Variation is the norm: Darwin's population thinking and the science of emotion

Date Wednesday 4 March 2020
Time 12pm - 1pm
Where S.B.01 (University of Waikato)
Presenter Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett
Contact Donna Walsh
Contact email
Admission Cost Free

In this talk, Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett will explore the possibility that the science of psychology has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of psychological phenomenon – mental events and behaviours – for the better part of a century.

We’ll discuss Darwin’s concept of population thinking and apply it to psychological categories, such as anger, sadness, fear, and so on, suggest that they are better understood as populations of variable, situated instances, like Darwin’s conception of a species. A populations mindset considers the variation within categories, whether across contexts, individuals, or cultures, to be meaningful and important in nature, whereas the statistical summary of this variation, such as a mean, is a mere abstraction.

We’ll consider whether this variation is caused by a brain as a complex, dynamical system, influenced by many weak, nonlinear, interacting causes (as opposed to a mechanistic system that is easily probed by traditional laboratory experiments). I’ll propose a set of underlying neural features that produce this variation, focusing on predictive processing approach to understanding brain function. We’ll end by considering whether psychology’s replication crisis is the result of our failure to measure variation and model the complexity of causation.

About the presenter:

Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, and affiliated with Electrical and Computer Engineering, at Northeastern. She holds additional appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Her research focuses on the nature of emotion from the perspectives of both psychology and neuroscience, and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics. Her lab takes an interdisciplinary approach, and incorporates methods from social, clinical, and personality psychology, psychophysiology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and visual cognition.

In addition to the book How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Professor Barrett has published over 200 peer-reviewed, scientific papers appearing in Science, Nature Neuroscience, and other top journals in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, as well as six academic volumes published by Guilford Press. She has also given a popular TED talk.

Professor Barrett received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for her revolutionary research on emotion in the brain, and is an Elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2018, she received the Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement from Association for Psychological Science, the largest organization of academic psychologists, with more than 30,000 members worldwide. In 2019, she was elected its President.