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“About Face”: Lisa Feldman Barrett Profiled in Boston Magazine

Lisa Feldman BarrettCLBB faculty member Lisa Feldman Barrett is the subject of a thoughtful profile in Boston magazine‘s July issue considering her work studying the nature of emotion—and trying to refute one of modern psychology’s most influential and celebrated thinkers.

Barrett, who was recently named University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, the university’s highest honor, has spent decades trying to prove her belief that the foundational findings of psychologist Paul Ekman are unsound. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Ekman, a psychologist in San Francisco, developed a theory that people all over the world express and experience emotion in the same way, regardless of sex, age, race, background or any number of biological and sociological factors. He would go on to develop a system by which he argues anyone can read and interpret others’ reflex-like microexpressions, allowing them to assess, among other things, whether someone is lying.

Ekman’s work became the basis for special training by the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the New York Police Department, and the Transportation Security Administration—but some researchers argue that it oversimplifies vast and complicated processes behind real emotion, Barrett chief among them.

“People don’t display and recognize emotions in universal ways, she believes, and emotions themselves don’t have their own places in the brain or their own patterns in the body,” the Boston Magazine article reads. “Instead, her research has led her to conclude that each of us constructs them in our own individual ways, from a diversity of sources: our internal sensations, our reactions to the environments we live in, our ever-evolving bodies of experience and learning, our cultures….

“It’s a paradigm shift that has put Barrett on the front lines of one of the fiercest debates in the study of emotion today,” the article asserts, “because if Barrett is correct, we’ll need to rethink how we interpret mental illness, how we understand the mind and self, and even what psychology as a whole should become in the 21st century.”

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