Are Emotions Hardwired?

In light of these various doubts about classic emotion theories, the question is raised what emotions actually are, how they arise in the brain and how they are processed. One possible approach that combines the modular and constructionist approaches, is the notion that emotion expressions are constructed from several components, which in turn are hardwired in the brain (Turner & Ortony, 1992).
Another theory was postulated by emotion researcher Lisa Feldman Barret: She assumes that emotions are not natural kinds and strictly categorized, but that they are put into categories artificially.
She argues, that classic emotions studies have shortcomings in their design that may have influenced the results, for example priming the subjects to associate an emotion with a facial expression when only a limited number of emotion words were given. In her research, limiting the subjects’ access to their emotion concepts reduced their success in identifying an emotion, suggesting that learned concepts are necessary for the identification of emotions in classic categories. Her revolutionary approach states, that emotions are not hardwired but created flexibly to meet situational demands. She notes that the brain continually makes predictions about one’s reality, and constructs emotions from internal and external sensory input. Concepts are then constructed to communicate about emotions with others and guide further predictions.

The field of emotion research experienced many changes in the last decades. Classic emotion theories describe a fixed set of basic emotions that can be combined to form more complex emotions. Ekman postulated that there are six basic emotions, while other researchers propose a varying number of categories (Russel & Barrett, 1999). Emotion research dates to Darwin, and many researchers assumed an evolutional advantage behind emotions, which led them to believe that they were hardwired in human brains (Nicholson, 1998; Izard, 1992). It is assumed that basic emotions correspond with facial expressions, which can be recognized by people around the world and in different cultures. Since studies found that even remote cultures who remained untouched by globalization were seemingly able to identify western emotions (Sauter et al., 2010), emotion categories were regarded as sound psychological constructs. Further, it was postulated that each emotion has a characteristic “fingerprint” of activation in the autonomous nervous system (Siegel et al., 2018). Some studies also found evidence pointing to specific brain structures responsible for the development of specific emotions, for example the amygdala, which is often associated with fear (LeDoux, 1995). Emotions can be understood as anticipation of and reaction to punishment and reward. Some theories assume that basic stimuli do not have to be learned, since the corresponding reactions are hardwired and exist since birth, while knowledge about secondary reinforcers has to be acquired over time (Rolls, 2000). The theory of emotions being basic psychological categories that are neither learned nor further reducible, that direct cognition and behaviour, is called the modular theory of emotions. Emotions are viewed as natural kinds, as fixed categories in nature. Each emotion is assumed to have a clear physical correlate and a predisposition in humans.

Newer research, however, dispute these classical theories and propose another approach, the constructionist theory of emotion. Researchers challenge the belief that emotions are hardwired and opt for a more flexible approach. Lindquist and colleagues conducted a metanalysis to discern whether there are brain areas that are predominantly occupied with the processing of one specific emotion. The results support the constructionist theory: The brain areas assessed in the study were often involved in the processing of non-emotional functions and showed activation in the processing of several emotions. The researchers concluded that cognitive processes are involved in the processing of emotions as well, since areas associated with language and attention also showed activation in connection with emotions (Lindquist, Wagner, Kober, Bliss-Moreau & Barrett; 2012).
The classical notion, that every emotion has characteristic physiological and neuronal correlates, is also challenged today. The individual expressions of an emotion (skin conductance, heart rate, etc.) show no correlation, against expectations. In a meta-analysis, response patterns of different emotions were examined, and the researchers found a large variance in response patterns instead of one characteristic “fingerprint”, as it was originally assumed. Additionally, several unspecific patterns of activation were discovered, which showed associations with several emotion categories (Siegel et al., 2018). Even the theory of universal facial expressions does not remain undisputed. A study compared the perception of facial expressions and emotions in samples of European and East Asian subjects. The participants were presented with artificially generated images of a face, in which a small component (mouth, eyes) was varied. The subjects were asked to identify the facial expression with one of Ekman’s six basic emotions. Through correlations, a model of facial expressions characteristic for an emotion was developed. Surprisingly, discrete emotion categories were only found in the European sample, while the East Asian sample showed overlaps between the categories (Jack, Garrod, Yu, Caldara & Schyns, 2012). Researchers also argue, that prototypical emotion expressions should not have a special status, since an emotion is associated with and can be recognized through many different facial expressions (Turner & Ortony, 1992).

On the conceptional level, contradictions appear as well. The notion that emotions categories are not further reducible, raises questions when further analysed: Some of the ‘basic’ emotions presuppose other emotions, for example anger: In order to be angry about something, one has to be discontent with the situation first. The analysis of emotion categories shows further problems (Scarantino & Griffiths, 2011): How can emotions be separated from each other? What characterizes an emotion and what separates it from non-emotional reactions?
As has become apparent, newer research shows that emotions might not be as hardwired as originally assumed.