How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain Lisa Feldman Barrett

I had to get my science head on for this read, but found it very enlightening and relevant to everyday living. 

In her book How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett highlights the gaps in traditional emotion research and proposes the need for a new way of thinking about emotions. For the past twenty five years neuroscientist Lisa and her team have examined facial expressions, physiological responses in the body and looked at all the other available scientific research. The overwhelming data concludes that emotions are not hard wired brain reactions nor are they built in at birth, instead they are CONSTRUCTED by US. We construct our own emotional experiences and how we perceive other peoples emotional experiences. 

“Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotional circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.”

Feldmans research found that no specific brain region was identified as the location for any single emotion, but that emotions arise from various firing neurons. There isn’t one neuron that is exclusively dedicated to certain emotions. If any single neuron can contribute to more than one outcome, the brains capacity to generate emotions is greatly increased. 

Predictions

Another key component of the emotion research is understanding how the brain achieves optimum performance by using past experiences to predict what is happening in any given moment. There is an unbelievable amount of information that the brain must process in every second, from sights, sounds, smells, vibrations, sensations and taste. The brain would need a gigantic supply of energy to compute all the information and create meaning from it, so instead it uses predictions as to what is likely to occur based on what happened last time in this situation. The brain does not react to the world but predicts the world based on past experience from similar situations. 

“Through prediction your brain constructs the world you experience. It combines bits and pieces of your past and estimates how likely each bit applies in your current situation.”

This is in line with our flight, fight or freeze response whereby the brain can makes us respond without being consciously aware of it, for example getting out of the way of a bus or jumping away from a snake. By predicting what is likely to happen the brain can process and respond to danger much quicker than if we were to consciously respond to danger thereby keeping us safe from harm.

Errors

Of course the brain will not make correct predictions 100% of the time and so will need to allow for mistakes. When the brain makes an error in its prediction it will resolve the error by comparing simulations of sensation (the brain asks; which combination of my past experience provides the closest match) with sensory inputs from the world (sights, sounds, smell etc). 

The brain constantly uses past experience to predict what is most likely to impact our body budget (which is how much energy we have available for surviving and daily living). This process makes us extremely efficient, with the main concern being to manage the daily body budget as successfully as possible.

Feldman describes how at any one time we are somewhere on a scale between low to high arousal and feeling pleasant to unpleasant:  

These states of arousal and valence (pleasantness) are widely considered as the basic features of human experience and are present from birth. 

The brain is constantly rating where we are on this scale, which is known as affect, whilst also assessing the availability of energy, these two factors determine the choices we make. Even using rational thinking will have little impact as the state of the body budget is the basis of every thought and perception we make. 

Emotions are meaning. They help us explain the sensations happening within our bodies (also called interoception), our level of affect and how those two relate to the situation we’re in. They are a prescription for action. 

“Your brain issues a storm of predictions, simulates their consequences as if they were present and checks and corrects those predictions against actual sensory input. Along the way your interoceptive predictions produce your feelings of affect, influence every action that you perform and determine which parts of the world you care about in that moment.”

Conclusion

We may not be able to directly change the emotion we are feeling in any one moment however Feldman suggests we have the ability to change the information our brain uses in certain situations which then influences our emotional construction. 

“Your brain is predictive not reactive. As an adult you get to choose what concepts you expose yourself to and therefore what you learn which creates the concepts that ultimately drive your actions. Responsibility means making deliberate choices to change your concepts. You are an architect of your experience.”

So what does this all mean for us? If we consciously aim to balance our body budget by providing nourishing food, helpful activities and a constructive environment for our bodies we can help protect ourselves from illnesses and depletion. Of course the ways to manage this are nothing new; getting enough sleep, eating nourishing food and exercise are the foundations towards replenishing the body budget. Other ways to manage the body budget are simply things we take pleasure from such as reading, listening to music, playing games, yoga, mindfulness, nature, watching a good film, knitting, drawing or stroking animals. As Lisa suggests; be a collector of experiences.

“If your brain operates by prediction and construction and rewires itself through experience then it’s no overstatement to say that if you can change your current experiences today, you can change who you become tomorrow.”

I found this book to be very enlightening, giving me more insight in to how the brain operates resulting in a greater sense of control over my body and emotions. The main take away for me was that sometimes no matter how much energy I put into thinking rationally I would be better served to change my state by providing new and varied information for my brain. This could be something as simple as going for a walk, changing the environment I am in, doing something I enjoy.  Also, by exposing myself to new concepts and experiences I can expand the options available for my brain to make different and better informed choices.

As usual trying to fit my own interpretation of a book into a short blog is not an easy task, I’m sure there will be elements I have misconstrued and this is only some of my own key learnings. Hopefully there are parts of this blog that will provide a new insight and encourage readers to do their own research.

“Try to become comfortable with uncertainty, find pleasure in mystery and be mindful enough to cultivate doubt.” 

All quotes are from Lisa Feldman in How Emotions are Made.

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