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Discovering the Ecology of the Mind

by Lisa Feldman Barrett, Northeastern University

The forthcoming movie “Inside Out” from Disney-Pixar explores the life of a young girl through characters who each represent an emotion like joy, fear, anger or disgust. While boiling each emotion down to a distinct personality with specific duties makes for an entertaining movie, science is beginning to reveal the flaws in this traditional essentialist view of how our emotions work.

Indeed, research in my Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University reveals that emotions such as anger and sadness are not fixed mental categories, each with its own universal biological fingerprint. Instead each emotion word refers to a highly variable collection of experiences that arise from complex interactions among more fundamental systems distributed throughout the brain and body.

Over the next two decades, our understanding of emotion – as well as a host of other mental phenomena like memory, decision making, and consciousness – will be transformed by richer empirical data on how the physiology of the brain and body operate in natural settings. Small wearable devices will provide moment-to-moment information on human behavior outside the lab, tracking everything from brain activity to heart rate. Statistical advances fueled by the “big data” movement will be required to interpret the results.

By 2034, we will have an objective science of subjective experience. We will be able to analyze a person’s biological data, collected along with information about its context, to understand or even predict what that person is thinking and feeling. This new “ecology of the mind” will allow people to finally understand their own subjective experiences – Am I tired because I’m sick, depressed, or just didn’t sleep enough last night? – and anticipate what’s coming – When will I be tempted to reach for that cigarette? How will my actions this morning affect how I feel this afternoon? These groundbreaking insights will transform medical science and practice. A new level of self-awareness will equip us to improve our physical health and mental well-being, and recognize how the two are interconnected.

Of all the scientific endeavors humans will undertake in the coming decades, understanding how the brain creates experience is perhaps the most important. Curing cancer, slowing aging, and even mastering quantum mechanics all depend on knowing our own minds and using this insight to unlock our full potential.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, where she focuses on the nature of emotion. She is director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory. Her work has been supported by the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, and is currently supported by the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Development, the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Institute, and the Mind and Life Institute.

If you want to make sure that we realize the benefits from this and other scientific advances, let your members of Congress know that federal funding for science matters and should be made a higher national priority. The Science Coalition’s Science Matters toolkit can help you get started.
Categories Psychology