Evidence for emotion prototypes

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Chapter 5 endnote 15, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

[The Posner and Keele study shows] that a prototype need not be found in nature, yet the brain can construct one when needed. Emotion prototypes, if that’s what they indeed are, could be constructed in the same manner.

Some scientists continue to believe that each emotion concept is a fixed prototype stored in the brain. They support this belief by asking people like you and me to remember and describe past experiences of emotion, and they observe that we produce prototypes, like I did in chapter 5 with sadness. Or they’ll ask for descriptions of hypothetical “best instances” of emotion and get the same prototype descriptions.

But here’s the elephant in the room: After about 24 hours, most of us cannot remember the details of any experience, just the gist of it. The gist is just our beliefs, constructed after the fact, rather than the most typical or frequent attributes of the emotion.[1] Surveys and questionnaires tell us more about what we believe to be true about ourselves than what we actually think, do, or feel moment-to-moment.

It’s conceivable that you and I do have static emotion prototypes stored in our brains, and scientists just need better experiments and experimental tools to find them. But as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn observed with this proverb, “It’s a poor carpenter who blames his tools.“[2]


Notes on the Notes

  1. Robinson, Michael D., and Gerald L. Clore. 2002. "Belief and feeling: evidence for an accessibility model of emotional self-report." Psychological Bulletin 128 (6): 934.
  2. Kuhn, Thomas S. 1966. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 80.