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Taking Responsibility for Your Emotions

This article was based on the TED@IBM talk, “You Aren’t at the Mercy of Your Emotions – Your Brain Creates Them,” by Lisa Feldman Barrett: 


The Nature of Emotions

When a jury has to make the decision between life in prison and the death penalty, they base their decision largely on whether or not the defendant feels remorseful for his actions. When the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of Chechnya, was tried, he spoke words of apology, but when jurors looked at his face, all they saw was a stone-faced stare. Tsarnaev was found guilty by the jury; he murdered and maimed innocent people, but as a scientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett does not believe that jurors can detect remorse or any other emotion.  No one can, and that’s because emotions are not what we think they are. They are not universally expressed and recognised. They are not hardwired brain reactions that are uncontrollable. We have misunderstood the nature of emotion for a very long time, and understanding what emotions really are has important consequences for all of us. 


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Emotions are Built

The results of Barrett’s research are overwhelmingly consistent. 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. In fact, our brains do not contain emotion circuits.  


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So, what are emotions, really? They are guesses that your brain constructs in the moment.  Billions of brain cells are working together, and you have more control over those guesses than you might imagine that you do. 

Predictions are basically the way your brain works. It’s business as usual for your brain. Predictions are the basis of every experience that you have. They are the basis of every action that you take. Predictions are primal. They help us to make sense of the world in a quick and efficient way. Your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain predicts and constructs your experience of the world. 

The way that we see emotions in others are deeply rooted in predictions. To us, it feels like we just look at someone’s face, and we can read the emotion that’s there in their facial expressions the way that we would read words on a page. What’s actually happening is that your brain is predicting. It’s using past experience based on similar situations to try to make meaning. You’re making meaning of facial movements like the curl of a lip or the raise of an eyebrow. That stone-faced stare? That might be someone who is a remorseless killer, but a stone-faced stare might also mean that someone is stoically accepting defeat, which is in fact what Chechen culture prescribes for someone in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s situation. 

The lesson here is that emotions that you seem to detect in other people actually come in part from what’s inside your own head. This is true in the courtroom, but it’s also true in the classroom, in the bedroom, and in the boardroom. 


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Understanding Feelings and Emotions

What is concerning is that tech companies are spending millions of research dollars to build emotion-detection systems, but they are fundamentally asking the wrong question because they’re trying to detect emotions in the face and the body.  However, emotions aren’t in your face and body. Physical movements have no intrinsic emotional meaning. We have to make them meaningful. A human or something else has to connect them to the context, and that makes them meaningful. That’s how we know that a smile might mean sadness and a cry might mean happiness, and a stoic, still face might mean that you are angrily plotting the demise of your enemy. The way that you experience your own emotion is exactly the same process. Your brain is basically making predictions that it’s constructing in the moment with billions of neurons working together. 

Your brain does come prewired to make some feelings, simple feelings that come from the physiology of your body. When you’re born, you can make feelings like calmness, agitation, excitement, comfort, and discomfort, but these simple feelings are not emotions. They’re actually with you every waking moment of your life. They are simple summaries of what’s going on inside your body, kind of like a barometer. These feelings have very little detail, and you need details to know what to do next. 


Making Predictions

What do you do about these feelings? How does your brain give you that detail? That’s what predictions are. Predictions link the sensations in your body that give you these simple feelings with what’s going on around you in the world so that you know what to do. Sometimes, those constructions are emotions. 

For example, if you were to walk into a bakery, your brain might predict that you will encounter the delicious aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Then your brain might cause your stomach to churn to prepare for eating those cookies. When those cookies come out of the oven, your brain will have constructed hunger, and you are prepared to eat some cookies and digest them. 

However, if that churning stomach occurs in a different situation, it can have a completely different meaning. If your brain were to predict a churning stomach in, say, a hospital room while you’re waiting for test results, then your brain will be constructing dread or worry or anxiety, and it might cause you to wring your hands or take a deep breath or even cry. This shows how the same physical sensation, a churning stomach, can be a different experience. 


You’re the Architect of Your Experience

The lesson here is that emotions which seem to happen to you are actually made by you. You are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits which are buried deep inside some ancient part of your brain. 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. If you change those ingredients today, you’re basically teaching your brain how to predict differently tomorrow, making you the architect of your experience. 


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Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

You can cultivate this emotional intelligence yourself and use it in your everyday life. You have more control over your emotions than you might imagine, and you have the capacity to turn down the dial on emotional suffering and its consequences for your life by learning how to construct your experiences differently. All of us can do this, and with a little practice, we can get really good at it, like driving. At first, it takes a lot of effort, but eventually, it becomes pretty automatic. 


Accepting Responsibility

More control, though, also means more responsibility. If you are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits which are buried deep inside your brain and trigger automatically, then who is responsible when you behave badly? You are. Not because you’re culpable for your emotions, but because the actions and the experiences that you make today become your brain’s predictions for tomorrow. Sometimes we are responsible for something not because we’re to blame but because we’re the only ones who can change it. 

Responsibility is a big word, and sometimes people feel the need to resist the scientific evidence that emotions are built and not built in. The idea that we are responsible for our own emotions seems very hard to swallow. So, take a deep breath and embrace it. Embrace that responsibility, because it is the path to a healthier body, a more just and informed legal system, and a more flexible and potent emotional life.


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