Are emotions just meaning plus feelings?

In her book, “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain”  Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are concepts applied to feelings.  Emotions are constructed, not just felt. She says word concepts from language are essential to emotion.
This does not square with our common sense, but here is her argument:
First, her group went through every published neuroimaging study of emotion, and
We divided the entire brain into tiny cubes called “voxels” (akin to “pixels” of the brain), and then identified voxels that consistently showed a significant increase in activity for any of the emotion categories we studied. We could not localize a single emotion category to any brain region.

In fact, every supposed emotional brain region has also been implicated in creating non-emotional events, such as thoughts and perceptions. Overall, we found that no brain region contained the fingerprint for any single emotion.
The brain represents an item on many levels.   The first parts of the brain that get input from vision, for example, detect edges and other primitive elements of the picture.  They then feed their information to a higher level, which extracts higher level features from the primitive features, and that level in turn feeds its information to a yet higher level.  So an abstract concept might be at a highest level of this pyramid, and perhaps reasoning with concepts would dispense mostly with the low levels, though she does not discuss that.
She does say this:
The brain efficiently compresses the sensory input it receives, just like YouTube compresses video, extracting similarities out of differences, eventually creating an efficient, multisensory summary. Once your brain has learned a concept in this manner, it can run this process in reverse, expanding the similarities into differences to construct an instance of the concept, much as your computer or phone expands the incoming YouTube video for display. This is a prediction. Think of prediction as “applying” a concept, modifying the activity in your primary sensory and motor regions, and correcting or refining as needed.
So if the concept does not match the input, a correction at a low level has to be made, and maybe at higher levels too, though that is not clear to me from her text.
The brain simulates the input it expects, and compares it with the input it is really getting, assuming there is input.  An example of a simulation without any corrective input might be a song playing in your head that you can’t get rid of.   An example of a simulation with corrective input could be you walking on a tightrope, and leaning too far in one direction and then having to quickly compensate.
[there are]… billions of prediction loops creating intrinsic brain activity. Visual predictions, auditory predictions, gustatory (taste) predictions, somatosensory (touch) predictions, olfactory (smell) predictions, and motor predictions travel throughout the brain, influencing and constraining each other. These predictions are held in check by sensory inputs from the outside world, which your brain may prioritize or ignore.
So how does your brain treat error?
…your brain, like a scientist, has some options. It can be a responsible scientist and change its predictions to respond to the data. Your brain can also be a biased scientist and selectively choose data that fits the hypotheses, ignoring everything else. Your brain can also be an unscrupulous scientist and ignore the data altogether, maintaining that its predictions are reality. Or, in moments of learning or discovery, your brain can be a curious scientist and focus on input. And like the quintessential scientist, your brain can run armchair experiments to imagine the world: pure simulation without sensory input or prediction error.
She’s talking about basic experiences in the world here, though it is also reminiscent to me of any topic where you are surprised by events.  For instance, if you confidently predicted that Donald Trump would lose the election, and you find you are wrong, what cognitive strategy do you use to learn from the error you made?
Anyway, back to emotion:
She says:
A … misconception is that your default mode network has a single set of neurons for each goal, like little essences, even if the rest of the concept, such as sensory and motor features, is distributed throughout the brain. This cannot be the case, however. If it were, then in brain scans we’d see this “essence” activate first, under all conditions, because it’s at the top of their concept cascade, followed by the more variable sensory and motor differences depending on the situation, but we see nothing of the kind….
In my view, she should be more specific about what a prediction means.  If you send a motor command to your arm, are you “predicting” what your arm will do?  (From other reading, my guess is you send two signals, one to move your arm, the other to tell the Brain what you just instructed your arm to do).
But a quote like this is puzzling:
 When you read the word “happy” or hear it spoken, or when you find yourself surrounded by your favorite people, your brain launches a variety of predictions, each with some prior probability of being likely in whatever the specific situation is. Words are powerful. This is reasoned speculation on my part because the brain operates on degeneracy, words are key to concept learning,…
Here are some quotes from her book that may clarify what she means:
Your brain must explain bodily sensations to make them meaningful, and its major tool for doing so is prediction. So, your brain models the world from the perspective of someone with your body. Just as your brain predicts the sights, smells, sounds, touches, and tastes from the world in relation to the movements of your head and limbs, it also predicts the sensory consequences of movements inside your body.
Withdrawals from your body’s budget don’t require actual physical movement. Suppose you see your boss, teacher, or baseball coach walking toward you. You believe that she judges everything you say and do. Even though no physical movement seems called for, your brain predicts that your body needs energy and makes a budget withdrawal, releasing cortisol and flooding glucose into your bloodstream. You also have a surge in interoceptive sensations. Stop and think about this for a minute. Someone merely walks toward you while you are standing still, and your brain predicts that you need fuel! In this manner, any event that significantly impacts your body budget becomes personally meaningful to you.
So Prof Feldman-Barrett is explaining that the brain has to manage the body, and to do that it needs to pay attention to sensations from the body.  The neural network involved is called the “interoceptive network.”   But for reasons that nobody understands, emotions are very involved with this network.
Emotions are not just feelings.  More basic than emotion is “Affect”:
Affect is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout each day. It is not emotion but a much simpler feeling with two features. The first is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel, which scientists call valence. The pleasantness of the sun on your skin, the deliciousness of your favorite food, and the discomfort of a stomachache or a pinch are all examples of affective valence. The second feature of affect is how calm or agitated you feel, which is called arousal. …Scientists largely agree that affect is present from birth and that babies can feel and perceive pleasure and displeasure, even as they disagree whether newborns emerge into the world with fully formed emotions. Affect, you may recall, depends on interoception. That means affect is a constant current throughout your life, even when you are completely still or asleep. It does not turn on and off in response to events you experience as emotional.
You cannot overcome emotion through rational thinking, because the state of your body budget (the state of your internal world as sensed by neurons) is the basis for every thought and perception you have, so interoception and affect are built into every moment. Even when you experience yourself as rational, your body budget and its links to affect are there, lurking beneath the surface. …[Our common sense] myth reflects one of the most cherished narratives in Western thought, that the human mind is a battlefield where cognition and emotion struggle for control of behavior. Even the adjective we use to describe ourselves as insensitive or stupid in the heat of the moment—“ thoughtless”— connotes a lack of cognitive control, of failing to channel our inner Mr. Spock.

Every person you encounter, every prediction you make, every idea you imagine, and every sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell that you fail to anticipate all have budgetary consequences and corresponding interoceptive predictions. Your brain must contend with this continuous, ever-changing flow of interoceptive sensations from the predictions that keep you alive. Sometimes you’re aware of them, and other times you’re not, but they are always part of your brain’s model of the world. They are, as I’ve said, the scientific basis for simple feelings of pleasure, displeasure, arousal, and calmness that you experience every day. For some, the flow is like the trickle of a tranquil brook. For others, it’s like a raging river.
So what is an emotion then?   A feeling of “pleasure” is not what Lisa Barrett has in mind.  That is just affect, somehow generated by the interoceptive system.
If you have a stomach ache:
[and] if you’re sniffing a diaper heavy with pureed lamb, as my daughter’s friends did at her gross foods birthday party….You might experience the ache as disgust. Or if your lover has just walked into the room, you might experience the ache as a pang of longing. If you’re in a doctor’s office waiting for the results of a medical test, you might experience that same ache as an anxious feeling. In these cases of disgust, longing, and anxiety, the concept active in your brain is an emotion concept.
So I understand her saying that if you give “meaning” to bodily sensations, you are experiencing an emotion.
Lisa’s team found that some people give more detailed “granular” meaning than others.
Some people construct finer-grained emotional experiences than others do. People who make highly granular experiences are emotion experts: they issue predictions and construct instances of emotion that are finely tailored to fit each specific situation. At the other end of the spectrum, there are young children who haven’t yet developed adult-like emotion concepts, and who use “sad” and “mad” interchangeably to mean unpleasant. My lab has shown that adults run the whole range from low to high emotional granularity.
….
In English, for example, they [people with high granularity] might have concepts for anger, sadness, fear, happiness, surprise, guilt, wonder, shame, compassion, disgust, awe, excitement, pride, embarrassment, gratitude, contempt, longing, delight, lust, exuberance, and love, to name a few. They’ll also have distinct concepts for interrelated words like “aggravation,” “irritation,” “frustration,” “hostility,” “rage,” and “disgruntlement.” This person is an emotion expert. A sommelier of emotion. Each word corresponds to its own emotion concept, and each concept can be used in the service of at least one goal, but usually many different goals. If an emotion concept is a tool, then this person has a gigantic toolbox fit for a skilled craftsperson. People who exhibit moderate emotional granularity might have dozens of emotion concepts rather than hundreds. In English, they might have concepts for anger, sadness, fear, disgust, happiness, surprise, guilt, shame, pride, and contempt; perhaps not many more than the so-called basic emotions.
So perhaps by simply understanding concepts such as “disgruntlement”, you actually feel an emotion that someone else would not feel the same way.
The theory is interesting, but it leaves me with questions.
If you feel “fear” of someone, is this just a learned concept that you would not have if you had never learned the word “fear” as a child?   Or is it an innate capability that you are born with?
 If it is not localized in a particular part of the brain dedicated to whatever is unique about it, then how can it exist?  Can it just be a feeling or set of feelings (maybe a feeling of sweating, trembling, an ache in your stomach) that your body has in certain situations, with a meaning grafted on top of that?
If Lisa Feldman Barrett is saying “feelings” plus “meaning” plus “affect” equals emotion, then I think she is leaving something out.  There are people who do not feel fear the way others do.
This is true even at the innocent age of three years old: (from Adriane Raine’s book, see sources)
The normal control group showed significant fear conditioning….
Yet the criminals-to-be, back at age three, showed no sign of conditioning at all. They were flat-liners—as a group they did not show any fear conditioning. This finding by Yu Gao demonstrated for the first time that an early impairment in autonomic fear conditioning acts as a predisposition to criminality in adulthood.
It is amazing that there are aspects of a baby’s behavior that can predict that he is likely to become a criminal.
But it also seems to indicate that there is an innate essence of emotion that most of us have, but these little criminals-to-be do not.
The book “How Emotions are Made” shines new light on the mysterious terrain of emotion, but I left the book still uncertain.  There is more work to do.
Sources:
Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (2017)
The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime by Adrian Raine (2014)

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