The Relationship Between Affect and Rationality According to Lisa Feldman Barrett

Term Paper, 2020

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Barrett’s emotion theory: Interoception

3. Affect, its role in interoception and its consequences

4. Is affect an opponent of rationality?

5. Does affect contribute to rationality?

6. Conclusion



“You are your brain” (Barrett 2018: 60) is a statement given by Lisa Feldman Barrett; however, she is neither the first nor the only to make this claim. Like many scientists nowadays, she believes the brain to be essential for what makes us human. Her brain research particularly focuses on what emotions are and where they originate from. In How Emotions Are Made (2018) she proposes a theory on how and why the brain creates them. With this she introduces the term ‘affect’ which refers to human feelings, but a different type of feelings than emotions.

Barrett’s explanation of what affect is has sparked my interest. She describes affect as the“general sense of feeling that you experience throughout each day” (Barrett 2018: 72). According to her, affect constantly influences a person’s perception, behaviour and thinking, regardless of whether the person is conscious of it or not. Furthermore, affect is not influenced by the environment, but the person’s perception of the environment depends on the persons’s affect. Therefore, affect has consequences: People being unaware of it or misinterpreting it are likely to be misled. They confuse their affect with information about the world (cf. Barrett 2018: 72ff.). As a result, a person “cannot overcome emotion through rational thinking” (Barrett 2018: 81).

These claims lead to the question whether a person is capable of rationality at all. Or does the existence of affect exclude the possibility of rationality? My attempt in this paper, however, is not to provide a full answer. Also, I cannot give a complete overview on the philosophical debate about rationality. Instead, my focus will lie on the relationship between affect and rationality, as described by Barrett. More specifically, I am going to discuss whether it is plausible to believe that affect subjugates rationality. My goal is to show that it indeed is credible to believe that there is necessarily a dependency between affect and rationality.

To argue for this, I will proceed as follows: First, I will give an overview on Barrett’s emotion-theory in chapter two. Then, I will concentrate on the term‘affect’in chapter three. I will discuss what affect means, where Barrett places it in her theory and what consequences we (may) derive from it. — For these two parts I will focus on the fourth chapter (The Origin of Feeling) of her book How Emotions Are Made (2018) because she outlines the main idea of her proposal here.1 — Accordingly, the first part of this paper is mainly reconstructive and about identifying the underlying believes that lead Barrett to her assumptions.

Outlining the consequences of affect will lead over to the critical approach to Barrett’s claims: In this step, I will explain why and how affect’s consequences connect to a person’s capability of rationality. To discuss the plausibility of the made assumptions I will attend to the model homo economicus in chapter four and five. Thereby I will focus on the definition(s) of rationality used in connection with this model and discuss the model in context with Barrett’s theory. — I chose homo economicus because Barrett herself argues against it (cf. Barrett 2018: 80). I am also interested in examining homo economicus because I want to know whether Barrett is justified in rejecting the model. — Finally, I will draw a conclusion based on the acquired information in this paper in chapter six. In this conclusion I will elaborate whether I was successful in arguing for the plausibility of a necessary dependency between affect and rationality.

2. Barrett’s emotion theory: Interoception

At the core of Barrett’s theory lies the notion of interoception, which she explains to be an activity of the brain that is perpetual and independent of external stimuli (cf. Barrett 2018: 56ff.). One of its purposes is to maintain inner and outer bodily functions by regulating the energy needed for survival and well-being. Interoception enables the brain to accomplish this by making predictions about the body’s state (cf. Barrett 2018: 66f.).

In fact, making predictions is the main task of interoception (cf. Barrett 2018: 58f.). Barrett describes her use of the term as follows:

I’m focusing on predictions at a microscopic scale as millions of neurons talk to one another. These neural conversations try to anticipate every fragment of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that you will experience, and every action that you will take. These predictions are your brain’s best guesses of what’s going on in the world around you, and how to deal with it to keep you alive and well. (Barrett 2018: 59)

Thus, predictions (created via interoceptive activity) are not only the brain’s tool to keep the body alive and well. They also have the purpose to build a connection between the person concerned and their environment in order for the person to successfully interact with this environment, which also includes that the person stays alive and well. However, predictions about the body regard bodily functions: i.e. “internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system” (Barrett 2018: 56). Predictions about the world regard what is not covered by such predictions of the body.

Most importantly, Barrett claims that those predictions are not based on present sensory input from the world. They rather result from prior made experiences: Suppose that Amy meets a dog in the park. The dog barks and looks scary. Therefore, Amy’s brain predicts that she is in danger. — This would be a prediction based on present sensory input. — Suppose now the same scenario. Suppose further that Amy has met many dogs before and that she liked all of them. According to the theory presented here, Amy’s brain now makes a prediction regarding the current situation that is not based on the current situation itself. The prediction is rather based on Amy’s previous experiences dealing with dogs (which she liked all). Amy therefore concludes that the dog in question is also well-behaved.

Based on this thesis of where predictions originate from, Barrett argues that a person’s perception of the world is based on those predictions and not on the sensory input the person gets from the world:“Through predictions, your brain constructs the world you experience” (Barrett 2018: 59).

However, this does not mean that Amy’s perception has no relation to the actual world she perceives. When the brain creates a prediction, it also applies it to the present sensory input with the goal to explain this input. Within this process it is then possible for predictions to turn out to be incorrect. This phenomenon is called prediction error and a regular part of the here described process. In cases when prediction errors occur, the brain has two options to resolve the error. Either the brain ignores the malfunction by filtering the input in a way that allows the prediction to stay intact (which would be a kind of self-deception). Or the brain adjusts the prediction in question (cf. Barrett 2018: 59ff.). “Through prediction and correction, your brain continually creates and revises your mental model of the world” (Barrett 2018: 62).

In the case of Amy meeting a dog in the park a prediction error might look as follows: Suppose that Amy meets a dog in the park. The dog barks and looks scary. However, Amy’s brain predicts that the dog does not pose a danger based on her good experiences with dogs. Therefore, Amy wants to pet the dog. The dog then snaps at her. — Here occurred the prediction error. — In effect Amy’s brain immediately adjusts the previously made prediction. It corrects the prediction error based on the present sensory input. Now Amy’s mental model of ‘dogs in parks’ is being revised and complemented by the new experience. In other words, Amy learns that barking and scary looking dogs in parks may not be well-behaved.

The process of intrinsic brain activity making predictions and correcting them if necessary (as described in the example above), is called prediction loop and may be visualised as follows:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Barrett 2018: 63; Figure 4-2)

Summarised and simplified, interoception is an ongoing process that creates predictions. These predictions then are tested against the present external stimuli given by the world - this is the prediction loop: a prediction is made, simulated, compared, and in case when a prediction error occurs within this loop, the brain can correct the prediction accordingly.2

3. Affect, its role in interoception and its consequences

So far, we have seen that the human brain’s interoceptive activity is responsible for making predictions about the body and the environment. Now, we will see that it is also responsible for producing affect.

Barrett explains that “[t]he interoceptive activity produces the spectrum of basic feeling from pleasant to unpleasant, from calm to jittery, and even completely neutral” (Barrett 2018: 56). More precisely, the predictions about the human body lead to interoceptive sensations. This means, the sensations reflect the body’s state. The person then experiences those interoceptive sensations as affect (cf. Barrett 2018: 71ff.) which is “simple feelings of pleasure, displeasure, arousal, or calmness” (Barrett 2018: 67):

Affect is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout each day. It is not emotion but a much simpler feeling with two features. The first is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel, which scientists call valence. […] The second feature of affect is how calm or agitated you feel, which is called arousal. (Barrett 2018: 72)

In this passage, Barrett states that affect must not be confused with emotions because they are not the same. However, she does not say that they are two completely different entities. Affect is rather understood to be a more general feeling of pleasantness or unpleasantness. Emotions, instead, are strong feelings like happiness or anger.3

Furthermore, Barrett differentiates between valence and arousal as features of affect: Examples for valence are feeling comfortable in warm clothes in winter (pleasant) as well as suffering from a headache (unpleasant). Arousal, on the contrary, describes feelings like exhaustion after exercising in the gym (low energy/calm) or nervousness before speaking in front of an audience (high energy/agitated). Valence and arousal together are what a person’s affect consists of (cf. Barrett 2018: 72). How both features relate to each other in order to create the overall affect may be visualised as follows:

(Barrett 2018: 74; Figure 4-5)

This graphic shows that the degree of valence and the degree of arousal determine where a person would place their affect within the graphic’s circle. Suppose, for example, someone has a cold (valence/unpleasant) and has just worked for eight hours (arousal/low energy). This person’s affect would be placed somewhere in the lower left corner.

In order to understand how this concept of affect works within interoception consider Amy meeting a dog in the park again: When Amy sees the dog, she feels pleased and calm because she enjoys the walk and likes dogs. When the dog snaps at Amy, her brain corrects the already made predictions and creates new ones. Now, we learned that those predictions are not only about the world (like we have seen in the previous examples of Amy) but also about Amy’s body. For example, Amy’s brain predicts (because of the unexpected attack) that her body needs energy in case she must flee or fight. Adrenaline is set free and her heart rate goes up. Consequently, Amy feels displeased and aroused. The predictions changed and with it the state of Amy’s body. Therefore, the interoceptive sensations changed also and Amy experiences a change in affect. She now feels different than she felt a few moments before.

Moreover, because interoceptive activity is perpetual, affect is always present, as well. Therefore, Barrett argues that affect is“a fundamental aspect of consciousness” (Barrett 2018: 72): Interoception constantly influences how a person views the world. The thereby created affect is also continuous but the person may not be aware of its origin. However, “even when [those kind of feelings are] only in the background, they influence what you do, what you think, and what you perceive” (Barrett 2018: 72). It is because of this eternal presence and influence-taking through life, that Barrett believes a person’s affect to be part of the person’s consciousness (cf. Barrett 2018: 83).


1 In doing so, I make no claim to completeness of the theory, but concentrate on the aspects relevant for my paper. Also, I will not question Barrett’s (possibly refutable) theory: For the sake of the argument I will assume that affect, as she describes it, does exist. My goal is to examine whether a person can act rational if affect really exists. This question still includes the possibility that the here described theory may be false and I am aware of this possibility.Additionally, I will not compare Barrett’s proposal with other emotion theories. I am concerned with her specific use of the term ‘affect’ and what follows from it regarding rationality. For further information on other emotion-theorist’s proposals, see e.g. Causes and Consequences of Feelings (2000) by Leonard Berkowitz.

2 Still, the brain may not correct the prediction accordingly (e.g. in the case of self-deception).

3 Therefore, there still is a connection between affect and emotions insofar as they both belong to a broader category (like ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ both describe temperature). From now on I will call this category ‘feelings’. Notice, however, that Barrett does not explicitly say this herself in the regarding chapter. Still, I think that feelings are appropriate as super-category for affect and emotions. Barrett says that “[affect] is not emotion but a much simpler feeling” (Barrett 2018: 72) which indicates that they have in common to be feelings, nonetheless.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


The Relationship Between Affect and Rationality According to Lisa Feldman Barrett
Bielefeld University  (Abteilung Philosophie)
Konstruieren wir Emotionen?
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"Danke für die Arbeit! Ich finde, sie ist dir sehr gut gelungen. Ich habe sie mit einer 1,0 bewertet. [...] Die Richtung, die deine Arbeit letztlich eingeschlagen hat, ist überzeugen. Der Sache war es geschuldet, dass mit dem Thema "Rationalität" bei Barrett etwas schwerer umzugehen ist. Du hast aber eine interessante Forschungsfrage gefunden, und bist diese auch stringent durchgegangen." - comment from my supervisor
emotions, emotion, affect, rationality, Rationalität, interoception, neuroscience, brain, human brain, rational, irrational, feelings, Feldman Barrett
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Kim Ann Woodley (Author), 2020, The Relationship Between Affect and Rationality According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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