Does Your Brain Actually Recognize Emotion?

Does Your Brain Actually Recognize Emotion?

Taylor Anderson, Student Life Editor

The detection of human emotions is something widely perceived to be straightforward. When many people describe the saying, “I can read you like a book,” they’re referencing their processing of your emotional state and inferring your mental agenda. In reality, according to Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, psychology professor at Northeastern University, “The emotions you seem to detect in other people – are partly inside your own head.” She concludes that no one can really detect emotion in anyone else. The way you sense another’s internal feelings is derived from previous background knowledge, most often coming experiencing body language. For example, when you cry, you’re sad, and when you smile, you’re happy, and your brain recognizes this out of personal sense. When someone’s physical action or spoken word arouses sensitivity, your brain is conducting analytical predicting. This process has been disguised and simplified as “reading” a person.

Emotions, according to Miriam Webster, are “a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.” Or simply, “A state of feeling.” 

Emotions are guesses, Barrett says. Your brain uses billions of brain cells to construct guesses about your surroundings, which triggers a natural reaction. But these emotions aren’t built into your brain at birth. It has been proven that no emotions are pre-wired as a newborn, there is no such thing as premeditated emotion circuits either. 

To dig deeper into what emotions really are, it is important to understand which ones are primarily prescribed. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, renowned Swiss psychiatrist, and author of “On Death and Dying”  famously noted, “There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions come from fear.” This leaves the question: Can your brain really recognize someone else’s fear, or does it see it as their love?