WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: The Neuroscience of Emotion by David J. Anderson and Ralph Adolphs

This book is a terrific overview of emotions research in general, as well as an easy to understand introduction to neuroscience and how it is used to inform us about how emotions work. The book is written by two neuroscientists – one who researches emotion in humans, and one who researches emotions in mice and flies. There are chapters in the book that focus on humans and others that focus on animals. The authors believe that both humans and animals experience emotions, but that humans have an additional element of subjective feelings and the ability to describe their emotions using words.

The authors explain that the scientific study of emotions is a piecemeal and confused discipline, and they attempt, in this book, to sort out how different scientists use terminology and concepts to describe emotions. They also engage in quite a bit of myth-busting, explaining: “If you are like most people, you feel convinced that, because you have emotions, you know a lot about what emotions are, and how they work. We believe you are almost certainly wrong… familiarity is not the same as expertise…. We all have strong, and typically unjustified, intuitive beliefs about emotions. We cannot emphasise enough the pervasive grip that our common sense view of emotions has on how we (that is, researchers in the field) frame our scientific questions.”

In Chapter 1, they unpack the presentation of emotions in the Pixar movie Inside Out and explain why emotions just don’t work like that. This chapter explains what we do NOT know about emotions. Chapter 2 provides a framework for studying emotions, and Chapter 3 suggests some building blocks and features of emotions.

Part 2 of the book provides an accessible overview of neuroscience, including chapters on how neuroscience is used to understand emotions in animals and humans. I particularly liked Chapter 8 – Tools and methods in human neuroscience, which provides a clear and easy to understand explanation of things like fMRI.

Part 3 of the book is called Open Questions and includes Chapter 10 on theories of emotions and feelings and Chapter 11 summary and future directions. Chapter 10 is a really great overview of different theories of emotion (including Lisa Feldman Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion).

If you are interested in emotions, you will learn lots of valuable information just from Chapters 1-3 and Chapter 10. If you want to learn more about how neuroscience works, Chapter 8 is really interesting, and Chapter 9 applies it to human beings.

The book also contains some useful diagrams and images to illustrate the points being made. While I skimmed over the content in the chapters on emotions in animals, I was intrigued by some of the photos of animals expressing emotions by their body language.

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