Sunday, January 19, 2020

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Re-thinking what we know about emotions

I recently read How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.  Her findings turn everything we know about emotions on its head.  Almost all the assumptions and existing knowledge we have about how emotions work and how they're formed is very likely inaccurate.  The book first thoroughly debunks the existing "science" of emotions.  Dr. Feldman then presents new findings and theories that are based on properly-conducted science and are supported by robust evidence.  It was a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.  The writing is a bit dense and can seem repetitive at times but it's worth the effort.  You will gain an entirely new perspective on an issue that is an integral part of what it means to be human.

Selected excerpts:
  • Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion.  For instance, "fear" does not have a single expression but a diverse population of facial movements that vary from one situation to the next. (Think about it: When was the last time an actor won an Academy Award for pouting when sad?)  "Fear" takes no physical form. Variation is the norm.  Likewise, happiness, sadness, anger, and every other emotion you know is a diverse category, with widely varying facial movements.

  • We cannot claim, with any reasonable certainty, that each emotion has a diagnostic facial expression.

  • Despite tremendous time and investment, research has not revealed a consistent bodily fingerprint for even a single emotion.  Variation is the norm.  Emotions are passed down through the generations without biological fingerprints.

  • Emotions are not what we typically think they are... they are real in the same sense that money is real--that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement. This is the theory of Constructed Emotion... instead of asking "Are emotions real?" the better question is, "How do emotions become real?"

  • I am not saying emotions are illusions.  They are real, but socially real... They are real because people agree that they're real.

  • You're not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions.  From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action.  You're not at the mercy of emotions that arise unbidden to control your behavior.  You are an architect of these experiences.  Your river of feelings might feel like it's flowing over you, but actually you're the river's source.

  • You are indeed partly responsible for your actions, even so called emotional reactions that you experience as out of your control.  You also bear some responsibility for others, because your actions shape other people's behaviors.

  • We must not confuse physical reality, such as changes in heart rate or widened eyes, with the social reality of emotion concepts... Your muscle movements and bodily changes become functional as instances of emotion only when you categorize them that way, giving them new functions as experiences and perceptions.  Without emotion concepts, these new functions don't exist.  There are only moving faces, beating hearts, circulating hormones, and so on...  You can dissolve anxiety into a fast beating heart.  Once you can deconstruct into physical sensations, then you can re-categorize them in some other way... Observe sensations as they come and go, non-judgmentally.

  • Scientific revolutions tend to emerge not from a sudden discovery but by asking better questions.

  • When mountains of contrary data don't force people to give up their ideas, then they are no longer following the scientific method.  They are following an ideology.

  • In our experiments, everyone used the same emotion words like "angry," "sad," and "afraid" to communicate their feelings but not necessarily to mean the same thing.  People vary tremendously in how they differentiate their emotional experiences.

  • The brain acts like a scientist.  It forms hypotheses through prediction and tests them against the "data" of sensory input.  It corrects its predictions by way of prediction error, like a scientist adjusts his or her hypotheses in the face of contrary evidence.  When the brain's predictions match the sensory input, this constitutes a model of the world in that instant.

  • The female brain is not hardwired for emotion or empathy, and the male brain is not hardwired for stoicism or rationality.

  • When people perceive emotion in a man, they usually attribute it to his situation, but when they perceive emotion in a woman, they connect it to her personality.  She's a bitch, but he's just having a bad day.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

"Of course it’s possible to love a human being – if you don’t know them too well."

– Charles Bukowski

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Picking up trash and making friends

This past month has been emotionally brutal for me since I have been experiencing panic attacks and all kinds of intense anxiety symptoms that I haven't experienced in over 4 years.  The last time I felt this way was when I was experiencing intense existential dread and "death anxiety" as it's called by psychologists.  Merely writing about it right now is increasing my heart rate and creating a nervous feeling in my stomach (commonly referred to as "butterflies" in one's stomach).  These are both common symptoms associated with an anxiety response.  However, sharing my experience is also cathartic to some degree since I don't feel like I am bottling it up and suffering alone.  If anyone reads this and needs someone to talk to, please don't be afraid to reach out.

While the past few weeks have been extremely draining and I haven't had much sleep, this experience has been an important wake-up call that made me realize I need to make fundamental changes in my life.  One of those changes has been to implement an "off night" when I do absolutely nothing "productive" and I get to do something enjoyable such as playing video-games, enjoying a delicious meal at a restaurant I love, or sitting next to mom and watching a show with her such as "Shark Tank" or "The Profit."  I have finally realized that my life is just too intense and I don't know how to properly give myself a break.  I am always fixated on being as productive as possible and doing activities that promote creative, intellectual, and emotional growth.  This is no way to live, at least not for me.  I understand this now and I want to make changes.  I don't quite know where to begin but the idea of a night off is a great place to start I think.

Another change I have been working on has been trying to form more connections and trying to be more social.  This change has been especially difficult for me since I am not very good at making new friends and I lead a pretty lonely life.  I am alone in my room almost every night, working on a drawing or practicing the cello.  While I find these activities extremely meaningful, challenging, and important, I have no real human contact outside of my parents and coworkers.  I have been in denial about how difficult and painful such a life has been for me.  The pain has likely finally caught up with me.  This is what this post is ultimately about and I finally got to the point!  Today, I met up with wonderful people from a Meetup group called "Atheists United" (https://www.meetup.com/atheistsunited).  We picked up trash on a stretch of a freeway in Glendale and afterwards we gathered at a restaurant where we had wonderful and thought-provoking conversations.  I want to make a note of this experience since I have a difficult time acknowledging personal accomplishments and progress towards life goals.  While I can't realistically consider the people I met today as close friends, I do believe it's a good start towards potential future friendships.  Moving forward, I hope for the best and I will keep trying to make new friends.  It's an important and very worthwhile goal to work towards.






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Bureaucrat by day, artist by night.