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Don't always trust those butterflies you feel on a first date

They may be sending you a false signal.

When we’re happy, we smile. When we’re sad, our mouths turn down and we tear up. Our faces express the emotions we’re experiencing inside. Everybody knows that, right? Yes, but from our own experience, we know it’s more complicated than that.

We don’t necessarily smile when we’re happy, as a 1979 bowling-alley study found. The bowlers tended to smile at a strike when they turned to their teammates, not before. If our expressions are tied to our emotions, why don’t we smile as soon as the happy-making thing happens? Maybe our expressions communicate our emotions to others, which is why we don’t necessarily laugh out loud when we’re on our own.

But surely if our faces don’t tell what our emotions are, our bodies must? When we’re fearful, our heart races; when we’re angry, we get tense; when we’re on a date and we feel our cheeks flush and butterflies in our stomach, that says we’re in love.

US neuroscientist, psychologist and author Lisa Feldman Barrett, who is visiting in March as part of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts, covers this territory in her book How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Indeed, the dating anecdote is one of Barrett’s own – she’s the protagonist inferring their attraction to their date from the signs we all culturally know go with falling in love.

Except she goes on to burst our bubble – flushing and stomach gurgles can also be the result of a gastro bug, but she didn’t know that until after the date had ended. It wasn’t love, after all.

In the book, Barrett starts with the intuitively and theoretically plausible idea that we have emotional experiences and these are manifested through our bodies. As the early chapters quickly spell out, however, there are problems with this so-called classical account of emotion.

Barrett says there’s reason to think that what we understand to be universal ways of expressing emotion are in fact the product of culture – we learn that you smile when you’re happy and that when someone is smiling it means they’re happy.

This socialisation effect is a challenge when researching such things as how accurate we are at identifying our emotions, or when training people to better differentiate between emotions such as worry and sadness when they experience them, or surprise versus fear in others. Because you can’t rely on what’s on a person’s face.

So, Barrett dug into people’s physiology in search of an “emotional fingerprint” – the physiological signature that might allow us to know what emotion someone is really experiencing. Again, this was a flop. It turns out that there is no one-to-one relationship between emotion and, for example, heart rate, skin conductance, temperature or muscle tension.

In short, what most people think they know is wrong. Instead, Barrett proposes a theory of constructed emotion. Simply put, we make our emotions based on what we perceive is going on in the world around us and in combination with what we perceive is happening inside us.

But back to the dating story. An academic collaborator of mine says they think they know who the other party on the date was, but won’t say who and whether there was a second date. But I think it’s more interesting that the datee also knows who they are.

Most importantly, I’m second-guessing the whole basis for my marriage. I hope it wasn’t just a stomach bug.

This article was first published in the February 1, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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