José Saporta, MD, is a Candidate Member and ATP/Fellowship Faculty of BPSI. His remarks below originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of the Library Newsletter, which can be read here.

Lisa Feldman Barrett. How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin, 2017.

This book, by a neuroscientist who studies emotion, presents a new theory of emotion that challenges and complicates the view of emotions that many of us have come to rely on. The old view, from Darwin to Tomkins, is of universal emotions, with dedicated neural circuits and unique physiologic and facial expressions that are universally recognized. Psychoanalytic notions of implicit mentalizing and non-verbal affect attunement rely, to some extent, on this old view. The affective neuroscientist who has been a darling of “neuropsychoanalysis”, the late Jaak Pankseep, believed that each emotion has a uniquely dedicated sub-cortical circuit. Feldman-Barrett takes particular aim at Pankseep and the tradition behind him. She argues from her own research, including f-mri studies, and other scientific studies, that there are no dedicated circuits for emotions and no unique physiological or bodily expression. Emotions involve the whole brain, one network can activate varied emotions and one emotion can be activated by varied networks. We do not implicitly sense or know what the other is feeling – we construct the other’s emotional state. Our construction of what the other is feeling and the other’s construction of his or her emotion may or may not be the same. Emotions are not universal, cultures can vary greatly in the emotions they construct.

Feldman Barrett’s constructionist theory is that we construct complex mental experiences such as emotions from more core components. The brain has specialized networks that sense the body’s state and predict, based on past experience and current context, future energy demands. This gives rise to raw, primitive affect states that vary according to pleasure and un-pleasure and degree of arousal. We make meaning of these core states according to inter-subjective history, language, culture, and current context, and out of these we construct emotions. These constructions feel and are as real as any other social construction or gestalt (i.e.: money, or BPSI, are social constructions and feel and are quite real). We do not read emotions from the other’s face, we construct them according to context. Her theory is similar to the affect theory of Charles Brenner (1), where pleasure and un-pleasure combine with experience and ideas to produce emotions. Only for Feldman Barret it is not a sexual energy but rather metabolic energy demands. She discusses recategorizing basic affect states as a therapeutic implication, reminiscent of Arnold Modell’s (2) notion of affective retranscription and re-categorization in psychoanalysis. But for Modell this requires affective engagement in the transference where affect categories can be activated and re-transcribed through interpersonal experience. Feldman Barrett’s therapeutic recommendations are simplistic and bound to disappoint psychoanalysts. But her theory of how emotions are constructed complicates much of what we think we know about emotions and her ideas and research should be taken seriously in terms of their implications for psychoanalysis.


  1. Brenner, C (1982). The Mind in Conflict. International University Press.
  2. Modell, AH (1990). Other Times, Other Realities: Toward a Theory of Psychoanalytic Treatment. Harvard University Press.

José Saporta can be contacted by email here.

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