: course grained emotion= innate, finely grained emotions=cultural.

    Best, Ben

    1. Ben, I think you’re spot on, there’s both – regardless of what we choose to call it! Panksepp calls both the innate sensation/action as well as the cultural/cognitive processing emotion (but he distinguishes between primary, secondary and tertiary emotions). Seems that Barrett calls innate sensations affect, and cognitive processing emotion. Which suggests that a lot of the controversy is simply semantics… 😉

      1. From what I understand from her writings, Barrett does distinguish between body sensations generated by interoception, and the basic feelings that arise from the process of interoception. Barrett calls those feelings affect. What she calls emotions are full-blown emotional experiences that include a cognitive component that symbolises and makes meaning of those experiences.

        1. Thanks Erin – I think you’re right, which makes the whole discussion very much a semantic issue! 🙂

  43. Yes, they do have a “toothy grin” – negative high arousal, but more with the intent of fleeing comes to mind. You see them when dogs are for example fearfull of thunderstorms and such. They will also be panting and may be drooling. The difference is in the eyes and ears. Ears will be in the neck and whale eyes. Posture of the dog will also be croached.

    What a lot of comments since my last visit…will need to take some time to go through these… Thank you for you valueble contribution as always.

    1. Thanks for clearing up the difference – and yes this blog post got a whole lot of attention!! 🙂

  44. That the brain is a dynamic predictive organ is well established in the field of Neuroscience and not even a new idea. Check out the writings of Kant, William James, Von Helmholtz….
    Since you don’t list any references at all I’m not sure what “bad science” you talk about.
    Nor are any of the psychological phenomenon the scientific forefathers talked about grounded to the brain. The word Emotion itself is an emperialistic idea.
    While the Greeks debated about the passions… none grounded to the brain as so well pointed put in Buzsaki’s “thr brain from the inside out”.
    You can certainly argue that Panksepp grounded his emotion hypothesis to the brain. But did he really?? You cancertainly find out what certain brain areas are involved in in computing but what one is left with is what the rest of the network does in which other downstream neurons of other areas are firing- and really its not like Barrett doesn’t explain in detail in the book and the Scientific Papers how the brain predicts; the book and her paper lists a mountain of emperical papers to follow up on. And these papers themself list mountains of other Scientific references to research on.
    I also find it worrying that her work is so mis-represented that the commenters suggest her ideas suggests “specism”. She actually continually writes the opposite- that brains didn’t evolve for the human brain as the pinackle but that every brain has its specialities, BECAUSE, any species brain is special in regulating and controling its body in the niche each species moves in.
    Even Jo LeDoux is constantly pointing out the constant mis-use of his work on threat responses (which he used to call fear responses)
    He is very outspoken about it these days.
    What I find interesting is that this is communicated through a blog. Even Panksepp engages with Barrett – he was actually invited years ago at the University she is at to debate for several weeks- out of which a couple of very neat sientivic debates/articles were the released.
    Thus wouldn’t it be of more use to actually write a scientific article and do some deep research, then to write a blog were mostly people who belief in your views are commenting and some of them in a rather disrespectful way.
    Best wishes

    1. Correction in scentence:
      “Panksepp engages with Barrett” was meant to spell past sense:
      “Panksepp engaged with Barrett & Co…”

    2. Thanks Bono. I will not write a scientific paper on this topic for reasons stated in the blog post, nor will I research deeper in this topic at present. Maybe someone else will who is actually in the field of affective neuroscience – time will tell!

    3. From what I understand, Barrett invited Panksepp to her classes not just for debate but to ask him to teach and explain his framework so that they would not mischaracterise his work. He did this for several weeks.

      Barrett has also held discussions with Ekman and LaDoux. To challenge Ekman’s work is pretty courageous, but Barrett seems to have done it purely in service of science. I once heard her say that she reached out to him before she published a particular paper naming him, to let him know that she respected his work enough to acknowledge his contribution to the field of affective neuroscience while arguing for the field to adopt new thinking in light of new evidence. It seems he accepted it.

      1. That is indeed good academic courtesy, and discussions are absolutely essential for the progression of science. I felt that in her book she did not invite discussion but rather ridiculed and berated the non-believers.

        1. You’ll be interested to know that despite what Prof Solms said in the comments here about being side-stepped by Dr Barrett, Dr Barrett did invite him to a debate (I read it on her twitter), and today I found out that they recorded their debate on youtube. Part 1 came out 2 weeks ago.

          It seems like a professional and respectful discussion.

          1. Erin, I’ve seen it and yes, it was really cordial and respectful! I was very pleasantly surprised! 🙂

  45. I’ve read Panksepp’s Archaeology of Mind and only studied Barrett in passing, so there’s my bias. That said…

    I appreciate that through language we can propose more finer-tuned coding than without, but the idea that perceiving a sensory experience is dependent on language is befuddling. We know animals can see color; does it matter that they don’t have a word for it? We know they can discriminate scent; does it matter that they don’t think of it as “mom” or “the neighbor dog?” And so if they feel a certain set of physical sensations after being exposed to a set of stimuli, just like a human would, is that not likely to be a similar lived experience to ours just because they don’t have a word for their perception? Why are emotions “special?” And if we are defining “emotions” only as things that must be analyzed using language, and then asserting only humans have them, isn’t that sort of… circular logic? “A doorknob can only be used by animals with opposable thumbs. Therefore, only animals with opposable thumbs can use doorknobs.”

    While I agree that humans are able to fine tune our observations of our experiences with words in a way that other animals cannot, the idea of emotions as a luxury rather than a necessity truly doesn’t fit with an evolutionary perspective.

    These thoughts may be off base without having read Barrett myself, but I’ll throw them out there just to muse!

    1. Katherine, not off base at all – this is my understanding of Barrett’s theory. Not sure it’s circular, though?

    2. I think you missing the underlying point of this scientific theory which looked at ot from the point of the brain. First you assume an organism needs emotions to survive and that we need the world to fill a brain with the realities happening in the world. But the key issue is that the brain is a predictive self organizing system regulating and controling the systems of the body. The movements / actions themselfs are the creators of perception.
      Also see Buzsaki 2019 (the brain from inside out) – or “the free energy principle” by Karl Friston which gives a mathematical statement on bayesian inference – minimize surprise (free energy) by active inference.
      The data itself that the Theory of Constructed emotion is built on is quite solid. Eventhough you explain your view why you perceive the data as valuable. The meta analysis itself is on whether there are brain circuits that show universality to emotion categories; they elaborate though that the brain has many connective options to construct many different instances of say sadness or fear just as a brain constructs the experience of the coulour red (there is no red in nature, our eyes don’t see red, redness is built by the brain using past experiences. -Also see Anil Seth’s works on conciousness.
      Further works by Feldman Barrett on neuronal compression to context building and categorization (many small less connected neurons compressing information to bigger much more connected neurons) ground the actions of the brain to information integration and memory reconstruction (reconstructions of prior experience).
      Categorization is crucial for a brain; it leaves for high probability prediction of needed motor actions plans to fulfill the needs of the body before they arise to minimize free energy (surprise).
      example: cortisol excretion before we get up in the morning so one doesnt faint / or action plan readiness if we roll our ankle, if other action plans weren’t anticipated we would constantly fall over.
      One doesnt need to feel fear to jump out of thr way of a bus; but we sure experience the summery of it – had I not learned the word fear would I even call those feelings an emotion or stick to explaining the affective states themself? (Hot rush in the stomach region, hot flush in face, jittery feeling followed by a “sigh of relief) and how would I verbally categorize that into smaller data / a quick summery which is metabollically econimic…-> sh$%!! That was scary!!

      It is only natural that our brains search for “likeness” in others and the world. That is its predictive nature- Buzsaki states that “to a babies brain nothing is new; it always finds a novel “thing” to be something like ….” so it’s no surprise that if a toddler experiences a dog everything that looks and moves like a dog may be referred to as “dog?” eventhough at that moment the toddler is looking at a sheep.
      I also don’t think thst generally it is appreciated how the brain even learns about the musculoskeletal actions early on in fetal development. There is beautiful work by Khazipoc et al (“early motor activiti drives spindle bursts in the developing somatosensory cortex” / “Early patterns of activity in the developing cortex; focus on the sensory motor system”)
      Buzsakis’, Peuprache & Kubies’ paper on “Emergence of Cognition from action” is another interesting hypothesis.
      So when you see likeness of facial expression they are taught in some form by the musculoskeletal system to the brain. Thats how these thalamu-cortical connections develop.
      Barb Finlay has beautiful papers on developmental stages of brains.
      Science really has to be careful how much we ground to our sensory experiences; it is those that lead us to cognitive biases- which again is economic and a normal way for the brain to minimize free energy. To just stay in the beliefe state we have.
      And yes there are places I traveled to where you really want to supress smiling at people. So the very instances of smiles are categories differently.

      A neuronal system doesn’t rely on the outside world to be activated; it can’t help itself but be active- for if there was no action there’d be no thinking; and its because thinking is happening that there is an “I”.
      Action starts at the chemistry level bound by physical laws and that’s where also a lot of misconception lies. In animal sciences actions are often just thought of a external movements

      From the way I read Feldman Barrett’s work, she also doesn’t say animals don’t have emotions. She states that whether animals have emotions is the wrong question. That it would be much more interesting to ask how a specific animal brain (a mouses brain or elefant brain etc) constructs emotion. What would an emotion constructed by a whale be like that has just started to dive into the depth of the ocean?
      But I guess thsts not as romantic to the general pet owner.

      However I also think that some of the hard core behaviourists take Feldman Barretts work out of context. It suits them to reduce all to action and not to worry about inner states (affective, allostetic thus Interoceptive) I’m unsure how they would explain how a brain regulates the system of its body without Interoception and move about in the environment effectively and economically to survive.
      Personally, I think of the spectrum of mood as a better way to communicate feelings then broad Categorization of a few words that have long lost their honest meaning; but that is down to my upbringing and language categorization- luckily not everything is grounded in english

      1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! I think it boils down to how one defines “emotions” – whether it’s how we choose to name our affective experiences, or the affective experiences themselves.

        Since the book was so full of science that I disagree with and cherry-picking, I became very suspicious of any of the scientific statements in the book – and since I’m not a neuroscientist I can’t tell whether for instance the assertion that “the brain is a predictive self organizing system regulating and controlling the systems of the body” is based on more robust data than that weird meta-analysis.

        1. Astonishing, I know, that someone with those credentials know so little about statistics – or evolution, for that matter! I am deeply concerned about that faulty meta analysis, but I feel like I’m the only one shouting that the emperor is naked.

        2. Michel Foucault is very widely cited as well. This does not make him a great philosopher or scientist. Actually, he is one of the greatest charlatans in the academic sphere. So, the fame of Ms. Barrett is no proof. Her theory is absurd. Gad Saad would say: an idea pathogen. Nobody denies that people can and must control their emotions (to some extent at least), and here the mechanisms of control and desirable results may greatly differ interculturally. But emotions as such are not constructed, that’s why they are emotions. CETh is a typical reductionist false-theory like marxism or freudism.

  46. When I first came across Feldman Barrett’s theory of emotions being constructed, I was immediately taken with it. As someone who did my PhD on judgement bias in dogs and had spent a lot of time watching dogs behave and trying to predict what they would do next, it fit very nicely with how I had come to understand the processing of emotions and the behavioural output as a result. I was dismissive of discrete emotions and focused on affective states. I am still very much focused on affective states. I think because I see so much internal conflict and confusion in both human and animal behaviour. To me, it’s like our brains are in a dark room and we can only make sense of things by gathering information from within and without and connecting the dots with our past experiences. Emotions (or affect, to be consistent with terms) are big signposts for how we should act next.

    However, I also have my roots in behavioural ecology, and the litmus test of does this make evolutionary sense is indeed also central to my thinking. And I cannot imagine how there are not core affects, if you want to reserve the word “emotion” for concepts rather than valence + arousal. There has to be. Animals are born with behavioural strategies they will tend to favour. You can see it in herding breed puppies when they first see sheep at 7 weeks old. That is an extreme example, but what kind of small rodent or lizard is going to survive to adulthood if it’s not inherently fearful of potential predators? This is actually central to my objection to the sport of barn hunt, but that’s a discussion for another day.

    Anyway, I have come to a balance in my mental model of affect and behaviour with a combination. Core affects exist and are the foundations that affective responses to all manner of stimuli and internal processes are built around. And beyond that, affect tracks contingency, so the emotional aspects of learning and conditioning guide our brains in their dark rooms to make sense of the world and arrive at a behavioural response that will hopefully serve us well. Likely started as something inherent, but built on by past experiences.

    I often think of the experiment that showed personality emerging in mice. It appeared to be largely a result of success with various behavioural strategies. You have a natural propensity towards a couple of behavioural strategies, so they are always the first ones you experiment with, and so you will often have success with them seeing as you inherited them and so they must be pretty decent strategies in the first place, and those experiences strengthens those strategies until it practically defines you. Where do those original strategies come from? My behavioural ecology brain says they have to be evolutionarily sensible strategies, and they surely have to include emotional facilitators.

    Thanks for a good read to bring in my new year.

    1. Melissa, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! I also find the Core Affect Space model extremely useful, and I keep thinking that a lot of the controversy is simply semantic, that it’s about which terms we use for the different parts of the affective/emotional process, all the way from showing innate knee-jerk behavioural strategies to challenges to how the concurring sensations are processed in the cognitive parts of the brain.

  47. I love this article, and will freely admit to also loving the work of both Skinner and Panksepp. As a trainer of tracking and detector dogs, Skinner was on my shoulder, and Panksepp was in the dogs’ core.

    As for CToE, I think it might be better labeled CToF, because feelings (e.g., guilt, shame, jealously, resentment, etc.) seem more likely to be constructed than are emotions (e.g., fear, grief, rage, etc ).

    But that’s just me.

    1. Steve – love what you just said: “Skinner was on my shoulder, and Panksepp was in the dog’s core”…! Such a graphic description! (and might we assume that Pavlov would be on the other shoulder..?)

      1. Of course, Karolina, Pavlov is ALWAYS on the other shoulder . . . as the mediator between Panksepp and Skinner.

        Wise trainers figure out how to harness classical conditioning rather than fight it, because it’s going to happen anyway. After all, it’s not as if Pavlov’s dogs said to themselves, “Hark! I hear yon’ bell. I think I’ll drool now.”

          1. Irith! So glad you liked it! And please call me Karolina… if you were to call out Dr Westlund I wouldn’t even know it were me you were addressing – we Swedes are not very formal!

  48. Hi Karolina. What can I say? I read blogs like this because you brilliant experts continue to expand my brain and educate me. I always want to know that what I am telling clients about why their horses are behaving the way they are and what they are feeling, is as correct as I can be. My understanding has always been about need. Behaviour is driven by a need and that need is wholly attached to emotions. Emotions directly drive behaviour. Panksepp has been my hero in all of this as I totally relate to the brain systems and how they play out within the context of environmental analysis, functional analysis alongside observable behaviours or predictable behaviours. Identifying that need in all of the complexities within the equation ( conditioned or non-conditioned reactions, conditioned or non-conditioned reinforcers, environmental influence, assessing daily management protocols in place et al)

    Thank you for doing what you do.

    1. Melanie – thanks! So glad you found this useful! Great also that you’re pointing out the value of the behaviourist perspective: functional assessments and functional analyses are very useful! We need all the different perspectives!

      1. I don’t think horses are any different to humans, dogs or any other animal- all we want to feel is safe! Safe in where we live and what we face, safe with who we live with and interact with, safe within the rules set by peers/groups/family/office/herd/bonded partners etc, which affect our liberty/ability to have control.
        Control is always interesting. It’s both a conditioned and an unconditioned reinforcer. We humans don’t give horses enough control over their own lives and what we expect them to “do” or face or cope with. No wonder they suffer so under the human innate, hard-driven need to dominate horses as is endemic in the horse industry. Traditional and natural horsemanship techniques are all about our full control via the use of escalating pressure. “We know not what we do” springs to mind.
        Wishing you a very Happy New Year xx

  49. Nicely done Karolina 🙂 I especially like your analysis of the meta-analysis.

    I differ a we bit from you on your point about evolutionary testing. While I agree with Dobzhansky that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution”, our litmus paper needs to be a bit more nuanced.

    As scientists, as evolutionary biologists, we do look to see whether we need to update our theory of evolution to include new data. e.g. The Central Dogma (DNA is the material of inheritance) was modified to include RNA and transposons and now even epigenetics and prions. What we might, as good evolutionary scientists, do is to test whether the proposed new paradigm makes sense—we can do that in a multitude of ways, including gdanken (which you have done), computer simulations, and empirical tests of data or controlled experiments. There is also no a priori reason to expect that every possible behavior and mutation has occurred and been the target of natural selection—so there may be limits to what natural selection has done in the past. All that said, yeah, there are lots of animals with complex innate behaviors (imprinting is an example that is totally mind-blowing, esp if you have ever been the love-target of an imprinted Gyr or pheasant… lol!).

    Why is “innate” and “localized to a specific brain region” equated?

    just because Darwin didn’t explicitly refer to natural selection or evolution in his treatise on “the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist(1). We have discovered many things in evolutionary biology since Darwin. He was seminal, but by no means a god. (2) The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”…the title implies a common origin. His whole book is about the similarity between Man and Animals. Anyone who knows evolutionary biology, especially the recently formalized field of phylogenetics, knows that unless there is evidence otherwise, we assume shared traits are due to their presence in a common ancestor…. which implies evolution. And which also implies maintenance through time by natural selection. Darwin had recently been beaten up for implying that man and animals shared common traits and ancestors. He was careful about what he said. But quite frankly, the laws of parsimony suggest that animals do indeed share basic emotions with us. And the more closely related they are, the more strongly we can say that. We might want to approach with some humbleness and not assume identity, since they have indeed evolved independently for a few million years…. But the data suggests we do share a lot of “stuff” (hormones, brain physiology and anatomy, expressions, and even pupil dilation and release of oxytocin when looking at (or smelling?) a “loved one”.

    The radical behaviorists forget that Noam Chomsky annihilated Skinner’s theory of learned language. Humans have a predetermined syntactical structure.

    I do believe the ability to name it has an advantage in a social species. Whether that be in Fisherian runaway selection where we are clearly drawn to a guy who can sing sonnets, or whether is simply allows us to pledge our faith (and parental obligations) to our beloved…. Still, those feelings* of love are important (and we see evidence of it *all the time* on the internet these days) for social bonds and tit-for-tat individual survival—note that we can help a comrade that is down with little cost to us, it benefits us if that comrade then returns the favor. Protecting an injured comrade may not cost anything, and may increase our chance for survival if he reciprocates. I have a youtube video on the evolutionary basis for love—much like this blog, it is NOT a scientific study. Merely a hypothesis. One which I would bet a lot on

    Just good/bad, aroused/depressed does not encompass all the kinds of action that a species needs to perform innately. Highly aroused in a “good” way should not always result in mating behavior, sometimes it should involve patting your teammate on the back or doing a fist bump!

    AGREE wholeheartedly to your last comment: “To me, the Constructed Theory of Emotions is about how we think about our emotions, and how we classify them. Not what triggers them, and how we respond to them – which behaviours we show, or what the outcome of those behaviours are; how they were once (and perhaps still?) adaptive.”

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Caitlin! You make an important point of how being granular in expressing emotions may indeed be adaptive!

      The “innate” being equal to “localized” is my understanding of Barrett’s take on this; only she doesn’t typically use the term “innate” but rather “classical”. And that’s one of the problems I have with her book: that nobody is actually arguing what she’s debating against. It’s a straw man.

  50. Thank you Karolina,
    Just reading your blog and the comments that followed gives me hope for the future.
    Give yourself a pat on the back for taking the time to write this blog (and finish reading the book). It takes courage to go against one of the most cited scientists in the world. And you have done it convincingly! I hope this blog will be read and spread widely and open the door for discussion and conversations

  51. I had never heard of Constructionist Theory of Behavior before and after reading this article, I wasn’t sure I really understood it (I’ve not read the book). So I did some additional research. Unfortunately, I came away with few “answers”. Research is still “mixed” (for example, I found studies indicating that by 6 months of age, infants are able to determine “basic” emotions based on facial expression; then I found evidence that facial expression of emotion is individual and humans are terrible at recognizing emotions based on facial expressions). I found fMRI and PET studies that indicate a single, specific area of the brain being indicative of a specific emotion; other studies that said “not so fast; there is more of a “generalized” area of the brain responsible for emotion”; evolution certain favors the idea of “hardwired” basic emotions but others say that theory is poppycock. So who knows? I certainly don’t. BUT, it seems to me that CTOE (whether correct or incorrect) can be dangerous. If we view animals as being only able to feel “affect” (pleasant to unpleasant and calm to excited), this gives us more latitude to disregard how we treat them. It lessens their sentience, it lessens their suffering when we expose them to fear-provoking stimuli. It means animals can’t feel specific emotions, just some jumble of physiological responses to stimuli that they can make no sense of. It means we can have free reign to treat animals more like unfeeling automatons, rather than intelligent, feeling, sentient beings. For this reason, I don’t really care which is “correct”. I’ll be sticking with the idea that animals DO feel emotions (and can make sense of them), that they can suffer when experiencing fear and other negative emotion, that they can (and do) grieve. I certainly believe some fears CAN be learned, but perhaps based on hardwired emotions. For example, my father was in the military and serving overseas when I was born. Thus, I was born in Germany (not the U.S.). When my family was coming back to the states, I had to get a series of shots to enter the country. I was maybe 3 years old (and have no memory of this, but I certainly heard the story enough times!!). The doctor who gave me the shots wore a white coat. For many years, whenever I saw someone (man or woman) wearing a white coat, I’d cry and run away from that person. Obviously, there was classical conditioning going on there (people wearing white coats = shots = PAIN!). But it seems as if my wanting to avoid PAIN is something I didn’t have to learn but is “hardwired”.

    1. Jan, such an important point you’re making, and one I’ll have to add for when I revise this post at some point: what does following the CToE imply for our treatment of animals?!

    2. Jan’s comment resonated for me; I also thought about animals – is their suffering or happiness lesser than ours? I have seen my dog grieve her beloved dog friend for a long time, and when together, they clearly showed love. Seen also some fears grow, apparently by learning.

  52. What am amazing read(!!). I thoroughly enjoyed it, and eagerly finished reading. I cannot say the same thing about CToE or most of LFB work . I know it’s not so scientific to say that it’s highly triggering, and things in your gut scream “this isn’t correct!”. Call me an “anthropomorphizer”, I’ll wear that badge proudly. I’ll stick in my tiny corner of believing animals have core emotions (hard to survive without!) and rich emotional lives.

    Imposter syndrome is real, especially when it comes to questioning someone of LFB status, but he works always seem to be so condescending that I can’t read anymore, I developed serious aversion years ago.

    Thanks sooo much for the time you took for
    this blog. Much respect to you.

        1. Typically the very first comment needs to be moderated before appearing publicly, and I’ve perhaps been a bit slow on the ball these last couple of days. But at present there are no pending comments, so can’t explain it… Sometimes simply reloading the page / the browser or restarting may resolve the issue.

          1. Reading the comments here I am not surprised to find most in agreement with the author since this is a blog and not a more widely circulated essay. And while some of the commenters have indicated that they have read or attempted to read LFB’s book it is also unsurprising that readers of this blog, like its author, might reject the theory of constructed emotion in favor of some combination of outdated theories (including folk psychology or pop-psych), and may generally be confused about the difference between feelings and emotions.
            I will further note that very few comments include references to any specific research on emotion and the brain and I will in this comment try to balance the scales a bit.

            Let’s start with Paul Ekland’s theory of Basic Emotions.
            Paul Ekman’s theory of universal emotions also referred to as the Basic Emotion Theory (BET), has dominated psychology for more than 50 years: the idea that certain emotions are universal, innate, and hardwired into our brains. But it has been called into question by numerous researchers in recent years. I do not believe that we need to spend a great deal of time examining this theory. It has been taught at universities and has trickled down into folk psychology. Ekman’s research explains that one can infer emotional states from expressions on faces and that emotions are universal, innate, and hardwired into our brains.

            Over the last two decades, however, researchers began raising questions about Ekman’s methodologies. Ortony and Turner stated in their 1990 paper that it was “an article of faith rather than an empirically or theoretically defensible basis for the conduct of emotion research:”


            In 1994, James Russell was one of the first to challenge Ekman’s theory, saying, “Facial expressions and emotion labels are probably associated, but the association may vary with culture and is loose enough to be consistent with various alternative accounts.”


            By 2003, Russell introduced the concept of “core affect,” a sort of ‘minimal universality” or innate, shared emotional base. In this paper Russell “laid out a new vision for the intricate ways that nature and nurture interact to produce the familiar yet enigmatic states we know as our emotions.”

            Perhaps the most important challenge to BET comes from Carlos Crivelli and Jarillo de la Torre. who attempted to replicate Ekman’s ways that would eliminate Western biases :


            “Crivelli’s team conducted several studies (three published so far, and another under preparation) that cast serious doubts on the Universality Thesis.”

            This brings us to Diversity Theory

            An alternative to BET is now being referred to as “The Diversity Thesis.” While it is still young and controversial, evidence supporting it’s claims is fast growing. This formidable opposition to the Basic Emotion view has emerged in recent years, spearheaded by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, and her disciples.”



            “Our findings indicate that perceptions of emotion are not universal, but depend on cultural and conceptual contexts.”


            “The cues that perceivers anchor on, and the types of inferences that perceivers make appear to depend on cultural context. These new findings challenge the conclusions of some of the most widely accepted emotion experiments, including the conclusion that there is strong cross-cultural consistency in emotion perception.”


            “In a 2018 study, a team of cultural psychologists, including Michael Boiger and Batja Mesquita at the University of Leuven, sampled shame experiences from hundreds of American, Japanese and Belgian subjects.”


            I will add this final bit of research in support of my claim. “Qi Wang, a professor of human development at Cornell University in New York, has observed that, when European American parents share memories with their kids, they tend to put the focus on the child’s own feelings and unique role in the situation. East-Asian American parents, by contrast, prefer to emphasize their children’s relatedness to others.”


            I believe we can conclude that there is growing evidence that culture and language play a role not only in the construction of emotions but in how they are perceived.

            Additionally, one aspect of LFB’s research that is not addressed here is that of the predictive brain so I add this final piece of research.

          2. Thanks for adding this historical perspective, Theodore! It seems completely reasonable to me that the answer is in the synthesis of Nature AND Nurture, not one or the other! 🙂

  53. From one ethologist to another, thank you SO MUCH for writing this blog. It is so thoughtful, so thorough, so measured and humble, and so well substantiated. It may evolve, like all things do and should, but it’s a perfect piece for this moment in the field of animal behavior, one increasingly drowning in the god-like centrality of “nurture” over “nature” in the sleepy illusion of separation we experience in the 21st century. I hope it succeeds and survives. It surely “fits”.

    This book (which I doubt I’ll actually read because it sounds so painful, so I’ll refer to the sentiment described here by this article on it) is so representative of the human-centric, separatist, far fetched modern assertions in the name of data-driven “science” that sadly plague our “information age” (misinformation age) with useless ponderings divorced from the most widely established natural laws, misleading us down empty rabbit holes.

    Barrett, as too many other modern scientists, tries to reinvent a wheel (and a square one at that), consistent with her concept that all of life is simply one “Groundhog Day” after another, where only the proximate “nurture” exists and “nature” has nothing to bring to the table from ultimate lessons learned.


    Serendipitous timing for my read of your piece. We’ve had a COVID Christmas and are basically hibernating at home. There’s been a space in my life and therefore mind in the past few days for NEW research, questions, observations, thoughts, information to germinate for the first time in months. I’ve been reconsidering just how insane humanity currently is on so many levels, how far up our own asses we are these days as a species such that we don’t even know (remember) that life as most of us know it (entirely temporarily insulated from nature’s laws) is NEW. What we think of as “the world” and “life” is actually just an evolutionary event that’s arisen in about a century.

    As an applied ethologist, I spend much of my time appreciating just how wrong things go when humans interfere with or perceive themselves as apart from nature. I spend a lot of time in absolute wonderment of nature’s principles, systems, phenomenon, solutions to problems. And a lot of my time marveling at humanity’s superiority complex and stupidity.

    So then I get to read your article. Great timing. Another demonstration of our erroneous common modern human tendency towards elitist, reductionist, naively insulated perspectives of our world that are entirely divorced from context of natural history and life, evolution, the real pressures of threats and opportunities, the reality of life unbuffered by our modern comforts that *seem* to have effectively created a human world separate and protected from the “wilderness” of life. We’ve lost all sight of context. We left it on the shore of history for a new fantasy voyage and believe we are in a new world. But we’re not.

    It is a fragile, and I fear short-lived, illusion we are all living in, as we have chosen the bliss of ignorance regarding our intrinsic connections to the rest of nature. We have chosen a dream for its apparent promise of ease, and we’re running out of nighttime hours before we wake. We are not gods. We are not islands. We are simply organisms, like all of the other organisms, who can’t seem to remember what we have forgotten. A truth that most other organisms still cannot afford to forget- that emotions are a necessary adaptation for many, arguably most, forms of life- words that simply symbolize the underlying evolutionary purposes they serve.

    A certain sector of science continues (and likely always will) to insist that humanity somehow exists above nature in a world defined entirely as ours with nature as our backdrop and playground. Modern conveniences and medicine have increasingly prevented our ignorance from being quickly apparent or selected against, and we’re relatively quite “comfortable” (many of us) with the easy living we’re currently making.

    We might confess we feel “off” these days, blame family or work or current events, describing our symptoms of severance from nature as pathology. We feel it vaguely nagging at us from deep within (in our chronic loneliness, anxiety, frustration, depression), but we call it a “disorder” and give it pills. It’s a strange dream we’re all living in together, where we’re the stars of our own strange movies living in a world of conditions that DID NOT EXIST UNTIL THE LAST 120 YEARS.

    We forget, every day, that we’re living in a sci-fi world. A strange new world that’s like nothing the world has ever been before.

    An important tangent. Electricity was invented in 1901. What is our modern world if not electricity? Cars, phones, computers, elevators, planes, internet, social media, you name it. It’s not that life before all of this was free of human arrogance. Far from it. It was a harsh and humbling (but also likely more intuitive) reality that we were living until very recent years.

    Our innovations have built beautiful, incredible things in this world. But those things are fragile, and largely illusions that will catch up with us. Nature is already answering, checking and balancing. We’d be wise to remember the “nature” part right about now in the world, and step down from our foolish pedestals on which we play puppeteer to the world.

    We didn’t construct emotions anymore than we invented perception. We continue to minimalize nature so that we can continue to exploit it without cognitive dissonance. Simply, we need to continue to view LIFE and it’s processes through the lens of our narcissistic human narrative.

    After all, where would the world be without us?

    We just might get the chance to find out.

    As defeatist as that may sound, I’m actually entirely inspired. Knowing that others continue to challenge the insanity of culturally accepted erroneous “information” gives me so much hope. I personally don’t want to be asleep. I want to feel life deeply, know it, connect with it, understand it, share it with others. It is the only place in which I am not lost. Here, in this truth. Thanks for meeting me here. Thanks to anyone who shows up here.

    1. Kim!

      You’re a poet, too!

      I only knew you as a fellow ethologist across the pond, but I’m sitting here smiling. Thank you. So glad you liked the post.

      You touch on many important topics, what stands out to me is that obviously the nature-nurture conflict is still alive and well; that data-driven science can actually be put in quotation marks, believing we’re in a new world while we’re really not, nature being a backdrop rather than something we’re immersed in, and perhaps the most powerful statement in this context, for me, was that the “words simply symbolize the underlying evolutionary purposes that they serve”.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  54. Thank you Karolina. Earlier this year I was battling my way through this book. I had to back track continously, but I had the same thing all the time! In my mind, saying…”But what about Panksepp’s very sound research? But so and so”. Long time wanting to discuss this with some peers, but just not getting there, hoping to finish the book first. I was very surprised by a lot of her very matter of factly statements. I was trying to unify/intergrate her theory with what she calls the classical view. Trying very hard to take statements seriously and trying to find a way to better understand humans and off course dogs. So I kept going, using pure grit to get through the book, but eventually I dropped it …up to now. I think you nailed it. Yes, your blog was indeed a long read, but by far not that aversive than getting through the book. I think it is so difficult to make sence of it for me, because some of the things she claims and states sort of makes sence too (like language describing a “constructed emotion”about when you have the empty chips package ;-)), so I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, and try and adjust my view, how else do we get better in understanding the world? Anyway, good read, thank you and let’s start discussing this!

    By the way, dogs also do this showing of the teeth as a way to show benign intent, or so it seems when they play for instance. One tends to see a lot of teeth, way back to the last molars. It’s almos like they say, “You have nothing to fear from me. See no hidden weapons. See them all”.

    1. Thanks Suzanne! It’s interesting how hard it is to read something that challenges core beliefs, isn’t it..?

      Hmm… I’m really lousy at reading dogs, but don’t they also have a toothy grin that’s more of a warning/high negative arousal? In what way is it different? In primates there’s a silent-bared teeth (friendly) and a vocalized-bared teeth (typically fear/arousal related).

  55. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this Karolina. I too have had this book on my shelf for a couple of years, having purchased it as a core book for a study on canine behaviour – it got put back on the shelf after reading the first few pages and dipping in randomly to see if it got any better! I made the point in the study submission that the CTofE perhaps links to the tertiary level of emotional processing, but it was a struggle to complete the submission as I had such an averse reaction to the content of the book – as you highlight, triggering emotions on every page (or para.)! It was great to read your thoughts on the evolutionary function, and thank you for bringing Jaak Panskepp back into the conversation. Wishing you a very happy New Year.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Julie – it’s a relief to realize I wasn’t alone in this! Happy New Year!

  56. Thank you! This made me laugh mi arse off: ‘Smiling was invented in the Middle Ages and broad toothy-mouthed smiles… became popular only in the eighteenth century as dentistry became more accessible and affordable. ‘

    Precious, just precious xD

    1. I know. It’s on page 53, and that’s actually one of the reasons I stopped reading the first time around, and why I had such trouble believing that any of the other statements rested on solid science.

  57. Thanks Karolina; that was a great read! I am glad you took the trouble to write it. I tried recently to engage LFB in a friendly discussion of some of the core issues but she side-stepped me every time (three).

    1. Mark – so glad to hear that you enjoyed it! It’s too bad the discussion climate is so infected. The comments I’m getting is that people get really triggered by her ideas, so I suspect that she has met a lot of confrontation over the years. That might explain why she’s not in a place to have that discussion, perhaps.

  58. Thank you for this! As someone makes their living trying to help horses who are doing things humans don’t want them to do, I constantly come up against this. What I am sure about is that not acknowledging emotions compromises welfare. Love Gay Bradshaw’s work on trans-species psychology; and very very glad to see this ‘proof’ picked apart. Not sure I could have read it, and quite sure I couldn’t have come up with such coherent analysis of it.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Felicity! That trans-species psychology sounds really interesting, will have to check it out! 🙂

  59. The author of the book you are critiquing is just one more wonderful example of the blinding arrogance shown by many humans toward other animal species on the planet – not to mention the almost total disruption to natural plant communities.

    Great post. Like you with the book, I couldn’t read it all because the constructionist idea is so off-base.

    My first question would be, does this person interact daily with animals outside lab cages. Does she train any animals does she have pets?

    Many people don’t understand evolution. All the features of all species alive today have been honed from the same material but in a complex array of niches.

    The idea that animals (of which we are one kind) don’t have innate emotions similar to ours is utterly ridiculous.

    I’ve just rescued my son’s dog from a boarding kennel where she evidently chewed into the partical board door of the pen she was put into one night. Looking into a room full of dogs near the entrance, one could see every emotion ranging from hope when they saw the leash in my hand to one dog that looked catatonic. Most were just perplexed.

    1. Hertha, she actually does discuss the value of seeing emotions in animals (accepting the mental inference fallacy) as a way that leads to more empathy. But she then intentionally puts on her research hat. I’m sure she takes it off when she steps out of the office..! Don’t know if she has animals!

  60. Hi Karolina,

    I didn´t read that book (and I am pretty sure that I won´t in the future).
    Question: Could her >findings< influence how humans will treat animals in future? If no: ignore her. If yes: dangerous (I don´t think that many politicians believe that animals might have emotions, as horrible livestock husbandry is allowed and usual). Kind regards Carola

    1. Carola, great point, and one I will have to cover when I revise this post at some point! I suspect that it will influence how people treat animals – Barrett even says so herself! “Frankly, if everyone engaged in the mental inference fallacy with animals, and in the process we admitted those animals into our moral circle, maybe we’d have fewer poachers who slaughter elephants and rhinos for their ivory or hunt gorillas or bonobos as food” (p 278). To that I would add that we would completely rethink how we interact with all animals, whether they’re zoo animals, farm animals, pets or laboratory animals.

  61. Thank you for this! I also read this book a few years ago and found it very doubtful and contrary. It just didn’t make any sense to me especially after reading much of Panksepp’s work and generally animal behavior and welfare work. Great to see this thorough critique of it.

  62. I absolutely agree with the points you raise here. I was especially interested because I have just read a more recent, unconvincing book by the same author, whose style I, too, find patronising.
    Quite apart from the logical criticisms you make from an evolutionary perspective, one can’t help but wonder whether Barrett has ever actually known an animal.

    1. One thing that concerns me about the present state of human evolution is the tendency of humans to pull away from the natural world, to assume that we are somehow not animals (and for goodness sake, never predators!). Whether we also have existence in other parts of the universe or not, at present we find ourselves here, as animals, embedded and embodied in this particular material Earth. To withdraw into fantasies of ‘reality’ that take no account of being here, and having to survive here in this system, is to my mind self-destructive to the point of human extinction. I hope that trend in thinking does not wipe us all out. We are here, we are animals, we do have kinship with other creatures here, and if we are to survive as a species, we need to accept that. It’s not about ‘saving the Earth’; it’s about not going extinct.

      1. Yes, absolutely. In using the word ‘animal’ I meant, of course, non-human animal. If we, as animals, feel a range of emotions then, obviously, so do other species.

        1. I wasn’t pointing that at you, Sandy. It’s just something I’m concerned about. That whole rant belonged in a stand-alone reply to the blog post. — I was delighted to discover The Hidden Spring this year, and set out on quite a reading spree among Solms’ work and that of Panksepp — all of that has helped me feel a stronger kinship with the creatures that live near me, including my feral cats. (I live in a semi-wilderness in western Ireland.) — So yes, has that author ever met a non-human animal? I do wonder.

  63. Thank you for this piece! I have heard Feldman cited as if definitive when I know others question her conclusions.
    Emotions seem to be such a difficult issue for behaviorists. I often hear it discussed as being a private event of another that we cannot “know.” But we are social beings. Those who have difficulty “reading” others emotions have difficulty in our society. Our social interactions seems to assume that on a day to day basis we maneuver our actions with our spontaneous assessment of the emotions of those around us.

    As for smiles- the fact that blind people smile seems proof to me that it is not a learned behavior. Which states:
    “Seventeen studies provided evidence that blind and sighted spontaneously produce the same pattern of facial expressions, even if some variations can be found, reflecting facial and body movements specific to blindness or differences in intensity and control of emotions in some specific contexts. This suggests that lack of visual experience seems to not have a major impact when this behavior is generated spontaneously in real emotional contexts“

  64. I too love Brandon Sanderson, even though he writes tomes.

    One thing missing, except during your end notes; nowhere in here is it mentioned that there is strong link between hormones and emotions. I am in adrenal exhaustion, proven beyond a doubt when confronted with a bear, and had no fear response.

    1. Jacki – oh Sanderson is fabulous! I’m eagerly awaiting any screen adaptations!

      Yes exactly, there’s no discussion about hormones (as I recall) in the book.

        1. As far as I know, he’s aiming for Mistborn to be a film, but Stormlight Archives a series! 🙂

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