How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

Feb 27, 2017

Our guest says most of us are pretty clueless about this - given all the misinformation on how our brains and bodies create our "feelings."  In her new book, Lisa Feldman Barrett challenges long-held theories about emotions, debunked by modern neuroscience, but still shaping everything from health care to public safety.

GUEST:

  • Lisa Feldman Barrett - A University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. She received an NIH Director's Pioneer Award for her groundbreaking research on emotion. 


Highlights from the conversation:

Barrett says that one of the most common misunderstandings about emotion is that emotions -- such as happiness, anger and fear -- are built in.  

Your brain has  a set of all-purpose networks; you can think of them like general ingredients, and these networks work together to create different recipes of experience. So emotions are made, they are constructed in the moment. And they are constructed using the ingredients of what you know about emotion from your past, from your own parents labeling emotion for you, from reading books, from watching movies, and so on. Without knowledge of what anger is, and what sadness is, and what awe is, in your own particular culture, it's really impossible for you to feel or perceive those emotions. 

In her book, Barrett says that emotions are perceived differently, from culture to culture. She says that everyone feels such emotions as  discomfort and comfort, pleasure and displeasure, but interpretations of those feelings vary. 

Not all people around the world experience feeling unpleasant and worked up as anger or fear. That's a particularly Western way of transforming an unpleasant feeling into a specific emotion. 

Barrett says that scientists know that human brains wire themselves to adapt to the social and physical circumstances they inhabit. 

In our [Western] culture -- for example, in much of our law and economics and everyday life -- we have a distinction between thinking and feeling, and we elevate rationality to be this desirable thing. In some cultures around the world, there is no distinction between thinking and feeling. They create very different kinds of mental states out of the same basic ingredients. 

"Nature verses nurture" is among the most misunderstood concepts,  Barrett says. The brain is not a blank slate, but rather open to adaptation and growth after birth, based on circumstances.

Brains don't come empty; they come awaiting a set of wiring instructions, and the world around you provides you with that set of wiring instructions.

Exchange listener Chris asked how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) might impact emotions. Barrett says that plasticity, or the brain's ability to rewire itself, is key in PTSD and other mental health diseases.

PTSD is one example of a number of diseases where the brain is trapped in an old model of the world. People used to believe that the brain sat silent and dormant and was waiting to be stimulated by the world. But in fact, your brain is always firing, your neurons are always firing, you're actually running an internal model of the world. So the brain is simulating and predicting what is going to happen a moment from now. It actually spends most of its time making these micro-predictions. 

PTSD, Barrett says, occurs when the brain does not perceive the current environment correctly. 

The brain's guesses are compromised. It's not guessing very well and it's not updating its guesses based on new learning, so it's trapped in an old model. And as a consequence, people who suffer from PTSD are reliving experiences that are not driven by what's around them in the moment. They are really transported to another time and place and reliving that experience. Part of the problem is that plasticity in a brain that is suffering from PTSD is compromised, meaning that day-to-day new learning, which is subtly changing the wiring of the brain, is not really happening. 

Listener Lynne asked about depression diagnoses, particularly in teenagers and young adults. She said that people are often told their depression or mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance, that they are "just wired that way," and Lynne wonders if that kind of message might be detrimental in the long-term because it creates a sense of permanence or inevitability. Barrett says there is a very important distinction for those suffering from mental illness to understand. 

The mental and the physical [parts of our bodies] are very porous. It is definitely the case that some people have genes that are more likely to lead them to experience depression in certain circumstances, but many of those people never experience depression. The environment gets into the brain, it gets under the skin, it helps to wire your brain, and it can also help to heal your brain. So just because something can be explained biologically doesn't mean you have no responsibility or no control. You don't have as much control in the moment as you like. But one of the things that my book discusses is that the horizon of control for being able to architect your experience and avoid depression and anxiety is much much broader and much more powerful than you might think. 

Further Reading:

Check out other coverage of Professor Barrett's work:

"How Humans Bond: The Brain Chemistry Revealed," by Science Daily. 

"How to Become a Superager," by Barrett for The New York Times. 

"A New Way to Look at Emotions," by NPR.