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Conceptual-act model of emotion

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The Conceptual-Act Model of Emotion is a recent psychological constructivist view on the experience of emotion (Barrett, 2006a). This model was proposed by Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD., as a way to recify what is known as the 'emotion paradox' (see Barrett, 2006a). The emotion paradox describes at paradox that at present, perplexes the psychological investigation of emotion: People have vivid and intense experiences of emotion in day-to-day life--they report seeing emotions like "anger," "sadness," and "happiness" in others and report experiencing "anger," "sadness" and so on themselves--but psychophysiological and neuroscientific evidence has failed to yield consistent support for the existence of such discrete categories of experience (see, Barrett, 2006b). Instead, the empirical evidence suggests that what exists in the brain and body is affect (Barrett, 2006b).

Despite this fact, most theories of emotion assume that emotions are genetically endowed, not learned, and are produced by dedicated circuits in the brain: an anger circuit, a fear circuit, and so on. This point of view is very much in line with our commonsense conceptions of emotion. In contrast, The Conceptual Act Model of emotion suggests that these emotions (often called "basic emotions" e.g., Ekman, 1972; 1994) are not biologically hardwired, but instead, are phenomena that emerge in concsciousness "in the moment," from two more fundamental entities: core affect and categorization.

Core affect is a neurophysiological state characterized along two dimensions:

  * Pleasure vs. displeasure, measured along a continuous scale from positive to negative.
  * High arousal vs. low arousal, measured along a continuous scale between these endpoints.

According to the Conceptual-Act model, emotion is generated when a person categorizes his/her core affective state using knowledge about emotion. This theory combines elements of linguistic relativity and affective neuroscience.

The Conceptual-Act model of emotion is analogous to how humans experience color. People experience colors as discrete categories: blue, red, yellow, and so on. The physics of color is actually continuous, however, with wavelengths measured in nanometers along a scale from ultraviolet to infrared. When a person experiences an object as "blue," she is using her knowledge of color to give this wavelength a label. And in fact, people experience a whole range of wavelengths as "blue." Likewise, emotions are commonly thought of as discrete and distinct -- fear, anger, happiness -- while core affect is continuous. The Conceptual-Act model suggests that at a given moment, people categorize and apply a label to their current feeling of affect (or core affective state), using their knowledge of emotions, just as they experience and label colors. This process instantiates the experience of "having an emotion." For example, if someone is experiencing negative affect, and sees a snake, he would categorize (and experience) his affective state as "fear," in essence generating an instance of fear. In contrast, a "basic emotions" researcher would say that seeing the snake triggers a dedicated "fear circuit" in the brain.


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