How emotions are made

Lisa Feldman Barrett in Popular Science:

How_emotions_are_made.feldman_barrettFor my daughter’s twelfth birthday, we exploited the power of simulation (and had some fun) by throwing a “gross foods” party. When her guests arrived, we served them pizza doctored with green food coloring so the cheese looked like fuzzy mold, and peach gelatin laced with bits of vegetables to look like vomit. For drinks, we served white grape juice in medical urine sample cups. Everybody was exuberantly disgusted (it was perfect twelve-year-old humor), and several guests could not bring themselves to touch the food as they involuntarily simulated vile tastes and smells. The pièce de résistance, however, was the party game we played after lunch: a simple contest to identify foods by their smell. We used mashed baby food—peaches, spinach, beef, and so on—and artfully smeared it on diapers, so it looked exactly like baby poo. Even though the guests knew that the smears were food, several actually gagged from the simulated smell.

Simulations are your brain’s guesses of what’s happening in the world. In every waking moment, you’re faced with ambiguous, noisy information from your eyes, ears, nose, and other sensory organs. Your brain uses your past experiences to construct a hypothesis—the simulation—and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses. In this manner, simulation lets your brain impose meaning on the noise, selecting what’s relevant and ignoring the rest.

More here.