Emotions Are Real
Lisa Feldman Barrett
Northeastern University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School
It is obvious that emotions are real, but the question is what kind of “real” are they? In this article, I
outline a theoretical approach where emotions are a part of social reality. I propose that physical changes
(in the face, voice, and body, or neural circuits for behavioral adaptations like freezing, fleeing, or
fighting) transform into an emotion when those changes take on psychological functions that they cannot
perform by their physical nature alone. This requires socially shared conceptual knowledge that
perceivers use to create meaning from these physical changes (as well as the circuitry that supports this
meaning making). My claim is that emotions are, at the same time, socially constructed and biologically
evident. Only when we understand all the elements that construct emotional episodes, in social,
psychological, and biological terms, will we understand the nature of emotion.
Keywords: emotion, affect, social construction, conceptual acts
For more than a century, scientists have been grappling with the
question of whether or not emotions are real. To those not in the
field of emotion research, this question seems like the perfect
example of academic indulgence. Humans automatically and ef-
fortlessly experience emotion and “detect” emotion in each other
(and even in nonhuman animals) routinely each and every day, so
it could not be more obvious that emotions are real. To some
emotion researchers, a handful of key evidence leaves them won-
dering whether the question is some kind of rhetorical pretense.
Careful study of “behavioral adaptations” in nonhuman animals
has revealed distinct neural circuits that control flight (e.g., Vaz-
darjanova & McGaugh, 1998), fighting (e.g., offensive attack, Lin
et al., 2011; defensive aggression, e.g., Motta et al., 2009), and
freezing (e.g., LeDoux, 2000);1recent optigenetic research shows
that circuits (e.g., for fighting and mating) exist side by side within
the same brain regions (e.g., Lin et al., 2011). Some of these
circuits appear to generalize in humans; for example, the network
that allows a previously neutral stimulus to acquire the ability to
elicit a freezing response, dubbed the “fear” network, appears to
exist in humans (e.g., LaBar et al., 1998) and is disrupted with
people who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (Etkin &
Wager, 2007). Other research on humans also points to the reality
of emotions (see Table 1). With this sort of evidence in hand, it
seems clear to many scientists that each emotion category has a
unified biological basis—a subcortical circuit, a localized cortical
region (or set of regions), or a profile of endocrine, inflammatory,
or cardiovascular responses—in addition to a diagnostic facial
expression and set of behaviors that are easily recognized in all
people everywhere (barring illness). Given the weight of evidence,
how could someone even ask whether emotions are real? Asking
about the “realness” of emotions is also problematic in a pragmatic
way—how can a science of emotion exist if emotions are not real?
As is often the case in science, what seems obvious to some
people camouflages deeper questions for others. Such is the state
of affairs that fuels the persistent dilemma about the reality of
emotions. There is, for example, no one-to-one correspondence
between a behavior and an emotion category in nonhuman ani-
mals. Freezing, fleeing, and defensive aggression are all responses
to potential danger, so which corresponding circuit is the fear
circuit? Is this evidence of many fear circuits? If so, then we must
grapple with the scientific value of the category “fear,” other than
its obvious utility for communicating research findings to people
who do not study emotion. If the category “fear” has scientific
value, then which is the “real” fear circuit? Is defensive aggression
an instance of fear, or an instance of anger? These are not idle
semantic puzzles—they reveal a quandary that strikes right to the
heart of how scientific induction works. Similar objections have
been raised about other sources of evidence that appear, at first
blush, to obviate questions about the realness of emotion (see
Table 1; for reviews of the evidence that call into question the
natural kind status of emotion categories, see Barrett, 2006a,
2011b; Barrett, Lindquist et al., 2007; Barrett, Lindquist, & Gend-
ron, 2007; Lindquist et al., in press; Suvak & Barrett, 2011). Once
alternative explanations are seriously tested, and methodological
constraints are addressed, some scientists believe that the “real-
ness” of emotion falls away like a house of cards.
1Behavioral adaptations are highly heritable, species-general actions
that a creature performs to survive or reproduce.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, Department of Psychology, Northeastern Univer-
sity, and Department of Psychiatry and the Martinos Center for Biomedical
Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.
Many thanks to my dear friend Kevin Allison who taught me that Queen
Anne’s Lace is a flower. Thanks to Michael Owren for his instruction on
the acoustics of dog growls. Also thanks to (in alphabetical order) Larry
Barsalou, Jennifer Fugate, Kristen Lindquist, Batja Mesquita, Paula Nie-
denthal, Ajay Satpute, and Christy Wilson-Mendenhall for their comments
on a prior draft of this article, and to Joe LeDoux for sharing his recent
thoughts on the nature of emotion. The preparation of this article was
supported by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Pioneer
Award (DP1OD003312) to Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Lisa
Feldman Barrett, Department of Psychology, Northeastern University,
Boston, MA 02115. E-mail: email@example.com
2012, Vol. 12, No. 3, 413–429
© 2012 American Psychological Association
Evidence for the Biological Basis of Emotion Categories
Natural kind claimExample papers Empirical challenges
1. Emotional behaviors: Distinct
subcortical brain circuits
produce emotional behaviors
such as freezing, startle,
maternal behavior (e.g.,
grooming, retrieving, and
nursing pups), offensive
attack, defensive aggression,
behaviors, and mating
Berridge & Kringelbach, 2008;
Davis, 1992; Lin et al.,
2011; Ju ¨rgens 2002;
LeDoux, 2000; Motta et al.,
2009; Normandin &
Murphy, 2011; Numan &
There is no one-to-one correspondence between a behavior and
an emotion category, even in non-human animals. For
example, rats perform many different behavioral responses to a
threat, depending on the circumstance, and this questions
whether the circuitry for freezing can be considered the
circuitry for fear. Rats avoid the location of uncertain threat
when they are free to move around, such as in a testing
chamber with several arms (e.g., Vazdarjanova & McGaugh,
1998). When they cannot escape, and when the threat is
certain, rats will respond with defensive aggression; rats will
“defensively tread” by kicking bedding towards a threatening
object (e.g., Reynolds & Berridge, 2008) or will attack a
threatening object by attempting to jump on it and bite it (e.g.,
Blanchard et al., 1989). Neuronal responses to the presence of
a predator (cat) v. a dominant intruder in the cage (another rat)
are distinct in the rat hypothalamus, confirming that responses
to threat are each supported by different neuronal circuitry
(Motta et al., 2009).
There are considerable and nontrivial cross-species differences in
some of the circuitry that controls behavioral adaptations. As
the human brain grew during evolution, it reorganized, with
functional implications (Striedter, 2005), particularly for
emotion (Barrett, Lindquist et al., 2007). For example, certain
cortical regions project right down into the subcortical nuclei
and spinal cord ganglia responsible for autonomic control of
the body (An et al., 1998; Ongur & Price, 2000); these are
monosynaptic connections, making it possible that these
cortical regions are part of the circuit for behavioral
adaptations in humans (for discussion, see Suvak & Barrett,
2011). Furthermore, it appears that experience changes the
structure of some subcortical regions in humans. For example,
the lateral hypothalamus (which controls autonomic outputs
supporting behavioral adaptations) has a different structure in
adult humans than in infant humans (whose structure looks
more like a rat) (Saper, 2004).
2. Electrical stimulation:
Electrical stimulation of
specific neurons produces
distinct emotional experiences
Panksepp, 1998 Electrical stimulation of the human brain rarely produces a
subjective experience, and when it does, it tends to produce an
experience of general pleasure, displeasure, or arousal rather
than a discrete emotion (e.g., Halgren et al., 1978; Sem-
Jacobson. 1968; Valenstein, 1974; for a review see Barrett,
Lindquist et al., 2007).
Electrical stimulation of the same site produces different mental
states across instances, depending on the prior state of
individual and also the immediate context (for a discussions,
see Valenstein, 1974).
More recent examples of non-specificity include stimulating the
Periaqueductal Grey (a key structure in fight or flight
responses) for the treatment of chronic pain, thalamic
stimulation for the treatment of depression, and subthalamic
nucleus stimulation for Parkinson’s Disease that induces
depression (for a review, see Kringelbach et al., 2007).
Deep brain stimulation works by restoring normal oscillatory
activity within brain networks (as well as the balance between
certain networks) and so does not isolate activity in one
specific neuron or set of neurons (Kringelbach et al., 2010).
Table 1 (continued)
Natural kind claimExample papers Empirical challenges
3. Brain lesions: Individuals
with lesions or atrophy in the
amygdala, anterior insula,
basal ganglia, and
orbitofrontal cortex have
difficulty experiencing or
perceiving fear, disgust, and
Fear: Adolphs et al. 1994;
Bechara et al. 1995; Brierley
et al. 2004; Calder et al.,
2001; Feinstein et al., 2011;
LaBar et al. 1995
Disgust: Adolphs et al. 2003;
Calder et al. 2000, 2001;
Kipps et al. 2007; Mitchell
et al. 2005; Sprengelmeyer,
2007; Sprenglemeyer et al.
1996; 1998; Suzuki et al.
Anger: Grafman et al. 1996
Lesion findings are plagued by a host of interpretation issues,
including that a brain region might be important for how a
mental event is created even when the phenomenon cannot be
localized to that region, as well as the fact that most lesion-
based interpretations take a static view of brain function and
do not consider that the function of brain region might be
determined by its neural context (see Luria, 1973; McIntosh,
2004; Shimamura, 2010).
Careful probing finds that people with brain lesions rarely, if
ever, have specific deficits in single emotions (e.g., Beer et al.,
2006; Eslinger & Damasio, 1985; Saver & Damasio, 1991;
Milders et al. 2003; Calder et al. 2010).
Inconsistent findings are also common. Fear: Adolphs & Tranel,
1999; Atkinson et al. 2007 Adolphs et al. 2005; Tsuchiya et
al., 2009. Anger: de Bruin et al. 1983; Deets et al. 1970;
Machado & Bachevalier, 2006; Raleigh et al. 1979.
Meta-analytic summaries of functional imaging results show
clearly that amygdala activity is not specific to fear, insula
activity is not specific to disgust, and orbitofrontal cortex
activity is not specific to anger (Lindquist et al., in press); this
is similar to the findings that activation in Broca’s area is not
specific to language (nor is Broca’s aphasia attributable to
damage in Broca’s area).
4. Biological profiles: Distinct
emotions like anger and fear
have different biological
Lench et al., 2011; Moons
et al., 2010; Vytal & Hamann,
Studies using facial electromyography, vocal acoustics,
cardiovascular response, hormones, neurotransmitters, and
activation in gross anatomical brain locations or circuits (or
any other measure that does not require a human judgment)
have difficulty finding consistent and specific signatures for
each emotion (e.g., reviews in chronological order: Duffy,
1934; Hunt, 1941; Mandler, 1975; Ortony & Turner, 1990;
Turner & Ortony, 1992; Cacioppo et al., 2000; Russell, 2003;
Russell, Bachorowski, & Fernandes-Dols, 2003; Barrett,
2006a; Barrett, Lindquist et al., 2007; Kagan, 2007; Mauss &
Robinson, 2009; Lindquist et al., in press; Barrett, 2011b). As
a result, it is not possible to literally verify whether or not a
person (or non-human animal) is angry, sad, or afraid (or is in
any other emotional state) using methods that do not rely on a
It is not enough to show that an emotion is associated with any
change in the face or body or brain whatsoever (e.g., Lench,
Flores, & Bench, 2011; Vytal & Hamann, 2010); the changes
have to be consistent for and specific to each category.
Distinctions reported in one study are rarely specifically
replicated in another.
Studies often fail to consider alternative explanations for their
findings (e.g., distinctions between anger and sadness might be
due to arousal; distinctions between happiness and sadness
might be due to hedonic valence; distinctions between fear and
neutral might be due to uncertainty or novelty; distinctions
between fear and anger might be due to approach vs.
avoidance or threat vs. challenge). Arousal, valence, novelty,
and threat vs. challenge each have biological correlates.
EMOTIONS ARE REAL
A Disconfirmation Dilemma
The question of whether emotions are real or not is a classic
example of a disconfirmation dilemma (Greenwald & Ronis, 1981).
One simple solution is to define emotions, by fiat, as behavioral
adaptations, thereby allowing their circuitry to serve as evidence that
emotions are real. You can’t shock a rat and study fear unless at the
outset you define fear as the response that is elicited by a shock. This
approach satisfies many researchers who want to emphasize the
species-general aspects of emotion, because they are concerned with
highlighting emotions as evolutionary adaptations. For many scien-
tists who are interested in studying emotion in humans (even those
who believe in evolution and who agree that emotions are adaptations
of some sort), this is not really a serviceable solution. Humans don’t
routinely freeze, flee, or fight in emotion, and when they do, it is not
always in the prescribed way (people can withdraw during anger or
fight during fear). Humans also have conscious feelings of emotion
that must be explained, whereas the existence of animal experiences
is a subject of great debate. Knowledge about the physical basis of
these behavioral adaptations is a necessary and valuable piece of the
emotion puzzle, of course, but such knowledge does not, in and of
itself, really answer the question of whether or not emotions are real.
circuits, but this does not necessarily mean that emotions have innate,
Those who remain convinced that emotion categories are real with
boundaries in nature (for recent examples, see Ekman & Cordaro,
2011; Panksepp & Watts, 2011; Shariff & Tracy, 2011) point out that
the current technologies for measuring changes in the human face,
voice, and nervous system are too imprecise or too coarse to find the
physical basis of emotion. They rightly point out that crucial temporal
factors are neglected in laboratory experiments. They argue that
laboratory contexts are too contrived and are not evocative enough to
trigger the intense emotions that have biological signatures. Or they
try to parse emotions into subtypes, only some of which are natural
kinds (e.g., Izard, 2007; Scarantino & Griffiths, 2011). These re-
searchers have faith that with better experiments and better measures,
or perhaps with more precise definitions, the biological nature of
emotions will eventually be revealed and their physical reality will be
confirmed. The temptation to believe this is really strong—so strong,
them (Watson, 1919, p. 198).
Alternatively, those who remain skeptical that emotion catego-
ries cut nature at its joints prefer to focus on data that point to the
reality of affect (as valence and arousal, Russell, 2003; or as
approach and avoidance; e.g., Lang & Bradley, 2008). Affective
properties, such as pleasure and displeasure, or arousal, can be
reliably measured in facial EMG, in the acoustics of the voice, in
cardiovascular responses within the body, even as these measures
do not reveal whether someone is angry, or sad, or happy (e.g.,
Cacioppo et al., 2000; Russell et al., 2003). Brain circuitry for
approach and avoidance have been identified in both human (e.g.,
Huys et al., 2011) and nonhuman animals (e.g., Ferry & McGaugh,
2008; Ikemoto, 2010; Numan & Insel, 2003). In the extreme, this
point of view has led to the claim that only affect can be measured
objectively (i.e., using procedures that do not require a human
perceiver) and therefore emotions must be illusions (for the best
examples, see Duffy, 1934; Dunlap, 1932; Hunt, 1941).
From my perspective, a persistent disconfirmation dilemma—the in-
ability to unequivocally answer a question with the scientific method—
might be a big hint that scientists are asking the wrong question to begin
with. What would happen if we replaced the question “are emotions
real?” with “how do emotions become real?” Would this dissolve the
How Do Emotions Become Real?
What Does “Real” Mean?
To the average person, the scene in Figure 1 contains variety of
real things—a bench (a), plants (b), and a stone statue (c). To a
chemist, these objects are “real” as collections of molecules or
atoms. To a physicist, they are “real” as quarks and leptons, or
little strings vibrating in 11 dimensions. No one would argue
against the view that plants (as objects, or molecules, or subatomic
Table 1 (continued)
Natural kind claimExample papers Empirical challenges
5. Universal emotion
recognition: People around
the world easily recognize a
scowl as anger, a pout as
sadness, and a wrinkled nose
as disgust. Even non-human
animals can recognize
Parr et al., 1998; Shariff &
Emotion perception findings are dependent on methodological
aspects of experiments, such as the inclusion of emotion words
in the judgment task (e.g., presenting a static face posing a
scowl along with a few emotion words and asking participants
to pick which word best matches the face). When these
elements are removed from experiments, it is possible to
disrupt emotion perception even in a sample of homogeneous
undergraduate students (Barrett, 2011b; Barrett, Mesquita, &
Gendron, 2011; Russell, 1994).
Chimpanzees are able distinguish a negative face (e.g., “bared
teeth”) from a neutral face but have difficulty distinguishing
one negative face from another (e.g., a “bared teeth face” and
a “scream face,” e.g., Parr et al., 1998). Rhesus macaque
monkeys also have greatest success differentiating between a
positive face (i.e., “play face”) and either a neutral or negative
face but have difficulty telling one negative face from another
(e.g., Parr & Heintz, 2009).
elements of matter) exist in the natural world—that is, they are
ontologically objective. Theycontinuetoexistevenintheabsenceof
a human mind to perceive them (i.e., they are perceiver independent).
flowers and weeds in a human-made garden. There is nothing in the
physical world (no molecular make up or set of biological properties)
that indicates whether a plant is serving as a flower or a weed.2,3A
plant’s status as one or the other is determined by some context—a
verbal declaration involving a word or label (e.g., “this is a flower”)
or a meaningful situation (e.g., a rose bush is a weed if found in a
vegetable patch and a dandelion can be a flower if placed in a bouquet
of wildflowers). Flowers and weeds are ontologically subjective be-
cause they depend on human perceivers for their existence (i.e., they
are perceiver dependent).4
According to the philosopher John Searle (1995, 2010), humans
create ontologically subjective things as part of social reality by
imposing functions on objects (and people) that are not based solely
rule: An object or instance (X) counts as having a certain status (Y) in
a particular context (C). This status allows X to perform a particular
function (or functions) not inherent to its physical structure. For
example, when a plant serves as a flower or a weed, this creates
meaning about the value of the plant: referring to a plant as a flower
communicates that it is to be admired and cherished, while experi-
encing it as a weed brands it as something to be discarded. Flowers
and weeds prescribe actions that mere plants cannot: flowers are to be
cultivated and weeds are to be pulled from the ground. Flowers and
weeds allow people to communicate with one another in a relational
way: receiving a dandelion from your gardener, ragged with its root
system attached, communicates an entirely different meaning than
when receiving it from your 5-year-old child.5Flowers and weeds are
also a form of social influence, in that they are a bid to control the
mental state and actions of another person in a way that a mere plant
Plants (X) become flowers or weeds (Y) in a human mind (C)
that exists in consensus with other human minds; those minds must
possess categories for flowers and weeds and agree on the cate-
gories’ functions (i.e., ontologically subjective categories depend
on collective intentionality for their existence). Sometimes other
2For a similar example, see Shweder (1995).
3Food is a similar category. For example, the stock plant for modern
carrots (named Queen Anne’s Lace) is considered a flower by some and a
weed by others. Tomatoes, before they were considered a fruit (which
would not be taxed), were a vegetable (which could be taxed), and before
that they were considered a weed.
4Of course, the distinction between ontologically objective and subjec-
tive categories is fuzzy, because all concepts for the natural world are
created by active human perceivers who exist in a chorus of other human
perceivers. And the act of labeling a phenomenon is never separate from
the act of communicating about that phenomenon to other people. The
concept of a “quark,” for example, is a category that physicists concocted
to stand in for something that they believe to exist in the natural world. It
is not as if we can pull the curtains of our own subjectivity back so that we
have an unencumbered view of the physical world. As Einstein wrote,
“Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not,
however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.” (Ein-
stein & Infeld, 1938, p. 33).
5There are lots of examples of ontologically subjective categories that
humans have created as a part of social reality. A piece of paper (or salt,
a shell, barley, or any other form of human currency) does not derive its
function as money from its molecular structure—it acquires value when
people agree on its value by their willingness to trade it for material goods.1
A person’s race as “black” or “white” does not derive from the melatonin
concentration in his or her skin—these categories did not even exist until
it was necessary to quantify the value of a human life for the purposes of
slave trading many centuries ago. And, of course, it is possible to have a
very sophisticated empirical science of ontologically subjective things
(e.g., economics and sociology, respectively).
things—a bench (a), plants (b), and a stone statue (c). If you look again, you can see another kind of real,
however—flowers and weeds in a human made garden. Flowers and weeds are an example of social reality. Only
someone with concepts for flowers and weeds can see them in this image.
An illustration of social ontology. If you look at this image, you can see a variety of physically real
EMOTIONS ARE REAL
minds are present at the moment of perception (as when my
husband brings me shockingly yellow dandelions in a bouquet of
coneflowers). Sometimes they are implied (as when I leave clover
in the ground now for my daughter to smell later). Other minds
might be completely absent at the proximal moment of perception
(as when I buy Queen Anne’s Lace and place it in a vase on my
desk because it reminds me of a close friend); but even then the
realness of flowers and weeds nonetheless depends on those minds
in some distal way, because other minds were necessary to trans-
mit the categories in the first place. Just how that learning takes
place is a topic for another paper; for now, it is enough to propose
that every instance of a flower or a weed involves the act of
categorization that occurs when a perceiver is making sense of the
physical world. Verbal declarations (i.e., words) often, but not
always, accompany such categorizations, but even when they do
not, words are important to the formation and function of the
categories (cf. Barrett, Lindquist, & Gendron, 2007). Most
humans are not aware of their ability to create social reality in
conjunction with other humans—we just do it automatically,
efficiently, and (ironically) naturally (meaning, the ability to
create ontologically subjective reality is itself an objectively
real consequence of how the human brain works).
Of course, flowers and weeds (or any subjectively real objects or
events) are not absent from the physical world. A flower or a weed
cannot be brought into existence without a plant. Rather, the point
is that, in a given instance, the physical nature of a flower or a
weed (Y) goes beyond just the plant (X) itself—it also involves the
top-down, conceptual machinery responsible for human perception
available inside the brain of the perceiver (which for our purposes,
can be thought of as C). An illustration of this top-down machinery
in action can be found in Figure 2. This is the same mental
machinery that creates and transmits human culture. Thus, it is
possible to have a science of how ontologically subjective things
are created—this science is called psychology. Understanding how
the human brain (in certain instances, C) creates a flower or a weed
(Y) from a mere plant (X) is really the question of how flowers and
weeds come into existence (because without the perceiver, there is
only a plant). This is the kind of question we should be asking
ourselves about emotions.
Emotions as Social Reality
Physical actions and body states, like plants, exist in nature. But
the status of these physical changes as instances of anger, sadness,
many things simultaneously—your early visual cortex is encoding the lines and edges within the black and white
splotches; your meaning making machinery is trying to make sense of what this visual image is and your
amygdala is firing because the image is novel and you are uncertain what it represents; all the while, your
orbitofrontal cortex, subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, and anterior insula are conversing with your body.
These things do not happen in linear order—in fact, they are all initiated within a few hundred milliseconds after
you moved your eyes towards the image. These processes interacted with each other over the few moments when
you held that image within your gaze. Even as you focus your attention to read these words in the figure note,
the neural representation of that image is still alive, and your brain is trying to work out what it is. Now look
at the first image in the Appendix, and then look again at this image. (After looking at the Appendix, Figure A-1)
Now that you have had a prior experience that can be used to make sense of the visual input, you can see an
object. As a consequence, your amygdala has reduced its firing, but your default network, along with the anterior
temporal lobe and inferior frontal cortex might be firing more. Now that you can literally see the object, it exists.
And it will be very difficult for you to “unsee” it. In fact, it is likely that you will never again see mere blotches
of black and white in this image. The lesson here is that the brain has a terrific ability to create a whole percept
that is greater than the sum of its parts. But as scientists, we must not be fooled into thinking there are no parts.
Our job is to identify the parts and how they interact to make the emergent wholes.
An illustration of top-down influences in perception. As you look at this image, your brain is doing
or fear (or even as instances of some other psychological category
like a cognition or perception) is created in the same way that a
plant becomes a flower or a weed: with a human mind making
meaning of physical events. Via this meaning, physical changes
acquire the ability to perform functions that they do not have on
their own (creating social meaning, prescribing actions, allowing
communication, and aiding social influence).
Humans create ontologically subjective categories to serve func-
tions that help constitute social life. According to Searle, such
functions are the glue that holds a human society together. If
emotion categories are ontologically subjective categories, then
they can be thought of as collective cognitive tools that allow
members of the same culture (and even different cultures, depend-
ing on the categories, of course) to represent and shape the social
meaning of physical events. Category knowledge about emotions
does not cause emotions in a mechanistic way—it constitutes
emotions by adding epistemologically novel functions to actions
and body states. Said another way, an emotion is an intention that
is enacted when embodied conceptual knowledge is brought on
line to shape the perception of a physical state, binding that
physical state to an event in the world (so that it becomes some-
thing more than a mere physical sensation). This view is consistent
with a variety of models that define emotions as functional states
(Cosmides & Tooby, 2000; Frijda, 1986; Mesquita & Albert, 2007;
Oatley, 1992). A body state or an action has a certain physical
function (e.g., changes in respiration might regulate autonomic
reactivity or widened eyes increase the size of the visual field),
but these events do not intrinsically have certain functions as an
emotion; events are assigned those functions in the act of
categorizing them as emotion during the construction of a
situated conceptualization. A partial list of functions is pre-
sented in Table 2.
If this hypothesis is correct, then it means that (1) emotions are
real in the social world and (2) each instance of emotion achieves
its realness in the same way as instances of other social categories
(via top-down conceptual knowledge that shapes human percep-
tion). In this approach, emotions are not illusions—they are real
events deserving scientific study—but measuring facial muscle
movements, vocal acoustics, cardiovascular responses, or chemi-
cals like hormones and neurotransmitters alone will never capture
the phenomenon and therefore cannot reveal the nature of emo-
tions. The meaning-making process must also be understood and
In the Conceptual Act Theory of emotion (Barrett, 2006b, 2009,
2011a; Barrett & Kensinger, 2010; Lindquist & Barrett, 2008;
Wilson-Mendenhall et al., 2011), which is a psychological con-
Functions of Transforming Physical States and Actions (X) Into Emotions (Y)
1. Linking the body to
the world to create
As a body state or action becomes an emotion, a perceiver is making sense of how events associated within the body relate
to the immediate circumstances outside the body. Coordinating changes in the body to the world, and making meaning
of this linkage, is one of the brain’s primary jobs. In principle, this idea is consistent with the models that describe
emotions as containing relational themes (e.g., Frijda, 1986; Lazarus, 1991). In the view being developed here, however,
there is no one-to-one link between an emotion and a theme. Even the physical states of non-human animals take on a
relational meaning when they are perceived as emotions. For example, fear is something more than just the act of
freezing with its concomitant physiological changes in the body. When a human perceives physical changes as fear (say,
in a rat), this perception communicates something about the psychological meaning of those changes in relation to a
specific situational context, such as danger. The idea that emotions, as ontologically subjective categories, serve the
function of creating meaning is consistent with the idea that emotions can be described by appraisal dimensions (cf.
Barrett, Mesquita, et al., 2007), as long as appraisals reflect the descriptive properties of experience (for examples of
these appraisal approaches, see Clore & Ortony, 2008; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985) and are not considered computational
mechanisms that cause emotion (for a discussion of different appraisal models, see Gross & Barrett, 2011; Moors, 2009).
Emotions have also been called embodied appraisals of the world (Prinz, 2004). The current view is also consistent with
the ideas that emotion categories are theories (Clore & Ortony, 1991) or scripts (Russell, 1991) about what emotions are
and how they work, or complex narrative schemes that give meaning to changes in the body (Shweder, 1994).
2. Regulating actionEmotions, as ontologically subjective categories, prescribe subsequent action, and so can be thought of as mental tools for
self-regulation – an emotion is a prediction for the most functional action to be taken in the next moment, given the
specific situation at hand (cf. Barrett & Gross, 2001). A change in heart rate (X) can function as a feeling of offense
(Y1) or a feeling of threat (Y2), depending on the situated conceptualization that is constructed, and each will dictate a
different action tendency; this is an example of the more general hypothesis that situated conceptualizations prepare a
person to act (Barsalou, 2009). It is also consistent with the idea that emotions are states of action readiness (e.g., Bull,
1945; Dewey, 1895; Frijda, 1986), although in the present view, there is no one-to-one link between an emotion and a
specific state of action readiness in the absence of a specific context or situation.
3. Communication Emotions also function to communicate the meaning of physical actions and body states to others and to broadcast future
intent. To declare “I am angry” or “I am afraid” creates intention in the listener (either towards the speaker to towards
the broader situation). In this way, such declarations, whether or not they are stated explicitly or made intentionally, are
“theory of mind” instances. They are also a way of assigning responsibility for physical actions.
4. Social influence As a body state and/or action become an emotion, it not only prepares a person to act, but it is can also serve as a source
of social influence. It is a bid to regulate or control the actions of others, because an emotion obligates or constrains the
set of possible actions from another person during an interaction. In this way, an emotion (in accordance with the rules
of a culture) affords the opportunity to control the meaning of an interaction (Solomon, 1976).
EMOTIONS ARE REAL
struction approach to emotion (see Gendron & Barrett, 2009;
Gross & Barrett, 2011), the key hypothesis can be restated as
follows: a momentary array of sensations from the world (light,
sound, smell, touch, and taste) combined with sensations from the
body (X) counts as an experience of emotion or a perception of
emotion (Y) when categorized as such during a situated concep-
tualization (C). Via categorization (which is the name of the
process that constructs a situated conceptualization), sensations
acquire functions that are not intrinsic to them; this occurs by
adding information from past experience. As a result, new func-
tions are not based solely on the physical properties of sensations
alone (as body states or actions as represented in the physiology of
the body and/or in neural activations within the brain). For exam-
ple, a change in blood pressure (X1) counts as feeling offended
(Y1) when category knowledge about anger is activated as a
specific, embodied representation of anger (C1). A smile on some-
one else’s face (X2) counts as anger (Y2) when a different, situa-
tion specific, embodied representation of anger is activated (C2).
See Figure 3 for examples of how a single set of facial actions (an
X) can become different emotional expressions (different Ys) in
different contexts (different Cs). A discussion of how category
knowledge is constituted as situated conceptualizations to create
emotion is beyond the scope of this article (but see Barrett, 2006b;
Wilson-Mendenhall et al., 2011; for an excellent discussion of
situated conceptualizations, see Barsalou, 2009). Here, perhaps it
is enough to say that category knowledge is not applied to make
meaning from sensations in a linear, mechanistic way, after the
fact.6Instead, the hypothesis is that over a few hundred millisec-
onds, knowledge from the past is reconstituted in a way that is
tailored to the immediate sensory array, such that a situated con-
ceptualization shapes those initial sensory representations, perhaps
changing them, as a meaningful, momentary gestalt of emotion
emerges. In this way, culture-specific experiences of emotion
actually shape the physiology and actions that are observed in an
emotional episode. This is a quick process—perhaps occurring
in the first 150 ms or so and barely detectable by behavioral means.
It is an unconscious process—you will not experience it happen-
ing. It is an ongoing process, because mental events do not occur
in punctate form, like beads on string, or like discrete responses
issuing from discrete stimuli—mental life is more continuous (see
Spivey, 2007). There is more to say about these ideas, but the
important point here is that an X becomes Y by representing it as
Y. It is possible to make reasonable inferences about Y, to predict
what to do with Y, to communicate our experience of Y to others,
and to use Y to influence them.7
To create emotions (as when con-
juring any aspect of social reality), there must be a group of
people who agree that certain instances (e.g., body states or
physical actions) serve particular functions (to make sense of
the world, to direct subsequent action, to communicate inten-
tions, to control the actions of others). That is, there has to be
collective intentionality about the new functions served by the
physical states and/or actions in various situations for those
functions to actually work. People have to agree that the func-
tions can be imposed on the instance, and they have to recog-
nize when the imposition occurs, although they need not be
conscious of process. So every single experience of emotion, or
perception of emotion, necessarily involves invoking shared
meaning, even if there is no one there to explicitly share with in
the immediate moment. If a set of instances is collectively
recognized to have a status as emotions that will give those
instances their functions, then this, by definition, allows those
instances to perform said functions. If people agree that a plant
from the family Rosaceae (i.e., a rose), with brightly colored
modified leaves reflecting light at 700 nm (i.e., red petals) is a
flower that symbolizes passionate love, then an American Beau-
ty’s ability to communicate affection and desire on Valentine’s
Day is assured precisely because believing makes it so.8Sim-
ilarly, if people agree that a particular constellation of facial
actions (e.g., a scowl), cardiovascular response (e.g., a blood
pressure increase), and an appraisal (e.g., a feeling of offense)
is anger in a given context, then it is anger in that context, and
it serves whatever function anger serves in that context. If some
people do not have a concept of anger, then this constellation
will never exist as anger for those people (i.e., it is not that they
are truly angry and don’t know it); if they have some other
category that is shared within their culture for that constellation
in a given context, and that category knowledge is applied, then
the instance becomes that mental category instead (e.g., a rose
functions as medicine or as food in other cultures).9This view
is dramatically different from a natural kind hypothesis about
emotion, which would presuppose that anger exists, indepen-
dently of someone’s ability to perceive it.
This view implies that the novel functions imparted by a
situated conceptualization (C), over and above mere physical
states and actions, is always relative to the values and interests
of the perceivers within the culture that possesses and transmits
emotion category knowledge (because those functions depend
on collective intentionality). One implication from this perspec-
tive is that the reality of emotion is always embedded in a
certain situation or context, even though typically the context is
not made explicit. Emotions are real in a relational way. Such
a view is consistent with the idea that certain situations “afford”
certain emotions within a specific cultural context (e.g., Mes-
quita & Albert, 2007; Mesquita & Markus, 2004) and integrates
a social construction approach to emotion (e.g., Mesquita et al.,
in press) with a psychological construction approach.
Even though collective agreement is necessary, perceivers
need not be explicitly aware that collective agreement exists
and can instead demonstrate knowledge of this agreement by
their actions. People do not typically categorize their own or
6Discussions of the Conceptual Act Theory sometimes mistakenly as-
sume this linearity (e.g., Scherer, 2009).
7Via the process of categorization, the brain transforms only some
sensory stimulation into information. Only some of the wavelengths of
light striking our retinas are transformed into seen objects, and only some
of the changes in air pressure registered in our ears are heard as words or
music. Similarly, only some physical changes in the body (or representa-
tions of those changes in the brain) are transformed into emotions.
8If people agree that a little piece of paper is money, then its value is
created precisely because we are willing to trade it for material goods; if
some people withdraw their agreement, then money ceases to have value
9It is also possible for a category to exist within a culture at one time,
and then cease to exist when the social landscape changes (e.g., sexual
jealousy only makes sense in a culture where women are men’s property or
have to rely on men’s investment to raise their offspring).
(C). Look at the facial actions posed in (a). The same face, posing the exact same facial actions, X, appears to
become different emotional expressions (Y) when paired with the word “surprise” (b), “fear” (c), and “anger”
(d). In these different contexts, Cs, the face actually appears to change in perceptually subtle ways. This is
because embodied conceptual knowledge about emotion (residing in your brain) combines with the visual
information from the posed face (on the page) to create perceptions of emotional expressions. Normally, a word
need not be explicitly written down or spoken to guide a situated conceptualization in creating the perception of
an emotional expression. When you look at (e), for example, words implicitly guide the situated conceptual-
izations of this face, X, to create a perception of fury or pain (Y). Now look at Appendix A, Figure A-2, and then
come back and look at (e) again. Notice if the face looks subtly different to you. If it does, then this is because
your situated conceptualization of the visual input changed based on the information that you saw in Figure A-2
(just as what you saw in Figure 2 changed once you viewed Figure A1). There is empirical evidence that
contexts, such as emotion words, contribute to the creation of emotion percepts, even when emotion words are
not required to explicitly judge the faces in any way (Gendron et al., in press).
How different facial actions (X) become different emotional expressions (Y) in different contexts
EMOTIONS ARE REAL
others’ physical states or actions because they have an explicit
desire to do so—categorization occurs because it is a natural
function of the human brain trying to make sense of sensory
input. I might water some plants in my garden while plucking
others from the ground without ever explicitly wondering what
I am doing, or what the plants should be called, or communi-
cating them to others, although clearly I am using category
knowledge to create flowers and weeds in this instance. Simi-
larly, people most likely use category knowledge to create
experiences and perceptions of emotions from physical changes
without ever deliberately retrieving this knowledge or uttering
emotion words as labels.10
Nor do perceivers have to agree on whether a particular
instance (X) is a specific emotion (Y) on each occasion—they
just have to agree that the emotion (Y) exists with certain
functions in principle. One person might look at Queen Anne’s
Lace, see a weed, and pull it from the ground. Another might
see a flower and water it. But both agree that flowers and weeds
exist. Similarly, people do not have to agree that a certain action
or body state is one emotion or another—they just have to
possess similar categories. A patient might recount an unpleas-
ant situation in the context of describing a great interpersonal
loss, and categorize that event as anger; his therapist might
categorize the instance as sadness. It cannot be said that one
person is literally right and the other person is wrong in purely
objective terms because there is no observer-independent cri-
terion that can reliably and specifically adjudicate the matter.
What can be said is that in this situation, an experience of anger
exists for one person and a perception of sadness for the other,
and one is not more real than the other. For sadness (or anger)
to be real for both parties (one feeling it and the other perceiv-
ing it), they both have to impose the same function on the
physical instance. So what is real about this situation is that
both anger and sadness exist in this situation, and which exists
for whom depends on the point of view. And, although it is not
possible to say that one emotion (e.g., sadness) is more real than
the other (e.g., anger), it is possible to ask whose construction
10Searle’s (2010) example of a recession is a useful analogy—a reces-
sion can be in evidence by people’s economic spending behavior, even
though they might not be explicitly aware that a recession exists.
Implications of a Social Ontology Approach to Emotion
1. Emotion concepts help constitute
an emotional episode
Emotion words and concepts, as elements of social learning, do not exist separately from emotion itself and are
not psychologically inert. They are encoded as exemplars and instances in the brain and they have a
constructive quality that helps create the very instances that they represent.
2. It is important to avoid the
The science of emotion must stop engaging in the kind of dualist split between the biological and the social. It
is not philosophically tenable to point to any biological cause of physical changes (e.g., electrical stimulation
of the subthalamic nucleus causing laughter, lethargy in depression, the violent and uncontrolled movements
caused by a rabies infection, etc.) as evidence that a category like happiness, sadness, or anger is physically
real, and such evidence can never be a decisive argument against social construction.
3. Scientists must distinguish
between scientific and
because they have different
It is important to distinguish between ontologically subjective categories that are functional for doing science
and those that are functional for social communication between individuals. The fact that scientists refer to
freezing as “fear” to make their research findings accessible to non-scientists in magazine articles, books and
grant applications should not be considered evidence that the circuitry producing freezing reveals the
physical nature of fear. It very well may be that progress in the science of emotion will occur only as we get
better at separating scientific and social functions, and using different categories for each endeavor.
4. Natural explanations are possible
Every human thought, feeling, and behavior must be causally reduced to the firing of neurons in the human
brain (usually with input from the body). Prior experience and learning are encoded as neuronal connections
within the human brain, so even a social ontology approach to emotion must have some grounding in nature.
It is possible for each instance of emotion to be described in physical terms, even if each emotion category
does not have a unified biological basis (such as a subcortical circuit). This is because conceptualization or
meaning-making also has physical correlates. An explanation of how human brains create ontologically
subjective categories, in physical terms, is part of the natural explanation of emotions.
5. Research with non-human
animals requires philosophical
assumptions, whether or not
these are stated explicitly
Research on non-human animals provides a crucial and necessary piece of the puzzle for understanding human
emotion, but whether or not it alone reveals the nature of emotion depends on how you define emotions in
the first place. It requires a philosophy of how to link the physical and the mental. I think it will never
reveal the whole story. A freezing rat can never reveal the reality of fear, unless you define fear as freezing
in the first place. Researchers who work with non-human animals often take the strategy of identifying a
behavior that can be easily quantified and determining its neural circuitry and chemistry that underlies its
plasticity, and then they define it as an emotion. Or they start with a circuit that is evolutionarily conserved
and then map its behavioral correlates. This is a fine strategy for understanding behavioral adaptations, but a
science of emotion also has to focus on understanding the mental states that humans name with emotion
words. Such an endeavor does not require that researchers go fishing in the brain or body for this or that
physical measure that will correspond to each emotion category. Other research agendas, such as the one
outlined in this paper, are possible.
is a better fit to their culture’s norms for that situation. Anger
(or sadness) is not an object to be experienced or perceived with
some degree of accuracy.11
The Physical Basis of Social Ontology
For physical actions and body states (X) to count as emotions
(Y), some kind of physical change associated with meaning-
making has to take place somewhere in the brain of someone. The
working hypothesis offered here is that the reality of emotion
involves the top-down machinery responsible for human percep-
tion available inside the brain of the emoter or perceiver (which for
our purposes, can be thought of as C). In this view, an instance of
emotion corresponds to an entire brain state—one that includes
representations of the body and/or actions AND the additional
information that is necessary to create the new functions that make
emotions real—that is, the parts that are crucial for creating the
situated conceptualizations that are responsible for emotional ge-
stalts. For example, the physical state corresponding to an instance
of anger is not just whatever happens in the body, in the subcortical
neurons responsible for fighting, fleeing, freezing, or mating, and
so forth, or in brain regions that represent or regulate the body
(such as the insula, amygdala, and orbitofrontal cortex); it also
includes activation in the brain regions that represent the state of
affairs in the world in relation to that physical state, as understood
in the context of past instances. In fact, it is possible to state a
specific hypothesis here: when a body state or action counts as an
instance of emotion, the brain regions that orchestrate additional
information are the same ones that are engaged to create meaning
during semantic processing (e.g., Binder et al., 2009), moral rea-
soning (e.g., Greene et al., 2004; Young et al., in press), feelings
of empathy (Otti et al., 2010), theory of mind or taking the
intentional stance (e.g., Jenkins & Mitchell, 2010; Mitchell, 2009),
placebo responses (e.g., Wager et al., 2007), context-sensitive
visual perception (Bar et al., 2006), and when remembering the
past or imagining the future (e.g., Andrews-Hanna et al., 2010;
Buckner & Carroll, 2007; Schacter et al., 2007; Spreng & Grady,
2010) (i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cor-
tex, anterior temporal cortex including temporal poles, and the
temporoparietal junction, otherwise known as the “default net-
work”). A similar argument might be made for regions that are
important for language and categorization, such as the anterior
temporal lobe and inferior frontal cortex (e.g., Lambon et al., 2009;
Thompson-Schill et al., 1997; Visser et al., 2010). So far, the
available evidence suggests that these regions are consistently
active during the experience and perception of emotion (for meta-
analytic evidence, see Lindquist et al., in press; Wager et al.,
2008). Furthermore in a developmental sense, the potential for
emotion to be experienced or perceived would be created as these
brain regions acquire the ability to direct and/or represent emotion
category knowledge as it is learned from other people during
socialization that occurs in childhood, in therapy, or during accul-
turation. Moreover, emotions would not exist in animals who do
not possess ontologically subjective emotion categories.12
A further hypothesis is that like all categories in the social
world, emotion categories, while learned from experience, have a
biologically constructive quality of their own. Evolution has en-
dowed us humans with the capacity to shape the microstructure of
our own brains, in part via the complex categories that we transmit
11It is probably most precise (although immeasurably more compli-
cated) to say that the emoter (experiencing anger) and the perceiver (seeing
sadness) are not literally conceptualizing the same psychological moment,
because each has access to partially unique information or Xs (i.e., his or
her own physical state). They also might not share the same instances
within their stored repository of prior knowledge about anger and sadness.
12For example, the question “is a growling dog angry?” is a meaningless
question, because it includes only an X term (growling dog) and a Y term
(angry) but no C term. From the perspective of a human observer (C1), the
growling dog might indeed be angry or playful, and this is not distinguish-
able on the basis of the fundamental or formant frequencies of the growls
alone (Taylor et al., 2009; see Farago ´ et al., 2010 for an alternative view,
although their acoustical differences between positive and negative growls
could have been artifactually induced by the physical actions performed by
the dogs). From the perspective of the dog (C2), anger does not exist
(although clearly there are states that correspond to embodied, situated
states of affect). A similar point could be made about infants who have not
yet acquired emotion categories.
Reframing Some Basic Questions in the Science of Emotion
Are emotions real? How do emotions become real?
Are emotions hard-wired? How are emotions constructed in the human brain? Which brain networks are necessary for an emotional episode
to emerge and how do they interact during the construction of an emotional episode? Is it possible to identify a
distributed pattern to diagnose an emotion within a human brain?
Are emotions evolved
adaptations?Which evolved mechanisms within an emotional episode are species-general? Which are species-specific?
Are emotions biological or
How do circuits for behavioral adaptations combine with other brain networks for creating the construction of an
emotional episode as an ontologically subjective event? How do situated conceptualizations change the physical
state of a person (rather than just imposing meaning on a physical state that issues from a subcortical circuit)?
Do emotion categories have
What processes lead people to essentialize emotion the way they essentialize other ontologically subjective
categories, such as race?
EMOTIONS ARE REAL
to one another within the social and cultural context. This means
that even though emotions are real in the social world, they both
cause and are caused by changes in the natural world. They can be
causally reduced, but not ontologically reduced, to the brain states
that create them. To more fully explain how humans get to social
reality (e.g., emotions) from the properties of the natural world—
that is, to explain social reality in physical terms—it might even be
necessary to consider a human brain in context (including other
Emotions have been essentialized as natural when in fact they
are constructed. But this does not mean that emotions are illusions.
And it certainly does not mean that emotions are not biological. If
emotions become real in the same manner as flowers and weeds,
then a science of emotion should focus on identifying the pro-
cesses by which body changes and actions serve functions that
they cannot perform merely by their physical properties alone.
These processes involve categorization, mental state inference, and
(although I did not discuss it here because of space limitations)
language (but see Barrett, 2009; Barrett, Lindquist, & Gendron,
2007); all these processes can be studied at both the psychological
and neurobiological levels. Said another way, an emotion is more
than just a particular pattern of objective changes that reflect a
diagnostic body state or a physical action—its reality derives from
the way that perception works in a human mind, in conjunction
with other human minds. If this is true, then a science of emotion
should be focusing on the Xs (physical states and actions that
occur in specific situations), the Ys (the emotion categories that
exist in a particular culture), and the Cs (the contents and workings
of the categories as situated conceptualizations that constitute
emotions in a particular culture). The ability to make something
socially real is not magic—it is a natural consequence of how the
human brain works—and so a science of emotion must address
how a brain creates instances of social reality to fully reveal the
biological reality of emotion. Implications of this approach are
presented in Table 3. A reframing of some basic questions about
the nature of emotion within this approach is presented in Table 4.
If the past is any guide, then some researchers will continue to
remain confident that emotions are real as facial movements,
cardiovascular patterns, chemical substances in the body, or sub-
cortical brain circuits, and they will continue to believe that this
reality will be revealed once the field has a better set of tools or
more precise scientific categories. I, myself, am not so sure.
Psychology, as a science, has a huge, invisible social ontology, and
I suspect it is subjective all the way down. No matter how tech-
nically savvy or experimentally sophisticated we get, we always
have to map physical changes to mental categories. And this
mapping will always involve some subjectivity. The categories
that we use to create mental facts from physical ones (whether they
are universal or culturally unique) are those that people find
convenient and useful for various functions. As a result, mental
categories will never be value neutral—they will always have a
certain philosophy of mind and cultural worldview in which they
are embedded that is relative to the needs and values of a specific
group (i.e., culture) of humans. This is why even the most impor-
tant mental categories in Western approaches to science—
cognition, perception, and emotion—are ontologically subjective
and culturally relative (cf. Barrett, 2009; Barrett & Bar, 2009;
Danziger, 1997; Duncan & Barrett, 2007; Lutz, 1985). If I am
right, then the science of emotion (the science of psychology,
actually) should explicitly theorize about how to integrate physi-
cal, mental, and social levels of construction. This is not esoteric
philosophy. It is a necessary tool for doing science.
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