Around in Circles

It was a normal afternoon for me. I met a friend at the mall for some Christmas shopping and to grab a coffee. We finished our shopping quicker than we expected…and our coffee, too. And neither of us had much to do in the afternoon. As we sat in the mall corridor, watching the families in the kiddie arcade, we spotted the movie theater not far away. We agreed we were up for a movie, so we walked down to check the times. The only movie playing right away and also finishing in time for each of us to meet the rest of our commitments for the day was the movie Coco, a new movie from Disney PIXAR. We figured, why not, and gave it a shot.

We settled into our seats and the movie began. As the plot and the action unfolded I noticed here and there a tug of emotion. And in some spots I even felt a stronger pull of different powerful feelings. I could feel my body reacting. I was laughing, wincing, covering my eyes at points. And then…it happened.

The action of the movie reached its emotional crescendo. I won’t ruin the plot for any of you, but when the characters beheld the love of grandparents for their grandchildren, when the healing of long lost love arose, when the song Remember Me spoke of love that echoes into eternity, something started to happen. Something that hasn’t happened in a long time. Something my friend seated next to me could see even in the dark. When I say that I was crying at this final scene, I do not mean that demure, reserved tears were poignantly trickling on my cheeks, easily wiped from view. My friend looked over to see what all the commotion was, and I tried to say “Stop it,” it just came out as….[blubbering, haha].

See, I was having a real cry, complete with heaves and sobs. I was having what some might call…an ugly cry. But why?

Was I overcome with sadness? No, it was a happy moment…kind of. Was I overcome with joy? No, because the moment was also bittersweet. The mystery of what was happening, what was causing my reaction stayed with me. And as I was discussing this mysterious experience with a friend, she said in her kind and understanding way that she understood what was happening. I said, “Thanks for understanding.” And she said, “No, I mean I actually understand what was happening in your body and with your emotions because I just read an amazing book about it.”

Books about emotions and why we have them are nothing new. But in the new book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett takes on the entire field of research on emotions…and it’s not always pretty. One of the things she does first is to debunk what is known as the “classical” or “essentialist” view of human emotion. This is the view of human emotions that has been taught to students for lo, the last three thousand or so years. It’s a view explained by Plato’s image of the human mind: a charioteer with two winged horses under the charioteer’s control. In Plato’s model the charioteer is Rational Thought. One dueling winged horse represents Passions, and the other Appetites. Rational Thought tries to guide the competing and unruly twin engines of Passions, which we call emotions, and Appetites, which would be things like hunger and other physical needs, around the course of a person’s life. We can suspect that Plato, who was obsessed with “ideals,” would want us all to be navigating our perfectly balanced winged companions aloft over the azure skies.

But we know what is a more common state of affairs, don’t we? For a lot of our time it’s more like the chariot battle scene in Ben Hur, hurtling around and around a course, bumping into those around us and holding on for dear life as either our Passions or our Appetites overpower or tug at our sturdy guide, Rational Thought. Until we are sitting next to our friends…having an ugly cry.

Now, this entire school of teaching rests upon this theory: emotions are inborn, they are universal, they are the same from person to person. And, sometimes one of the winged horses of Passion or Appetite simply gets the better of us, and we react accordingly. But, the theory that Dr. Barrett advances is that this view of emotion…is dead wrong. And not only is it dead wrong, it is causing incalculable harm in society. In her book, Dr. Barrett unabashedly and with some delight, deftly, in her own words, drives the “nails into the coffin” of the classical essentialist model of emotions—the winged horses going in circles. She describes her decades of research that debunks the idea that there are any universal emotions. There are not six basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, and happiness, as was a popular theory in the 1960s. There are not even only two basic emotions: fear and love, as some, dare I say, fatalist romantics, like to tell us. And she proved this in many ways, over and over, in both original research, and in powerful meta-analyses of her colleagues’ research.

She explains that one of her earliest notions that the classical theory of universal emotions was dead wrong came when she proved that humans cannot recognize universal facial features that correlate to universally felt emotions. And just this piece of her research has enormous consequences. Because Dr. Barrett’s work shows that the billions of dollars being spent on facial recognition software meant to sense emotion…are wasted dollars. Dr. Barrett’s work shows that the thousands of hours spent by security personnel to detect emotions of subterfuge or other culpable conduct in airport security lines or in other instances…are wasted hours. And Dr. Barrett’s work shows that thousands of lives lost in wars where one side believed from a facial expression in negotiations that the other side would not attack…are lives that need not have been lost.

In gripping detail, Dr. Barrett marches us through the battlefield of this area of psychology, and we are left with a painful conclusion. The vanity of believing that universal human emotion exists is only exceeded by the tragedy of trying to use that belief to any kind of advantage over others.

What Dr. Barrett is proposing is nothing short of a revolution. After centuries in the arena, battling one another in the endless loop, revolving around and around to the amusement and horror of generations, she is calling for a revolution of another kind. She is calling for a revolution of responsibility and true ownership of what we do, what we say, the actions we take, in response to what we feel inside our bodies. And she can’t be alone. Because, my friends, the battles in this area are just beginning, and it’s not always safe.

See, Dr. Barrett has been presenting some of her initial findings and research for decades. And it might not surprise you to learn that at her level of expertise, Dr. Barrett lacks a great number of women colleagues—most are men…for now. And it also might not surprise you to learn that that when a person’s research is essentially debunking thousands of years of belief, beliefs many have staked their reputation, their livelihood, and really their own personal belief systems upon, things do not always go well.

Dr. Barrett describes some of the reactions she has received to her research in her field.[1] Her words: “[E]arlier in my career, when I was giving my first talks about these ideas, you could see variations in anger firsthand in audience members who really didn’t like the evidence. Sometimes they would shift around in their seats. Other times they shook their head in a silent ‘no.’ Once a colleague yelled at me while his face turned red and he stabbed his finger in the air. Another colleague asked me, in a sympathetic tone, if I had ever felt real fear, because if I’d ever been seriously harmed, I would never be suggesting such a preposterous idea. Yet another colleague said he would tell my brother-in-law (a sociologist of his acquaintance) that I was damaging the science of emotion. My favorite example involved a much more senior colleague, built like a linebacker and towering a foot above me, who cocked his fist and offered to punch me in the face to demonstrate what real anger looks like. (I smiled and thanked him for the thoughtful offer.) In these examples, my colleagues demonstrated the variability of anger far more handily than my presentation did.”[2]

I confess that when I got to this portion of the book, I almost wanted to stop. The image of a person being threatened by colleagues is scary enough. But the image of woman presenting evidence in what sounds like a room full of men and then being encircled and threatened with physical violence, is enough to make me feel nauseated. And don’t even get me started on the irony here. What Dr. Barrett had just shown in the research she was presenting was that not every person responds the same way to anger. To this, her colleagues asked “Are you saying that in a frustrating, humiliating situation, not everyone will get angry so that their blood boils and their palms sweat and their cheeks flush?”[3] She responds, “My answer is yes, that is exactly what I am saying.”[4] And in response to her statement, what happens? A group of men…indeed respond differently in anger according to their own individual emotions.

Now I know where you’re going…maybe they were feeling different emotions so reacting differently. But that is exactly the point. There are no set “normal” or “universal” responses to emotions. And this might be easy to think about or understand conceptually, but consider the further-reaching implications. Consider our forebears in our religious tradition.

One of the tremendously sad facts to me about faiths that look to the books of the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian testament as historical fact or even as too close a guide to follow for inspiration is that many of the stories in those texts are stories of men who are overcome by their emotions and then do violence to women as a result. Of course men do violence to many other people in the bible, entire civilizations, as a matter of fact, but what stands out so often is what even interpreters today will call the power of lust, an appetite, or rage, an emotion, overcoming Reason, our faithful charioteer, until grievous wrongs are perpetrated on the person and the body of women, over and over in a cycle of mistreatment. And what results is something that still has a name in our own culture, something that has come around full circle through centuries to be just as prominent and just as well-accepted as the actions of those men in the bible: crimes of passion. Crimes of passion.

The idea of a crime of passion is that the emotional part of the human overcomes the rational part of a human to such an extent, that the human is not responsible for the full extent of their actions. This legal theory is used most often not as a defense against culpability, but rather as a way of lessening the extent of the punishment for a crime, of being understood or forgiven in some measure for what you did in light of the circumstances. But think for a second about the kind of situations that are most commonly thought of as…crimes of passion.

I suspect many of us are thinking about a similar, sad scenario. So make no mistake about it. When Dr. Barrett, or anybody else, uses the phrase, “crime of passion,” many people will rightly draw into their consciousness female victims of domestic violence. Though, of course, there are others, the phrase “crime of passion” has a long and painful history of being used to explain or to excuse male violence against women in the home. And though there are many ways the classical view of our emotions impacts society, Dr. Barrett devotes an entire chapter to supposed crimes of passion and the difference between the treatment of men and women according to the law. She discovered that as a matter of fact, it is women who commit violent crime against their intimate partner who receive harsher and longer punishment than men who do the same. And it is women of color who actually fare the very worst in this paradigm, continuing a cycle of disparate treatment of persons of color under the law.

Dr. Barrett explains that, “the archetypal victim in American culture is fearful, passive, and helpless, but in African American communities, women sometimes violate this stereotype by defending themselves vigorously against their alleged batterers. By fighting back, they reinforce a different stereotype of female emotion, the ‘angry black woman,’ which is also pervasive in the U.S. legal system. These women are more likely to be charged with domestic violence themselves, even when their actions were in self-defense and were less severe than the original assault. And if they injure or kill their alleged batterer, they usually fare worse than a European American woman in the same situation.”[5]

I don’t know how many different ways to say it, but doesn’t it start to feel like almost every time we look at our justice system, we see instead a system of injustice against people of color, against women of color?

Doesn’t it start to feel like no matter the ladders women climb to break through the next ceiling, there are men the next flight up threatening to take them down another rung again?

Doesn’t it feel like we’ve had just about enough?

Almost like our emotions want to start breaking free of their reigns to start yelling, screaming, and maybe throwing some chairs around the room?

Well, you’re not alone.

Dr. Barrett would tell you that there isn’t some special dedicated part of the brain activating or acting up. There isn’t some inborn, universal pathway you’re accessing. No. You are an individual, with innumerable genes that have been turned on and off throughout your life. And when you are having an emotion, a unique set of physical reactions and mental phenomenon are occurring in your body in different ways than in anybody else’s. Maybe a gene for justice has gotten switched on. I hope it has. Maybe a past experience of being prejudged gets our body ready again so we will not be taken by surprise. Maybe a fact we heard once at church about the justice system finally feels true to us. All of these factors, and so many more, combine to construct the strange and mysterious universe inside every one of us. And just like the wider universe we’ve only just begun to know, our own internal universe holds terrible, scary things. It holds beautiful, loving things. It holds delicate things, and it holds powerful things.

There truly is a river flowing in your soul—capable of overflowing its banks and washing away what we think we know, capable of nourishing the fertile delta of inspiration where we see things fresh and anew, capable, my friends, of bathing our very existence in the often-churning waters of confusion and of understanding, the riptides of loss and of grateful receiving, the ebb of grief and the flow of joy.

When I heard that song in the theater I do not know exactly what happened in my brain, but what happened in my body was undeniable. I could see it. I could feel it.

We do not know exactly what happens in the brains of some people who treat women the ways that they do, but the results of that treatment are undeniable and inexcusable. We can see it. We can feel it. And we must not go around in circles anymore.

The classic model of emotions is only the next in the series of systems of oppression that must fall to bring about the fullest, most robust expression of the inherent worth and dignity of all.

Dr. Barrett is only the latest in the line of prophetic voices not only leading the way, but lighting our path forward. And we, gathered together here today, must be the next community to stand together, around in our own circle, and to sing a new song into the ages to come, a song of understanding, a song of what may have been, and a song of what must now be done.

And may it ever be so.


[1] Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (p. 15). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid, 15-16,

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 227.

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