biological emotions and laughing goldfish

Lisa Feldman Barrett, psychology professor at Northeastern University, reduces the emotional states of being into four categories, in her book, How Emotions Are Made (Pan Macmillan, 2017). These four proto-emotions are, in essence, the messages your brain derives from your nervous system, the pure biological pulses that ultimately guide our relationship with the world around us:


Everything else, from happiness to sadness to disgust and so on, says Barrett, are learned reactions. Passion is culturally transmitted.

In identifying these raw materials of emotion, we might draw a closer understanding of the experience of that-which-is-not-human, even perhaps that-which-is-not-mammal, as pleasant — even mildly arousing — is the notion that this may be an indication of some broader universality.


Here is one of my favorite Chuang Tzu stories, which for me settles any argument over the existence of universal experience, and imparts the listener to "trust their gut" on this matter. Our relationship with the world around us is much tighter than we tend to consciously acknowledge:

Two old friends were crossing a bridge over a pond. One paused to look down, and noticed a school of goldfish swimming below. "Look, how those goldfish are playing and laughing!" His friend glanced down, nodded, and then replied, "How is it you know these fish are experiencing some form of happiness? Maybe they are simply swimming in the fashion that such fish swim, not happy, but neutral, and that you are imagining their emotion? You can never ask a fish! Does it not seem foolish to you to ascribe human feelings to simple creatures?"

His friend thought about this for a little while, peered one more time at the fish below, and then, waving his friend forward on their walk mentioned, "I know those fish are happy because I, too, have known happiness."


I used this story to put the 26 forms of cognitive bias into context, as well, "Cognitive Bias and the Laughing Goldfish."

As I click "publish" on this post, two blue jays are squealing in the flower box outside my window. They sound aroused!