Emotions – The Magic and the Trickery

Whenever I record episodes about a particular subject, my attention is drawn to things that relate to that subject. This week, I found an article I’ve had in my possession for over a year, titled, “How Emotions Fool your Brain”.

It blew my mind – and blew much of what I’ve previously spoken about out of the water.

I ended up buying Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett’s (the author’s) book, “How Emotions are Made” and had my brain blown once more.

I learned that the view I held about how emotions is called ‘the classical view of emotions. In this theory, emotions are believed to be instinctive, hard-wired reactions that evolved for survival purposes. They are predictable and have measurable patterns. If you’ve read previous blogs or listened to earlier podcasts, you’ll see evidence of this view.

But according to Feldman Barrett, that view doesn’t hold up well when you truly put it to the test so she believes something else is going on.

The Constructionist View of Emotions

This view suggests emotions are constructed from a series of ‘ingredients’:

  1. The Body Budget
  2. The Current Situation
  3. Predictions

Body Budget

The brain’s number one job is to keep you alive. It does this by making predictions about what lies ahead and adjusting all systems to meet those needs. These predictions help the body manage absolutely everything, including heart rate, blood flow, sweat secretions, breathing etc.

The effect of body budget on emotions can be seen when things are out of alignment. The harder the body has to work, the bigger the impact on emotions. When the body budget is in balance, your emotions are more likely to be in balance too.

The Current Situation

I used to think our emotions were reactions to the current situation – something happens and you have an instinctive response – but constructionist view of emotions says otherwise. The theory suggests that we use the current situation to help understand emotions as they arise.

For example, let’s say your stomach is tight, your heart is beating faster and your palms are sweaty. You’re just about to open the door to enter an interview room so you register the emotion as nervousness. But what if you experienced the exact same sensations just after kissing someone you’ve fancied for months? In that case, you might call it excitement or lust.

Predictions

We already touched on the predictive job of the brain when we looked at the body budget. In addition to the predictive elements of body systems, the brain predicts all kinds of other information.

Let’s say you’re out walking in long grass. The brain is predicting the requirements of the terrain to ensure you place your foot at the right angle and with appropriate force. When the predictions go wrong, you stumble or fall. Have you ever experienced that sensation when you think there’s another step and there isn’t? You get that jarring sensation up your leg and back. That’s predictive error.

None of that is too surprising but it turns out the brain makes the same predictions when it comes to emotions. So if you’re walking through the woods at night on your own, your brain is preparing for a fear response because predictions might suggest such a response will be needed. When it turns out not to be needed because you’re safe, you can still be left with an uneasy feeling for no apparent reason. That’s predictive error too.

Feeling more in control of emotions

I found this view of emotions completely fascinating because it opened so many doors to new ways of thinking about how I experience emotions.

The example of walking in the woods at night is one from my own experience. I was attending a quiz night at my son’s school and I was running late so I cut through the woods. It was the first social event I had attended with other parents and I was really looking forward to it but when I got there, I found it difficult to relax. I didn’t enjoy the evening very much, put it down to “social anxiety” and drank too much wine. What if it wasn’t social anxiety at all? What if it was predictive error?

The feeling was still there the following day but I had consumed quite a lot of wine. What if that was a body budget issue?

I like this way of looking at emotions because it offers multiple, practical options for feeling better, particularly in situations where there’s no reason to feel bad.

I hope it provides lots of ways for you to think about the emotions that get in the way of your enjoyment too.

Photo by Bianca Ackermann on Unsplash

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