How does the idea of “emotional granularity” offset that? This idea that if we understand our world through the concepts that we have, then the more concepts we have, the better we can understand what we’re feeling.
An emotion is an episode in which your brain uses what you know about emotion – emotion concepts – to make sense of the changes in your body (changes in heart rate, in breathing, and so on) by connecting these sense data and the feelings that they give rise to with what is going on around you in the world. This is how you might come to experience a tightness in your chest as anxiety, determination, or the physical symptoms of a respiratory infection. The more concepts you know, the more flexibly your brain can guess at might cause the sense data from your body in a given situation.
Concepts help you understand emotions after they have emerged, sure, but they are also a key ingredient of constructing emotions in the first place. Emotions don’t happen to you—they are made by your brain as you need them. They are not built into your brain at birth. They are built by your brain using the emotion concepts that you have learned. Using emotion concepts, your brain runs your body budget by predicting the causes of upcoming events in your body in a way that is linked to the situation that you are in, for the purposes of acting in a particular way. So ultimately, concepts are tools for making emotion. More generally, concepts are tools for making new meaning of the physical sensations from your body, in the context that you’re in, to guide your actions in a particular way. And the result is sometimes an emotion. So emotional granularity doesn’t mean that you just understand your emotions better. It means that you construct your emotions more precisely to fit the situation that you are in.
How does that change our experience of the world then? For example, if I were to say, “I’m not sad, I’m disappointed.”
To answer your question, we have to talk about affect. Your brain is constantly managing your body budget, and your body is constantly sending back sense data to your brain. This is happening right now, even though you are probably unaware of it. And that’s because you are not wired to consciously experience this continuous symphony of sense data. Evolution has given you a workaround, though: simple feelings of comfort or pleasantness, discomfort or unpleasantness, feeling wound up or tired. These simple feelings you might call mood. Scientists call them affect.
Let’s say you’re running a body budget deficit. So you feel crappy. Let’s say you’re not a very granular person and, for you, anger, sadness, fear are all synonyms of, “I feel like shit.” Well, what should you do next to deal with the situation? Your brain hasn’t made a very specific guess. Do you have a drink of water? Do you yell at someone? Do you go for a run? It’s hard to know because your brain hasn’t made a concept that allows it to predict a specific action.
But if your brain has learned that sadness means you have lost something dear to you, whereas disappointment means that your hopes or expectations have been dashed—that is, when you have learned that sadness and disappointment are not synonyms, but are distinct concepts involving distinct actions—then making your affect meaningful with a concept for sadness will lead to very different actions than if your brain makes a concept for disappointment.
Here’s a trivial example: like many people in this country, I am weary and I am stressed. Under the hood, my brain is constructing concepts to predict and make sense of what is going on inside my body in relation to the situation I am in. My brain could construct an experience of anxiety, or depression, or hopelessness. But instead, it constructs a concept of an encumbered body budget. And this guides my actions. I need to make sure that I sleep and I need to make sure that I drink enough water. I need to make sure that I exercise, even though I really don’t feel like it. I make sure to get enough social contact with those I love.
Emotional granularity is also knowing when not to make an emotion. Instead, my brain is making meaning of the sense data, and the affective feelings that they cause, as a physical phenomenon. And what does this granularity buy you? It buys you the flexibility to make sense of your sensations and act on them differently depending on the context, tailoring your actions to the situation you are in.
This interview has been edited and condensed.