By Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, with Daniel J. Barrett, PhD
Pixar’s Inside Out is the latest in a long tradition of animated entertainment that teaches us about science.
Chemistry, as I learned from Saturday morning cartoons, is about mixing colorful, bubbling liquids in test tubes until they explode. “Roadrunner and Coyote” cartoons—those fine nature documentaries—taught me physics: if you run off a cliff, you’ll hang in mid-air until the unfortunate moment that you look down. Computer science is apparently about robots that kill you. And now, with Inside Out, we finally have cartoon neuroscience.
Your brain, it turns out, is populated with characters for each emotion, and they press buttons to control your expressions. This is all good fun and a sweet movie. What is surprising, however, is that some scientists have taken this model seriously for a century and actually search for these characters in the brain. Not as animated creatures, mind you, but as blobs of brain circuitry.
So happiness and fear are not brain blobs — they are whole-brain constructions.
This blob over here is your “fear circuit,” they say, or this other blob “computes anger.” And every time you experience an emotion, your corresponding blob of neurons supposedly leaps into action, triggering your face and body to respond in a consistent way. Your Fear blob makes you freeze with widened eyes. Your Anger blob makes you scowl and your heart speed up. And so on.
The thing is, this science of “blob-ology” is no more realistic than detonating test tubes and hovering coyotes. Today’s neuroscientists finally have the technology to peer into a living brain without harming its owner, and it’s clear that the brain doesn’t operate even remotely in this cartoonish fashion. We might perceive Joy, Fear, and Anger as separate entities — even gloriously rendered in 32-bit color — but the evidence from neuroscience is overwhelmingly against it.
For example, my lab has analyzed nearly 100 published brain-imaging studies by other scientists, involving nearly 1,300 test subjects across 15 years, and found that no brain region is the home for any single emotion. (We do have brain circuits for behaviors like freezing and fighting, as do other animals, but not for complex mental states like fear and anger.)
In another analysis covering 22,000 test subjects across more than 200 studies over 20 years, we demonstrated that anger, happiness, sadness, and other emotions don’t have consistent responses in the body either. And plenty of studies have shown that human facial expressions have tremendous variety, far more than would occur if they were automatically launched by “emotion blobs” in the brain. Continue reading