The author seemed to believe that the premise of this book was more revolutionary than I thought it was, to the point where I wondered if maybe I missed something.
Her main premise seems to be that there are no universal emotional pathways in the brain for things like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, etc. Rather, the body has only a very few possible physiologic states that can be mentally attributed to a given emotion, depending upon the person’s thoughts about their cause, and the context. An example that stuck out to me was when she was in school and a colleague to whom she didn’t think she was particularly attracted asked her for a date. She went, and felt various strange things in her gut, and assumed during the date that perhaps she was attracted to him after all… only to later learn that she actually had the early stages of gastroenteritis. It makes the vivid point that we can misattribute physical symptoms for emotions, because there are only so many possible physical manifestations of emotion, so the same ones have to get used over and over. Then it’s up to us to interpret what they mean.
Barrett then references a number of studies with which I was familiar, regarding the universality of emotion in various cultures that have had no contact with the Western world. She makes the point that these studies all essentially “stacked the deck,” teaching the people about Western emotional concepts and then showing them the facial expressions that were affiliated with them. But she makes the point that we are literally incapable of perceiving or even feeling a given emotion until we become culturally aware of it. The examples she gives to back this argument are very unique situations in which a particular complex emotion arises — situations which some cultures define by a single word. I don’t know if I’m convinced that other cultures can’t *experience* that emotion, though I certainly agree that we become far more emotionally intelligent when we possess the breadth of language to define it. I certainly have had the experience in my life of hearing someone describe an emotion, and saying to myself, “Ah-ha! So that’s what I was feeling (and why)!”
What to me was most revolutionary about this book was the author’s concept of the “body budget,” which affects the physical manifestations of emotions which we then have to use our language to define and context to interpret. Our body budgets can be affected by things like our sleep deficits, our blood sugar levels, cortisol levels, etc. Essentially it all goes back to the basic naturopathic building blocks of eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, spending time with those we love and doing things we love, and balancing our time between work and play. This isn’t exactly new, but it’s a new twist on the concept that the more depleted we are, the more emotional we can become… but then it’s still up to interpret what we are feeling.
My rating: ****
Sexual content: none
Political content: none