In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett establishes her "Theory of Constructed Emotion." This idea has transpired as a more accurate, data-driven means of understanding how human emotions work, as opposed to the “classical” theory in which emotions are universal traits of human consciousness. The classical model has dominated emotion research in the last couple of centuries, as brain researchers have tried in vain to locate specialised areas of the brain which are responsible for the “emotional fingerprints” that are ostensibly inherent in everyone. After more than two decades of collecting her own data and collating metadata from other researchers, Barrett has concluded that the classical explanation of how emotions work is fundamentally flawed. Certain areas of the brain may be involved during instances of fear, for example, but those same areas of the brain can also be involved during instances of anger, or elation. Conversely, the neural networks activated during one instance of fear may be largely quiet in a separate instance of fear—even in the same person.
So if emotions are constructions rather than physiological facts, why do things like anxiety, despair, and bliss feel so real to me? And why does it seem as though other people have an inherent ability to feel and understand the emotional states that I can feel? In short, it is for the same reason that we feel as though money is real: when we create a shared concept for something, it in turn creates a social reality—even if that reality is not material. To be clear, a social reality is no less real than a material reality, just as a mental reality is no less real than a bodily reality. The social, mental, and physical concepts we construct are simply different categories upon which we have all agreed. There is often a fair amount of overlap amongst the constituents of these categories, which allows them to have very real effects on one another. Take the example of the difference between a muffin and a cupcake: they are the same shape and are made with the same ingredients (perhaps cupcakes are more likely to have frosting on top, but I have certainly eaten my share of both frosted muffins and frosting-free cupcakes). However, some cultures tend to think of muffins as somehow “healthier,” so people let themselves eat muffins for breakfast, while having a more desserty concept of a cupcake. In other words, the difference between the two is a purely mental concept. However, scientific evidence demonstrates that your body may metabolise the same exact baked good in different ways, depending on whether you call it a cupcake or a muffin. These delicious data demonstrate how “mere” concepts can have empirically physiological effects.
The reality of our emotional experiences is precisely as impactful on the body, even though our conceptions of emotions are entirely determined by our social and mental categorisations. Most of our emotional concepts come from our upbringing. When our caregivers would see us exhibiting a certain behaviour, they would ask us “Why are you sad?” They would say similar things in situations in which we observed other people behaving in such ways, and this gradually led to our conceptualisation of “sadness.” Because the brain is constantly making its "best guesses" about what's going on in the world and in the body, and the guesses the brain makes depend on the concepts we have learned, we develop an essentially automatic process in which we use our felt inner states to form predictions of the emotions we associate with comparable circumstances. In other words, we ask ourselves “When is the last time my body felt this way in a similar situation?” The result is a prediction of the most appropriate emotional concept for that moment. This concept feeds back into the body, where it either perpetuates the interoceptive state (on which, more next week) or creates behaviour to strike a more appropriate balance in the body—perhaps laughter, crying, changes in the breath, or the urge to physically connect with another human being.
Barrett insists that the responsibility we have in shaping our emotional experiences hinges on our ability to make our emotional concepts more “granular”; that is to say, we become more emotionally healthy and intelligent when we are able to label our instances of emotion with more specific concepts. She suggests, for example, actively incorporating new emotion words—either foreign words or words that we can make up ourselves and share within our social circles— into our vocabularies. Lists abound on the internet which enumerate not only words but concepts that our own culture cannot express—perhaps because the state does not exist without the verbal concept for it.
This deliberate cultivation of new emotion concepts strikes me as a fantastically beneficial practice. For one thing, it encourages a more colourful and accepting—and perhaps even exciting—relationship with aspects of our inner life which we might unconsciously avoid or eschew. This hangs together well with a philosophy of yoga in which we are attempting to encourage dialogue amongst the various facets of ourselves. Additionally, making our emotion concepts more granular can engender a greater sense of clarity about what we are feeling. It enables us to view our inner lives in a higher resolution, so to speak.
As a metaphor, we can look at how much video games have changed in the last few decades. The granularity of both processing power and display has created a technological reality in which infinitesimal pieces of information can be recombined with such ingenuity that we are capable of experiencing a level of visual richness on our screens that was heretofore only available in the imaginations of the most gifted thinkers.
Video games are, of course, “mere” simulations. But as neuroscientist Anil Seth explains, the vast amount of the neural activity that goes toward processing our sensory perceptions comes not from the sense data themselves but from a prediction-driven simulation. These predictions are based almost entirely on the concepts that we have either acquired from our environment or cultivated (consciously or unconsciously) within ourselves. In other words, the way we experience the world around us owes its very existence to the collection of concepts we have; moreover, our concepts’ degree of granularity determines the depth and dimension of our experience. Constructing our phenomenal world with bulky concepts (such as right & wrong, good & bad, moral & sinful) will lead to an experience of the world that is flat, low-resolution, and clunky. Our emotion concepts will probably tend to feel more oppressive, because they will feel as though they overcome us en bloc. On the other hand, constructing our experience with finer-grained concepts will allow us to experience a much greater degree of depth, richness, and even colour.
For example, research has shown that Russian speakers, who have two entirely different words (голубой and синий) for light blue and dark blue, have a much easier time distinguishing between the two colours quickly when compared to speakers of languages who lack clearly defined concepts of these two hues. The concepts actually create two different colours in the minds of Russian speakers, whereas speakers of most languages might see them as more or less identical.
Richer and more granular concepts create a richer somatic and phenomenal life. So how can our yoga practice help? I hope that at this point it does not surprise you to learn that I think the answer starts in the body.
Recall for a moment philosopher Ellen Fridland’s theory of how physical skill acquisition and development contribute significally to the blossoming of abstract conceptual thought. As a child learns how to kick a ball, for example, she begins to fine-tune the brain’s ever-active prediction loops which constantly create countless simulations of musculoskeletal actions even before a move is made. During this process, she learns how to break actions into smaller chunks which she can then learn to recombine so as to mix up the order of execution, or even reappropriate into other action sequences. In doing so, her brain is reaching new heights in its powers of mental representation—the ability to create “internal” concepts which stand for something in the “external” world (I use scare-quotes here because I mean to employ these terms as a metaphor—at this point it should be clear that the boundary between internal and external is thoroughly porous). As a result, her mind learns about conceptual granularity through the movement of the body. As her soma works to render movements of greater specificity, her internal representations need to match that degree of specificity, thus creating concepts that are high-resolution enough to recombine mentally in ways that depend less on concrete objects and physical processes. This ability to deconstruct and recombine representations is the crux of abstract conceptual thinking, which is far more creative and diversified than linear thinking.
While Fridland’s study focuses on the mental implications of skill development in children, it feels clear to me that the adult body can serve our ability to achieve greater conceptual granularity as well. As people leave their childhoods behind, it is relatively normal to have a less conscious relationship to our bodies. (Is it a coincidence that research indicates that people have a more difficult time changing their mental patterns after the age of 25, just after many people stop learning new physical skills?) Yet the physical practices of yoga provide a wonderful means of reacquainting ourselves with the full somatic experience, and to explore the infinite nature of the specificity of movement that is available to all of us. Due to both the physical body’s relative malleability and the brain’s plasticity, it lies within the realm of adult possibility to learn new movements which require greater range, complexity, and specificity. In a similar fashion to the child learning to kick a ball, grown-ups are also capable of breaking down movements into smaller and smaller chunks. These smaller chunks allow—in fact, require—us to live through our bodies much more mindfully. Each moment of learning the new movement entails a level of attention to detail that draws us into a state of presence. During this process, the brain rewires itself at finer and finer levels as it establishes new neural connections; consequently, the movements become more accessible, more energetically elegant, and more granular. What’s more, learning a new skill colours how we feel in our bodies and how we look at the world even when we are not actively engaging in the new activity.
When I was twenty four years old, I had been practising yoga for six years. I realised that the physical aspect of the discipline had given me a new feeling in my body—in particular that it had made me aware of the asymmetry in my somatic experience. Asymmetry is, of course, normal and natural—the inner body is a remarkable example of this. The heart leans to the left, making the left lung smaller. The stomach is on the left, the liver is on the right, etc. But the more bodily awareness I developed, the more I realised how strange it was that I was unable to brush my teeth with my left hand. I also thought it was odd that I would always insert and turn the door key with my right hand, no matter which side the lock was on. As a result of this realisation, I began the process of training my left hand to do everything my right hand could do. I spent several months writing, eating, and brushing my teeth exclusively with my left hand. As you might imagine, this period was filled with frustrations and mistakes; however, it was the first time in my life that I felt as though I was executing so many of my moments and movements with anywhere near that kind of mindfulness. I developed a profound appreciation for the sophistication of the hands, which I had simply been taking for granted.
I realised that I had achieved full ambidexterity when, halfway through a sushi dinner, I became aware that I had been holding the chopsticks with my left hand and had not fumbled even a single grain of rice. I had a number of remarkable experiences in the initial weeks and months of my new life as an ambidexter. Now that the physical objects of the world were equally available and manipulatable to me on both sides of my person, I realised that I had been living for over two decades in a world that was not fully phenomenally three-dimensional. The training I had given myself, and the greater degree of availability I now had in my world, had transformed a number of the concepts I had about my body and my environment. I had, in effect, created a greater sense of conceptual granularity, which resulted in my experiencing the world in a much fuller, richer way. The effects of this embodied reconceptualisation reached into my creativity, my yoga practice, and even my sex life—in rather lovely ways.
The human brain has a fantastically absurd number of possible connections amongst its neurons. I find this particularly remarkable because for a significant proportion of our waking hours, our thoughts tend to repeat themselves at an alarming rate. Considering the fact that we have the hardware to create a nearly infinite number of thoughts, it seems reasonable to surmise that we are not using our brains to anywhere near their potential. Yet the mind can seem like a rather challenging thing to grasp, which is why some of the repetitive patterns that govern our thinking can feel so difficult to escape. Because the physical body feels more available and pliable, the idea of using a practice like yoga to reach a more expanded range of motion might feel like a far more realistic method of self-transformation than changing concepts and beliefs via the mind alone. When someone practises yoga poses, she familiarises herself with facets of her physical experience which may have seemed inaccessible—if she had even been aware of them at all. With the concept of a fully integrated soma, we are more likely to notice how changes in our physical experiences of balance, flexibility, and strength can provide analogous alterations in our mental structure. It may help us to feel more mentally dextrous, expanding our notions of who we are to include aspects of ourselves which might have been hidden, neglected, or abused for significant chunks of our lives.
With the insights of such a model, we can see how living life within the confines of a limited set of movements can also lead to limiting your concepts. Increasing conceptual granularity via deliberate forms of intellectual education can help to expand your worldview into something which is far more free; however, in order to maximise the recombinatory potential of our concepts, we absolutely must go through the body as well. Using mindful, specific, and expansive movement practice in order to boost the connections between the areas of your brain which govern the conscious movements of your body can only increase both your felt sense of mind-body oneness and the level of nuance in your conscious understanding of yourself and the world around you.
EDIT: This made my day! Just a little word from one of my great inspirations!