It should have been a revolution. The research of neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett about emotions. Neuroscientists, therapists and psychologists should have shouted it from the rooftops and developed new methods, techniques and therapies in the past few years, based on this newly acquired knowledge. But unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth.
How is that possible? Is there too little money to be made? Is less attention given because the scientist is a woman? Or are psychologists, therapists and scientists afraid that otherwise they will have to completely overhaul their methods?
How emotions are made
I don’t know the answer, but I do know it needs to change. It’s like holding onto the idea that the earth is flat, when three years earlier someone discovered that the earth is round. Therefore: order Barret’s brilliant book ‘How Emotions Are Made’, read this article and share this knowledge! It is of vital importance in the fields of psychology, neurology, law and medicine, as well as in your personal life and relationships.
Emotions do not work or arise as we have thought for decades. In fact, they do not arise, they are constructed based on the concepts in our brain.
These groundbreaking insights came from the study:
- Emotions are not reactions to external events
- Newborns have no emotions
- You cannot determine from the outside what emotion someone is going through
- It is not true that certain parts of your brain (such as the amygdala) are responsible for your emotions.
- Emotions are not located in a certain part of your brain (the reptilian brain)
- Emotions are not universal, but culturally determined
The brain continuously predicts
The main job of the brain is prediction. We do this all the time, millions of times a day.
We perceive something, for example a transparent flat rectangle through which light shines, and predict: that’s a window. Or we see a person with a hat on and a pipe in the mouth and predict: that’s Grandpa.
The same also happens with sports; for example, we predict where the ball will end up and can anticipate in time. If we waited until the ball was already there before reacting, we would be too late. That’s how it works with reading; by predicting which words are there, we can read a sentence faster than if we were going through each letter.
Predictions determine our reality
We make predictions based on concepts in our brain. All previous events in our lives, we have generalized in our brain as concepts to be able to make decisions faster and thus use our body more energy-efficiently.
Through previous experiences, ideas arise about what a particular concept means to us. We have concepts about tables, chairs, plants and animals. But we also have concepts about less tangible things like love, honesty, marriage, success, rejection, shame.
When a new experience occurs, our subconscious searches for a memory with a similar concept. Based on the concept of what fits best, the brain makes predictions and fires an emotion.
These predictions are your brain’s best guesses of what’s happening in the world around you and how best to respond to it. If the prediction appears to be correct enough, observation and prediction are aligned. We usually make good predictions. The older you get, the more concepts you have in your brain, so the more likely you are to make a correct prediction.
Although it sometimes happens that we make a wrong prediction. Fortunately, otherwise we would never again be surprised or experience anything new. So your child can in a fraction of a second mistaken the neighbor – who also has a beard and pipe – for her grandfather.
Or you think you see a grass snake moving in the bushes, but it turns out to be the garden hose. If your senses are given a little longer to send information to the brain, they can correct the wrong prediction. But they can also adapt the data we absorb from the outside world to the forecast. In that case you might see a grass snake that wasn’t there.
We can only see what we believe
What we observe is also based on simulations and predictions. Barret explains in her book that only 10% of what we perceive is based on information from the retina (the lens in your eye). The other 90% are connections to other parts of the brain, which make predictions about what we think we see.
So our predictions determine what we see! If we don’t have a concept about something, we can’t perceive it. So in fact we can only see what we believe. So our brain constructs something based on everything we have experienced in our life and thus creates our reality.
Unbelievable right? But it gets even more interesting!
Emotions are predictions
It works the same way with emotions. Our brains are constantly receiving signals from our body from our internal organs, tissues, the hormones in our blood and our immune system. Like changing your breathing, the rumbling of your stomach and the rhythm of your heartbeat. These sensory signals from the body have no objective meaning.
Your brain uses concepts to make sense of both internal and external sensations in the world, all at the same time. Interpreting these sensory signals is called interoception, also known as our eighth sense.
For example, you can experience pain in your stomach as hunger or mistrust. But if you’re waiting for a doctor’s result, that same pain can also mean anxiety. Or if your ex just walks by with a new partner, you might interpret it as sadness or jealousy.
Emotions start with sensory feelings
Interoception is important for balancing your ‘body budget’ – your body’s energy needs. The brain constantly predicts how much energy the body needs to ensure that all systems in the body work properly. Based on the prediction from your body, an immediate adjustment is made in the body to prepare it for the prediction. Your blood pressure changes, your glucose increases, your breathing speeds up, etc.
We experience these changes in our ‘body budget’ as emotions. Too little glucose in your body can make you feel exhausted, lack of sleep can make you feel down, and lack of affection can make you feel lonely. These are all subjective interpretations based on your concepts.
When a neurological network collects this sensory information and predicts something based on our self-created concepts, emotions arise. So emotions don’t necessarily mean that something is wrong, but just that your ‘body budget’ is out of balance for a while. With negative emotions, our brain is actually letting us know that we need to replenish certain reserves.
The consequences of ‘wrong’ predictions
In her book, Barrett tells of a fellow student, she wasn’t attracted to, who asked her out. Nevertheless she decides to have a drink with him and as it gets a bit later in the evening, she is surprised to find that she occasionally blushes on her cheeks and feels ‘butterflies’ in her stomach. Apparently she likes the colleague more than she thought. Until she comes home and throws up. She interpreted the rumbling in her stomach and the warmth in her face as feeling in love, when in reality she was getting sick.
Another interesting example is the research that scientists did in Israel. They found that judges who had to decide whether inmates could be released early were significantly more likely to reject the request if the trial took place just before lunchtime. The judges appeared to interpret the signals from their abdomen not as hunger, but as a ‘gut feeling’ that it did not feel right to release the person on parole. Immediately after lunch, the judges released the inmates on parole as frequently as they were used to.
Imagine how many ‘wrong’ predictions we humans make every day with dire consequences for others and ourselves.
– Our emotions are constructed. Emotions seem to come from our bodies, but they are constructed by predictions based on our concepts. One prediction wins and becomes our experience.
– Our concepts determine our reality. Everything we have experienced in the past is programmed in that sense to happen again in the future. Because we make the same predictions again and the same emotions arise based on the same concepts. So you can end up in a continuous loop of the same kind of emotions. That is also how it is often difficult for people with negative thoughts and emotions to come out of this.
– Our emotions are dominating, because they arise from signals from your body, which ensure that the balance in the system is restored. If your body is out of balance, it can have fatal consequences. These signals therefore transcend everything else and are given priority to listen to.
– You can never trust your observations fully. We make lightning-fast predictions based on concepts mainly constructed by ourselves. So how can we be 100% sure of what we observe?
How to transform our emotions
International trainer and coach Wassili Zafiris is the only one (as far as I know) who has developed a method based on this new neuroscientific knowledge: Relationship and Emotion Training and Coaching (RETEC).
“Working with emotions is usually much more effective in coaching and therapy than working with your thoughts and limiting beliefs. Because your emotions control everything. It’s hard to change emotions on your own, but the concept behind it is,” explains Zafiris.
Creating new neurological networks
Neurons on one side of your brain tweak neurons on the other side of your brain without any external response. If at some point a connection is made, your brain can hardly take a different path and you experience it that way every time. For a new experience and emotion, it is necessary that you build a new neurological network.
And that is exactly what Zafiris achieves with his new method: “Creating an unconscious reminder appears to have a major effect on the creation of a new neurological network. As soon as such a network becomes active, the old one will disappear. In this way, very deeply ingrained patterns can be transformed once and for all.”
Want to know more about emotions?
I have guided several CEOs, entrepreneurs and high performing professionals with the RETEC technique and the results are astonishing.
Are you a coach, psychologist or trainer? Then you want to follow Wassili Zafiris’ RETEC training.
Do you want to be coached according to the latest neuroscientific knowledge? Schedule a free 30-minute introductory meeting with me now.