One of the fascinating aspects of having the opportunity to talk to lots of different people about lots of different things is that you start seeing interesting connections when you least expect it.
I knew that Lisa Feldman Barrett was a highly accomplished scientist before I sat down to talk to her, but I hadn’t fully appreciated how reflective and wide-ranging she was, and I certainly hadn’t expected that we’d spend as much time talking about structural and philosophical approaches to scientific inquiry as we did. Of course, we met a couple of years before her bestselling popular book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, came out, so all I had to go on were strong recommendations from colleagues and various academic papers.
I’d imagined that we would focus on the specifics of her scientific work on emotion, such as her pioneering “Conceptual-Act Model”, and that’s the sort of thing I had read about going into the discussion. But very quickly things took a most interesting turn.
“Ernst Mayr made a very important point, which psychologists haven’t quite embraced yet, that Darwin’s greatest contribution is not the concept of natural selection: it’s the idea that a species is a conceptual category.
“It’s not a physical category with necessary and sufficient features, and firm boundaries, and a biological essence. In fact, that’s sort of the “dog-show version” of evolution: like there’s a perfect cocker spaniel and all the other variations of cocker spaniels are some kind of error, because there really is a pure, Platonic form of cocker spanielness that you see in award-winning cocker spaniels who have exactly the right nose size, and exactly the right coat thickness, and so on.
“One of Darwin’s points was that a species is a conceptual category because the instances — of cocker spaniels, let’s say — vary from one another, and that variation is meaningful — it’s meaningfully tied to the situation, to the environment.
“The idea that variability is meaningful, and that really all biological categories are actually concepts — because, within a category, things can vary quite a bit, and the name of the category refers to a collection of things, a population of things — is called “population thinking”. This is why natural selection works — precisely because such variability actually exists and is important.”
Suddenly, I started thinking of an entirely different conversation, one with award-winning geneticist Stephen Scherer. In 2004, Stephen was having a devil of a time getting his groundbreaking article on his groundbreaking discovery that so-called large-scale copy number variation to our genomes was vastly more common than previously believed. While people had long known that there were certain conditions resulting from situations where huge strings of our DNA were repeated or deleted, such as Down’s Syndrome, the common consensus of the international genetic community in the early 2000s was that the only genetic variation that occurred for the rest of us were mutations of individual nucleotides.
Well, you might think to yourself, that’s strange. After all, didn’t the Human Genome Project — arguably one of the most comprehensive international scientific collaborations in human history finish up by around that time?
Indeed it did. And that was exactly the problem. Because the way the Human Genome Project was structured was to look at over 700 different donors and rigorously compare their DNA, site by site, along the entire genome to produce a “consensus sequence”. And anything which didn’t fit the consensus would be discarded. Which means that they naturally missed all the large-scale variation — in other words, it was simply treated as error.
Lisa is not a geneticist, of course—although there’s doubtless still some room in her winding career path from pre-med student to clinical psychologist to social psychologist to cognitive neuroscientist to one day incorporate that too — but the central point remains: ignoring the inherent value in variability is a natural consequence of what Lisa views as the strong spirit of “essentialism” that has long pervaded psychology.
“There has always been a debate about whether or not there are essential characteristics — either essential features or an essential element — that define each psychology category as a single thing.
“But it’s also true that alongside that, there have always been philosophers and scientists who have argued against that kind of essentialism. If you look at the history of philosophy of mind, the two perspectives have really just proceeded in parallel with no resolution, and usually essentialism dominates.
“In psychology, we would call that “faculty” psychology: the idea that the mind is best described as a set of characteristics or abilities and each one is elemental and has some natural essence or a natural aspect to it that’s basic and elemental.
“So when I say something like, “There’s no physical signature for anger,” people assume I’m saying, “Anger is not real.” I’m not saying that anger is not real. I’m saying that anger is a conceptual category: instances of anger are highly variable, and we have to try to understand that variability and how it is that all instances of anger can all be anger while still having that variability.”
But for Lisa, conceptual categories aren’t simply aspects of a key philosophical argument, they are the building blocks to her entire approach to the brain — including, but hardly limited to emotion:
“What’s happening is that, every waking moment of your life, your brain is anticipating and making sense of sensory inputs from its environment — the combination of the internal environment of the body and the external environment — and it’s using conceptual knowledge to do that. That’s basically it.
“The theory is not domain specific. I’m not saying this only works for emotion. I’m saying this is really how the brain works: it works this way when you’re constructing a visual perception, when you’re constructing an auditory perception, when you’re constructing an emotion, when you’re thinking, and so on.
“In some ways it’s a very parsimonious theory, because it doesn’t invent any new mechanisms or processes. It’s just saying that this is how it works, and this is how it works for virtually all experience.”
But however determined she is, Lisa is the furthest thing from dogmatic. In fact, at one point — somewhere between references to neural network homeostasis and Buddhist dharmas — she explicitly welcomed the opportunity for a productive interchange with her “essentialist” opponents:
“I think one thing that really needs to happen is that there has to be a real dialogue about this, not where different sides are caricaturing each other, but a dialogue where they are actually learning from each other what the key experiments need to be in order to move forward.”
Appropriately enough for a pioneering constructive neuroscientist, the road to progress is all about making connections.
This is the introduction written by Howard Burton of the book, Constructing Our World: The Brain’s-Eye View, which is based on an in-depth, filmed conversation between Howard and Lisa Feldman Barrett, University Distinguished Professor in Psychology at Northeastern University. The book is broken into chapters and includes questions for discussion at the end of each chapter. The book is also available as part of the 5-part Ideas Roadshow Collection called Conversations About Neuroscience.
Visit the dedicated page for our conversation with Lisa Feldman Barrett on our Ideas On Film website: https://ideas-on-film.com/lisa-feldman-barrett/. On our Ideas On Film YouTube channel you can watch a clip from the filmed conversation: https://youtu.be/q7T0bvb6rzI.