how emotions are made:
It turns out that everything you thought about how our emotions work is wrong.
The latest research in neuroscience tells us that we are more in control of our emotions than we think.
This month we delve into Lisa Feldman Barrett's fascinating book: How Emotions are Made.
Anyone who’s ever watched their child struggling with emotions has possibly also fantasised about finding a magical pause button or an emergency escape chute. Whether she’s nervously stumbling through her lines in the school play, or he’s stamping and shouting because his room needs tidying, it often seems like children are driven by emotions, rather than the other way round.
And as for us, tired parents and caregivers, we aren’t much better. Wasn’t that a churning sensation in your stomach when he stayed out too late? Didn’t you make a noise like a velociraptor when she used your most expensive toiletries in the latest “potion”?
So, we could all benefit from a little more emotional control. And whilst there isn’t a physical pause switch hidden on the soles of our feet (please do get in touch if you find out otherwise), there is a kind of inner dial that we do actually have control over.
Lisa Feldman Barrett PhD has shared a quarter-century’s worth of wisdom with us in her giant emotional pep-talk, ‘How Emotions are Made’, and we are here to share some nuggets of gold with you that we’ve gleaned from her book.
First of all, you need to know about the two schools of thought that exist in the academic study of emotions: constructed and classical.
The classical approach works on the basis that there are universal emotional fingerprints - that means a set of clear, physical changes corresponding to specific emotions: increasing heart rate for fear, smiling for joy, crying for sadness etc. Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Sounds like what we’ve spent our whole lives believing, anyway.
In essence, classical emotion asks, “Where are the neurons that trigger fear?” Fear is something that happens to us.
On the other hand, the constructed approach works with the theory that emotions are not something that happen to us; they are something that we do. Feldman Barrett’s research leads her to believe that brain circuitry doesn’t control our physical response, dictating our feelings, but that we all have our own an artist’s palette of experience, conditioning, intuition and genetics that we use to mix up life’s ‘paint’ input and create a response. We can control the painting. She tells us, “You are the architect of your experience.”
By contrast with classical thought, constructed emotion asks, “How does the brain create an instance of fear?” It thinks of fear as something that we do.
In other words, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or if you don’t like lemons, throw them at your enemy and run away. Whatever, really, but you do not need to eat the lemons just because they’ve been handed to you.
Feldman Barrett carried out tons of original research and also combed through existing data to come to these findings. And she was diligent about it: the research team looked at each and every emotion-related brain imaging study from the last two decades, they measured the electrical signals which cause us to form facial expressions, and carried out hundreds of brain scans. All their findings seemed to point in the same direction: emotions are not innately mapped circuits in your brain (you’re not born with them), and they aren’t universal (the same for everyone).
But surely some emotions are universal?
It’s too simple to look at a baby and think that just because they look angry, sad or happy, that emotions must be there from the very beginning (though arguably the ability to make a terrible din and drain our bank accounts is very quickly established). Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are in fact learned, and while babies certainly have feelings (or affects) like agitation, excitement, calmness or discomfort, these simple environmental summaries are not the same as emotions like envy, regret, hurt pride, or anger. The only universal emotion they were able to pinpoint in babies was fear of falling, or sudden loud noises*.
* Babies are hypocrites, basically.
Emotions are predictions, says Feldman Barrett. Our brains work on a prediction basis all the time, and going beyond the simple environmental summaries we’ve labelled ‘affects’, they can add more detail based on experience. The detail of the experience becomes the emotion.
All predictions work on past experience: ‘I remember how Dad reacted last time I lost my bag’. These predictions are formulated super-quickly using building blocks from the past, but it happens so fast that you don’t even realise you’re forcing yourself to eat the lemons rather than roll them away or turn them into Limoncello. We’re subconsciously learning emotions based on patterns, and sometimes based on more explicit cues - like if you get told off every time you get mud on your jeans.
Remember how it seems like young people are driven by their emotions? Well isn’t it comforting to think that there is actually a sane, rational (…well, kind of) human being at the wheel, rather than rage, grief, sorrow, envy or impatience putting their pedal to the metal?
If we are in control of our emotions, then we can work on changing our responses to different situations. We can re-learn our responses, improving the way we use those lemons or those paints to produce an emotion.
If we don’t even know we are holding a steering wheel, how can we hope to be good drivers? If we are conscious of the emotional process, then we can control it better. Personal responsibility is key. Feldman Barrett points out the relief that, “If you’re not at the mercy of [automatic] emotion circuits… we’re the only ones who can change it.”
A student who has developed a prediction response to exams (sweaty, heart racing, feeling stressed) might flunk the test, further reinforcing the stress response for future predictions. But if that student can recognise their body’s signals as something different: a cue to get excited for success, or adrenaline to see them through the challenge, then they could break the cycle. Positive experiences can retrain our prediction mechanisms to help us better cope in the future.
Additionally, increasing your emotional vocabulary can help to distinguish between subtle differences. Discomfort is easier to manage than distress, so being able to confidently label the differences can help with our processing too.
Working on a growth mindset to change the way we perceive learning and failure is a sure-fire way to build resilience (which as you know, we are quite big fans of).
It’s not quick or easy (what ever is?!) but that’s why we’re here to help. We have a whole host of activities and ideas to help you coach your child through emotional control, and you’ll probably even gain something from it yourself. Just like training a physical muscle, working this emotional muscle will be an effort at first, but it will get easier over time. Very soon, you’ll be able to watch your child crushing lemons with the sheer strength of emotional muscle they’ve developed, and boy, that lemonade will be so refreshing.