Mamos Media

One day at graduate school, one of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s colleagues asked her out on a date. She didn’t really fancy him, but she had been in the lab all day and felt like a change of scenery, so she agreed to go to the local coffee shop. As they chatted, however, she started to become flushed in the face, her stomach was churning, and her head seemed to whirl. Maybe she was wrong, she thought: perhaps she really did like him. By the time they left, she’d already agreed to go on a second date.

Still feeling somewhat giddy, she got home, put her keys on the floor, and promptly threw up. It wasn’t love, after all; it was flu. She spent the next week in bed.

How could someone mistake the rush of an infection for the fever of love? A psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Barrett has spent her career examining the ways we construct emotions, culminating in a recent book – How Emotions Are Made – and her experience on that date is just one of many examples that illustrate the ways our feelings can confound us.

Although we may believe strongly that we know how we feel, she shows that the sensations of anger, anxiety, hunger, or illness are not nearly as distinct as we assume – and we may sometimes misinterpret those signals with profound consequences. Fortunately, Barrett’s theories also offer us some practical ways to gain control of our feelings, and to live a calmer and more productive life.

Charles Darwin popularised the view that we had emotional 'fingerprints' (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s quite a departure from the centuries-old assumption – popularised by Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal – that we display emotion “fingerprints”. This theory suggested that each emotion creates a specific combination of facial expression, body language, and other physiological cues such as heart rate or sweaty palms.

Yet the scientific research was never quite so clean cut, and Barrett’s detailed analyses of the findings now suggest that there is no such thing as an emotion fingerprint. Each emotion may be represented by a whole range of reactions in the brain and the body, and there is a huge amount of overlap between each one. Instead, she points out that the way we interpret our body’s signals – and whether we actually feel excited or anxious as a result – depends entirely on context and circumstance, and it can be easily shaped by our expectations.

For her piece de resistance, Barrett mashed up baby foods and smeared it on (clean) diapers

As a simple comparison, she describes a “gross foods party” she threw for her daughter’s 12th birthday. When her daughter’s friends arrived, she served them the usual party food like pizza and fruit juice: but she smeared the cheese with green fruit colouring to make it look mouldy, and she served the juice in medical urine sample cups. For her piece de resistance, she mashed up baby foods and smeared it on (clean) diapers.

As you might expect, the children were suitably disgusted. “Many guests could not bring themselves to touch the food as they involuntarily simulated the tastes and smells,” she writes. “Even though the guests knew the smears were food, several actually gagged.”

You can see BBC Future’s attempt to re-enact the experiment in the video below. And although our colleagues had stronger stomachs than the average 12-year-old, we can safely say that few enjoyed the experience.

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