Why your Emotions Live Where they do

Emma Barnes
4 min readJul 3, 2023

In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett describes “the classical view of emotion” and new consensus which she calls the “theory of constructed emotion”.

The classical view

This framework paints fear, anger, delight and joy as universal experiences: every person, from every culture, experiences these emotions because they are pre-determined, heritable features of human beings. Different cultures may describe them differently only because their language and culture imperfectly captures the emotions described by… um, the western canon.

The constructed view

This one doesn’t presume so much. It posits that we build our emotional fingerprints with stories and training, rather than leaving it entirely up to our genes. In a manner of speaking, cultural stories interact with our bodies to make our emotions.

For example, a Dane who experiences the warmth of hygge (“a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being”) does so in community with others who experience the same thing. And they experience it in the peculiar way that only a Danish people can, thanks to the stories and experiences of their childhood.

In short, The constructed view holds space for intercultural variation in a way the classical view cannot: Danes are not describing cosiness but with a Danish accent: They’re experiencing a different thing.

Nothing says “Universal” like an MRI

Localisation

Just like many other people, I feel specific emotions in specific parts of my body. I was unaware of this until my 40s. Many people miss out on embodied emotion just as I did. But when asked the question, “where do you feel that emotion in the body?”, many begin to zoom in.

Texture

As well as having a place, emotions for me have a texture or a quality; like warmth, tingling, or crampiness. Fear cramps my stomach. Delight/joy tingles in my arms and legs. And anger heats-and-pressures my face and throat.

Reading Feldman’s account of the classical view and the constructed view, I got to wondering why my emotions live in particular places, and why they’re paired with particular textures. I stumbled upon…

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Emma Barnes

Autistic, trans, survivor, abolitionist @friedkrill on Twitstagram