Can You Read Other People’s Emotions?

What’s going on in our minds remains a great mystery, but cutting-edge research is starting to offer some clues. When it comes to emotions, it turns out, many commonly held assumptions are wrong.

Humans are born with emotions. To us, it feels like emotions just “happen” to us. That’s why scientists have long believed that emotions are hardwired in the human brain and universally expressed. How many times have you heard people say that they can “read” other people’s feelings?

Decades of research, however, does not support these commonly held conceptions. In an eye-opening lecture, neuroscientist and emotions researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett debunks some of the most persistent myths about human emotions:

  • No, you can’t gauge how someone feels based on the person’s facial expression. People experiencing the same emotion move their faces in a variety of different ways.
  • Emotions don’t each have a unique, recognizable pattern of physical changes reserved just for them. People’s bodies react in different ways when feeling the same emotion.
  • Emotions also don’t have a fixed circuit in the brain carved out for them. It’s impossible to determine the emotion that causes certain areas of the brain to light up in an MRI scan.

So how do emotions come about then? Research suggests that humans don’t generate emotions in reaction to external events. Instead, the brain creates emotions in reaction to what happens inside the body. In other words, emotions are a way for the brain to make meaning of internal sensations – and every brain does so in its own way, aided by a lifetime of experiences and learning.

So next time you think you know what another person feels, think again. Don’t be mislead by your brain’s preference for neat categories and universal patterns. Instead, pause – and find out what’s really going on.

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Emotions: Facts vs. Fiction

Do you think you can read other people’s emotions? Think again.

Lisa Feldman Barrett Rotman Institute of Philosophy
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