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.
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)

Brains that get bigger after drug addiction, and the dual nature of pleasure.

In “Unbroken Brain”, Maia Szalavitz talks about her addiction to heroin and cocaine, and how “By July of 1988 my life had narrowed to the point of a needle.”  The book is interesting from various points of view, including the neuroscience insights she talks about.  For instance, the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, including the pleasure of some drugs, is really responsible for one kind of pleasure.  There is the pleasure of wanting versus the pleasure of liking.  Think of the pleasure of the hunt, the excitement, the intent, the sense of confidence that you get what you want.  In contrast, the pleasures of the feast are satisfaction, comfort, attainment, and sedation.   Some drugs give one type of pleasure – cocaine would be the hunt – and others give the other type – such as heroin.
Maia S – a neuroscience-journalist

Normal people get used to stimuli after a while — this is a normal process called habituation.   In some instances, you can get more and more sensitive to a threat – that process is sensitization.
Maia thinks that when the joy leaches out of the drug experience, that this is due to habituation, but when the craving gets more and more (despite the drug not making you feel good anymore) – that is sensitization.

Before she was cured of addiction, Maia had immersed her body and brain with huge amounts of drugs.  And yet, when it was all over, she took a brain scan, and it showed a prefrontal cortex that was larger than in normal people.  And this has been found with other recovered addicts.  “One study found that former cocaine and heroin addicts have a greater volume of gray matter in these regions compared not only to active drug users but also normal  controls.”  This area is responsible for self control, impulse control, and inhibiting responses.
Maybe this means that after being a slave to their addictive drives, and then being cured, they were stronger in some ways for the experience.

What drug side-effects might tell us about the Brain…

Some clues to brain and behavior are found not only in how medications are supposed to work, but in their undesired side effects.   If a drug works (more or less) in most people, but has the exact opposite effect in others, then this may tell us that the minority has a biochemistry that differs in some important way.
There is even a term for this effect: it is “Paradoxical reaction” This is an adverse reaction to a substance, almost always to a drug, that is exactly the opposite of the intended effect.  In other words a seemingly contradictory reaction to a drug that is nonetheless very real.
For instance, a psychotic patient can be treated with the ‘anti-psychotic’ Haldol (Haloperidol) that supposedly works by decreasing excitement in the brain.   In some people, however it causes hallucinations and paranoia.   We might stop and wonder why less activity causes effects that at least I would have associated with a fevered mind.  As an unlikely guess – maybe we have a ‘sanity checker’ on our ideas that gets inhibited when brain activity is decreased.  But then – why only inhibited in a minority of patients?
Haldol also causes a loss of interest in sex for many people – and this, instead of being a drawback,  conceivably could be an asset in the treatment of sex offenders who wish to reform.
Benzodiazepines, a class of psychoactive drugs called the “minor” tranquilizers, have varying hypnotic, sedative, and anti-anxiety properties, but they may create the exact opposite effects in some patients. Susceptible individuals may respond to benzodiazepine treatment with an increase in anxiety, or an increase in aggressiveness, a loss of impulse control, and talkativeness.
Imagine – a drug that makes you want to talk.
In addition, for an extremely weird effect, it can lead to criminal behavior in susceptible individuals.
If you could cure sex-offenders with a drug, and conversely, make normal people into criminals with another drug, does this have implications for how we judge individuals?
We don’t like mothers who are nasty to children, but:
mothers…taking a combination of benzodiazepines and tricyclic antidepressants said that instead of feeling less anxious or depressed, they became more hostile and openly aggressive towards the child.
This suggests that psychiatrists who prescribe drugs are in uncharted territory, and don’t really know the mechanism of action of these drug cocktails.
I remember telling a person who knew about mental health issues that I had read that antidepressants could cause suicide in some patients, but this person was skeptical – saying the patients were depressed to begin with, and the drug may not have worked, and so the patients lost the motivation to live and killed themselves.   However, the skeptics are not correct in all cases, because:
anti-depressants can rarely make users obsessively violent or have suicidal compulsions, which is in marked contrast to their intended effect.
There are drugs that have effects on the minds of a minority of people, that are not necessarily paradoxical, but are quite interesting.
Here are reports from the web:
Person A: I flipped out on the painkiller, some morphine derivative, until they loaded me up with Valium. ….and reacting with hyperactivity paranoia and violence is something i have never heard of as a retain to a painkiller …
Person B: Thank you for responding I have had the same response to pain medication my whole life. I was 8 when I broke both bones in my left arm, they gave me Darvon before they tried to set the bones back together. I swore they were not real people anymore, and I KNEW they were going to kill me. I ran out of the treatment room and screamed and fought and bit anyone that got near me. It was a real freak show from what I understand.

Person C in replying to the above suggests that a doctor use brain scans on people who respond in such adverse ways, and I (the blogger) think that is worth a try.
A very strange reaction is to a drug called Compazine. Compazine is a drug given intravenously in hospitals for nausea and/or for migraine headaches. Approximately one out of five people have a weird reaction to Compazine that then requires the administration of intravenous Benadryl – (a commonly used antihistamine) to resolve.
 Patients become restless, agitated and can’t sit still. In many cases, they actually do not know what is going on- all they know is that they ‘Want to Go Home.” They will repeatedly state that they want to go home or that they, “Have to get out of here” over and over.
According to Kerri Knox, an RN  in San Francisco:
I can distinctly remember working as a nurse in a small emergency room when our unit secretary came in on her day off because she was dehydrated after several days of vomiting. I started an intravenous line to give her fluids- and gave her a dose of Compazine as per the doctor’s order. Soon, she was stating, “I Want to go home now.” Because I had given her a sedative drug, the hospital could not allow her to drive herself home and I called her boyfriend to come and pick her up. After I tended to another patient and returned to my coworker, she was gone and the ambulance door was closing. I opened the ambulance door and saw her running away towards the main street, IV pole being pushed in front, hospital gown billowing out behind. We had to call the police department to get her back. Once she had some Benadryl, she agreed to stay and get the rest of her intravenous fluids. Now THAT is a Paradoxical Reaction! Once I began to recognize the reaction, I dubbed it the ‘I Gotta Go’s’ because that’s what everyone with a paradoxical reaction says.
With these few examples, we see that intriguing questions are raised, and perhaps avenues of investigation, by unwanted side effects of drugs.  One problem with drugs as far as the brain is concerned is that it is hard to target them – you are bathing the whole person in these drugs, which is not the way neurotransmitters usually work in the brain.

New hope for Mis-wired minds

auditoryHallucinationAlmost no new drugs have been developed for psychiatric conditions in over sixty years, because the causes of those conditions are mostly unknown. That is about to change because gene mutations have been found that correspond to subsets of schizophrenia, depression, and autism.
These mutations sometimes affect a single gene. Other times they duplicate a section of a chromosome, or delete a section. A surprising finding is that a particular mutation may manifest itself as Schizophrenia in one person, autism in another, and intellectual disability or epilepsy in a third.

Another important point is that psychiatric conditions can arise many different ways. Many different mutations can produce a syndrome that psychiatrists give a single name such as “depression”. Some people believe that mental illness genes must have an upside, because they persist in the population, but there are so many de novo mutations that can affect the brain, that the diseases would exist even if the gene variants that cause them provide no advantage.

The finding of such genes gives hope for curing some types of mental illness, because for example, if you give a brain MRI to many patients with “Schizophrenia” you are really imaging many different syndromes, but if you know that a subset of the patients have the same mutation, you can study them as one group, and perhaps find a common pattern in brain images.

I would expect that if a gene only affects transmission between neurons, then it might be possible to fix the problem when the gene is ineffective, or only partly effective.
However, many of the genes affect how the brain grows. As the brain develops, genes specify the proteins that tell cells where to migrate, where their axons and dendrites project, which cells they will connect with and how the connections change as they are used in life. So the actual brain of an afflicted person might look so different than the brain of a normal person that fixing any problems would impossible (in my view).

A recurring theme in the diseases is an unbalance in the functions of two main classes of neurons, those who excite other neurons, and those who inhibit other neurons from firing. This imbalance occurs in epilepsy — the uncontrolled firing of large populations of neurons — as you would expect. But inhibitory neurons also control many aspects of “information processing” as well – such as:

  • Filtering (removing unwanted information, noise, and redundant information)
  • Gain control – you might want a steady level of output, despite varying level of inputs
  • Spatial integration – neurons add and subtract the inputs from a spatial area
  • Temporal integration – neurons may sum up their inputs over a time period before firing.
  • Orchestration of synchronous firing of ensembles of neurons
  • Orchestration oscillating firing of ensembles of neurons

For instance, if you know someone who is poor at social interactions, is hyperactive, and can’t stand loud noises, it could be because he has a mutation in the gene that encodes FMRP (a protein). The protein puts brakes on a process that affects synapse plasticity. So without it, neurons become hyper-connected, and the cortex becomes hyper-excitable with altered patterns of activity.

The above is mostly from a chapter by Kevin Mitchell titled The Miswired Brain, Genes and Mental Illness in an anthology called The Future of The Brain.  

We can speculate that criminality, which can be genetic as shown by studies of adopted twins, might also involve a mutation that mis-wires the brain. In fact,  Adriane Raine, a neuro-criminologist,  says this:

My graduate student Angela Scarpa showed that our young psychopaths… were hooked on rewards, confirming previous studies showing the same in adult psychopaths… We found that our psychopathic individuals showed a 10 percent increase in the volume of the striatum [bloggers note: reward-related] compared with controls. Rewards are important to offenders, and to them money doesn’t just talk—it swears. It’s very salient to them. A full 45 percent of psychopaths are motivated by money in the crimes they perpetrate. Studies also show that it takes less money to push psychopaths into violating moral principles than non-psychopaths.’ But more troublingly, aggressive, conduct-disordered kids show increased activity of the striatum when they view images of other people in pain.’ ….However we interpret structural deficits of the amygdala, hippo-campus, corpus callosum, and striatum in psychopathic and antisocial offenders, one thing stands out. These structural abnormalities are likely not the result of some discrete disease process or obvious trauma. Such causes would if anything result in overall volume reductions to these structures. Our findings are much more complex than that. The right hippocampus is larger than the left in psychopaths. The striatum is larger. The corpus callosum also has a bigger volume.

This certainly sounds as if some gene that affects the self-assembly of the brain is not working correctly.

There may be more subtle problems with genes that have trade-offs. For example numerous studies have demonstrated correlations between creative occupations and people living with mental illness. You don’t need to have mental problems (or have a relative with mental problems) to be creative, but in some cases their seems to be a relationship.  Another example is that a few adults have had phenomenal memories but in extreme cases, like those of Solomon Shereshevsky and Kim Peek, memory skills can reportedly hinder social skills. Psychology Today explains: “It may also be no accident that none of the five had stable marriages. Living with someone who never forgets, and therefore rarely loses an argument, can be a drag.”

The good side of all this is that in some cases partial cures can be found. In the case of FMRP, you can block the function of the resulting overactive pathway with drugs, which in mice at least, reverses many of the bad effects.

The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime by Adriane Raine (2014)
The Future of the Brain : Essays by the’s leading Neuroscientists (Kevin Mitchell’s chapter was in this book) (2015)
Also interesting is: