Embracing the Unknown

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Northeastern University’s Lisa Feldman Barrett is one of the world’s foremost authorities in the science of emotion, but when she was a beginning researcher, she had serious doubts that she would ever complete graduate school, let alone become a celebrated researcher.  

head-2147328But what saved her, and what propelled her on the path to a glittering scientific career, was her determination to embrace head-on the barrage of knowledge questions she was regularly encountering.  A common point that regularly needs to be emphasized in any TOK course is the distinction between questions in a given subject area (e.g. How do we define mass?) and meta-questions about our confidence in the state of knowledge of that subject area (e.g. To what extent can we be certain that the law of gravity is valid?).  But often things get really interesting when knowledge questions pop up right at the grey area between the two.  And that’s what happened with Lisa.

Like most graduate students, one of the first tasks she was faced with was replicating previously published findings.  Her chosen area of research at the time concerned people suffering from anxiety and depression. She ran eight separate experiments.  And every one failed to replicate the published findings.

Here the first of our knowledge questions makes its appearance: Does a failure to replicate a previous result render it invalid?


“When I sat down and looked at the data carefully, across all the studies, I realized that when people reported feeling anxious, they also reported feeling depressed, or they reported feeling neither.  There was no unique variance left over: if people reported feeling one, they reported feeling both.

“I thought, Well, do people not know the difference between anxiety and depression?  Are they forgetting? Does this also happen with other emotions, like anger, disgust, guilt and shame?  Do people have difficulty distinguishing these too?  It turned out that there are tremendous individual differences in people’s tendency to report distinct, emotional experiences.

In other words:  To what extent are we fully aware of our own emotional states?

“My idea at the time was that some people were very granular in the way that they reported their experiences, so they made very precise distinctions.  And other people were using words like ‘angry’, ‘sad’, and ‘afraid’ interchangeably to mean, ‘I feel bad’, and other words like ‘happy’, ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘calm’ to mean ‘I feel good.  I feel pleasant’.

“I thought, These people who are less granular are just not accurately reading off their experiences.  I just need to teach them to pay attention to the cues and they’ll be more accurate in their reporting.

measure-1509707So she went looking for it.  She measured people’s faces and recorded changes in their facial muscle movement. But that turned out to be inconclusive, so she turned her attention to broader physiological issues associated with the body and immersed herself in the world of psychophysiology, conducting a large meta-analysis of hundreds and hundreds of different studies. But that, too, was disappointing: there was no one physical signature in the body for each emotion.

“At that point I thought, OK, it’s not in the face.  It’s not in the body. It must be the brain.  Really, what led me to neuroscience was the desire to test the idea that there really was this signature set of neurons for each emotion, basically.”

But then, as tends to happen to those with a truly investigative temperament, the plot thickened, with the corresponding appearance of a barrage of cascading, overlapping knowledge questions.  

First, Lisa began to question the notion of a unique correspondence of our emotional and physical states:

How can we be certain that our emotions correspond to specific physical states?

In time, she became convinced that, while there is clearly a correspondence between the two, the situation is vastly more complicated than many (including herself) had naively thought.  That naturally led to high-level questioning of the very emotions themselves:

How do I know that my feelings of anger are the same as yours?  

It was this last question that pushed her towards her current focus on the importance of variability to understand a whole range of psychological issues:

“When you’re angry, it’s not one anger; you can feel many different angers depending on the circumstance, and so can I, and so can every other person who lives in a culture where anger is a concept.  So when I say something like, ‘There’s no one physical signature for anger’, people assume I’m saying ‘Anger is not real’. I’m not saying 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 they can all be anger and still have that variability.”

Indeed, her growing focus on variability and conceptual categories gave rise to a consequent realization that many of her fellow psychologists have been sidetracked by an essentialistic philosophical tradition that they have often unconsciously picked up from physics and chemistry.

Under what circumstances can we be certain that emotions can be rigorously defined?

“In physics and chemistry, there is a philosophical tradition of assuming that you can follow a phenomenon and reduce it down to its most basic elements that are objectively present.  In psychology we 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 that’s basic and elemental.

“There’s an evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, who made a point which I think is very important for psychology, but psychologists haven’t quite embraced it yet.  Darwin’s greatest contribution is not 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: like there’s a perfect cocker spaniel and all the other variations of cocker spaniels are some kind of error.  

“No, Darwin’s point was that a species is a conceptual category because cocker spaniels vary from one to the other, and that variation is meaningful: it’s meaningfully tied to the situation, to the environment, so that all biological categories are actually concepts rather than rigorously defined boundaries.

So here we are, grappling with a host of fascinating and important issues that are inextricably tied to the very nature of psychology, its natural overlap with biology, and how it should be better practiced in the future.  We’ve come a very long way from the panicked reaction of a young student who was afraid she’d flunk out of graduate school because she couldn’t replicate some findings. But that’s where an unflinching embrace of knowledge questions can take you.

Howard Burton

To best explore the topics raised in this post for teaching and learning, please see related video and print resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal:

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