Lisa Feldman-Barrett, Ph.D.

Investigator, Senior
Psychiatry, Mass General Research Institute
University Distinguished Professor
Psychology, Northeastern University
Lecturer on Psychiatry, Part-time
Harvard Medical School
Associate Neuroscientist
Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital
Research Scientist
Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital
PhD University of Waterloo 1992
affect; allostasis; brain; brain mapping; emotions; facial expression; models, psychological; psychological theory; social behavior; social perception

What is emotion? Our research addresses that question from both psychological and neuroscience perspectives, ultimately working toward a general framework for understanding how the brain creates the mind.

Our theory of constructed emotion hypothesizes that "anger," "sadness," "fear," and similar mental events are not basic building blocks in the mind, but instead are mental events that result from the dynamic interplay of more basic brain networks that are not themselves specific to emotion. Think how basic ingredients like flour, water, and yeast can combine to make diverse foods that look and taste very different from one another. Our research suggests that emotions—and other mental events—are constructed in much the same way from basic neural ingredients.

Inspired by the conceptual innovations from Darwin's On the Origin of Species, as well as newer concepts in evolutionary biology, our lab studies an emotion like anger or gratitude as a population of highly variable instances, where each instance is tailored to a specific situation or context. The theory of constructed emotion examines the surprising ways that these highly variable instances emerge from prediction signals in the brain that function as concepts to categorize incoming sensory inputs from the body and the surrounding context, constructing experiences and perceptions of emotion. In this fashion, the theory of constructed emotion is at once integrating principles of neuroconstruction, psychological construction, and social construction.

We identify core psychological ingredients of emotion—interoception, vision, smell, taste, hearing and touch, a conceptual system, and the other people needed to conjure social reality—as well as the neural ingredients that continually shape one another as they combine to make a variety of mental states... only some of which people call "emotion."

The theory of constructed emotion prescribes a broad, innovative scientific agenda for the study of emotion. It is grounded, first and foremost, in a better understanding of core brain systems, particularly the functions of limbic ciruitry in the broader dynamics of the brain, with an emphasis on moment to moment variability, individual differences, and cultural differences. In addition, the theory suggests several counterintuitive hypotheses about the fundamental role of affect in perception, the role of language in perception and experience, and sex differences in emotion.

Research lab website Publications
Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging
CNY-Building #149
149 13th Street
Charlestown, MA 02129