Are we at the mercy of our emotions? As it turns out, we can control them more than we think. In this special episode, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of How Emotions Are Made, explains her groundbreaking research on how our brains construct emotion. Discover the difference between feeling and emotion, why mindfulness gives us more emotional control, and how to increase the positive emotions in your life.
- Why is it important to understand the science of emotions? @LFeldmanBarrett will change how you react to everyday stress
- How taking a moment to be curious about yourself can change the relationship you have with your body
Book: How Emotions Are Made
Bio: Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. In addition to the book How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Dr. Barrett has published over 200 peer-reviewed, scientific papers appearing in Science, Nature Neuroscience, and other top journals in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, as well as six academic volumes published by Guilford Press.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
We have a treat today on the podcast. Lisa Feldman Barrett is with us. She is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. She’s had appointments with Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital of Psychiatry and Radiology. She has received an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award for her groundbreaking research on emotion in the brain. She lives in Boston. We are getting the benefit of her research on emotion in the brain in her new book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.
This is a super interesting book and it’s going to shift how we think about emotions. I can promise you it’s going to shift how you think about emotions in the next 25 minutes or so of our conversation. It’s well worth the read. Do not be dissuaded by the thickness of the book. It’s a lot of pages but half of it at least is research notes that prove that this is a well researched book. So, if you cut out the research notes. If you’re not reading them like you’re reading the rest of the book, it’s a book of normal proportions that will take you a few days to work through. And it’s very well written.
So Lisa, with all of that, thank you so much for coming on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Lisa: I’m delighted to be here. Thank you so much for the kind words about the book. I appreciate it.
Peter: Let’s jump right in because I have a million questions. What is the classical view of emotions? What’s the view of emotions that we will all find familiar?
Lisa: The classical view is the view that really is guided by our own subjective experience, right? So when an emotion happens, it feels like it happens to you, you know it bubbles up and causes you to do and say things that maybe are somewhat ill advised.
Peter: Somebody yells at me, I yell back at them because they made me angry and then I feel the anger caused by their yelling at me and that’s how I experience emotion and experience an emotion happens to me.
Lisa: Yes, exactly. The most intense emotions that we have are usually accompanied by a lack of feeling of agency like it’s happening to us, not happening because we’re doing anything. And this leads us to believe that emotions are built into the brain. That our brains come pre wired with a handful of emotion circuits that are shared with other animals that when something triggers one of these circuits. So somebody yells at you or looks at you the wrong way, or does something that you don’t like, it triggers your anger circuit and this causes you to have a certain feeling. It causes your body to take a certain pattern. Maybe a blood pressure increases, your heart rate increases. It causes you to … The idea is it causes you to make an expression that everyone around the world can recognize. Everyone expresses anger in the same way, with a scowl. Everyone recognizes emotion without … recognizes a scowl as anger without any training or language or socialization.
And this idea … I mean, we’re presenting it a little bit in a cartoonish way but this is the general idea that’s been with us since the time of Plato, right? That our emotions are built into some animalistic part of our brain that we share with other animals and that we need our really robust rational parts of our brain that are uniquely human to regulate our emotions and keep our animal nature, our inner beast, in check.
Peter: Great. Every time you’re going to say something, I’m going to have a million questions. But I’m going to try to keep this thing focused.
Peter: One question is, make a distinction for us if you can between feeling something and having an emotion.
Lisa: Wow. So that’s a huge debate scientifically. But here’s what I think the science says. And I’m just going to have to back up and explain one thing to be able to answer your question. But in general, you will probably find that brevity is not my strong suit in answering.
Peter: I’ll keep interrupting and we’ll keep shooting and we’ll do fine.
Lisa: That’s good. So here’s the idea. One of your brain’s major jobs is to control the systems of your body. To control your heart, your lungs, your immune system, and so on and so forth. And when your heart rate changes, when your breathing changes, when your temperature changes, there are sensations that go along with those changes. For the most part, our brains are wired in a way to make the internal workings of our own bodies kind of like a mystery to us. We are not wired to feel every sensation that comes from a change in heart rate, a change in breathing, a change in blood pressure, a change in temperature, and so on. If we were, we would never pay attention to anything else ever again in the world. Right? Because just think of the last time that you had gastric distress or some GI problems-
Peter: That’s actually interesting because I’ve had a conversation with my brother, who’s a physician and happens to be my physician, that the amount of meditation and yoga that I do makes me more sensitive to these kinds of changes which to his chagrin, because I have his cell phone number, makes me a little bit of a hypochondriac because I can say to him, “Hey, I’m feeling something weird.” And he’s like, “That’s probably gone on for years and you’re just noticing it.”
Lisa: Noticing it now. Exactly. The thing is for most people who aren’t meditators, they don’t experience every little ache and tug and what have you. What they experience is what scientists call affect which are simple feelings of feeling great or feeling terrible, feeling worked up or feeling calm. So, these feelings of affect, these simple feelings, are with you always actually. They’re with you every waking moment of your life. Sometimes we experience affect as part of an emotion. So when affect is very strong when there’s some big change in your body and your brain makes you feel it, you experience that as an emotion and your brain basically is trying to make sense of what those feelings mean in the situation that you’re in.
But you could also have those feelings when you, for example, have a thought or when you have a perception. If you’ve ever met someone and think, that guy is great or that guy’s an asshole. Really, what those … the heat behind those perceptions is affect, is these feelings that are coming from your body all the time. Emotions are not feelings. Emotions are the way that your brain makes sense of-
Peter: Interprets the feelings.
Lisa: Well, yes. Interprets but the mechanism is actually one where … that your brain uses to interpret all sensations, all the time, right?
Peter: It actually sounds like there might be three steps for you to have biological responses. That those biological responses are then articulated in your brain as your feeling of something which then leads to an emotion.
Lisa: It’s even more complicated than that. Here’s the way it actually works. Your brain reacts to very little actually. Your brain is wired anatomically to be predictive. So what do I mean by that? What I mean is that in each moment your brain is making a guess using past experience. Your brain is making a guess about what’s going to happen next. It’s going to guess which sights you will see, what sounds you will hear, what chemicals you’ll smell. And it’s also making a guess about what changes are needed in the body. Right?
So right now, to you, it may seem as if you are just listening to me talk and reacting to the things that I say. But in fact, your brain has had a lot of experience with the sounds of the English language and what they mean. So your brain is actually predicting every single word that comes out of my …
Peter: Mouth. I would have gone faster if I knew where you were headed with it.
Lisa: Yeah, that’s because your brain was not predicting so well there. But you got it, you got it. And the thing is imagine how surprised you would have been if I’d said out of my ear or out of some other orifice of my body. That would have been shocking, right?
So the brain’s predicting and it’s predicting all the time. And it’s not just predicting what you’ll hear and what you’re going to see and so on. It’s predicting what you’re going to feel and what the internal systems of your body needs to do. And it works that way because it’s metabolically efficient to work that way.
The way I describe it to people is when someone’s playing baseball, a pitcher doesn’t look at the ball. I mean, sorry, the batter doesn’t look at the ball, see the pitcher throw it, and then swing. The batter starts to swing before the pitcher … before he can see even where the ball is because he’s guessing where the ball’s going to be and he swings at that … his swing is basically like a guess.
Lisa: That’s what makes baseball so interesting, right? It’s like the pitcher’s trying to psyche the batter out. The batter’s trying to figure out what the pitcher’s going to do. It’s like a game of deception in a sense.
Peter: And so the theory of constructed emotion, which is what you’re operating from at this point, is that your brain is predicting, based on what you’re experiencing, where this might be headed whether it’s a situation or an experience or a conversation or a relationship. And that based on that prediction, I’m sure I’m getting this wrong so I’m saying it out loud for you to correct,is constructing an emotional response to what it anticipates is about to happen based in part on language and physical, biological reactions, et cetera.
Lisa: Yes, so basically in this moment right now, if we could just freeze it, right? Based on the sights and sounds and smells and also the state of your own body, your brain is making predictions. Not one, but many predictions simultaneously about what’s going to happen next. Those predictions are the beginning … those guesses are the beginning of your experience in the next moment. And your brain kind of works like a scientist. It makes these predictions and then when the information from the world comes in and when information from the body gets to the brain, the brain checks its predictions against the information. And if the information confirms the prediction, then the prediction becomes your experience. There’s no new information there. What you see, what you hear, what you taste, what you smell, what you feel is what your brain predicted.
However, if there is some difference. Maybe your brain didn’t predict so well or maybe didn’t predict exactly the way that the world evolved, essentially, in the next moment. Your brain has a choice. It can correct itself. So it can change its prediction and that … We have a fancy name for that in science. We call it learning. Or your brain can ignore the information in the world and just go with its prediction.
Peter: They call that denial.
Lisa: And we call that denial. We call that a lot of things. We can call it delusions. We can call it … You know, in my house since everyone’s read the book, we now call it … we actually call it prediction error. Like, oh that was an error of prediction.
Peter: So give us an example, if you can, a brief example of how this might play out so that we … because I’ve read the book and I’m still wrapping my head around this idea of constructed emotion or predictive … how it’s actually playing out.
Lisa: Sure. When I first met my husband, sometimes when we’d be having a deep intense conversation, he would scowl. And my guess, my brain would use my past experience in situations like that. I’m dating someone. It’s an intense conversation. He scowled. And so my brain starts to predict, what is he going to do next? Right? What is he going to say next? What’s he going to do next? How am I going to feel next? Right?
Lisa: Okay. And so, maybe he might say something a little challenging or a little dramatic. Actually not really. He’s not a very dramatic person. But, well, challenging or a little direct, let’s say. And I might be predicting that he’s angry and he says something very direct and I think, oh he’s really mad. And so I’m going to … My brain’s going to control my body. So my heart might start racing. My blood pressure might go up. I might start sweating. And in fact, I’m preparing for a threat that isn’t there because in fact, my husband when he pays a lot of attention and is concentrating super hard, he scowls. He gives a full facial scowl. And what that means for him is that he’s listening really a lot. He’s really concentrating. So, that’s an example of a prediction error.
Here’s another example.
Peter: Hold on. I just want to connect that with emotion. So the prediction error and your husband … Is his name David?
Peter: Dan. Because you wrote about him in the book and I almost wanted to bring up the psychiatrist and I almost felt like I’m violating some confidentiality until I remembered that I read it in the book so there’s no violation of confidentiality. But it’s why his psychiatry meeting lasted one minute because …
Lisa: The psychiatrist also saw him concentrating really hard and so he knit his brow and he was frowning, like a really full facial scowl which is the stereotype of an anger expression. And I call it a stereotype because when’s the last time you saw someone land an Academy Award for scowling when they’re angry? Not a lot of people scowl when they’re angry a lot of the time. Sometimes we do but it’s not frequent. We do all kinds of things when we’re angry. We pout when we’re angry. We cry when we’re angry. We smile when we’re angry. We might sit quietly and seethe and plot the demise of our enemy when we’re angry. We do a lot of things in anger. Scowling, the stereotype is not frequent.
But in the book, I talk about how his therapist said to him, “Well, you’re angry.” And he said, “No, I’m thinking.” And the therapist said, “No, you’re angry and you just don’t know it.”
Peter: And his answer is, “Well, now I am because I’m not seen and I’m not heard.”
Peter: So, I get the idea that your brain’s predicting and not necessarily reacting. The next question is, is the emotion real though? I mean, you’re having an emotion based on that prediction, it may be a faulty prediction or a prediction error but it’s …
Lisa: Here’s the thing. Yeah, here’s the thing. It’s reasonable for you to ask that question but every sight, every sound, every smell, every taste that you have is built this way. This is not special. Emotions aren’t special. So you could ask well, you’re seeing my face right now. Is my face real? Well, your ability to see my face, to see my facial muscle move, what you see is your brain is making predictions and then the movements from my face as they travel to you, they enter your retina. The light enters your retina and it gets to your brain and then it either confirms the prediction that’s already there or it changes it.
Peter: And I’m making those predictions based on the last 10 minutes, or based on the last minute, or on the last 30 seconds.
Lisa: Yeah, sure. I mean, you might, for example, maybe I have some particular habits that other people don’t have and brains are very quick statistical learners so yeah sure. But actually, for example, babies aren’t even born with the ability to see a face. They learn to see a face in the first couple of days of life. Your ability to know that the sound is actually coming out of this moving part that moves actually is all predictive.
Peter: Why is this important?
Lisa: Which part?
Peter: The part when you think about how emotions are made. The fact that we’re shifting from this classical view that emotions happen to you. There’s an academic element to this but it’s much more important than that. You play this out in the book that it’s not just the predictive piece but it’s that ultimately where you’re ending up is that we are not our emotions. That we’re separate from our emotions. That we actually create our emotions.
Lisa: I would see it like this that we have more control over what we feel than probably what we think we do and based on the classical view. And I’m not saying that we can just snap our fingers and change how we feel as easily as we change our clothes. If that were true, that would be great if that were true. It would also put me out of a job. There’d be … Neuroscience wouldn’t be needed anymore.
But it’s not true. However, we are in much more control … Our horizon of control is actually much bigger than we might otherwise believe. And so I talk about this in the book. I think the fact that we the architects of our experience, or an architect of our own experience, is important in many domains of life. And when I first … I was approached many times to write a book and I kept saying no, that I wasn’t going to do it. I wanted to stay in the lab and do my thing in the lab.
And then, eventually a journalist wanted to write about me and she had to convince her editor that this was important and she kept asking me why is it important that we have the wrong ideas about emotion? Why is it important? And I … My reaction at first was kind of dismissive like it’s science. It’s the brain. We should care. I mean, do we ask physicists why it’s important to know that the Higgs boson exist? No, we’re just interested in science. We’re curious people.
She kept pressing me about it and eventually I thought okay, I’m going to help her out. I’ll sit down and think about it for five minutes. And then, when I really started to think about it I realized, actually pick a domain in life where it isn’t important. I mean, people are actually being harmed and sometimes they lose their liberty or even their lives because they or someone else is using a set of ideas about emotion that are not scientifically valid and that do not match what we know to be the most current scientific understanding of emotion.
Here’s an example. Somebody recently … I get a lot of emails from people almost on a daily basis still about the book telling me how much they enjoyed it or how entertaining a read it is, how much they learned about neuroscience or about psychology. But they also tell me … They often share stories about how it’s changed their life in some significant way. And someone just a couple of weeks ago sent me an email telling me how children in indigenous … peoples in communities of indigenous people, people had their children removed from their homes by the government in Canada because they didn’t express affection and love in so called universal way and so the assumption was they didn’t love their children and so they lost their children. When in fact, there is no universal way and that people express love in very different ways. And we’re not talking about people who are actively abusive to their kids, right? What we’re talking about here is a cultural bias.
And here’s another example. Women, part of the classical view is that women are biologically endowed to be more emotional than men. And women believe this about themselves and men agree. And so, as a consequence, women actually over the age of 65 are more likely to die from a heart attack than men because they show up at emergency rooms. And the way they’re experiencing their symptoms is as if … Their physical sensations, they are experiencing them as anxiety. And the physicians also perceive those symptoms as anxiety, send the woman home, and she dies of a heart attack. And so, this is documented literature that’s been published. But actually my publicist in the UK for this book, this happened to her mother actually.
Lisa: So, I could go on and on and on and give you lots of examples. But it matters in the law, it matters in the-
Peter: In all of those stories, what you’re describing is what matters most, or the advice you’re giving us in a sense, is stay curious about what you see and what it means.
Lisa: And how you feel.
Peter: And don’t make assumptions about what it means when someone’s responding in a certain way. And I guess, by counterpoint, maybe, I don’t know what the statistics are. I’m curious if we have them but there was at one point this New York Times article that showed 20 different faces or something. It was kind of going around virally and it said, “can you accurately predict what the person is experiencing? Here’s a face. Can you label what the person’s feeling?” And I got a 20 out of 20. And I was like, yeah, I could read … And so I think it’s such a critical point both to the real issues you’ve brought up around women and men and heart attacks. And these women in Canada who are having their children taken away. And you talk about other examples. TSA and the assumptions that we make. And at the same time, it’s not like we’re blind. That we have no ability to read-
Lisa: No, of course not. Because that’s the character, right? When you say, well look. You don’t make one facial expression when you express anger. You don’t make one facial expression when you express sadness. There’s not one expression for fear, and so on. But the caricature is to say, oh okay. You’re saying it’s all random then. No, I’m not saying it’s all random.
Lisa: Variability is the norm when it comes to emotion. And this is true in the face and it’s true in the body and it’s true in the brain. Your brain, your body, your face, don’t do one thing in anger. They don’t do one thing in sadness. They don’t do one thing in fear. They do many things. And the challenge for a human brain is to try to pattern match. It’s to try to figure out, well what does scowling mean or smiling mean in this particular situation? Or what does that ache in your stomach mean? Is that ache in your stomach disgust? Is that ache in your stomach longing for someone? Is that ache in your stomach hunger? I mean, it could be any of those things.
Peter: Food poisoning.
Lisa: Sure. It could be any of those things.
Lisa: It’s not that your brain can’t tell the difference between the ache in your stomach that’s hunger in a given instance and an ache in your stomach that’s longing for someone. It’s that your brain is using that ache and it’s creating the rest of the emotion based on its best guess for what that ache meant the last time you were in a situation that was kind of like this one.
Peter: Got it. And so, there’s two sides to this story, it seems. I mean, there’s a million sides to the story and you’re a scientist and academics say never reduce things to two but-
Lisa: People like to reduce things to two. It’s okay.
Peter: There’s two elements to this. One is what I do in relation to you and the other is what I do in relation to myself. And in relation to you, I don’t want to oversimplify this, but there’s a really important lesson here around staying curious. And that psychiatrist would still be in a job with Dan if he said, “I’m noticing, forget what I was just about to say. What are you feeling? What are you feeling right now?” Just be curious. Ask the question. Let the person say, “This is what I’m feeling.”
Lisa: I think it’s really important when you’re looking at someone’s face, or listening to their voice, interacting with them in a business context or any context frankly to remember that you’re guessing no matter how confident you feel that you’re reading someone’s face the way you would read words on a page, you’re not actually. You’re guessing. You’re guessing about what that person feels.
Peter: Great. And that feels really important. And really being curious and allowing yourself to not know feels really important and guessing.
Lisa: And also, you can also use this about yourself. So for example, sometimes you have physical sensations that feel unpleasant to you just because they’re physical, not because anything is wrong. Being able to make an instance of discomfort separate from suffering, right?
Lisa: So for example, just to give you an example. My daughter since the day she was born, seriously, she’s now 18, every day around 4:30 she becomes really cranky. And this was true when she was born and doctors told us, “Oh it’s colic and she’ll grow out of it.” Well, actually every day around 4:30 she probably has a drop in glucose and she probably needs a little bit of energy. And because her nervous system is a little bit out of whack because she’s hungry. She needs glucose. She feels unpleasant.
Now what does she do with that unpleasantness? Well, she could … The first thing that we do when we feel strongly unpleasant is we don’t ask ourselves, am I tired? Am I thirsty? Am I hungry? Do I need to step outside to get a breath of fresh air? No, we think is it because I had an argument with my friend? Is it because my boss didn’t do what I wanted him to do? Is it because I didn’t get that promotion? Is it because … We try to find … The brain is trying to make sense of your sensations and so it’s looking for an answer. Sometimes that answer comes to us in a split second. Your brain makes a guess in a split second and sometimes it has to kind of go through a bunch of … consider a bunch of different predictions. But either way, sometimes a physical sensation is just a physical sensation.
Peter: And I want to give the reverse example too because they both feel very, very true which is that I could be in a conversation with someone, a difficult conversation, and I could feel really hungry. And I could just start eating and eating and eating.
Lisa: For sure, absolutely.
Peter: And it’s because I’m translating my physical discomfort. Or I could be tired and I start eating. I’m translating my physical discomfort into hunger.
Lisa: In fact, that is what happens. So for example, when you are dehydrated, you don’t feel thirsty, you feel tired. And when your nervous system is out of whack, in the book I talk about this in terms of budgeting. Basically, that your body-
Peter: Body budgeting. I was going to ask you to talk about that.
Lisa: That the way to think about what your brain is doing is the analogy would be the financial office of a company, right? In a company, there are all these offices and they all have budgets. And then, you’ve got the financial office and it tries to keep all the budgets for all the offices in the company balanced. So it’s moving around resources, right? It’s taking some resources from here and moving them over here. And it does it … If you’re going to spend a lot of money, you need to move the money into the bank account before you spend it so that you don’t go into the red, your budget doesn’t go into the red.
And your brain works like that with your body. When your body budget is out of whack, when your brain is running a deficit for your body, so to speak, you’re going to feel unpleasant. It’s going to feel … You’re going to feel crappy. And sometimes what will happen if that goes on for too long is your brain will try to reduce its expenditures. Just in the same way that if you’re running a deficit in your bank account, you’d try to spend less. That’s kind of what your brain tries to do. It tries to spend less.
What does that mean? Well, it means that it makes you start to feel tired so that you don’t move around so much because moving around is costly. So what do we do when we feel tired? Well, we eat to get more energy. When your body budget is out of whack, oftentimes the first thing that we think to do is to eat because what we experience is fatigue. The other thing that your brain will do to try to cut its costs …
Peter: You’re explaining so much about so many of my bad habits. Really, because it’s like you have your go to and if you’re running to push yourself through and you’re doing more than you can and you just have a very strong will, there’s somewhere where it needs to give in and that give in might be to overeat or to do whatever.
Lisa: Yeah. And similarly, the other thing that happens is that the other place that your brain can cut costs is in its own functioning. So your brain is actually your most expensive organ that you have in your body. It only weighs around three pounds for most of us but it takes up 20% of your metabolic budget. That’s a hefty amount. And so, one thing it can do is it can stop predicting well. It can slow, maybe make fewer predictions. Or it cannot take in new information as much because that’s really expensive actually learning.
And so what you end up feeling is confused and fuzzy headed. And so what do you do? You drink coffee or some caffeine to take a stimulant to try to clear your head so that you can keep working. So, to some extent, because we don’t have … We don’t have these little monitors that we can wear that say, eat a cup and a half of broccoli because you need some potassium or drink 24 ounces of water because you’re dehydrated. No, the only thing we have is really affect, these kind of feelings that we get when our body budget’s out of whack and then the brain kind of guesses, well what does it mean? What do I need to do? And it’s often it’s guesses aren’t so good.
And if you think about it, we live in an ecosystem that’s designed to throw our body budgets out of whack. We don’t sleep enough. We often don’t exercise enough. We often don’t eat healthful things. And so, we have an obesity epidemic in part … I mean, there’s a lot of pseudo foods around that aren’t healthy and so on. But also, it’s because people’s body budgets are out of whack and they are eating because they feel tired. And we could talk about the opiate epidemic this way. I mean, there are many, many things that we could talk about like this that all stem from … I’m not saying only from a body budget that’s out of whack but certainly that’s certainly part of it.
Peter: On the one side of this coin, we’re saying be curious about what’s going on for other people and don’t make assumptions. You’re saying the same thing about yourself which I guess is where meditation comes in. It’s where you talk about Buddhism and the idea that if you could quiet yourself enough to be able to see what’s going on for you physically and then understand the impact and I guess, maybe translate it in a way. And this is where you call it the theory of constructed emotion. We do this anyway. We construct emotion out of sensation and out of predicted sensation or actual sensation. I think what I’m understanding you say is take a moment to actually be curious about what’s going on with you so that you could actually feel it. And then what? Be more thoughtful or accurate about what it is that you’re feeling and what it’s based on?
Lisa: I wouldn’t say more accurate but maybe that’s the right thing to say. I would say cultivate your options. So, mindfulness meditation does a couple of things, right? The first thing that it lets you do is it lets you … It teaches you to deconstruct the experience that your brain constructs so automatically, mindfulness teaches your brain to also deconstruct at will.
So the analogy that I give to people that don’t meditate with mindfulness meditation is to say when you learn to paint a three dimensional object on a two dimensional canvas. So let’s say this pencil, right? It’s three dimensions but you want to render it on a two dimensional object, a canvas. What you learn to do is to take the object and to deconstruct it into pieces of light. And if you deconstruct … If you were just to take a pencil and try to paint it on a two dimensional canvas, it would look like a crappy looking rendering of a pencil.
You, however, deconstruct the pencil into pieces of light. So your brain is taking pieces of light and predicatively constructing this into a pencil. And so if you work hard, you can start to see pieces of light, pieces of blue, pieces of brown, pieces of gray, and you paint the pieces of light on the canvas, you usually will get a pretty decent looking three dimensional object. Unless you’re me, in which case you get a shitty looking three dimensional object. Or three dimensional object on two dimensional.
Peter: On two dimensions.
Lisa: But you can teach yourself to deconstruct any object into pieces of light or if you talk to a musician who has a lot of experience, they can actually take a symphony and they can deconstruct the sounds of the symphony into individual instruments. Right? That takes a lot of training. And so similarly, one of the things mindfulness meditation does is it teaches you to deconstruct any feeling into sensations. And that exercise in and of itself gives you more flexibility and more options about what to feel. The other thing mindfulness does, so if you … You can sort of think that you have three domains of ingredients in emotion. You have your past experience which your brain uses predicatively. You have what’s going on inside your own body, and what’s going on in the world, okay? And you can change any of those and change what you feel.
Now changing, for example, what’s going on in the world, you can actually literally pick yourself up and move to a different context. Or you can be mindful. If you’re mindful, then you’re figuratively changing the context because now you’re starting to pay attention to things in the world that you hadn’t paid attention to before. And they become opportunities for new predictions.
Peter: Could you give an example to that?
Lisa: Yes. So, one of the examples that I use in the book is that one day when I was on vacation with my family, we were at the beach and I … We went to dinner and we were walking back to the house we were renting and I, for the first time, paid attention to the sounds. There was like a symphony of crickets outside in the evening. Now, I was in my mid-40s when this happened so clearly I’ve been hearing crickets my whole life but in this moment, I paid attention to something that had always been there but I had been ignoring. And it was really a dramatic moment for me because for a moment, it allowed me to feel very small and insignificant in a good way. Right? That whatever I was concerned about in that moment evaporated because I was enraptured by the power of nature, let’s say.
And then, I started to every night listen for the crickets. And in fact, for me it’s a wonderful feeling the first time in Boston, crickets, you can usually hear them late July/early August. The first time I hear them at night after a long winter is a real … I feel a mixture of awe and gratitude and jubilation. And another example of this sort of thing would be looking at the sky or looking at the trees or me, for example, looking at a weed popping up through the crack of a sidewalk can … Just paying attention to something that you would normally just walk by and not even notice can change your … It can change your whole body state. It doesn’t just change your frame of mind. Because it’s changing your predictions, it’s actually changing the physical state of your body. It’s a great way to regulate.
Predictions are to some extent under the automatic control of the situation that you’re in because they help … The situation helps to automatically prompt the next set of predictions in your brain. If you learn to look at the world differently, then your brain learns new information so that it can predict differently.
Peter: I’m with you 100%. And I just heard the other day a cricket in New York City. And it was such a shock because it’s not a place that I often hear crickets. When I think of mindfulness, I think of it being absolutely and totally in the present moment, like as much as possible in the present moment.
Lisa: What you’re doing is you’re suspending your predictions. And so I’m not talking about … I use mindful in two ways there. So that was sweet of you to call me on that. Mindfulness meditation means you’re definitely in the present and you’re actually when you’re doing mindfulness meditation, you’re trying to suspend predictions, really just trying to feel the sensations as they are, right?
Lisa: But when you’re mindful in your life, what that means … So the word mindful gets used in two ways. What that means is paying attention to small details in the present moment. So you’re not … When I’m in the middle of my day, I don’t try to deconstruct my experiences into my physical sensations. That actually takes a lot of effort even for monks who’ve been meditating for a long time, it takes some effort.
But you can be in the present moment by noticing small things in your surroundings and not letting your mind … Your brain doesn’t just predict the next moment. Right? It doesn’t just use your past to make a prediction about your immediate future which becomes your present. Your brain can predict a week from now, a year from now, 10 years from now. Scientists call this mental time travel. Mental time travel, our ability to project ourselves into the future or into the past is considered to be one of our great super powers as a species. But it also is one of our great downfalls because it’s super hard to keep your mind in the present.
And that’s because of your brain’s awesome predictive power. Sometimes you have to try to turn down the dial, so to speak. And so trying to keep at bay the predictions of the far future so that you can focus on what’s going to happen or what you’re going to see and experience in the next second is challenging enough.
Peter: And what you’re saying is in terms of regulating your state, that if you are paying attention to something that gives you a positive physical state, you know if you’re paying attention to the sounds of crickets, then your experience will be more positive because the predictive nature of your brain is going to cling onto what you just experienced and project it into the future which will be the pleasantness of listening to the crickets.
Lisa: That’s right. So I think the important thing to understand is that we all think that brains are for thinking or feeling or seeing, like all these things that we do that are so sophisticated. But at its basis, your brain is for controlling your body and predictions are foremost for controlling your body. So that your body budget is maintained, right? That your expenditures are balanced with your revenues, your rewards. And so that your brain has enough resources to make your body run around and that’s really at their basis, one of the things that predictions are for.
Predictions, at their basis, control your body and therefore, they control the feelings that come from your body. The changes in your heart and your lungs and so on, but also the feelings that come from those, the sensations that come from those, and the feelings of pleasantness and unpleasantness and arousal and so on that come from those. Predictions control those things. They also control how you make sense of those things. They control your actions. And so when you willfully, with a lot of effort, focus your attention on something new, something different, something small, maybe. Your brain has an opportunity to learn, to update its predictions so that it can predict differently in the future. And just like with driving, right? Something that starts off being super effortful but then eventually, if you do it enough, becomes really automatic. The same is also true with predictions. So, if you effortfully pay attention to that weed in the sidewalk, you will effortfully make an instance of awe and change your body, your body will change accordingly. But if you do it enough, you can do it pretty automatically.
Peter: And one of the things that helps you to do it, as I’ve learned from you, is learning a broader vocabulary for our emotions.
Lisa: Right. So it turns out that also one of the things that helps us predict really differently or well is to have a vocabulary of words. And the more words you know about emotion, the better off you are at making very precise and detailed predictions. So the example would be this. That it’s always easier to make an example that’s not emotional.
So I’m going to make an example, the one I use in the book which is if I say to you, Peter, “I’m going to have pizza for dinner.” The word pizza evokes in your brain a whole set of predictions of features like it has sauce, it has cheese, it’s got tomato sauce maybe but maybe not. But you know, your brain’s making all sorts of predictions with one word from me. One word. If I didn’t have that word, I’d have to spend like 10 minutes describing to you using analogies what a pizza is. And I can do that. And even if you didn’t know what a pizza was, your brain could use something called conceptual combination which means it could just take its past experiences of stuff it does know and combine it in lots of new ways to understand what a pizza is even if you don’t have the word for it. You could make a concept for it in the moment, on the fly.
But it’s really effortful to do it. It’s much more efficient if you have a single word that evokes … Now, I could say I’m having pizza for dinner and you would probably think of … I live in Boston. I don’t live in Chicago so you were probably thinking well, it’s thin crust and it probably has tomato sauce and cheese. But I could live in … If I lived in Chicago, it would be a deep dish pizza and if maybe I might not be having any sauce on it. It might be a white pizza. Or maybe I’m vegan and so there would be no cheese.
Your brain has an opportunity in conversation with me to adjust its prediction so that you and I are understanding each other. I’ll say some words. They evoke some predictions in you. They become your experience. You say some words. I have a set of predictions. And then I have an experience. And back and forth and back and forth so that we have some conceptual synchrony going on, right? That’s much easier to do with words if we have single words for things. I don’t have to describe to you in 25 or 50 words how a Boston pizza is different from a Chicago pizza.
Peter: That same predictive element is why I could say to my 10 year old son, “We’re going to go play golf.” And he’ll get excited. And then I’ll say, “We have got a lesson for you.” And he’ll get less excited because he’s beginning to predict what that experience is going to look and feel like.
Lisa: Yeah, exactly. And so, if we’re people who … where irritation and frustration and anger and rage all mean something different. Then if I say to you, “Somebody just walked into my lab and that irritated me because I just asked them to stay quiet because I couldn’t do this interview in my office because there’s construction.” That’s a … irritation has a set of features and you know, irritation isn’t one thing. There’s a whole population of irritations that I might feel that you may feel. But we probably could guess pretty well.
But if all of those words, irritation, frustration, anger, all mean the same thing, then it’s not very precise when I say irritation. There’s a lot of slippage actually.
Peter: And that’s important for me and for you. So meaning, in your description to me, I’m not going to be able to … If you just say that you were angry, I don’t know if that’s rage or irritation or frustrated or annoyed or what. But it’s also useful for you because to interpret your just being angry is going to create a certain kind of dynamic.
Lisa: It’s not just interpretation, it’s that my brain needs to predict what my body is going to do next. How am I going to deal with the person who just walked in and made noise? But that’s different if I’m irritated. If anger and irritation and rage are all different things, and irritation isn’t one thing, it’s a bunch of things. So maybe I’ll speak to the person afterwards, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll … There are many things I could do.
But imagine a situation like anger, sadness, and fear, and disgust, and shame, and guilt are all synonyms for I feel crappy. That doesn’t allow my brain to make very specific predictions about my actions. It doesn’t allow you to know with any kind of precision how I’m feeling. And so, you know, having a rich vocabulary allows you to be what we call emotionally granular. It just means that your brain can make very specific instances that are much more efficient and well tailored to the situation. So you don’t fly off the handle when someone makes noise. You might, you know, just mention something in passing. Like, hey next time read the sign. Or maybe you make a joke instead of being really offended and angry.
Peter: And I guess having those distinctions helps you to modulate your reaction in a way that keeps your body budget in balance.
Lisa: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. If you’re mis-predicting all the time, that’s very metabolically costly for you. And you can sustain that for a certain period of time, right? You might decide to go on a trip somewhere to a novel place, a place you’ve never been before because that’s arousing and fun. It’s also really costly metabolically. But you can sustain that for a little while. Brains and bodies can … Our brains and bodies kind of evolved to periodically be out of balance. We need to be out of balance occasionally to keep everything working and healthy. It’s prolonged sustained running a deficit which is really problematic. Because eventually, your brain, as I said, will start to try to save. It will try to reduce its costs by making your fatigued and by reducing the likelihood that you’ll move around, that you’ll learn anything new.
And eventually, your immune system will get involved because your brain will start to believe that your body is sick. And then you do become sick. What you become sick with is another matter but the fact is that diabetes, heart disease, some kinds of cancers are all metabolic illnesses at their root. Depression is a metabolic illness. They’re all metabolic illnesses. They’re also all illnesses where your immune system is involved. In fact, some people think that cognitive aging. Like just the normal aging of your brain that leads to normal decrements in memory just come from the wear and tear on your brain from managing an unbalanced body budget.
Peter: And some of your recommendations for that are slow down, make sure that you’re eating well, make sure that you’re sleeping well. In your chapter on mastering emotions, the focus on increasing your body budget both by being more discerning about what’s going on in your emotional life and creating capacity in your physical life to be able to absorb that.
Lisa: Yeah, it really is about creating capacity. So sometimes I’ll say to people, “I know I sound like a nagging mother when I say this but I’m actually speaking to you as a neuroscientist.” If there’s a single thing that you could do that would make your emotional life even better if would be to sleep enough. There’s wonderful research actually, a brand new book out about sleep. Sleep is really important. It’s really important for keeping your body budget balanced. And anything which makes it harder to keep that body budget in balance will lead to more negative, unpleasant feelings which is an ingredient for making negative emotions.
If you want to reduce the negative emotions you feel, one thing you can do is just change the physical state of your body and try to do your best to keep yourself healthy. It’s not the only way to change your emotional life but it’s certainly a pretty potent way. And that’s why people take medication. That’s what partly what medication does. That’s why people take opiates. They may not start … They may start taking opiates for pain but they maintain taking opiates because it reduces the distress that’s associated with a chronically … a body budget that’s chronically imbalanced and running a deficit.
Peter: There’s a lot of lessons in this conversation and in this book for me personally and for everybody who’s listening in terms of people who push themselves in creating some more of that spaciousness so that we reduce the deficit in our body budgets and increase our ability to experience more granularity in the emotions that we have.
Lisa Feldman Barrett. The book is How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Our conversation just touched the surface of what is a very, very interesting and useful book that I highly suggest you go out there and get. And Lisa, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Lisa: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on your podcast.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review.
A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of business, a lot of hard work, that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow Process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts visit peterbregman.com.
Thank you, Clare Marshall, for producing this episode and thank you for listening.