If You Can Say It, You Can Feel It

If You Can Say It, You Can Feel It

Some scientists believe we have infinite emotions, so long as we can name them.

Sometime last year, I came across the word hangxiety, a neologism for hangover-induced anxiety. I cringed when I read it; it felt so phony.

The most mental distress I’d ever experienced during a hangover was some light teasing in a group chat. And then, last fall, the morning after a night of drinking, I woke up with a racing heart and a constricted feeling across my chest, as if I’d been sleeping under a dozen weighted blankets. I thought about the things I’d said and done the night before, and the physical sensations intensified.

This happened again, and then again. I haven’t had a hangover in months, largely because I’m terrified of them now. Was this always the way my brain and body responded to hangovers? Or did learning about hangxiety somehow influence the way I experience a hangover? I’d like to think I’m not that suggestible, but some emerging, somewhat controversial research on how and why we feel our feelings argues that language doesn’t just describe a feeling. It can also change it.

It feels like I know what a feeling is. Across the centuries, both ancient philosophers and modern psychologists have arrived at the same basic understanding that there are a limited number of discrete human emotions, preset by the human psyche. The Confucian text Liji lists seven feelings thought to be innate: joy, anger, sadness, fear, love, hate, and desire. Fifteen-hundred years later, René Descartes echoed this idea when he named wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy, and sadness as the six “primitive passions.” In the 1970s, the renowned psychologist Paul Ekman identified six “basic emotions” — you may recognize some of them from the cast of Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise. (Sometimes contempt gets thrown in there too.) More recently, Ekman and other researchers have bumped the number up to 27, adding emotions like aesthetic appreciation, empathetic pain, nostalgia, and awkwardness.

The point is, according to a few millennia of inquiry, there are finite ways to feel. Sometimes it may seem as if we’re experiencing a “new” emotion, but look more closely and you’ll find it’s the known emotions layered on top of one another. A newfangled emotion like FOMO, for instance, is probably something like envy layered on top of fear, maybe with a little sadness. Emotions are what they are, and they exist the same way in each one of us, whether we recognize them for what they are or not.

That’s one way of looking at feelings, anyway. The wildest thing about the study of human emotions is that researchers haven’t even agreed on a definition of what they’re studying. (This is not unique among the social sciences; researchers who study personality or intelligence fight similar semantic battles.) The Neuroscience of Emotion, a 2018 summary of the field’s current state, listed six leading theories of what emotions are. Five of those differ in detail, but they agree broadly that an emotion is an objective state that manifests in a variety of reliable, measurable ways, including behavior, facial expression, heart rate, blood pressure, and stress-hormone levels. And then there’s the sixth theory: constructed emotion.

This theory, introduced in 2006 by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Northeastern University, argues that emotions are not just biological entities. It’s true, Barrett says, that a handful of physiological feelings are distinct and measurable. She separates these into two categories: calm versus jittery (what scientists call “arousal”) and pleasant versus unpleasant (what scientists call “valence”). But these biological signals aren’t emotions. An emotion, she says, is how our brains interpret those sensations using our culture, our expectations, and our words.

This is an irritating, borderline unscientific view to many of Barrett’s colleagues. Scientists like precision. They like taxonomies like kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species and sorting each new discovery into its proper taxon. “It will surely be the case that our current emotion categories will be revised, and likely will need to be subdivided,” the authors of The Neuroscience of Emotion write in a critique of constructed-emotion theory. “But we argue strongly that this is an empirical task of scientific discovery, not a process of social construction where we can just make up any emotion categories we like.” Barrett disagrees. It’s not that emotions aren’t real. They’re very real. It’s just that they’re also made up by your brain.

Brains love concepts. When you encounter something you haven’t experienced before, your brain doesn’t ask itself, “What is this?” It asks, “What in my experience is this similar to?” Cognitive scientists call this “conceptual combination,” and it is thought to be “one of the human brain’s most powerful abilities,” Barrett says. We start understanding our surroundings this way from infancy. Barrett tells me about a well-known type of experiment in which researchers show babies a series of novel objects: Let’s say you start with a squishy blue toy. “You say to the child, very intentionally, ‘Look, sweetie, this is a blump,’ ” Barrett says. “And you place the blump down, and it squeaks.” Then you show the baby a round, feathery orange object, and you say again, “Look, sweetie, this is a blump.” You put the blump down, and it squeaks. Finally, you show the baby a third toy, maybe a spiky, shiny orange triangle. Again, you say, “Look, sweetie, this is a blump.” And the baby will now expect this thing to squeak. It’s how our brains make sense of everything, including, Barrett and other constructed-emotion proponents argue, our own feelings.

To a layperson, it’s fascinating to think that emotions are more subjective than we might have imagined. To neuroscientists, it’s more than a philosophical debate. The way they decide to define emotion shifts the way they search for treatments for emotional problems, including mood disorders like depression or anxiety. Barrett argues that if emotions were simply biological, then you’d expect an emotion to look similar in every person’s brain. And yet, across multiple studies, researchers have scanned the brains of people who all claim to be experiencing the same emotion, such as fear, and the fMRI readouts from those studies don’t have much in common.

David J. Anderson, co-author of The Neuroscience of Emotion and a neurobiologist at the California Institute of Technology, points out that, in mice, he has been able to evoke defensive behaviors, like freezing or flight — which animals (and people) typically show when in a state of fear — by stimulating “very specific populations of neurons in very specific brain regions,” like the amygdala or hypothalamus. His research and others’ have suggested the existence of multiple “fear circuits” in the brain that are involved in producing an emotion like fear or anxiety. “The fact that there isn’t a unitary and singular locus that participates in an emotion doesn’t mean that there’s no geography to the emotion at all in the brain,” he says.

It’s fear, as well as disgust, that gives me pause when considering constructed-emotion theory. If emotions are constructed, then why do so many of us construct the same one when we see a snake? There’s a famous patient known as SM who suffered damage to her amygdala due to a rare genetic condition; as a result, she feels no fear. Snakes don’t bother her, as researchers found out the hard way. “She had to be restrained from playing with the ones that would actually be quite dangerous to her,” Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California who has studied SM, told NPR in 2015.

“I think if you rank-ordered them, fear and disgust and aggression would probably be the three that are the clearest. The evidence that other animals have those emotions, the evidence for particular brain regions for them, is just overwhelming,” says Ralph Adolphs, a neuroscientist at Caltech and the other co-author of The Neuroscience of Emotion. “On the other hand,” he continues, “that’s about it.”

When it comes to the social emotions, for instance, like embarrassment or guilt, evidence of neurobiological markers gets much murkier. “You certainly don’t find them in rats,” Adolphs says. “Maybe you find them in dogs, but it’s hard to tell if we anthropomorphize.”

It does make a certain intuitive sense to think that uniquely human social emotions are socially constructed. There may not be a biological pattern that predicts Schadenfreude, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t luxuriate in it while watching the HBO documentary on Elizabeth Holmes. Or think about those viral lists of “untranslatable emotions from other languages”; it starts to seem reasonable, even obvious, that our environment must shape our emotions. But take that a step further: If, as Barrett argues, all human emotions are constructed, then that means they can also be deconstructed, or even reconstructed.

In December 2017, Barrett gave a TED Talk in which she argued that you have more control over your emotions than you think you do. The sheepish self-help-book reader in me is exhilarated by the word control. The notion that you can transform your emotions through words — I want to flag down random passersby and ask them if they’ve heard the good news. I want to tell them about the research in psychology that found that changing what you call a feeling can change the way you feel it. In numerous studies, students were told to interpret their pre-exam butterflies in one of two ways: either as anxiety or excitement. And wouldn’t you know, the excited butterflies performed better on the tests.

Oh, but then the queasiness overtakes the optimism. Am I really supposed to go through life carefully thinking through every feeling I feel? Now I’m feeling this way; no, wait — now I’m feeling this other way. Now I’m feeling like this is some self-absorbed millennial bullshit. Also, isn’t depression supposed to be, if not caused by, at least linked to excessive self-focus? And what are we to make of mood disorders like depression in the context of this theory?

Critics of Barrett’s theory worry that to accept this idea would mean rejecting most medical treatments. “To some extent, yes, we are constructing our own depression and anxiety,” Adolphs says. “But that can’t be the entire story, because otherwise drugs would never work!” But, well, antidepressants don’t always work. A study published in The Lancet in 2018 found that all 21 of the antidepressants investigated were more effective than a placebo, and for the people they help, they can be lifesaving. But other research has found that about 60 percent of users’ symptoms will improve within about two months. Barrett has speculated that depression could be the result of chronic imbalances in the body. In other words, it’s not necessarily just a brain problem.

When I first came across Barrett’s theory, I thought about an interview I’d read once with a tetrachromat — a woman who claims to be able to see 100 million colors. For her, the simple act of eating a blueberry is a whole thing. “The color of the skin is so varied,” she said. “Blues, purples, grays, gold, magentas, azures, and then when you bite them you get every type of gray, yellow, green, gold, lime, pink, violet … I stare at them so much when I eat them: at the skin and the surprise colors inside.”

Lately, I’ve been a little sad, but I’m noticing shades in the sadness, like the colors in the blueberry. There’s loneliness, embarrassment, frustration, a little regret, some mild existential despair. Something about naming the gradations of the feeling does change my experience of it; it makes life seem a little more textured and a lot more interesting. (“I stare at them so much when I eat them.”)

It reminds me of another study, in which Russian speakers were better than English speakers in a test to quickly differentiate between light and dark blue. The Russian language has separate words for dark blue (siniy) and light blue (goluboy), which suggests that, to a Russian speaker, these colors are as distinct as red and pink. It’s not that English speakers can’t distinguish between light and dark blues, the study authors wrote, “but rather that Russian speakers cannot avoid distinguishing them.”

Maybe now that I’ve pinpointed the difference between loneliness and a vaguer form of sadness, I can’t avoid distinguishing them, either. Psychology studies have found that people who are better at putting their emotions into words are less likely to engage in destructive behaviors like binge drinking or self-harm. “Rather than proceeding, without thinking, straight to the compulsive behavior,” writes psychiatrist Mark Epstein in his 2018 book, Advice Not Given, “naming the feeling allows for a pause.” During that pause, you tell yourself a story about the emotion, of how it came about and how it might go away, based on the times you’ve felt it before. Babies expect blumps to squeak; I expect loneliness to suck. But at least I know what I’m up against. The thing that’s been hard for me to accept is that, if emotions are not biologically programmed, there is no objective truth to our emotional states. A racing heart and scattered mind could be proof that you are falling in L-O-V-E or that you’re panicked. Both are true; neither is true.

The same goes for hangxiety. For a while, I was kind of mad that I had learned about the feeling. But then, in the middle of a hangxiety episode, I stopped mentally listing the reasons everyone hated me and instead considered the idea that the physiological symptoms were real but the meaning I had attached to them was maybe not. Emotions are 100 percent real and 100 percent made up. I guess we’d better start making up some good ones.

*This article appears in the February 3, 2020, issue of New York Magazine.

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