‘I’m extremely controversial’: the psychologist rethinking human emotion

How we interpret our feelings depends on where and how we’re brought up, says professor Lisa Feldman Barrett – and not understanding this is making our lives harder

In early March, as the world began to realise that coronavirus wasn’t going to go quietly, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett was thousands of miles away from home. “I went to New Zealand because I was getting an honorary degree,” she tells me over the phone from lockdown in Newton, a leafy suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, where she runs a lab devoted to the study of emotions. She had arranged the trip to coincide with spring break so her college-age daughter could join her and see the sights. But as countries around the world began to impose restrictions, she started having second thoughts. “I was asking myself, should she really be coming, or should we be going home? Like, how serious is this exactly?” Her heart began to race as she weighed up the possibilities – and she found herself in a state someone else might label fear, panic even. Eventually she rang her husband, but instead of saying “I’m scared,” she blurted out: “I’m experiencing high arousal from uncertainty.”

This is only an odd choice of words if you’re unfamiliar with the paradigm-busting ideas set out in her extraordinary 2018 book, How Emotions Are Made. For Barrett it’s simply the language that most closely reflects what science tells us about how and why we feel what we do. Her family have adapted. “My daughter will say, like many college students, ‘I’m really anxious’, and I’ll look at her and she’ll sigh, ‘OK Mom, I’m having uncertainty and I’m having high arousal.’ Or, ‘I’m really depressed.’ And I’ll be: ‘Are you depressed?’ and she’s like, ‘OK my body budget is out of whack and I’m feeling unpleasant. Are you happy now?’”

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