We Have the Power to Influence our Emotional Well-being in More Ways than We Realize

“Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world.” – Lisa Feldman Barrett

Emotions’ purpose is self-protection. Our brain’s primary mission is our survival

As annoying as this reality may be, it is worth remembering that the primary function of our brain is to keep us alive. Our emotions tend to jump to extremes to protect us, even though they may not be appropriate to the situation.

For example, let’s say you witnessed a terrorist attack, like 9/11 or any other terrorist event. Now, whenever you are in a public place, your brain is on constant alert, monitoring your surroundings; at the slightest unusual behavior or noise, your brain triggers the fight-or-flight response, along with invasive emotions, because your brain believes you are in danger. This is a valid assumption, but it is not necessarily the correct one.

A new theory on how our brain constructs emotions

We all harbor the belief that we have virtually no control over our emotions (feelings of joy, fear, or anger), which is a source of discouragement and frustration. We imagine that our emotions are automatic, universal, and triggered by the world around us. Whether it is the excitement of seeing an old friend or the fear of losing a loved one, all these emotions seem to arise from deep within us, uncontrollably, and express themselves in our faces and in our behavior. This concept of emotion goes back to Plato.

Drawing on neuroscience and experimental psychology, Lisa Feldman Barrett, renowned neuroscientist, and author of How Emotions Are Made, refutes the assumption that emotions are automatic, universal, and uncontrollable. She argues that emotions or feelings are not universally pre-programmed into our brains and bodies, nor do they originate from specific regions of the brain. Instead, emotions are constructed in the moment, on the fly, by dynamic neural networks that interact throughout the brain, supported by a lifetime of learning.

This new theory, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom and traditional research, suggests that we play a much bigger role in our emotional well-being than we ever imagined. It provides a neuroscientific answer to the question of why people are more influenced by feelings than by facts. The significance of this assertion has the potential to shake the foundations of psychology, medicine, the legal system, child rearing, and airport security.

Our emotions are the result of three factors: the body, the past and the environment

According to Barrett, feelings are the product of three components: our body (physical sensations e.g., racing heart, cold), our past (unique journey: did I experience this before?) and our environment (current context). Based on sensory perceptions from our eyes, ears, nose, or other sensory organs (digestive system, joints, etc.), as well as memories of past experiences or suggestions from the environment as context clues, our brain runs non-stop simulations in the form of a "guessing game", predicting how we feel about the world based on the prevailing conditions – while adjusting for changing circumstances.

In Barrett’s words: “Simulations are your brain’s guesses of what is happening in the world. In every waking moment you’re faced with ambiguous, noisy information from your eyes, ears, nose, and other sensory organs. Your brain uses your past experiences to construct a hypothesis – the simulation – and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses. In this manner, simulation lets your brain impose meaning on the noise, selecting what’s relevant and ignoring the rest.”

When our brain's predictions are consistent with the information gathered from our senses, past experiences, and contextual cues, they constitute a model of the world at that instant, one that is both meaning-making and action-prescribing.

Key take-home messages

In a nutshell, emotions are a fabrication of the brain allowing it to organize the cacophonous information coming from our senses in an intelligible and useful way, to attribute a meaning to them (were they beneficial or harmful?) and to memorize that information to better protect us in the future.

If you are experiencing emotions that don't feel right or helpful in the current context, ask yourself: Am I really in danger here? Do I really feel this way, or is my brain misreading and misrepresenting? Has a similar triggering event occurred in the past? The answers to these questions will help you reframe the experience and classify the event as "not a threat to me". When you label an event as non-threatening, it falls outside your emotional sphere and has less impact on you.

Also, your brain is malleable; you can ask your brain to tell you a new story. Barrett encourages us to create and experience something totally new. Rather than fixating on a past memory, we can live in the present moment. After a while, our brain will override our past associations, redirect those memories to a different emotion, and even change our "predictions" to expect different outcomes.

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