BOOK REVIEW: How We Feel by Giovanni Frazzetto

How We FeelHow We Feel by Giovanni Frazzetto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Frazzetto’s book tells us what neuroscience can and can’t tell us about seven core emotions: anger, guilt, anxiety, grief, empathy, joy, and love. Doing so puts the neuroscience of emotion into a broader context of art, philosophy, the humanities, and the legal / political domains. Most often this serves to make the book more interesting by offering stories beyond the case files of neurologists and neuroscience researchers, but it does result in occasional editorializing.

The book consists of seven chapters, each of which is linked to one of the emotions listed in the preceding paragraph. These chapters always tell us the rudiments of what science has learned about the brain’s role in said emotion, but they often offer insights from other disciplines as well as providing more general information about the brain that the author found particularly relevant to the topic at hand.

The first chapter delves into anger. Besides the neuroscience of rage, we learn a bit about the expression of emotion (e.g. through facial appearance; a theme revisited in other chapters), and the degree to which genetics plays a role in proclivity towards anger. This chapter serves to set up general concepts, and so we also learn about what an absence of emotion looks like (e.g. indecisiveness.) And in compliance with the law that every pop science book on neuroscience tell the story of Phineas Gage (the foreman who got rebar shot through his brain and lived to tell the story—though in an uncharacteristically hostile way), Frazzetto knocks it out early.

Chapter two explores the topic of guilt. It should be noted that some of these chapters discuss more than one related emotion, and here we learn how shame and regret are differentiated from guilt. There’s an interesting story about Caravaggio and how his own guilt-ridden story influenced one of his most famous paintings.

Chapter three is about anxiety, and also takes on fear. In addition to the neuroscience, we get a discussion of relevant philosophy, specifically that of Heidegger. Here, the author also describes brain plasticity.

The next chapter investigates grief. As I suggested above, there are multiple points where emotional expression is discussed, and this chapter has one of the most extensive of such discussions. In terms of general concepts, Frazzetto introduces the reader to neurotransmitters. One also learns how grief is related to physical pain.

Chapter five elucidates empathy. A lot of this chapter discusses acting, and the need for actors and actresses to be able to acquire empathy from the audience. The reader learns the story of Stanislavski, and how he went about creating his self-named acting system which remains widely used. This chapter also explains mirror neurons that allow one to recognize expression and to mimic others.

The penultimate chapter is about joy, and here we learn more about expression of emotions and, specifically, the seeming universality of smiles. There is a discussion of poetry as it pertains to the emotion at hand. Having introduced neurotransmitters earlier, the reader learns about dopamine, its role in happiness, and how a number of drugs have been created that increase our natural dopamine’s effect or mimic it.

The last chapter is about love. Of course, we learn about oxytocin and vasopressin, two neurochemicals famously associated with loving behavior. There is also a fascinating discussion of Capgras Syndrome. In this condition, the patient feels that his loved ones have been replaced by impostors. That may not seem relevant until one realizes that the proposed mechanism for this illness is damage to parts of the brain that control emotional connection. Without an emotional connection, the person feels that said individuals can’t be his / her dearest friends and family—though his senses register that they are exact duplicates in every way. The brain builds a rationalization that they must be impostors. Of course, no emotion evokes more resentment towards materialist explanations rooted entirely in biology than that of love.

The book is extensively annotated and also has a bibliography. There are many graphics throughout the book from line drawn diagrams of brains to photos of brain scans to the artwork “David with the Head of Goliath” mentioned relative to the discussion of Caravaggio’s guilt.

There are a number of books in this domain (i.e. the neuroscience of emotion) and if you were only going to read one, I don’t think I’d recommend this one as it. However, if you are into this topic, it is definitely worth a read. It’s interesting and insightful, and has a unique approach.

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TODAY’S RANDOM THOUGHT: “That” Doesn’t Make You So Mad

Source: Avengers Movie

Source: Avengers movie

“That makes me so mad!” One hears it all the time. It has to be among the most commonly uttered phrases in the realm of emotional experience. And, of course, it’s completely and utterly wrong. Your anger is a wholly contained neurochemical response. To credit something external with your anger is to grant that person or thing power over you–to enslave yourself. (Stoic philosopher, and former slave, Epictetus was known to piss off gentlemen citizens by asking them if they were “really free.”)


This isn’t to say there isn’t just anger.  However, think about what emotions are. Our emotions are a system evolutionarily evolved to allow us to make decisions with limited or no information. Without emotions our species, if we ever came to be, would have likely become extinct by way of “paralysis by analysis.” We know that happens to people who have neurological damage that keeps them from experiencing emotion. You might think they would become cold and rational Mr. Spocks, but the defining characteristic of such people is that they become paralyzed by indecision. It turns out that we make a lot of decisions with limited information or from an inability to determine a clear winner by way of facts and reason. Emotion plays and important role in those cases.


Chances are that if your immediate gut reaction to something is anger, you probably haven’t worked out a rational argument for your preference. If one has a clear line of reasoning rooted in fact, anger isn’t necessary to justify a position or decision. If your gut reaction to something is emotional, see whether you can  noodle out a rational reason before you swing into too rash an action…. unless the crosstown bus is careening at you.




Slow Down and Savor the Instant Karma

Our tenant moved into our house and we still have a couple of days until we fly to Bangalore. So I’m living in a hotel in a densely populated part of town. Today, I made a trip to the supermarket. Almost every spot in the parking lot was full. I was  leisurely trolling the lot when I spotted an available spot. The spot was near the periphery of the lot–i.e. distal to the store, but I’m never opposed to a little walk.

I noticed a truck at the other end of the aisle gun its engine. The driver had probably been looking for a spot for a few minutes and was in a hurry. Though he had about eight cars between himself and the spot, and I merely two, I stopped and let the scowling, elderly man race into the spot. Having nowhere urgent to be until my Friday morning flight, I saw no need to sweat it. Once he was parked, I moved forward cautiously.

Wouldn’t you know it, as I was getting to the end of the aisle, a lady backed out of the end spot nearest the store. I checked to make sure that it wasn’t reserved for the disabled, pregnant women, or the employee of the month, and– seeing no competitors for the spot– I drove in. As I was getting out of the car, the scowling man shot me an icy stare. I don’t think he was angry with me, but, rather, he was convinced that the universe was against him. I imagine that he was thinking that guys like me get all the luck. He’s right. Of course, if he’d have stopped to let me take the first spot, he would have gotten the closer one–then we’d both be guys who get all the luck.