How Emotions are Made

The book is not something I can easily summarize. It is a book tying some of the most recent advances in neuroscience with not only emotions, but also memory, volition, society, mind, and the law (and much more).
One outstanding point was that emotions are social constructions and not hard-wired, reflex-type things. She calls int question the work of Paul Eckman, who I have felt was questionable for years. She shows the idea of “basic emotions” is flat wrong and Eckman did bad science (he has also kept his facial coding system research private, so one can double check it or try to replicate it — I learned this elsewhere, which why I question what he says). For those who don’t know, Paul Eckman is the person on whom they based the comic fantasy Lie to Me.
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She emphasizes many times from many directions that we can’t tell what emotion another person is having. She points out that even though scientists have known this for years, Google, Microsoft, and others are wasting large sums trying to read emotions in people’s faces.
She traces this to a myth that the brain has three parts, the reptilian brain the limbic system, where emotions live; both neatly wrapped in our cortex, where reason lives. But, “reason” is a myth as well.
She says, as I have many times here, that memory is imagination.
One of her main points, that the brain is a prediction machine, and that we experience our brains predictions of “reality” and not what we interact with in a physical sense. Almost everything around us is socially constructed. She sees emotions as “goal seeking” and only meaningful in a social context.
She says another thing I have been teaching and writing about for years. We ARE our society. She explains it better than I have yet by bringing in some research I was unfamiliar with. The central point is that our brain is wired and rewired by our culture, the people around us.
She weighs in on “Emotional Intelligence” and though she thinks it is important, Goleman did not fair well. After all, since we can’t tell other people’s emotions from their voices or faces, and they are not hardwired into us, his suggestions are … well … wrong.
The book conveys a lot and is a joy to read. She is no slacker running a lab of hundreds of people at Northwestern and with an appointment at Harvard, she is not pop science. She put more hardcore research stuff in appendices and also a website that supports the book.
I am looking forward to spending some time in the next few weeks reading some of the papers she bases the book on. I will write about them on my blog.


The Luck Factor

Sadly, the book is out-of-print and expensive.  There is an article he wrote that is almost as good as the book.

In the book, he shows that luck is a matter of attitude and behavior.  Lucky people are open, optimistic, socially connected, and willing to take risks.

My workshops teach you how to be luckier


Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer

When I read this book, I liked it so much I bought a half dozen copies so I could make sure everyone close to me had read it.  It was a book I had in my head to write.  We are both heavily influenced by Harrison White (I wrote most of this Wikipedia entry).
The short of it is, “common sense” is just us taking our construction of the world and mistaking it for reality.
Of the examples in the book, my favorite is about the Mona Lisa. He points out that it is the most iconic work of art. There is a song named after it, a crater on the moon, and just mentioning it invokes greatness.
What makes it great?  Is it the smile?  The colors?  What quality is it?
I have asked hundreds of people who have seen it, “were you impressed?”   The answer has been, universally, “no.”
You go to a dark basement of the Louvre and stand in line.  When you reach the head of  the line so you can see it. It is a tiny dark painting that you can barely make out.
To get there you have to pass breathtaking painting after painting.  I know my thought was, “art experts must know something I don’t.”  I was seriously underwhelmed.
Watts gives the answer to my question.  It was not art experts, at all, that made it famous. It was an Italian immigrant to France who claimed he took it to bring it back to Italy from where he, incorrectly, believed it had been stolen.  No one even noticed it was gone for several days.  The thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, had simply walked out of the museum with it. In fact, when he couldn’t get through a locked door, a museum employee opened it for him.
For two years, until it was found, it became a media sensation.  Amateur sleuths would try to track it down.  There was editorial speculation.  Even Picasso was considered a suspect.
Eventually, he got caught when he tried to sell it to an art dealer.
“The Mona Lisa had left the Louvre a work of art,” author Dianne Hales later wrote. “She returned as public property, the first mass art icon.”
You can read a version of the story by Evan Andrews on
That the Mona Lisa one of the greatest works of art is something that’s “common sense.”
The book has many other examples.  I recommend it to people to get them to question their reality. “Common sense,” like “eyewitness testimony” is a terrible way to make judgments.