In today’s world, people are more open than ever to discuss their emotions, largely due to the growth in self-help literature and efforts to destigmatize therapy. However, this openness has also resulted in certain misconceptions about emotions, which neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett aims to clarify.
Contrary to the notion that emotions are inherently fixed in our brains from birth, Barrett contends that they are primarily based on past experiences and the brain’s predictions of future events. This means that emotions aren’t merely reactions thrust upon us, but something we actively participate in creating.
Barrett further posits that we can alter our brain’s predictive patterns by diversifying our experiences such as learning new things, watching films, or engaging in activities like acting that deviate from our routine. By doing this, we can shape the architecture of our future selves.
Feldman-Barrett: There are a lot of misconceptions that people have about emotions and how they work. One myth is that emotions are hardwired into the brain at birth and universal across all humans and maybe even shared with other animals. Another myth is that the brain produces emotions in a very reactive kind of way. It's based on this idea that you have this animalistic part of a brain, and when the rational side of your brain wins, you are a moral, healthy person. And when the emotional side of your brain wins, then you're either immoral because you didn't try hard enough, or you're mentally ill because you couldn't control your emotions.
It can certainly feel like emotions happen to you: that they bubble up and that they cause you to do and say things that are maybe ill-advised. But that explanation doesn't really capture how your brain is making emotions. My name is Lisa Feldman Barrett. I am a university-distinguished professor at Northeastern University, and my latest book is entitled "Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain." I've been studying emotions for about 30 years.
So, right off the bat, I should tell you scientists don't agree on how to define emotion. Like, everybody agrees that we have emotions, but nobody can agree on the definition of what an emotion is. So, there's great variability in emotional lives. Some people float in a sea of tranquility. They're kind of mild, and easy to deal with. Other people tread water in a tumultuous sea of emotion. They're constantly having intense experiences. They feel as if their emotions control them instead of them controlling their emotions. But all of that experience—that emotions are events that happen to you that you have to deal with—is an illusion that the brain creates.
So for example, something happens in the world: It triggers that ancient inner part of the brain, emotion circuits deep in our inner beast, and then we react to what's occurred in the world. But that's really not what emotions are- and that's not how they work.
Director: So, how would you define an instance of emotion?
Feldman-Barrett: The way that I would say it is like this: Your brain is always regulating your body. Your body is always sending sensory information back to your brain, like how much glucose, how much oxygen, how much salt? What's the status of almost every metabolic factor that keeps you alive and well? And your brain isn't wired in a way for you to experience those sensory changes, specifically. Instead, what you experience is a summary: and that's where those feelings of pleasantness or unpleasantness, comfort, discomfort, feeling worked up or feeling calm and quiescent, that's where those simple feelings come from.
Director: So, is that an instance of emotion?
Feldman-Barrett: Not exactly. Feelings are properties or features of emotion of an episode of emotion, an instance of emotion. But they're not synonymous with emotions. Just in the same way that you would experience sound as quiet or loud. You can experience feeling very activated or very calm. And what your brain is doing is telling itself a story about what is going on inside your body in relation to what's happening in the world. And it's creating this story using knowledge about emotion that you have learned from your past to predict what you’re going to see and hear and feel. That's what an emotion is. That's what an instance of any emotion is, but it's also an explanation for how every thought, every feeling, every decision, every action that you ever take in your whole life is made.
So, why is it important? When something goes wrong, you need to use your explanation as a tool to figure out how to fix things. For example, in depression, your metabolically compromised because your brain believes there's a metabolic problem in your body. And the symptoms of depression are the consequence of the brain's attempt to cut costs. So, you feel fatigued or you feel unpleasant. You feel like you can't concentrate, you can't move because moving your body is really metabolically expensive. That's where depression comes from. It doesn't necessarily mean that there's something wrong in the world or with you, although sometimes it does mean that.
So, part of managing your emotions is figuring out when unpleasant feelings are diagnostic about something in the world, and when they're just simply an indication that things are uncertain or that you're doing something really difficult. If you understand that the brain's most important job is regulating, coordinating the systems of the body, then you start to think about the treatment differently. The fact that emotions don't happen to you—that your brain is making them—and that your brain is using your past experience as fodder for predicting what's going to happen, has really big implications.
The first really big implication is that you are an architect of your experience, and that doesn't involve breaking predictions. It involves seeding your brain to predict differently. You're not necessarily a prisoner of your past, but your past experiences, as they are reconstituted in your brain, are a fundamental ingredient of your present experience in your present actions. It's really hard to reach back into the past and change what those instances meant, and how you experienced them; that's what psychotherapy is for. But if you understand that every experience you have now becomes part of your brain's ability to predict, then you realize that the best way to change your past is to change your present.
So, just in the same way that you would exercise to make yourself healthier, you can invest energy to cultivate different experiences for yourself. You can learn new things, watch movies, read books, even maybe act in a play that would require you to have different experiences that get you outside of the normal range of what your brain would predict. Because if you practice these things that you learn, they become more automatic, and then your brain just uses these new experiences to predict differently in the future, and for you to act differently in the future, which gives you the opportunity to be different than you are right now.
Not everybody has as much control as they might like, but everybody has a little more control than they think they do. When you enter this world as an infant, you're not wired full of memories that your brain will use to predict. Other people cultivate your world and as a consequence, they are wiring your brain full of experiences that your brain will then use to predict. You didn't have a hand in creating that world, and you are not responsible for it. But as an adult, you can make decisions about what you experience now. You can make choices about how you act, and those decisions and choices either reinforce the predictions that your brain makes or it changes them.
Sometimes in life, we are responsible for changing things, not because we're culpable or to blame for those things, but because we're the only ones who can change them. And that can feel unfair, and it is unfair, in a certain way. But it's also helpful because it means that you always have tools available at your disposal to heal yourself, to act differently, and to feel differently.