How Your Emotions Affect Sickness and Depression

In How Emotions Are Made psychology professor Lisa Fedlman Barrett considers the role of emotions in health. 


At the gym I’ve watched members enter class or the steam room to “work through” a cold. Hoping to feel better, their spread of germs is likely to infect others. Gyms are, like schools, breeding grounds for illness. But is the spreading of germs enough to make another sick?

Sometimes. Amazingly the germs themselves prove secondary to the mindset of the potential victim. One study found that when a group of people received a cold virus directly into their nose only 25-40 percent of the infected became sick. There’s more to illness than germs. 

Of all the psychosomatic factors psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett discusses in her groundbreaking book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, these lines in particular jumped out: 

The diverse set of symptoms that you collectively call “a cold” involves not just your body but also your mind. For example, if you are an introverted or a negative-minded person, you’re more likely to develop a cold from a noseful of germs. 

When I talked to Barrett about this phenomenon, she told me her point was not to focus on pessimism. She was just reminding readers that multiple factors go into generating sickness. The larger picture begins with concepts. 

We learn about everything through concepts. Barrett uses bees as an example. In order to mentally envision a bee you first have to have a concept of what it is, not only what one looks like, but also information relating to bees, which require other concepts: meadow, honey, and sting, for example. The more you learn about and have experiences with bees, the broader your concept. You then group bees with other larger concepts, such as insects and flowers. 

This is how humans learn. Concepts help us “guess the meaning of incoming sensory inputs.” When you first experience a small buzzy thing flying around your head you don’t know what it is. Maybe someone informs you; maybe it stings your arm. You quickly learn to avoid it. In the future you know to move away when you see it coming. We apply concepts and grouping to everything. If we didn’t we’d have to relearn the same concept over and over and over.

Barrett’s thesis takes off from this basic knowledge when she writes,

With concepts, your brain simulates so invisibly and automatically that vision, hearing, and your other senses seem like reflexes rather than constructions. 

While common wisdom claims humans share basic, universal emotions, Barrett realized that theory, based on very specific emotions applicable to the facial expression of Westerners, is not how humans generate emotions. There is no “fear face.” We don’t so much react to stimulation—the old knowledge of emotions—as predict incoming sensory information and construct, on the spot, our emotions relating to it. This might sound minor, but the implications are anything but. 

If humans are reactive animals always responding to stimulation—this causes fear, that creates angry, this implies sadness—then we’d share a basic set of universal emotions. But we know that’s not how humans work. People respond to seeing a dead body differently: disgust, sadness, anger, but also joy and even arousal. It’s not a reaction but a creation dependent upon numerous factors, including past experiences to that stimulation, genes, and your current audience.

Problems begin because we're often essentialists, which is the belief that essence is prior to existence. An emotion is innate and therefore we react with it at these times; a virus germ is the essence of a cold, and so when coming into contact we become sick. But if the majority of people infected with a virus does not become sick, Barrett asks, what other factors need to be considered?

Barrett says most genetic material is not comprised of genes but the machinery turning genes on and off dependent upon the situation—genomics, or epigenetics. Certain people are more sensitive to input than others. When dealing with germs, your stress level makes a huge difference. If you’re interacting with your environment in a stressful or pessimistic manner, you’re more likely to get sick. 

When your body budget is taxed—continually taxed—to the point where your brain believes your body is sick, that it needs to be protected from a major illness, the genes that protect you from bacteria tend to be turned on and the genes that protect you from viruses tend to be turned off. If your body is under siege, if you’re stressed, your brain is running your body at a deficit—this is colloquially what we call stress—long term stress comprises your immune system in a particular way that means you’re more likely to catch a virus.

The ravages of stress aren’t only applicable to viruses. Barrett points out 1.5 billion people suffer from chronic pain. Chronic pain is so pervasive in America we spend or lose in productivity $635 billion every single year. Barrett extends this to include depression, which she believes might be “a disorder of misbudgeting and prediction.”

We know there’s no silver bullet for chronic pain and depression, but it is similar to a virus: there is no singular cause. What we do know is that stress plays a role. Barrett writes that we can’t treat one part of the body without taking every system into account. Stress, though, has system-wide effects.

Everything about us—our central nervous system, enteric nervous system, the environment, friends, family—plays a role in our health. While the concepts we use to frame the world might not be the only factor in determining health, it often begins there. And if we’re overwhelmed every time we contemplate the input around us, our immune system will be compromised. A vicious cycle ensues. 

The reality is there is no reality. At least no singular reality ruling over all other realities. We are constantly constructing reality every moment of our lives. Your experiences, Barrett concludes are not “windows into reality.” Your brain instead models your world dependent upon what is happening in your body and environment this very moment. Your world, she says, is “formed in a storm of prediction and correction.” 

And that matters for health, be it the common cold or, strung out over a period of decades, mental health. It matters in relationships and careers. It matters in politics and the law. In each instance we often want to be right, but demanding the world bend to your perception of it always leads to suffering, as the Buddha knew all those millennia ago. You're guaranteed disappointment. A chronic system-wide spiral begins.

Predicting correctly is an art, not a reaction. As with everything it takes time and patience, as well as, at times, moving out of the way of yourself. Not the easiest task, but when your health and the health of your society matters, it’s well worth the sacrifice.

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Derek's latest book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, is out now. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Image: The Pudding
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Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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