You Aren’t At The Mercy Of Your Emotions

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening we will continue last week’s exploration of mindfulness and the developing neuroscientific understanding of our emotions and minds. In her TED talk, “You Aren’t At The Mercy Of Your Emotions — Your Brain Creates Them,” Lisa Feldman Barrett contends:

  • Emotions are not what we think they are. They are not universally expressed and recognized.
  • It may feel to you like your emotions are hardwired and they just trigger and happen to you, but they don’t. You might believe that your brain is prewired with emotion circuits, that you’re born with emotion circuits, but you’re not.
  • Your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain predicts and constructs your experience of the world.
  • Emotions which seem to happen to you are actually made by you. … You have more control over your emotions than you think you do. … your brain is wired so that if you change the ingredients that your brain uses to make emotion, then you can transform your emotional life.

The scientific shift Barrett is encouraging is similar to the shift from Newtonian physics to quantum physics. It is a very different way of looking at the phenomena under study. In her recent book, How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Barrett reflects on the difference between the old and new views:

The classical view is intuitive—events in the world trigger emotional reactions inside of us. Its story features familiar characters like thoughts and feelings that live in distinct brain areas. The theory of constructed emotion, in contrast, tells a story that doesn’t match your daily life—your brain invisibly constructs everything you experience, including emotions. Its story features unfamiliar characters like simulation and concepts and degeneracy, and it takes place throughout the whole brain at once.

In the theory of constructed emotion, a category of emotion such as sadness, fear, or anger has no distinct brain location, and each instance of emotion is a whole-brain state to be studied and understood. Therefore we ask how, not where, emotions are made. The more neutral question, “How does the brain create an instance of fear?” does not presume a neural fingerprint behind the scenes, only that experiences and perceptions of fear are real and worthy of study.

How Emotions Are Made is primarily an explanation of how the brain’s representation of physiological sensations (interoception), the brain’s management of the internal environment (Barrett calls it body-budgeting), and the capacity of the brain to generate categories and concepts, creates not only emotions, but “every perception, thought, memory, and other mental event that you experience.”

It is an interesting read, and, at least for me, a bit much to get my head around. However, when she finally gets around to spelling out how this new understanding might be used to make our lives easier, the territory seems much more familiar.

Some of her suggestions have to do with taking better care of our bodies. Negative emotion states often begin with physiological feelings of discomfort. We are advised to eat healthful food, get regular exercise, and adequate sleep. She also advises massage, yoga, natural light, nature, pets, and movies and novels (to lessen our self-preoccupation).

Most of her advice, however has to do with broadening our emotional understanding. One way is through increasing the granularity of our emotional concepts:

People who make highly granular experiences are emotion experts: they issue predictions and construct instances of emotion that are finely tailored to fit each specific situation. …

Suppose you knew only two emotion concepts, “Feeling Awesome” and “Feeling Crappy.” Whenever you experienced emotion or perceived someone else as emotional, you could categorize only with this broad brush. Such a person cannot be very emotionally intelligent. In contrast, if you could distinguish finer meanings within “Awesome” (happy, content, thrilled, relaxed, joyful, hopeful, inspired, prideful, adoring, grateful, blissful . . .), and fifty shades of “Crappy” (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy . . .), your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing, and perceiving emotion, providing you with the tools for more flexible and functional responses. You could predict and categorize your sensations more efficiently, and better tailor your actions to your environment.

Another strategy Barrett advises is to recategorize how we feel:

This will require some explanation. Anytime you feel miserable, it’s because you are experiencing unpleasant affect due to interoceptive sensations. Your brain will dutifully predict causes for those sensations. Perhaps they are a message from your body, like “I have a stomachache.” Or perhaps they’re saying, “Something is seriously wrong with my life.” This is the distinction between discomfort and suffering. Discomfort is purely physical. Suffering is personal.

Barrett notes that this sort of recategorization has been used by meditators since ancient times:

In Buddhism, some forms of meditation help to recategorize sensations as physical symptoms to reduce suffering, a practice Buddhists call deconstructing the self. Your “self” is your identity—a collection of characteristics that somehow define you, like your assorted memories, beliefs, likes, dislikes, hopes, life choices, morals, and values. You can also define yourself by your genes, your physical characteristics (weight, eye color), your ethnicity, your personality (funny, trustworthy), the relationships you have with other people (friend, parent, child, lover), the roles you hold (student, scientist, salesperson, factory worker, physician), your geographic or ideological community (American, New Yorker, Christian, Democrat), even the car that you drive. A common core runs through all these views: the self is your sense of who you are, and it’s continuous through time, as if it were the essence of you.

Buddhism considers the self to be a fiction and the primary cause of human suffering. Whenever you crave material things like expensive cars and clothes, or desire compliments to enhance your reputation, or seek positions of status and power to benefit your life, Buddhism says you are treating your fictional self as real (reifying the self). These material concerns may bring immediate gratification and pleasure but they also entrap you, like golden handcuffs, and cause persistent suffering, which we would call prolonged unpleasant affect. To a Buddhist, a self is worse than a passing physical illness. It is an enduring affliction.

Barrett also specifically recommends mindfulness meditation:

If you are interested in taking this strategy [recategorizing something as “Not About Me” ] further, try meditation. Mindfulness meditation, just one type of many, teaches you to stay alert and present in the moment but to observe sensations as they come and go, nonjudgmentally. This state (which requires tremendous practice) reminds me of the quiet, alert state of newborn babies when they observe the world, their brains comfortably awash in prediction error, with no anxiety in sight. They experience sensations and release them. Meditation achieves something similar.

In terms of getting along well with others, Barrett suggests working on how we ascribe emotions to others and how we let others know how we are feeling:

To improve at emotion perception, we must all give up the fiction that we know how other people feel. When you and a friend disagree about feelings, don’t assume that your friend is wrong. … Instead think, “We have a disagreement,” and engage your curiosity to learn your friend’s perspective. Being curious about your friend’s experience is more important than being right. …

Likewise, if you want someone else to know what you’re feeling, you need to transmit clear cues for the other person to predict effectively and for synchrony to occur. In the classical view of emotion, the responsibility is all on the perceiver’s end because emotions are supposedly displayed universally. In a construction mindset, you also bear the responsibility to be a good sender.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will watch Barrett’s TED talk. In our Dharma sharing we will explore our reactions and reflections. Can we accept that:

  • Emotions are not universally expressed and recognized
  • Emotions are not hardwired in our brain, and
  • Emotions which seem to happen to us are actually made by us?

And if we can accept this new view, how might our lives and our relationships flourish in new ways?

You are invited to join us.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner


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